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For Airlines, the Pandemic Crystalizes the True Value of Data

By Greg Land | Global Industry Leader - Aviation, Hospitality & Travel Related Services
February 16, 2021

For many of us, daydreaming about vacation has become a welcome bit of escapism during life under lockdown....

For many of us, daydreaming about vacation has become a welcome bit of escapism during life under lockdown. While travelers are eager to get back to their favorite beach, mountainside or city escape, many remain concerned about entering an airport, let alone spending several hours strapped to a seat inside a pressurized cabin. 

How does social distancing work aboard an aircraft cruising at 30,000 feet? How do travelers get from point A to B without touching more surfaces than absolutely necessary? Of course, these new concerns are compounded by the same old perennial gripes that have frustrated flyers for years: finicky reservation systems, inefficient check-in processes — not to mention the dreaded delays and cancellations.  

In a recent IBM holiday survey, about 15% of respondents who typically travel during the holidays said they plan to travel more this season than they did in 2019.  So for some travelers, COVID has given them more options to travel due to flexible work and education schedules this year.  But in spite of that silver lining, it’s clear that airlines have their work cut out for them when it comes to regaining consumer trust. But where to begin? For many carriers, the answer is simple: data. Fortunately, that’s an asset many aviation leaders already have in abundance.      

Before Covid-19 brought the global economy to a screeching halt, airlines like Delta and United had already begun gathering insights from passenger data to create a more holistic view of their business and to optimize the end-to-end customer journey. But due to the legacy IT infrastructure underpinning much of the aviation industry, carriers were limited in their ability to fully leverage this data. Now, with demand down by as much as 66 percent according to the International Air Transport Association, airlines have a unique opportunity to modernize — breaking down longstanding IT siloes to deliver a safer, more personalized travel experience, while also shoring up the bottom line.

To wit, Delta Air Lines recently announced a multi-year agreement with IBM to boost its global competitiveness and deliver a premium and personalized customer experience through a combination of hybrid cloud, Red Hat OpenShift, Cloud Paks and Services expertise. Delta will modernize its on-the-ground and digital customer experience, transform its talent base and enable greater agility.

Transforming in this way will allow Delta to unify datasets across its sprawling IT footprint. Currently, much of its data is segmented, making it difficult, for example, for the commercial side of the business to see data from the maintenance side. But in reality, it’s all interconnected. A maintenance issue can ground a plane, that can cancel a flight, that can ruin customer experience at the gate. 

The airlines that begin leveraging their data first will enjoy first-mover advantage as the global economy opens back up for business.Through technologies like AI, hybrid cloud and containerization, innovative airlines will take data modeling to the next level, surfacing distinct new trends and consumer behaviors that can rapidly be translated into actionable tactics to rebuild trust with travelers and ensuring safety, comfort and operational efficiency.  

Take for example customer service interactions. To reduce operational costs while accommodating for both volatility of demand and remote work, airlines are able to utilize IBM’s AI and cloud-based Watson Assistant for engaging customers virtually. Leveraging cloud and AI enables organizations to scale capabilities in real-time, mitigating costs while ensuring available capacity to handle surges in volume. It also eliminates the needs for customers to wait on hold for a service agent to become available, improving the user experience. 

In the era of COVID, new digital capabilities also enable airlines to reduce the number of physical interactions involved in traveling. Rather than having passengers line up around a physical gate or speaking to an agent about a seat upgrade, seat changes or standby requests can all be digitally enabled. A simple smartphone notification can let passengers known when it’s time to board. This not only promotes safety, but also allows passengers to do what they want prior to boarding without standing in a line. 

As the travel and tourism sector gradually gets back to business, it’s clear that some organizations are already better positioned than others to rebuild consumer trust and thrive in the new normal. In the months and years to come, the airlines that make the best use of data resources will emerge with a strong advantage over less savvy competitors.

For more information on the work that IBM does with Airlines please visit

Greg Land
Global Industry Leader - Aviation, Hospitality & Travel Related Services

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