My job has changed a lot over the past few years, and it just keeps getting better.

Throughout my career, I’ve had numerous conversations with airline executives about the benefits of making operational change happen for their organizations, and many discussions about the tools and technology requirements to make such visions a reality. I’ve noticed the tone of these conversations have evolved over the last couple of years, as we are now able to directly offer clients the technology which will bring those dreams to life.

Our conversations have shifted over the last year, that’s for sure. Airlines have been forced to evolve their operations, and now that the travel industry is starting its journey back to growth, there are companies that are literally restarting from scratch. We’ve seen some airlines putting the brakes on certain parts of their operating processes, and others going full steam ahead to automate them as much as possible.

It’s this environment of constant challenge that has made building a long-term strategy particularly difficult for airlines. And as the industry is starting to dip its toes into the journey back to growth, it’s becoming clearer which of the operational changes that came about as a result of the pandemic are likely to become permanent.

We’re all in this together

Post-pandemic, all travel companies have to address ramping up operations with a smaller workforce, and one that has never been naturally agile. Many operating jobs in the travel industry have long tenure, and workers may find reskilling difficult.

Legacy technology is also a clear barrier to a full operations transformation in this industry, an obstacle that might seem even more insurmountable with reduced revenue and a depleted workforce.

Intelligent Operations is all about employing data and tools in a way that makes it as easy as possible to augment what a human does. To enable people to focus on tasks that add more value, and that provide the human touch which is vital to a business that has people at its center. But us humans are complex individuals, so this is not a quick or easy ask.

As airlines start to get back to growth, a key part of the operational process will be focused on ensuring that airlines have the right people in the right place at the right time to ensure that customers are being serviced, disruptions are being dealt with, and revenue is being captured.

How airlines can optimize operations for life post-COVID

Intelligent Operations can support the aviation industry at this key moment in time by anticipating demand across three key areas:

  • Disruption avoidance, management and recovery. Any disruption, no matter how big or small can have a knock-on effect throughout the day and across the network. This could be anything from a problem related to aircraft maintenance, to a sudden change with border controls which means that certain passengers aren’t able to fly anymore. Having data in one place and accessible via one overarching tool is what will enable the airline to mitigate for any knock-on effects and predict for the future.
  • Labor processes, planning and optimization. By forecasting demand and optimizing operations in a way that streamlines work for crew, ground handling, mechanics and more, the workforce becomes more efficient, and the experience offered to customers can be greatly improved. Imagine for example that your staff didn’t have to check so many travel documents and COVID entry requirements prior to take off. That this process was automated to such an extent that they could spend the time offering assistance to the travelers who most need it, or providing a top notch service to their highest value customers. This is what I mean by providing that human touch and is more important than ever as travelers rebuild their confidence and take to the skies once more.
  • Revenue management intelligence. We’re at a tricky time in the industry. Airlines have consistently used historical data to predict future travel patterns. But data from the past twelve months certainly won’t help airlines to predict the twelve coming up. The key to solving this problem involves analyzing data around internal demand patterns and combining this with external predictors to give airlines the best possible chance of predicting the return of demand. Can we use hotel bookings to predict flight routes? Or information around events to estimate when big demand peaks might occur? Data will be key to achieving a revenue premium and delivering personalized offers that capture demand wherever and whenever it can be found.

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Three steps to bring this to life

Data is central to driving change across these three areas, and an Intelligent Operations strategy needs to be made up of the following:

  • Centralized data combined with strong external sources. Key to a solid strategy is ensuring that all of your data is combined into one place and treated as a single source of truth that all parts of the organization can trust. By augmenting this with third party data you’ll vastly improve your organization’s ability to make decisions and take action. Just imagine how accessing internet search data could influence your marketing activities, and ride share availability and location information could improve your customer experience. Combined, this will provide you with real time access to the data at the right level of granularity and will allow you to perform analytics on the finer details as well as providing you with a holistic overview.
  • A strong analytics suite and a killer team of analysts. The saying goes that when it comes to data, you only get out what you put in. But the way you get to that final output is also incredibly important. You need to ensure that across the business you are using the relevant tools to analyze the data collected, and your team needs to be on point to extract the most amount of value from all insights gained. This is not just about hiring a set of Data Scientists and letting them tackle the problems that they find interesting, it is more about building curiosity, data understanding, and analytics into the organization’s culture so that your entire team is working to continually optimize. Defining the target skills and identifying the required training to ensure that teams are up to date with the knowledge and vision required.
  • The ability to operationalize the process. Once the tools and the team are in place, the final step is to ensure that this process is truly embedded in day-to-day operations. To extract full value from data and build a truly intelligent enterprise requires a disciplined process that is built to last. One off analytics are great and can create value, but if data and analytics can be instilled, and ultimately automated into a process, it frees up employees' time to focus on the next problem to be solved or to deliver true customer service

By focusing on anticipating demand across these three key areas, and building a data strategy as mentioned above, airlines can move towards becoming a business which serves the customer rather than simply a brand which provides a service.

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The human factor

At a very basic level, Intelligent Operations is about how operational transformation can allow the aviation industry to provide a better service for customers as well as a better experience for employees - the very same people that are central to both its ideation and implementation.

This level of operational change has to come from the top, and should be cascaded from the CEO across the whole business. In fact, what I’m seeing from conversations with airline executives over the past year is that many travel companies are already making changes to their reporting structures in response to this, with CIOs and CDOs being recognized as business people first, technologists second.

There really is some great stuff going on in the industry, and many of our aviation clients are doing great things already, but they need to combine all of the above to reach true transformation and achieve the 20% profit transformation that is attainable when intelligent travel operations is rolled out across the business. This may seem like a huge number, but I am confident that the potential is there.

Scott Davidson

Managing Director – Accenture Strategy & Consulting, Travel

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