New technology offers airlines’ guests the digital experience they’ve been seeking and expecting. For airlines, this is another step toward becoming expert retailers. For their customers, it means greater customer satisfaction.

Not so long ago, the airline industry was focused primarily on ways to cut costs and increase efficiencies to effectively compete and ultimately stay in business. Without a doubt, those areas are still important, even necessary, but the rather recent emergence of the customer experience as a key brand differentiator is reshaping the development of airline strategies and attitudes toward their passengers.

Much of this shift can be attributed to the realization by the industry that the volumes of passenger data generated by robust technology can be collected and interpreted, given the right tools, to provide valuable insights into customer behavior and experiences. In turn, this information can be utilized by airlines with customer-centricity solutions, such as the SabreSonic Customer-Centric Retailing Platform, to develop personalized product/service offerings to address customers’ unique needs and desires and enhance their experience at every touchpoint of their journey, while taking into account operational factors.

Valuable resources are wasted, then, if the technology employed to deliver these offers to customers through various direct and indirect channels is outdated, inefficient and inconsistent. Therefore, some of the most important retailing decisions an airline can make center around offer execution, the optimal presentation of an offer to the customer.

Soaring mobile statistics

For many industries and individuals alike, mobile has become the preferred platform for conducting business. Today’s marketplace moves rapidly, making the on-the-go capability of mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, particularly appealing. The International Data Corporation estimates that by the end of this year, 3.2 billion people — 44 percent of the world’s population — will have access to the internet, and 2 billion will be using mobile devices to do so.

The majority of airline customers, in particular, are considered tech savvy. According to the 2015 SITA Passenger IT Trends Survey, 83 percent of passengers carry smartphones, while 15 percent travel with three mobile devices (smartphone, tablet and laptop). For airlines, this provides a unique opportunity to incorporate passenger data with context-aware technology to enhance the end-to-end customer experience, beginning with shopping and ending with post-trip follow up.

Most passengers, it seems, are eager to engage with airlines via mobile devices. The same survey notes that this year alone, airline bookings via such devices are expected to rise 39 percent, check-in, 79 percent, and boarding-pass delivery, 110 percent. Clearly today’s airline customers are all too happy to forego the long lines and congestion once simply considered part of the traditional airport experience in favor of a more personalized digital experience at their own pace, often off-site.

Challenges to the optimal offer

Despite encouraging passenger feedback, airlines face a number of challenges in the execution of a consistent and timely offer through web-based direct and indirect channels. Customer-centric companies in other industries have set the bar high, and while airline operations and revenue management technology have soared ahead, dynamic retailing practices are fairly new to carriers and the technology to support these intricate transactions continues to be generally unreliable and inadequate.

The majority of carriers today have some type of e-commerce roadmap incorporated into their overall strategy, and they are looking for the best value for their investments. Third-party vendors, including web and interface designers and specialty IT providers, offer a variety of stand-alone solutions. However, most are developed in isolation and require manual intervention to collect and integrate the necessary information from passenger-service and operational systems, resulting in delayed and inconsistent offers.

While these solutions may meet current challenges, the continued exponential growth of customer data (due in large part to the rising popularity of mobile devices) and evolution of the airline industry toward a retailing mindset requires airlines to address the long-term need for a more robust IT architecture that is extremely flexible, scalable and able to handle thousands of sophisticated transactions using real-time or near real-time data in a matter of seconds.

While they may not be equipped to handle such an assignment on their own, most businesses, airlines included, are understandably somewhat reluctant to hand any part of their operations over to someone else. Instead, most start with the belief that they possess the time, money and talent to effectively and efficiently make the necessary transitions to remain competitive.

However, the airline industry’s shift in focus to the end-to-end customer experience, with an emphasis on retailing, in particular, has proven to be quite complex.

Traditionally, airline management has possessed little in the way of retailing expertise, as well as the development and execution of digital strategies. As a result, many airlines quickly discover that rather than focusing resources on areas of which they have limited knowledge, they should instead strengthen their unique differentiating factors and turn common, core tasks over to aviation IT providers to decrease time to market and increase cost savings and operational efficiencies.

SabreSonic digital experience

To assist airlines as they make inroads into this new territory, Sabre Airline Solutions has identified four strategic areas of concentration within SabreSonic Customer Sales and Service, the industry’s only seamless, end-to-end customer sales and service solution:

  • Customer experience,
  • Airports reimagined,
  • Airline retailing,
  • Big data and analytics.

The Customer-Centric Retailing Platform is an integral part of airline retailing, as is the SabreSonic Web Digital Experience, a customer-focused, innovation-driven solution designed to optimize web-based offer execution for airlines via direct and indirect distribution channels.

Developed in partnership with SabreSonic airline clients, the Digital Experience is constantly evolving and expanding to support the next generation of e-commerce.

The architecture

The Digital Experience platform is situated on top of the Customer-Centric Retailing Platform and connected by a JSON layer. This integration enables the exchange of contextually-rich customer data between SabreSonic core services applications, including payment, shopping and fulfillment; the Customer-Centric Retailing Platform, encompassing ancillaries, personalization, brands and non-air sales; and the Digital Experience, which distributes the optimized offer throughout various web-based channels.

The features

The Digital Experience is scalable and flexible, allowing airlines to exercise varying degrees of control over their retailing function while maintaining full control of the customer experience. The presentation layer, in which the offer is executed to the customer, can be fully defined, designed and owned by the airline itself. For carriers that choose to turn ownership of the layer over to Sabre, a full-featured, responsive user interface is employed. The most popular presentation model is a hybrid, with an airline leveraging Sabre-designed templates with the Digital Experience’s advanced customization capabilities to create its own unique presentation layer.

Highly flexible and adaptable, the hybrid model works on a “sliding scale.” On a basic level, for example, Sabre and fictitious Worldwide Air determine 100 steps are needed to fully integrate the airlines’ Digital Experience.

In beginning, the carrier believes it should be responsible for completing all steps. But after evaluating available resources and budgets, Worldwide Air decides only 65 of those steps are “mission critical,” serving as brand differentiators that require its full attention. The other 35 steps are common, core tasks that can more efficiently and cost effectively be handled by Sabre.

As the Digital Experience continues to unfold, Worldwide Air identifies further steps that would be better undertaken by the solutions provider. As a result, Worldwide Air is able to focus on those tasks that are truly brand differentiators and provide them with a competitive edge in the marketplace.

Whether an offer is presented via a GDS, website, smartphone, tablet or agent’s desktop screen, the Digital Experience provides consistency of content and architecture for each distribution channel. Customization and personalization capabilities allow airlines to define the content parameters for each device. Of course, the user interface for a desktop website is able to display a greater number of parameters than the interface on a smartphone, but the same information is provided to the customer by drilling further down.

The Digital Experience provides a conduit for communication between the airline and the customer. Equipped with valuable data about each passenger and a unique insight into each journey, an airline can confidently deliver a dynamic, attractive offer that is clear and consistent at the right time, via the right channel.

This article was republished from Ascend magazine.