Mittu Chandilya, former Managing Director and CEO of AirAsia India, talks about the evolution of Indian aviation, the role of technology in making aviation smarter and the challenge of enabling change.
It’s evolving and it has huge potential. About three years back, I became the first CEO of Air Asia India. My aim was to bring a revolutionary product to Indian skies and change the way people fly, with a specific focus on low cost aviation.
India’s aviation market remains fairly untapped – of its 1.3bn population, only 9% have seen the inside of an aircraft. In comparison, China, which has similar population numbers, has 2,500 aircraft in its skies whereas India only has 400.
India is still developing as a country and aviation as a whole is very much considered to be a sector of defense rather than one of commercial travel. So, while India holds a vast amount of potential, bringing the change needed is a lot more challenging.
But this is just the beginning and with India predicted to be the third largest aviation sector in the world by 2020, we’re definitely heading in the right direction.
As we move in this direction, we’re seeing more focus on the passenger experience in the aviation industry, because our passengers have higher expectations.
One thing we need to ask ourselves is what can we offer that’s unique and different from every other experience that passengers have already encountered, and how can we monetize it?
I believe that in India we need to explore the potential here and leverage technology to enhance the customer experience because if we don’t, we’ll be left standing alone while the industry moves forward.
Having moved from raw goods to product-based economies, I feel that we’ve now moved into an experience economy. It’s less about what we can provide and more about how we can provide it. It’s about creating unique experiences for each passenger throughout their traveler journey.
As we address the passenger experience, one thing we must factor in is the power of social media, using it to our advantage but also being mindful that it does leave us open and exposed. But we can’t let this stop us as it’s vital that we make ourselves accessible to our customers through technology.
I think a mix is happening. For one thing, there are many airports in the world that are not geared up for the full technology suite that can be deployed.
But this aside, having an element of human interaction is still key. In India, for example, we’re so used to human interaction that it would be difficult to be without it. Instead of going fully digital, we need to work out a way to harnesses the power of technology while keeping the human element a part of this model.
What’s key is to ensure that as we evolve and we increasingly digitize our air transport industry, then we make sure that the customer experience remains central. It will be of no use if we create this hybrid model that ticks all the boxes for the digital interaction but is lacking in its focus on improving the customer experience.
Today, it all starts from the moment passengers book their flights. But we need to take it further. We’re all used to the mobile booking experience but what if we integrate predictive abilities into this, making it seem that we already know what our passengers needs are before they even have to ask?
From a booking perspective, this means using data to know which departure airport and flight is preferred, which seat is usually chosen, the preference for checked luggage or carry on.
From an ‘at-the-airport’ perspective, we will need to individually tailor our communication with passengers on a one-to-one basis, from which counter for bag drop and check-in, to which security gate is quickest – and even pre-empting the order of airside goods based on previous purchases.
The opportunities are endless and we’re heading in the direction – so much so, in fact, that this will become more of a requirement than a ‘nice to have’. If we get this right, each passenger (despite the fact that traveler numbers are always on the rise) will feel more like an individual rather than just another number.
And at the airport, we must empower front line staff with a direct connection to the central operations control center, allowing them to know exactly what’s happening at any given time. This provides airport staff with up-to-the-minute operational information and transparency, enabling them to be more equipped to provide passengers with informed knowledge of the status of any given situation.
An airline harnessing the ability to send the right information to the right places at the right time will vastly improve its decision making and help to quickly resolve operational problems which in turn will reduce costs and increase revenue.
Digital is just one part of the ‘smarter manifesto’. For an airline, fuel efficiency is definitely high on the agenda. As fuel costs make up 30% of air costs, it’s essential to find ways in which to improve where possible.
Whether this is reducing the amount of magazines given out, to the type of fabric used on seats and how pay-loads are handled, to the design of aircraft, it all adds to better fuel efficiency and the advances we're making on technology in this area.
Another way in which aviation can operate smarter is how we’re regulated. In order to make progress, our regulators need to move with us and not stay where they are. If they don’t, the risk is that the aviation industry will be unable to fully evolve in all areas.
For example, our regulators in India still regard kites and balloons as aircraft. While this is mostly based on the emphasis on defense in Indian aviation, we’re now entering a time where we need to be more equipped across all channels. It doesn’t just stop at the airline or airport – it extends to all aspects in aviation.
India has enormous growth potential. With both the rise of the working class and the widening middle class demography, the demand for air travel in India is increasing. India plans to have 250 airports by 2030 to cater for this growing demand.
To add to this the Indian government has allowed 49 per cent foreign direct investment in aviation for foreign carriers, while Non-Resident Indian’s (NRI) are allowed to pick up 100 per cent equity in airlines. These foreign investments are currently planned to total US$12.1 billion in the airport sector by the end of 2017.
Bringing change to the air transport industry in India is a lot more challenging than might be expected. But one thing we should remember is that technology provides us with scale and equips us with the potential to plug gaps. As an industry, digital trends and particularly e-commerce are definitely changing that way we do things, allowing us to benefit and grow.
But first things first, you have to get to know your customers and what matters to them. When Apple’s CEO Tim Cook visited India this year, his focus was to visit a temple, play cricket and dine with Bollywood stars – three key aspects that drive India’s internet consumption.
We’re in a time where expectations from passengers are far more advanced than they have ever been and we can’t simply just meet these expectations. We have to constantly be ahead of the game. Knowing your customers is what will make you stand out, and technology plays a critical role in that.
Mittu Chandilya, former MD & CEO, AirAsia India discusses the mega trends impacting the world's fastest growing economy.