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#PaxEx Podcast Transcribed: How big data is shaping aviation


We are pleased to provide a transcript of the #PaxEx Podcast, Episode 69, the audio recording of which was published on 17 October 2019

Musical intro.

Mary Kirby: Welcome to the PaxEx Podcast, available on Apple and Google Podcasts. This is episode 69 of the show where we talk about how the airline passenger experience is evolving in a mobile, social, vocal world. I am Mary Kirby and I am joined by my co-host Max Flight. Max, how are you doing?

Max Flight: I am doing well, Mary. I am already starting to plan out the aviation activities for 2020. I’ve got some airshows I want to visit. I have got some museums I want to visit and I think it is going to be a year-long road show for me next year. I am looking forward to it.

Kirby: Oh how exciting. I hope I bump into you on the road there, Max.

Flight: Yes, well it would be nice to meet you in person finally after all these years.

Kirby: Finally. I don’t think our listeners realize that you and I have actually never met.

Flight: That’s right. We’ll have to fix that.

Kirby: We will, we will.

Flight: Alright well let’s take a look at the PaxEx news stories that are making headlines. The airline-owned Airline Tariff Publishing Company (ATPCO) was known mostly for being an airfare clearinghouse. Well, the company is now enjoying a new level of prominence in the industry since it acquired Routehappy, the leading provider of rich content for flight shopping. And online travel agents are singing the praises of Routehappy. They are, you could say, happy about the route this combo has taken. Mary, you recently attended ATPCO’s Elevate conference to learn more about how big PaxEx data is evolving. What did you learn?

Kirby: Well Max, I saw firsthand that the PaxEx data collection work that was undertaken by Routehappy several years ago has really helped to bring transparency to the airline passenger experience and has made passengers far more informed about what to expect in-flight. So let me explain to our listeners. And I don’t know if you remember, Max, but a group of aviation geeks started collecting PaxEx amenity data years ago to feed Routehappy. And the original model effectively allowed passengers to plug a route in on Routehappy’s website and see what they could expect in terms of seat comfort, IFE, WiFi, and the in-seat power availability on various airlines. And it was really useful.

Flight: Yes.

Kirby: I used it all the time. These aviation geeks also shared countless reviews about their experience with all of these different services and this helped to build a remarkable database at Routehappy and they were sitting on an absolute gold mine of valuable data about the passenger experience. And Routehappy quickly became the leading provider of what we call “airline rich content”. You know, details all about what to expect in-flight. So Routehappy’s model did change. It moved away from an approach where it was directly providing amenity data to passengers and it went into the B2B realm. But the goal of accelerating the transformation of flight shopping from a commoditized to a differentiated offering remained in tact.

Kirby: So ATPCO is the world leader for airline pricing and shopping data and it saw fit to acquire Routehappy a couple years ago to create a trusted industry standard with the aim of transforming the shopping experience everywhere passengers buy flights. And the end result, Max, is when you shop for flights on countless platforms – be they airline websites or travel sales channels – you increasingly see what you are going to get. So you know what to expect in-flight before the flight. And so purely for instance, if you jump on Cheapair.com, for example – and they are big, big fans of Routehappy, they even said so at this Elevate conference – you’ll know what aircraft will likely be deployed on your route, you’ll know what IFEC amenities to expect, you might even see photographs of the product, especially if you are flying in premium classes because airlines seem kind of eager to share, of course photos of premium. And so, increasingly rich content is not just details about the actual experience but can include visuals as well. So there is still a lot of work to be done and Google Travel, in fact, said at the ATPCO Elevate conference – and this was in the DC area just over a week ago – it said it wants many more photos of the airline passenger experience. So it wants to be able to describe and explain what you are going to get, and show what you are going to get. Because it is so hugely beneficial, Max, to be able to see ‘this is the type of seat’, ‘this is the type of IFE’. And you can kind of see where this might ultimately lead to like 360-degree views of the cabin and all of that stuff in time.

Kirby: So meanwhile, ATPCO has for the last couple of years been working to support airlines as they become more agile in their pricing. And at the Elevate conference, ATPCO announced it has enhanced it’s model for dynamic pricing, which will enable airlines to complement their standard pricing, which is otherwise known as the these pre-filed fares with a new model, a new dynamic model, that will enable airlines to get more price points out to the market including personalized pricing to customers, which if you have been following the distribution space over the last 10 years, that can be a little bit controversial, Max, personalized pricing to customers. But you can certainly see where this all could lead. I had the pleasure of interviewing ATPCO’s head of marketing and comms Beth Taylor at the show and her enthusiasm for the work that they have accomplished just in the last few years was really really infectious and as you said, ATPCO has been there in the background for decades collecting this pricing data. But now it’s really front and center and a force to be reckoned with because, as I said, they are sitting on a gold mine of PaxEx data and pricing data which enables airlines and travel sellers to merchandise on an entirely new level, which on balance is good news for passengers, Max, because we’ve got more visibility into products and airlines can tailor what they show and tailor their pricing and so one can imagine that many of them see it as good news for the sellers as well. So it’s interesting days, Max, in terms of transparency in PaxEx and moving away from this commoditized product.

Flight: Yeah, these days having data seems to be part of the winning strategy for a company in that with all this data available to them, they can, I am sure, do some pretty amazing things. Is this all part of the next generation storefront that ATPCO has?

Kirby: Yeah, so that is in sync with effectively what they’ve been doing with Routehappy and all of their airline partners and GDSs and online travel agents and how they are trying to work with all of those partners. In addition to that, what they have recently done is finalized the US-market version of what they are calling ‘the next generation storefront standard’. And this standard is kind of a set of standards designed to simplify and enhance the flight shopping experience, allowing an airline to sort the products and services its consumers are actually looking for. And there was a lot of interest in this standard at the Elevate conference. And  a lot of support for it, Max, again from really anyone who’s selling air travel right now. To be able to able to have a standard look, where this is what you can expect. And it’s going to be interesting days then, Max, to bring a new level of effectively transparency to this industry. So we are watching the space, I am watching it now a little bit more closely. Certainly, I attended Elevate in largely a capacity to educate myself because I haven’t done really a focused studied look at distribution in gosh, it’s probably been four years now. I have been so mired in hard product and soft product of the passenger experience that I haven’t actually tracked as closely as perhaps I should the data side of the equation. And so, I used this conference to try and educate myself and spool up and my goal is to provide more coverage on that front. So we could be talking a little bit more about this here in future episodes, Max, as to what it really means then to the passenger and their ability to book the product that they want, the product that they need, and the product that effectively will suit their unique requirements.

Flight: And was the Elevate conference well attended and what kinds of people were there.

Kirby: It really was and it was folks from across the spectrum. From airlines to global distribution companies to of course a ton of online travel agents. It was really impressive, Max. It was so sizable and the presentations were really nice and meaty and I saw some familiar faces. The CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association, Joe Leader, was there. He gave a really great presentation and I thought it was interesting because, you and I have talked about it forever, like when will passengers start booking around the experience versus just price. We have always been waiting for that moment to come. That shoe to drop, as they say. And Joe Leader said on stage that effectively that moment has come and that we are starting to see people look beyond just price. For me that gives you a bit of a shiver down the spine because we have always been waiting for it. Now to what degree, to what level, you know time will tell. But I know even just from what we are seeing on Runway Girl Network and in terms of the interactions and in terms of the traffic and everything else, tech-savvy travelers are certainly cognizant of the product they are flying on and they study it and are educated. But increasingly normal, even infrequent travelers, they are a Google click away from learning more about what to expect and they are doing just that, Max. So here’s hoping in this digital world that PaxEx is going to become a major differentiator. I believe it is. APEX believes it is and increasingly ATPCO and Routehappy, they are there saying we’ve known it for years.

Flight: Yeah, that will certainly bring some excitement to the space.

Kirby: It really will, it really will.

Flight: Alright, well next what do you think about an airshow that told a couple they wouldn’t be able to bring in the breast milk and formula necessary to feed their infant? Now Mary, I spoke with you a little bit about this a few weeks and I have some news that’s basically good. But essentially what happened was an Airplane Geeks listener planned to attend the St Louis Airshow, specially to see the Red Arrows on their American Tour. It’s been about a decade since the Red Arrows came across the pond. But in order to attend, they would need to bring with them expressed breast milk and infant formula. Now as with most events these days, attendees are not allowed to bring food or beverages into the show so to be safe my listener called the airshow organizers but was told they could not bring anything like that into the airshow. No breast milk, no formula. They were free, however, to return to their car during the show to feed the infant and they would be granted readmission and while that’s an accommodating gesture, it’s not very practical so sadly the family chose not to attend. Well, I was livid and literally ready to go to war. But I thought I should get the facts straight first so I reached out to the airshow organizers and also to the event sponsor asking for confirmation that this was, in fact, the policy. And I actually wrote a threatening letter that was probably a little bit less than professional.

Kirby: Oh Max.

Flight: But I was pretty twerked off. Well, I did hear back from the airshow organizers and they said this was not the policy and noted that this was explained on the airshow website. So off I went looking for that and finally deep in the FAQs, I found this “that no large coolers food or beverages are permitted”. Now here’s the key part, “exceptions are for small coolers carrying life saving medicine or formula bottles and food for young infants subject to search”. So I suggested that the show staff needed a little bit of retraining perhaps, but I think this is yet another example of ignorance on this topic and in this case it turned out to be apparently the ignorance of a particular individual and not of the airshow as a whole. But we see examples of this sort of thing all the time don’t we, Mary?

Kirby: We really do, Max, and I have to say it is really shocking, it’s 2019 for that story to even be a thing. But we do see examples and sometimes I feel like women, gosh, we are damned if we do, we damned if we don’t. Because if she were to then attend the airshow and, say, publicly breastfeed would she have been judged or admonished or told to go somewhere else, you know what I mean? You are between a rock and a hard place half the time. Max, it may not surprise you to learn that I am a firm believer in freeing the nipple across the board.

Flight: That doesn’t surprise me. I am surprised to hear it described that way, but that’s good.

Kirby: Hashtag #FreeTheNipple. So I believe that women should have total equality and if society has deemed it acceptable for men to be topless, whether mowing the lawn, swimming in the ocean or if you are like my neighbor, jogging down the street, then I believe women deserve the exact same right. I’d like to set these puppies free, Max, to be honest with you.

Flight: Oh dear.

Kirby: The sexualization of women’s breasts has not benefited society in my opinion at all, not at all. So, when it comes to breastfeeding I am an ardent support of women being able to breastfeed in public. Breastfeed really any damn place they see fit, to be honest. And of course that is not always possible and there are countless stories out there of women being told to cover up including on airlines. KLM, for instance, came under fire this year for doing so, for telling a women to cover up. And I don’t know if you have ever seen the cover-ups for breastfeeding women, Max. They are almost like little tents around the baby’s head and the breasts and everything else. I mean it can be really tricky to feed and maintain one’s modesty at the same time. I gave breastfeeding a go with my daughter and I managed it for two weeks before things got too difficult for me and I wasn’t able to carry on for some medical reasons. But I remember feeling like you had to skulk away into a bathroom if you wanted to feed. I never felt fully comfortable because you felt like eyes around you if you were to feed in public. So my feeling is if you don’t want to see a woman feed her baby then just don’t look. But interestingly, US carriers have been rather progressive on this front and most of them have clarified that breastfeeding mothers are welcome on board. And that’s most of the majors and many of the low-cost carriers, Max, it’s kind of impressive. And there is a reason for that because a lot of women, a lot of nursing mothers have gone to bat over the last decade. There have even been protests at airports. I don’t know if you remember that, I’d say it was maybe eight or ten years ago, I remember a protest where women were doing a sit-in and everyone was breastfeeding their children to prove a point and that point has been proven in the US. Obviously, there are carriers around the world that could step up on this issue as well. But in tandem with all of this and just as important, there are many women as well who want privacy when breastfeeding. I am a big believer in choice so privacy in breastfeeding is a good thing as well if that’s what you want and so that’s why airports around the globe are bringing private pods to their facilities which allow women to breastfeed or pump without prying eyes or judgment. Now have you seen any of these, Max? Have you seen these Mamava pods, they are called, cropping up at airports?

Flight: Yes, and it’s very encouraging too and companies are doing the same in some cases. I remember at Pratt & Whitney when I was working there we had lactation rooms set up, where women could during the workday go in pump the breast milk and there was a refrigerator in there and it was a quiet environment. Of course, there were always a few neanderthals walking around who would make totally inappropriate cracks about it, but I hope they are a dying breed. But it’s great to see those in companies. It’s great to see those in airports and I agree with you that the policies from the airlines that we have seen regarding breastfeeding are very encouraging and they make a lot of sense,

Kirby: Yeah, they really and truly do. And even these pods now are becoming more inclusive they have even rolled out, this company Mamava, they have even rolled out a wheelchair accessible pod. So, we often talk about how our industry seems to take two steps forward only to go one back or vise versa but this is a really serious step forward, Max. It’s really exciting to see airports around the world embracing this amenity for nursing moms but again, I stress that in my opinion it should be the woman’s choice. So if you want to sit at the gate and breastfeed at that gate I believe you should have the right to do that. And again, if someone doesn’t want to look at it, turn away, no one’s forcing you to [look]  and candidly why would you be? Why would you be staring anyways? But if you prefer a more private experience, then having that right to do that is so important as well. So truly brava to the airports that are embracing Mamava and to the airlines that have taken a very progressive stance on this issue. Many of the same airlines, shall I say, also, Max, have taken a very progressive stance on LGBTQ+ causes, as we have just seen that here in the last couple of years. It’s really edifying to see major airlines like Delta and American Airlines and United Airlines really moving forward on equal rights for all. So whereas there is a lot of political noise with respect to the orange one, there are some really meaningful changes happening at corporations and around the world that I want to bring some of that to light here at Runway Girl Network. Some of the positives that are happening within our industry that’s exciting.

Flight: Yes, and we need positives because there is certainly enough to counterbalance the positives these days and this is a great one. This is something that’s time has more than come and so yes it is encouraging to see progressive thinking going on in the aviation industry.

Kirby: It really is.

Flight: Well, let’s move onto our last topic but certainly not the least. The international team of experts convened by the FAA joint authorities technical review panel have criticized Boeing’s design of the MCAS system on the 737 MAX and also the FAA for delegating a high amount of approvals to Boeing’s designated certification representatives. Well, meanwhile Boeing’s board has removed the title of chairman from CEO Dennis Muilenburg. And there are some different interpretations of just what that might mean but back to the technical review panel, they had some effects that they saw and some recommendations that they made but in terms of the effects they saw that the MCAS design was based on data architecture and assumptions that were rescued from the 737NG and I think we are aware of that but they thought a detailed aircraft level evaluation was lacking. They also thought that changes were made to the MCAS along the way but they were not properly evaluated. And of course they also noted the concern of almost every pilot out there that pilots were not informed about the MCAS and that there was no training for that. And also the report identifies, well they call it undue pressure on Boeing employees, who were performing the certification activities and I think we’ve talked about the pressure that Boeing was under to come up with and respond to Airbus with their A320neo family but a number of recommendations were made by the team, and the panel, and they encouraged the FAA to institute a top down approach, and this is a quote “whereby every aircraft change is evaluated from an integrated whole aircraft system perspective”. That’s something that you would think is already taking place and maybe it is. I mean this is an issue that’s long been solved by many industrial sectors. I think of software – making changes to a software program; you have got to have a process to ensure that that doesn’t create unintended consequences in other parts of the program. Generate bugs in other words. And you think Boeing would be an expect at that wouldn’t you, Mary?

Kirby: You would, Max. I have got to say the findings from this panel I found quite troubling but to a certain degree not terribly surprising if you know what I mean. Because for years the industry has self-reported and used what’s called the Organization Designation Authorization program, otherwise known as ODA, to their benefit. And this is a means by which the FAA can delegate to quote “a qualified private person a matter related to issuing certificates or related to the examination testing and inspection necessary to issue a certificate on behalf of the FAA administrator”, so effectively allowing them to oversee themselves for a good chunk of the process and allowing them to authorize and certify based on some fairly rigid regs but at the same time this is a bit of a farming out, right, and we have known that. Now, the reason they have done it, Max, is of course technology is moving so fast and the agency simply hasn’t had the resources to catch up. You know yourself that the FAA Reauthorization is a contentious topic every five years for some reason. And that affects so many aspects of the industry including of course the business aviation side as well and it’s really baffling to me that regulators have to fight for funding, you know, for the FAA. So it feels like something has got to change, something has got to give. We need better oversight, but better oversight costs money. What do you think?

Flight: It does. I think that you have to delegate, the FAA has to delegate, the regulators have to delegate a certain amount of authorities because of the technical complexity and all. And this happens in other industries as well, but maybe what the panel is getting at here is there needs to be some kind of oversight function that can look at the degree to which that delegation is successful and appropriate. So, it’s one thing just to say that “we’re going to delegate” but the question needs to be answered I think, is how much is delegated, are we over-delegating, how do you manage that from a global standpoint? But there’s some other issues and maybe the panel gets into them but a large issue for me is this apparent disconnect between how Boeing thought pilots would respond and how they actually did respond when confronted with this runaway trim condition that was caused by erroneous input data into the MCAS, in other words the angle of attack indicators and that’s another question. Why are angle of attack indicators so vulnerable? If it was a perfect instrument, I think none of this would have happened. We wouldn’t have had these two accidents but I don’t see a lot of interest in address the robustness of these sensors. Instead, what we see is Boeing taking the approach and others as well of multiple sensors and multiple systems to ensure that there is agreement between the multiple sensors. It kind of goes back to isn’t there a way to design a sensor that isn’t so fragile, apparently?

Kirby: Isn’t there a way for, to get it right, although questions have to be asked about the redundancy there of course and we have talked about it in the past, Max, but yeah very good point, go to the core what about the sensor? Boeing is called out by this panel for designing MCAS based on data, architecture and assumptions that were reused from a previous aircraft configuration without sufficient detailed aircraft level evaluation of the appropriateness of such reuse and, as you say, without additional safety margins and features. This is one of the issues that the panel has. And we’ve seen this on the seat side front as well, Max, where data is used, past data, on prior shall we say aircraft series, let’s just say the 737 where seat data is used from say the 737NG to be used for evacuation simulations that determine whether or not an aircraft is certified for more seats, shall we say. This is something that they have done on the seat front, on the PaxEx front, so it’s really not too terribly surprising that it’s been done overall on the airframe and manufacturing front. It seems like there needs to be a lot of change, Max. Boeing seems to be appreciating that now with some changes at the top of course and it’s possible we might see more. There’s a lot of folks now predicting that the clock is ticking on Muilenburg; it remains to be seen. But the impact as you and I have talked about a lot is significant. CNBC has a fascinating exchange with the CEO of United, Oscar Munoz, and he’s just very candid. He’s asked – do you have confidence that early January will be the start date? Because of course all these airlines have been pushing it out, pushing it out and the latest is looking like early next year. And Oscar says, “You know no one knows, right? The aspect for us at United is I have great confidence in our pilots, in our training, in our MAX product when it does return. We’ll do it when it is safe to do it.” So a huge question mark right now as to the when, for all the valid reasons that we’ve talked about here on the last number of podcasts, because this has been a number one story, Max, still in aviation. It’s something that we can’t ignore. These aircraft are piling up quite literally and then there’s a whole other question of the cost around just keeping these aircraft safe and maintained while they are on the ground. I am trying to think who was it, was it Bloomberg or Forbes that wrote a piece about the activities involved in keeping critters out of these aircrafts that are parked. Just that basic, I don’t need a squirrel gnawing on the wires aspect of it all. There’s so much complexity, so much costs and heading into the, well it’s at the several billion mark now.


Flight: Yes, and I think continues to climb. You know, we had a listener over at Airplanes Geeks, a 13-year old listener who sent us, well actually a number of voicemails, but in one of them his main point was “can you guys stop talking about the 737 MAX so much” and what we tried to explain is that this really isn’t a 737 MAX story, it’s not even really a Boeing story. The ramifications from this are – and will continue to be, I think – industrywide and this will probably be one of those case studies in business schools across the world that ranks up there with some of the other classic business cases. There are just so many aspects to this. The ramifications are far-reaching and long-lasting. I think we are going to see a lot of different things change at Boeing, but we are going to see a lot of different things change with the FAA and with other manufacturers and airlines across the world. This is just a huge story that continues to get larger.

Kirby: It really does and not a day goes by these days where Boeing isn’t facing some sort of negative headline, because it’s not just the 737 MAX, of course, Max, there have been some issues on the 737NG that have been totally unrelated but have caused airlines to have to do checks. And the things that used to be considered regular – the occasional airworthiness directive – when it involves a Boeing aircraft now it becomes a much bigger deal in the context of what’s happening with the MAX. So, kind of some of the headlines that would have been considered well you know par for the course in any industry – making sure aircraft are safe – suddenly get a lot of attention. So every day there seems to be something negative about Boeing and that is hurting them as well, of course. And as you say is reverberating throughout the industry and it will also have an impact on the regulatory front because many of the safety regulators around the world have operated in lock step with the FAA and they have had very good faith cooperation. So it begs a number of questions then about their oversight of their own airlines and so yes it’s huge. It’s going to have major change but just how it’s all going to play out remains to be seen because of course on top of everything else as we’ve said many times before passengers are afraid of flying this aircraft and there’s a lot that are still very afraid.

Flight: Yes and I keep hoping it will be over soon. We’ll see.

Kirby: Max, you’d like to talk about something else, Max? I get it, I get it, but unfortunately we are rapidly coming to a close. We want to thank our listeners. Remember you can find us online at runwaygirlnetwork.com and on Apple and Google Podcasts and also I just wanted to let listeners know we’d love to hear from you. Whether it’s on social media, whether it’s on Twitter using the #PaxEx hashtag, we are monitoring that all the time so we see what’s being said, but if you ever want to reach out directly and give your thoughts about some of the things that myself and Max talk about. How you feel yourself about the MAX or other topics. Please feel free to do so. My email is Mary@runwaygirlnetwork.com. I would love to get your feedback on that front and of course remember to used the #PaxEx hashtag when you are tweeting about the passenger experience. Join in the conversation, we would absolutely love to have you.

Flight: Yes and please join us again next time as we talk about the passenger experience on the PaxEx Podcast.

Kirby: Take care everyone.