OpEd: Airlines’ data sharing problem hampers #PaxEx progress

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BRUSSELS: I often write about the disappointment I face when traveling. As an elite-tiered member of a particular airline, I’m more often frustrated by the experience of traveling with other airlines within the same alliance. Whether it’s a case of poor status recognition, less than stellar observation of seating and baggage benefits or simply not meeting my expectations in terms of personalized service, the inconsistency between airlines within alliances is stark.

I’ve spent time talking to people within the industry about this and I hear a common refrain: technology is the barrier that prevents these issues from being reconciled. I’m highly dubious of that claim and the work I do within other industries shows that it is, indeed, a hollow excuse.

People tell me that airlines use proprietary systems, that security imperatives mean that easy data interchange is impossible or that core systems run on legacy platforms that aren’t interoperable. I’m going to dismiss these answers as coming from people who are lazy, protecting their own empires or simply confused.

The tool of choice for integrating applications is the application programming interface (or API for short). While it is true that it is far easier to directly create APIs on top of modern web-based applications, it is a fallacy that it is impossible to do so with legacy applications. Almost on a weekly basis I hear from vendors who are tackling these problems. Some might wrap legacy applications with a middleware layer which then allows API integration, others might take a different approach and instead create mobile solutions on top of legacy systems, still others will wrap a core database in an integration or API layer. Companies like Capriza, Apigee, 3scale, Layer7, MuleSoft, SnapLogic and many more tackle this problem in different ways.

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During this week’s SITA Summit in Brussels, CTO Jim Peters told attendees about developer.aero, SITA’s own solution that looks to create publicly consumable APIs from the core data that SITA’s airline systems hold. SITA has bag tracking and boarding pass APIs among others. These APIs can be utilized by airlines, and an ecosystem of their partners, to build innovative solutions.

So if all of this stuff is available, and technology isn’t really the issue, then what is the problem? At the Summit, Star Alliance CEO Mark Schwab talked about a successful initiative brokered by the alliance – member airlines agreed to some common standards, processes and systems to collectively make the new The Queen’s Terminal at Heathrow their home. The benefits are impressive – fully 70% of passengers flying out of the terminal with Star Alliance member airlines have performed the check-in process before they get to the terminal. And in a metric that will warm the hearts of airline CFOs everywhere, airlines report up to a 20% cost saving in terms of their terminal costs. Connection times, previously set at 120 minutes to allow for inter-terminal transfers, have been reduced to 60 minutes.

My frustration with the airline industry is that it hasn’t truly adopted smart collaboration on a broad scale to improve revenue and the passenger experience (#PaxEx). Because of a blind desire to “own” the customer, airlines can’t seem to make the decision to share meaningful data with each other. A message I heard again and again, from airlines, alliance executives and third parties like SITA, was that there are challenges around getting airlines to work together (and airlines to work with airports for that matter). In looking at these relationships as purely adversarial, all parties leave significant value on the table.

And this is where alliances can come in. As a trusted intermediary, the alliances should be looking to normalize data, create consistent experiences and enable their members to add further value for their customers. Pointing to but a small example of the dysfunction that exists, Star’s Schwab noted that there are too many individual airline and airport applications for customers to deal with. The industry needs to find ways to put control back in the hands of the travelers.

Star seems to be taking a lead in this regard insofar as it is promising “rapid deployment” of standardized connected traveler services. But the group’s plans will, I fear, be hampered by the data sharing problem.

If it was merely a technology problem the issues could be solved overnight, as it’s easy to create a common data hub for member information such that common applications, common experiences and common visibility could be delivered. But alas it’s about politics and commercial fears. And it’s about airlines that, despite continually pitching a message of customer-centricity, only care about what the customer wants when it runs in parallel with what they want.

All involved owe it to themselves, to the industry and, most importantly, to the customers to resolve these issues. And the ridiculous thing is that everyone can actually enjoy commercial benefits in doing so. Don’t blame technology, don’t blame privacy and don’t keep making glib comments about the customer being number one unless you’re actually willing to act accordingly.