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Since the Wright brothers’ first powered aircraft was destroyed by a big gust of wind after a few test flights in 1903, flights have been cancelled or delayed because of unforeseen circumstances. Aircraft are quite a bit more capable now than they were at the time of the Wright brothers, but disruption continues to plague the airline industry: the latest reports on disruption by Amadeus and T2RL found that this is an estimated $60 billion problem worldwide.
So why is now the time for change? Here are four reasons why I think 2017 is the year airlines will make significant progress in mitigating the kind of disruption that makes a mess of airline schedules:
After 2008, a kind of renaissance began in the airline industry. Suddenly airline executives shifted their focus from finding ways to cut costs to finding ways to sell added-value products and services that their customers would actually want to pay for, including frequent flyer perks, advance seat selection, or special onboard meals. When flights are on time, ancillaries are a great way to personalise a flight offer and to make passengers happy. But airlines need to be able to ensure that their customers get the same level of care they paid for if a disruption arises. If someone spent more money to select their seat or to be served a special meal and that request is forgotten or ignored after a disruption, an airline risks losing one of their most valuable passengers for many future trips.
Just ten years ago, if someone missed their friend’s wedding because of a delayed flight, the wedding party were sure to hear all about it. At worst, that could be what, 300 people? And then there was Facebook and Twitter. Now, if someone misses a flight, if their baggage is lost, if they are served the wrong meal, or if they are treated poorly at the counter after their flight is delayed, it’s possible that their entire social network is reading and watching as the situation unfolds in real time. If something goes wrong today, thousands or even millions of people can find out about it in the click of a button. On the flip side, an effective use of social media during times of disruption can be an excellent way for airlines to communicate with customers so that damage to the airline brand is contained or even prevented.
Figuring out a recovery plan for an airline disruption requires (1) analyzing mountains of data, (2) solving insanely complex mathematical optimisation problems, (3) coordinating support services from multiple providers, (4) customizing a solution for each traveller individually, and then (5) communicating the forward plan to everybody involved. Remarkably, all of these challenges involve technologies that have experienced tremendous progress and growth over the past decade. The enabling technologies have individually progressed far enough to make a comprehensive solution achievable.
Disruption will continue to happen. It’s no secret that we can’t change the weather—that’s one technology we shouldn’t expect anytime soon! But the technology needed to improve the way airlines deal with disruption is here. Information sharing and integration are easier than ever before. The rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning, and the rise of standardized messaging like XML are bringing the industry as a whole closer to finding effective solutions to disruption.
I see a future where, instead of customers being in limbo or having to stand in lines for hours to get onto a new flight, they are notified of problems before they are even aware of them. They can receive re-accommodation options that they can accept or reject on their phones. It’s a vision even the Wright Brothers couldn’t have dreamed up, but it’s coming to an airline near you in the not-too-distant future.