The Future of Air Travel: Intelligence and Automation

Remember those white-knuckle flights through stormy weather where unexpected plunges in altitude result in near-permanent relocations of major internal organs?

Perhaps there’s a better way, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article:

“Pilots of a Honeywell International Inc. test plane stayed on their initial flight path, relying on the company's latest onboard radar technology to steer through the worst of the weather. The specially outfitted Boeing 757 barely shuddered as it gingerly skirted some of the most ferocious storm cells over Fort Walton Beach and then climbed above the rest in zero visibility.”

Or how about the multifaceted check-in process, which might not wreak havoc on liver location but nevertheless makes you wonder if you’ve been trapped in some sort of covert psychological-stress test? Another WSJ article, called “The Self-Service Airport,” says there’s reason for hope there as well:

“Airlines are laying the groundwork for the next big step in the airport experience: a trip from the curb to the plane without interacting with a single airline employee. At the airport of the near future, ‘your first interaction could be with a flight attendant,’ said Ben Minicucci, chief operating officer of Alaska Airlines, a unit of Alaska Air Group Inc.”

And in the topsy-turvy world of air travel, it’s not just the passengers who’ve been experiencing bumpy rides: the airlines themselves are grappling with a range of challenges—some beyond their control, some not—that make profitability increasingly elusive in spite of heavy demand for their services.

A recent piece in The Economist illustrates one of the mega-challenges confronting the airline industry via a striking set of contrasting and very large numbers: while the airlines pay $7 billion per year to third-party computerized reservation services, the airlines themselves earn a collective profit of only $3 billion per year.

In that context, the anecdotes above point unmistakably to the future that airlines must pursue if they hope to be able to manage some of the factors outside of their control (e.g., weather) as well as all of those within their control (operating expenses, end-to-end visibility, safety, load optimization, etc.): more intelligence, more automation, more interconnectedness, and more real-time awareness of every facet of their operations.

Those moves will benefit both passengers and the air carriers, says the WSJ piece on The Self-Service Airport:

“Airlines say the advanced technology will quicken the airport experience for seasoned travelers—shaving a minute or two from the checked-baggage process alone—while freeing airline employees to focus on fliers with questions. ‘It's more about throughput with the resources you have than getting rid of humans,’ said Andrew O'Connor, director of airport solutions at Geneva-based airline IT provider SITA.”

Oracle’s attempting to help airlines gain control over these challenges by blending together a range of its technologies into a solution called the Oracle Airline Data Model, which suggests the following steps:

• To retain and grow their customer base, airlines need to focus on the customer experience.

• To personalize and differentiate the customer experience, airlines need to effectively manage their passenger data.

• The Oracle Airline Data Model can help airlines jump-start their customer-experience initiatives by consolidating passenger data into a customer data hub that drives realtime business intelligence and strategic customer insight.

• Oracle’s Airline Data Model brings together multiple types of data that can jumpstart your data-warehousing project with rich out-of-the-box functionality.

• Oracle’s Intelligent Warehouse for Airlines brings together the powerful capabilities of Oracle Exadata and the Oracle Airline Data Model to give you real-time strategic insights into passenger demand, revenues, sales channels and your flight network.

The airline industry aside, the bullet points above offer a broad strategic outline for just about any industry because the customer experience is becoming pre-eminent in each and there is simply no way to deliver world-class customer experiences unless a company can capture, manage, and analyze all of the relevant data in real-time.

I’ll leave you with two thoughts from the WSJ article about the new in-flight radar system from Honeywell: first, studies show that a single episode of serious turbulence can wrack up $150,000 in additional costs for an airline—so, it certainly behooves the carriers to gain the intelligence to avoid turbulence as much as possible.

And second, it’s back to that top-priority customer-experience thing and the value that ever-increasing levels of intelligence can deliver. As the article says: “In the cabin, reporters watched screens showing the most intense parts of the nearly 10-mile wide storm, which churned some 7,000 feet below, in vibrant red and other colors. The screens also were filled with tiny symbols depicting likely locations of lightning and hail, which can damage planes and wreak havoc on the nerves of white-knuckle flyers.” 

(Bob Evans is senior vice-president, communications, for Oracle.)


 

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