Through the lens of hospitality

Through the lens of hospitality

With its reputation as a trendy, service-focused airline, JetBlue Airways looks at innovations and the passenger experience “through the lens of hospitality”, says the airline’s EVP and CIO, Eash Sundaram.

You say customer focus sets you apart?

We believe we’re innovating the customer experience in a way that sets us apart from low cost and full service carriers.

JetBlue is a young airline, just 16 years old, and we’re the largest domestic carrier in most airports in the north east of the US. We operate about 220 aircraft and make about a thousand flights a day, with a 40 million customer base.

We see ourselves as a customer service company that happens to fly planes. When we were founded in 2000, we believed there had to be a better way of doing things. We knew we had to focus obsessively on people and service – with the philosophy of humanity in air travel.

Not many airlines think about humanity in air travel. That continues in our mission to Inspire Humanity, which influences the experience we offer and the technology that helps to enable it.

Primarily everything we do is technology based; as we’ve evolved, so has our IT, to better support the experience. We view the JetBlue experience through a customer’s eyes and are beginning to see major shifts in some areas as a result.

Where are those shifts?

We’re looking at eliminating steps which don't add value, and if we can’t eliminate, we’ll automate.

Eash Sundaram, EVP and CIO, JetBlue Airways


Three years ago, to deliver a seamless travel experience, we looked at what our customers go through – evaluating all our services and capabilities ‘through the lens of hospitality’.

A number of areas came to our attention, self-service being one. We’re looking at eliminating steps which don't add value, and if we can’t eliminate, we’ll automate.

For pre-flight self-service, we’re able to eradicate check in with a small but impactful innovation we’ve introduced to the US market called ‘Auto Check In’.

You don’t check in at a football game or show. You simply hand over your ticket at the door, much like you do at the airport gate. Years ago when people used to check in, airlines didn't know when the customer showed up at the airport, so they made you check in.

Today, things happen before our customers travel: we know their profile, we know where they are, we know their needs and we check them in and assign seats.

Then 24 hours before their flight they receive an email and boarding pass from JetBlue to their mobile device.

‘Auto Check In’ is a big success. It’s a small first step in a major customer experience refresh we’re undergoing to make traveling with JetBlue more personal, helpful and simple. We’re looking for more opportunities like this, deploying a variety of tools.

We rolled out a new, fresh-looking web boarding pass over a year ago, to keep up with the growing needs of our customers.

In addition to showing new information like a seat map, it also presents information that was included on the old boarding pass in a more customer-friendly way.

We're now working on making it a permanent boarding pass. We're also working on a program to launch permanent bag tags.

What other areas are changing?

As one of our many efforts to make our processes more efficient through technology, we’re introducing self-service as a major feature of our lobbies, including kiosks to print bag tags and empower customers to tag their own bags.

This capability might seem small, but it will truly be a game-changer, enabling a smooth flow through the lobby.

We already have this model at a number of airports, such as Albany, San Juan and JFK. Since launching self-tagging, these airports have virtually eliminated the need for queuing in the lobby.

We’re taking care of all personalized touchpoints, and we want to streamline the airport experience for customers and crewmembers alike, making it seamless. We're working with several partners, like SITA, to explore how we really do get to the next level of frictionless travel.

You mentioned crew?

The crewmember experience is integral to the customer experience. JetBlue’s 18,000 crewmembers interact with our customers day in, day out.

We’re giving solutions to customers and crewmembers, providing tools and technologies that enable them to interact better with each other.

The crewmember solutions also enable them to have a seamless experience as they work with other crewmembers in the operation.

It’s not just about sharing information. With airport FIDS and GIDS, we often see problems like a delayed flight. The question is, what do you do with that information?

That's what we're trying to address in terms of how we approach that customer experience. It’s about using that information constructively and proactively.

How does that translate at the airport?

We want that airport experience to be a transitional, not a transactional, experience. In fact, we think the biggest evolution to the travel experience will happen on the ground.

There are lots of opportunities to dispense with the old way of doing things and become more customer-friendly, without sacrificing customer service.

For instance, most of our crewmembers at the airport will be mobile and not confined to the ticket counter.

They’ll roam the lobby with tablets, interacting with our customers as personal information booths. So we’ll have smarter staffing.

As we own many of our airport terminals, we can design our own customer experience, so our crewmembers will work in wide open sweeping lobbies, such as the ones we have in JFK and San Juan, with Boston to join them soon.

These will look very different from the traditional terminal, though we’ll have some counters if needed.

But most customers will enter with boarding pass in hand or on their mobile, and go straight to security. There’s a bag drop area where they can weigh and tag their bags.

What other technologies are involved?

JetBlue wing

We’re looking at the so-called ‘travel ribbon’ – which embraces all the stages of the travel experience, from inspiration, planning, booking and purchase through to pre-trip, departure, in-flight and post-trip.

We’re working on enabling solutions for our customers that don’t just share information at the touchpoints of these stages. NFC is a good example of a technology we’re trying.

Our objective is to use such technologies to give crewmembers personal information on passengers. We want crewmembers, on being approached by customers, to know who the customer is, for instance.

Because they’ll have access to the passenger’s reservation information from the PNR, the first question our crewmembers can ask is: “How may I help you to go to Boston?”

That’s much better than: “What's your PNR, what's your transaction?” This is all happening and it’s a major transformational experience for us.

We are early adopters of a lot of technologies, whether it’s Apple Pay or Apple Watch. Technologies like these are already available.

I always tell my team, we don't need to invent things as an airline, we need to be innovative and to embrace these technologies, making sure they’re available for customers and crewmembers.

Companies like SITA are providing us with the capability to use these technologies. JetBlue’s app for the Apple Watch, for example, is part of a portfolio of JetBlue apps for iPhones and Androids.

What’s happening on board?

Well 10 years ago we could never have imagined anything more than a small selection of food and drink on board. But our in-flight service transformed. Today, in the skies, we can interact in a smart way with our customers.

We take a lot of pride in our new front cabin service, for example, our premium experience called ‘Mint’. This is a competitively-priced international business class style seat that started between John F Kennedy and Los Angeles on our new A321 aircraft.

It’s a small section of the cabin but it’s a big evolution for JetBlue, and we’re expanding it to other routes, including the Caribbean. The seat is completely customized for JetBlue and includes a 15-inch screen with the latest in live entertainment.

But the vast majority of our customers fly our core experience (we don’t call it coach) and it’s this that keeps us in business. Our Net Promoter Score (NPS) for core is close to 65.8, which is very high in this industry.

For NPS comparisons we look at the likes of Apple and Google. NPS for the front cabin is high 90s.

When you look at our A321 cabin, it doesn’t look like that of a low cost carrier. We prefer to call ourselves a ‘value’ carrier, in a niche between the ultra-low cost airlines and older network airlines. Every seatback is loaded with entertainment, and it’s all completely free.

TV is great, but the world has changed a lot since our debut in 2000. More and more people are traveling with a myriad of devices and they demand connectivity.

So what about onboard Wi-Fi?

JetBlue's planes provide a high-speed broadband wireless experience called Fly-Fi. It's so important we have that foundational element, based on a powerful Ka-band satellite that we launched in a partnership a couple of years back.  

With enormous bandwidth and capacity, we can offer an at-home experience virtually across the entire plane. Customers don’t need to compete for bandwidth like they do today with some internet services.

It’s not uncommon to have 100 devices simultaneously connected on our flights. And the best part is that, just like our TVs, we’re offering it for free. We also have premium bandwidth package available for those who’d like to upgrade. 

We see Wi-Fi as foundational. We think providing a free taste of Wi-Fi today will generate revenue potential in the long-run as people see the value in our product and upgrade to the premium option on a future trip. Of course, it gives us the ability to interact with our customers in a much different way.

Any other uses?

Yes, Fly-Fi is not just for our customers. We’re also using it to empower crewmembers, the first use being with iPads which are a point of sale device – we were the first airline to offer Apple Pay in the skies, in fact, and we now offer credit card facilities.

But these tablets provide much more than that. They contain specific details for the flight – things like the seat map, SSR codes and frequent traveler status. They allow us to provide a more personalized experience for our customers in the air. And new services are being added all the time, including an app enabling crewmembers to manage their schedules.

So all of our inflight teams, our pilots, and our technicians are being equipped with Wi-Fi with 4G access, with a lot of apps built to address our aims to provide a differentiated experience.

We’ve partnered with SITA on many of these apps. Without the various partnerships we've built, we wouldn't be able to achieve what we have.

With all the customer data in our systems, we know there’s a lot of potential for tablets. We’ve developed a centralized portal called the ‘Customer Hub’ to give us that 360-degree view of customers and consolidate countless data sources.

That means we’ll get to know our customers better through interactions with them, harnessing data, sharing what’s appropriate, and shaping customer experience with ever better service.

We’re only in the first phase of capabilities and the possibilities are virtually limitless, including great potential in disruption management.

So what about disruption?

With their iPads onboard, our crewmembers have the connectivity and apps to manage the disruption in real time.

Eash Sundaram, EVP and CIO, JetBlue Airways


Every airline talks about disruption. People's flights get canceled, people get stranded at airports. With their iPads onboard, our crewmembers have the connectivity and apps to manage the disruption in real time.

Say one of our customers is flying from Buffalo to Dubai connecting through Kennedy and Emirates. If we know the Buffalo-Kennedy flight is delayed, there are one and a half hours in flight to fix that problem, not pass the problem to the airport.

Our crewmembers can re-accommodate a customer right there and then in the plane, and tell them when the next available connections are. Or, of course, customers can do it onboard themselves.

What innovations lie ahead?

One of the newest things we’ve launched is JetBlue’s Technology Ventures, of which I’m chair. This is our own venture capital initiative in Silicon Valley and it underlines how committed we are to innovation.

We've started investing in early stage startups. It’s one way for us to bring in and be an early adopter of innovative technologies. We partner with other companies to see how we can adopt best practices, be it for retail or automotive, for instance.

We don't limit ourselves to the aviation world. We look at industries outside to take us to the next level of the customer experience, and as I said before, we view that experience through the lens of hospitality. That's the type of mindset we have.

6 Mar 2017

JetBlue chooses SITA to support hundreds of kiosks in over 50 locations

In late 2016, JetBlue selected SITA to support over 530 check-in and automated passport control (APC) self-service kiosks across 56 locations in the USA and Caribbean.

This includes 24/7 remote and on-site service of JetBlue’s devices ensuring maximum up-time and the highest levels of passenger service across current and new destinations.

Speaking at the time of the announcement, JetBlue EVP and CIO Eash Sundaram, said: “Over the past number of years we have worked with SITA and become familiar with its expert global service provision for airlines and airports.

“Our kiosks, used by our customers for check-in and fast immigration processing, must be up and running at all times. SITA’s round-the-clock support will ensure that any problems can be identified and resolved faster than they were before, minimizing impact on service to our customers.”

Service quality is key in the airline industry and SITA’s contract with JetBlue includes tight service level agreements (SLAs) for the end-to-end support of the kiosks.