This past week I sat down with Alex Cruz, British Airways Chairman & CEO, in a place we’re both all too comfortable and familiar: a seat on a long haul flight at 33,000 feet.
The reason for our chat was very simple. He was there to hear five ideas on the future of travel and technology during “Pitch On A Plane”, a British Airways sponsored event in partnership with Founders Forum, a community of the most elite minds in technology and the start up world.
Via in-flight Wifi, the panel, including Alex Cruz and other IAG executives, heard live pitches from the ground, narrowing five travel start-up finalists down to three, while asking live questions to the start-up founders ahead of London Tech Week.
The event was part of a new initiative titled “BA2119”, a programme focused on fuels, customer experience and careers of the future with a £6.5 billion investment designed to take British Airways to 2020 and beyond using futurologists, bespoke research and competitions like this.
As to “why this event?” Mr. Cruz was very clear: technology is the future of almost everything in the airline industry and it’s a vital component of his business.
Recalling his days at Click Airlines, an airline he founded during the early days of online booking, Mr. Cruz noted that at times, the airline felt like a technology company that happened to fly planes – and not the other way around. In a perfect world, British Airways would become the same.
But ultimately, you – the person reading this – don’t care about soundbites or multi billion dollar investment figures that airlines love to tote in front of customers, or the media. You care about your air journey through a microscopic and selfish lens because travel is precious, often expensive and limited to your very limited free time. There’s nothing wrong with being selfish here, and like all airlines British Airways has plenty of room to improve.
You want minimal queues, you want your flight to take off on time, your luggage to disembark swiftly and you’d like to stay connected to the ones you love while on board. In a perfect world, you’d love to have speedy and actionable assistance when travel plans don’t go as planned too. You’d also like a nimble mobile app that can solve most of your problems without speaking to anyone. It’s in the realm of this discussion that my ears perked up during this mid air conversation.
Moving from soundbites to why this matters to you, Alex Cruz offered a two headed focus.
Technology will help the airline…
1) Give customers what they want and expect more consistently, and react more efficiently when they can’t, due to unavoidable issues like… weather.
2) Unlock opportunities to delight customers with fewer “pain points” in every step of the travel process, from booking to boarding to baggage claim. This is where future innovation comes in.
In short: technology will help the airline to get things wrong less often, learn from it faster when they do, and innovate and iterate in future opportunities to do things which customers might not expect that improve their journey.
For this reason, it comes as no surprise that the airline has invested heavily in the San Francisco Bay and Silicon Valley tech communities, including the “Pitch On A Plane” x Founders Forum contest. The groups members include the founder of Pandora, WeTransfer and minds behind HDTV, the Ultrasound and more, and there’s obvious benefit to an ear to the ground approach with travel start-ups.
Diving deeper, I asked Alex Cruz for specifics on Hangar 51, the International Airlines Group (IAG) innovation and incubation arm which was clearly named to inspire feelings of Area 51, the mysterious “classified” base in America’s West, rumoured to have space technology – and perhaps, aliens too. If you doubt his passion for technology, you should understand that this is a man who will ask you what type of mobile phone you use, to gauge your level of detail to shifting trends. I like my Google Pixel 2 XL very much, thank you very much.
Hangar 51 assists start-ups with ten weeks of access to airlines like British Airways, with a hands on ability to trial select products on real customers while gaining access to crucial BA data and support, with the aim of furthering their big airline innovation idea. It all sounds great, but I wanted to know if it actually accomplishes anything, or has already? Short answer: yes.
I asked Mr. Cruz for a Hangar 51 project which has or will lead to genuine innovation to be enjoyed by BA, and perhaps no other airline. Mr. Cruz responded with a technology the airline has long incubated which effectively uses cameras in an augmented reality sort of way, reminiscent only of video games or the hit futurist film “Minority Report”. Utilising the “smart” video feed, the airline is able to track and identify each and every gate process digitally, thus creating a goldmine of data behind every event.
What does that actually mean?
It means the airline will know the precise time between the moment the parking brakes stop at the gate and when the jet bridge is connected for passengers to disembark. It means cameras can track each cargo door, noting what’s coming in and out, when, and exactly how long it’s taking. Via the data gained, the airline can figure out areas that are slowing things down, or doing really well.
Furthermore, the tech is *apparently* on the cusp of being able to visually recognise each passengers individual checked bag, much like biometric boarding, which would allow the airline to send a push notification that said bag has been safely loaded – and hopefully not that it wasn’t.
And there were others too: like a virtual airport queue system, which would allow people to reserve their place in bag drop lanes before actually arriving at the airport, much the way Disney’s FastPASS allows eager riders to register their interest in a ride long before they actually plan to get on board. Many of the best restaurants in Hong Kong offer a similar virtual queue system, which – side note – has completely ruined my dining expectations elsewhere in the world.
Data from the virtual queue requests could then help the airline better estimate peak staffing needs, which would reduce pesky pain points like waiting in line. No one likes to wait for anything, anywhere – so why should the airport be any different?
British Airways is all over the grading spectrum when it comes to present tech implementation, but new initiatives seem to be accelerating, at least in part due to Alex Cruz’s obsession with technology.
For now, the airline suffers from a second rate mobile app, a website that lags most others and a fleet with room for a refresh, without guaranteed wifi on all flights. A nimble, reliable mobile app is priceless ground for airlines, with the ability to push helpful notifications, track bags, learn about fare sales and offer last minute flight upgrades. BA is batting about 2/5 on these issues at the moment.
To the counter point, actual operational efficiency has increased to a level where British Airways ranks in the 10 most punctual of all major airlines, thanks at least in part to the airlines obsession with data mining. It’s no secret that airline customers number one factor for satisfaction is an on time arrival.
In conversation with Alex Cruz, it was clear that using data can do everything from tell a ground crew how many bottles of champagne to load on a long haul flight, to better organise where each plane parks at Heathrow to assist passengers with tight connections. Why make a person jump through three terminals if you can park next door?
In addition, the airline was the first to introduce remote controlled electric “Mototok” gate tows, which are emissions free and replaced troublesome diesel vehicles. In addition, electric vehicles were commissioned for tarmac transfers and other futuristic efficiencies.
The launch of the airlines first Airbus A350-1000’s this summer will mark a significant breakthrough in many regards, with latest generation wifi, an industry leading business class seat and improved fuel efficiency. And to be fair, being late to wifi was kind of like being late to a new iPhone launch. Many early systems have already been replaced due to sub par speeds, and the new systems installed on BA jets are amongst the fastest in the skies.
British Airways has also been an early adaptor of Biometric Boarding processes, which allow multiple passengers to pass through boarding gates simultaneously, without reaching for a passport thanks to facial recognition.
In trials, Airbus A380’s have been fully boarded in under 25 minutes, and eliminating the need to pull documents out has proven popular, at least with most travellers who realise that privacy is a thing of the past in the modern world. As an early adaptor, the airline will be in the drivers seat as this tech expands to all gates and reduces the boarding time, even in outposts around the world.
There are few things I loath as much as boarding an 8PM flight at 7PM and sitting for an hour. If everyone could board swiftly at 7:35, it would create 35 minutes of productivity and potential for fresh air that passengers don’t currently enjoy. That’s highly valuable time.
What will the future hold for flying and travel booking in general?
When asked about innovation in the booking process, a la the way the internet revolutionised ticket sales less than two decades ago, Cruz proclaimed that he had a definitive idea of where things were going, but didn’t want to elaborate further. The same way he judged my phone, I’d say he felt as if he knew something too good to share. We can only hope. But then again, on a plane full of Silicon Valley tech wizards, perhaps he was just protecting a concept.
Will British Airways one day operate flying cars?
Who knows, we didn’t speak about it, but one of the three finalists selected via the Pitch On A Plane contest on board this BOAC 747-400 from San Francisco to London was Reynolds Aero, a group of propulsions wiz kids who believe they’ve cracked the key to vertical take off and landing flights. If an airline were to take part in future trials, one could only assume BA would be in early doors. There’s a lot of benefit in that.
It’s abundantly clear that Alex Cruz is playing the long game by focusing on future tech while shoring up early day operational needs, some of which are just now being felt at British Airways two years into his tenure. After all, operational change at this scale often takes years, not days.
As the potential fruits of previous long bets in tech come to the forefront of your actual journeys in todays travel world, we’ll have more to go by in our judgement of British Airways as a premier airline on the world stage. One thing is for certain: future innovation is a key focus of today with Mr. Cruz. Numbers don’t lie, and we know the enigmatic CEO will be looking at them, along with teams, plural, of data scientists.
If the airline can make the numbers work for everyone, in ways we experiences either hands on or behind the scenes to make things on our flights work the way we hope more often, there’s reason for optimism in British Airways future.