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An eye on the future

An eye on the future

JetBlue, Interview


JetBlue Airways has a reputation for innovation and new ways of working. Eash Sundaram, the airline’s Executive Vice President and CIO, explains.


Would you say you’re proactive in approaching innovation?  

Absolutely. We always look for the next big thing. Of course, our IT strategy focuses on investments in areas like or our mobile capabilities, like many other airlines, but a big chunk of our focus is on what’s coming up in five years from now.

We’re constantly looking ahead and making significant investments in technology and innovation for the future. How do you best run an airline in the most crowded skies that is safe, offers reliable performance and is cost effective, for instance?

One thing I would say about JetBlue’s approach is that we’re breaking the concept of IT being separate from the business. Nobody ever talks ‘finance’ and the business, or ‘commercial’ and the business. So why IT? This approach is integrated into our DNA. Our team comprises professionals who’ve worked in multiple business functions.

What are the biggest challenges?

As an industry, the biggest challenge we face is time to market, which comes with a concept that needs to change. I use the analogy of Microsoft versus Apple.

Microsoft builds products for everyone. Apple, on the other hand, created a platform and everyone built on that. When I look to our IT department in a few years from now, we’ll be providing a platform and our end users can build what they want on top of our platform.

We don’t want IT to be a roadblock tasked with building everything. What’s needed is a business case and creative, tech savvy people able to build on a flexible platform. That’s a number one mindset shift for JetBlue.

The second shift is talent. A company like JetBlue has the talent outside of IT who can put systems and apps into place for the business functions. So why not leverage or crowd-source that talent?

We’ve started looking at multiple models to run in this way. Rather than a traditional IT department, we’re thinking more along the lines of a creative lab concept, and we’re building the foundation to achieve that. Our IT Foundation initiative will assist in this transformation.

So what’s the impact in terms of passenger experience?

Our IT Foundation is big step towards enhancing the passenger experience. We can’t change the world of airlines overnight, with its hundreds of applications that were never built to talk to each other. But by building the connecting tissue we can make great advances.

I’ll give you a simple example. Most people call a passenger a customer. In our view a passenger is a customer who’s actively traveling today. A customer is somebody who’s traveled in the past with JetBlue or who wants to travel with us in the future.

A passenger needs more operational data and a customer needs more commercial data.  As the connecting layer, our foundation will provide the means to meet the differing needs, enabling systems to talk to each other. So we’ll get the customer 360 and passenger 360 views.  

We’ll also get the flight 360 view. Some people might say this view shouldn’t have anything related to the customer, but we believe that it does: a plane has customers and bags, as well operational metrics. You need a 360 view of every plane so you can build events around that view, and communicate effectively with both customers and crewmembers.

Once you build the IT foundation different people in the business functions can consume these events and data and build what they want on top of it. I think making that information available – which doesn’t exist today – is going to drive a lot of innovation.

What areas of the journey are you focusing on?

We’re focused on experiences both on the ground and in the air, as well as on achieving the best operational performance. We’ve been working on an ‘airports of the future’ concept. One of the biggest mind-shift changes is to introduce the concept of ‘lean’ into the airport experience.

That involves taking a different view of processes. Take check in. It’s a 1960s concept based on travel agencies selling tickets, with the only way an airline knowing if a customer shows up at the airport being through the check-in process.

What JetBlue is doing is eliminating today’s check-in concept. We’ll assume that having paid for a ticket our customers will fly with us. Our policy says if they don’t show up, then their ticket goes. Of course, if they want to make changes before the flight they can. And prior to flights, why don’t we use intelligence to allocate a passenger a seat and take the actual check-in steps out of the equation?

We’re looking at similar concepts and asking the question: do we need this transaction or step in the process? We can look at things like a permanent boarding pass, or a permanent baggage tag. Those are the kinds of areas we’re working on to improve the ground experience.

Of course, mobility, social media, intelligence, analytics and so on all come into play in the process. But at the end of the day, it’s about making the process as lean as possible.

I come from a manufacturing lean supply chain background. You can look at the airport process as the front of the manufacturing shop floor where everything is all about throughput. In enlightened manufacturing companies they’ve eliminated waste in the process, so throughput is streamlined. The back office of the airport is similar because it too is about throughput.

The middle of the airport is for the retail experience. It’s a very different world. So how do you model your lean airport into an enterprise processing passengers while also delivering a positive experience?

Technology is a huge enabler and you can drive automation. But you have to eliminate or change processes to make them lean. Then you can automate.

What about in flight?

We were pioneers in providing Ka-band in-flight connectivity. Three years ago we decided to invest in building a product that would skip a generation of technology and deliver a great experience. We partnered with ViaSat and launched our own Ka-band satellite to power our in-flight connectivity.

We guarantee high performance for everyone on the flight. But most importantly, our thinking is different from other airlines in that we believe when you walk onto a plane, then Wi-Fi, like electricity, is expected and should be available, as is the case on the ground.

And why should you have to pay for it in the air? It should be part of your core product, as it is with JetBlue. For very heavy usage a minimal charge makes sense, but our core product gives 12mbps of performance and you can use it as much as you want.

This means we can enhance the in-flight experience of not only the customer but also crew members. The industry needs to be thinking through how to design and build apps for the connected cockpit. Once you have high speed Wi-Fi, it opens up great possibilities. We’re looking at integrating flight planning tools with weather and with forward-looking predictive analytics for the pilots to make decisions in flight, in real time.

One of the biggest changes that’s going to happen is personalization in flight. We’re looking at profiling people’s moods on a real-time basis using social media input.

For example, we could understand from customers’ social media profiles whether they’re happy, or maybe going to a wedding, or a graduation. Think of a plane full of people with certain categories of profile: we can deliver content that’s specific to them, right to their seats.

And obviously for crew members in flight – whether it’s for safety in the cockpit or transmitting information down to the ground – it’s about getting their job done with more personalization thanks to insights and information about customers.

I don’t think the concept of personalization is a message saying ‘Welcome on board’. It’s about how you address specific needs – such as if a customer has connecting flights or has had any previous problems flying with us.

You can connect the cabin with customer support behind the scenes in real time, so you’re not only solving problems but also giving comfort to the customer that you’re watching out for their travel now and in the future.

You mentioned operational performance?

Not so long ago people never spoke about the customer or passenger experience, or operating performance. Airlines differentiated themselves based on their seats, food and planes.

But what is going to differentiate us from our competition is the customer experience and our operating performance. This is hugely important for JetBlue as we operate in the most congested airspace of New York and Boston.  

The main differentiator for JetBlue is really our operating efficiency and how well we perform on time and against our operating metrics – and related to that the experience in the airport and within the cabin, and the smoothness of taking the customer through this process.

For example, as a pioneer, we see a significant amount of reliability in on-time performance thanks to the US Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen air traffic management program.

Using ADS-B technology, along with flight planning and ‘crew solver’ tools that we’re deploying, we’ll ensure we keep our planes safe, on time, with shorter flight paths and huge savings in fuel. As our stories indicate, for example, JetBlue’s planes are able to find optimums paths to divert around thunderstorms in the Gulf to maintain on-time performance (see the Federal Aviation Administration article).

So it boils down to how you build a reliable operation, which is what the customer expects as number one priority. It’s often taken for granted, but we are sharply focused on constantly delivering operational performance and a cost effective operation, while exploiting the technology enablers to achieve that goal.

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