Airlines: Under-investing in technology because every carrier is doing the same

I’m a frequent flier and I’ve written in the past about how hard it is to consistently differentiate the air travel experience to the point where passengers are willing to pay more to fly on a particular brand.

This is one of the many reasons why air tickets are purchased as a commodity. Airlines today are trying desperately to upgrade their hard and soft products to the point where consumers will pay more.

One of the biggest airlines to undertake such a strategy is Delta. Now with its Northwest merger safely in the rear-view mirror, Delta is refreshing its ground and air products in a major product upgrade.

With this in mind, I flew last week on Delta from New York’s LaGuardia to Tampa in Florida.

Case in point

Delta’s LaGuardia D-Terminal has recently undergone a refresh, with bright lights, plenty of working space, and even free-to-use iPads where you can surf the web or order food to be delivered to your spot!

It dawned on me: maybe Delta really is creating a consistent and differentiated experience; perhaps their systems are in order, unlike the post-merger mess I’ve been experiencing on United lately (my general carrier of choice).

Boarding was smooth, easy, and timely for our flight. I was at the back of the upgrade list, but to be expected as a lowly Silver Medallion. After boarding, however, my opinion changed.

Delta has wifi, but no audio or video systems on their MD-88 aircraft. Seat pitch was cramped, and even though they have “Economy Comfort” to brag about, as a Silver Medallion, I can’t even get it. And then a slew of dispatch and mechanical problems required a plane switch, leading to a total 2.5 hour delay.

On the return, the mobile app wouldn’t produce a boarding pass, so even though I had checked-in, I still had to print at the kiosk. Also, I didn’t appear on the upgrade list until I asked at the gate, 22 hours later.

Our flight was 90 minutes late, this time waiting for our inbound aircraft due to weather problems, unclear where. I was 6 on the upgrade list with 5 open seats – darn!

But Economy Comfort was wide open, too bad nobody offered me a seat there, even for a co-pay. On board, flight attendants were happy to move other travelers into those seats, forget about status.

On the web, the experience is just as bad. Just this week I went to the Delta site to book a flight and the results did not include most mainstream options, leaving only double-connection, doubly-priced results.

When I clicked through from Kayak, I was able to purchase what I wanted – but not by searching at

Not an exclusive problem

My point is not to complain about Delta, not at all. These problems are not unique to them, and I can say that everyone at Delta was courteous and helpful throughout.

In all my flying on United this year, I have also endured messed-up upgrades (requiring many phone calls), crappy mobile experiences, flight delays without updates, and planes without TVs.

My point is that no matter who you fly, you are apt to endure these problems, little or big – many of them IT-based, or revolving around customer policy and its implementation through IT.

How come airlines can’t seem to get it right? Mechanical and weather delays happen, but at this point IT snafus are inexcusable.

Failed mobile check-ins, busted upgrades, messed-up customer prioritization, incomplete search results… these should be rare occurrences, not the norm we experience today.

Airlines want to talk about personalization, customization, targeting, geo-location, etc. but the reality is most of them fail at delivering defect-free customer experiences, even when it’s the same thing (such as upgrades) that they’ve been doing for a decade.

The customer experience depends on IT at nearly every point in the journey and while systems have gotten more sophisticated and user-friendly, the defect rate is astronomical, something few other industries would stand for.

Fresh approach?

A recent study by WorldPay seems to confirm airline blindness when it comes to smooth experience on the web.

Last week at the SITA Air Transport IT Summit, executives spoke about the trends and innovations in airline IT. Perhaps the biggest light was from Vueling CEO Alex Cruz, who has taken an agile approach to IT, keeping costs low and product iteration high.

He also recognizes IT as the game-changer it can be. Kudos to Cruz for sharing his enlightened approach. Even showing up to an IT conference as a CEO is a testament to his priorities.

For the rest of you, remember this: You’re only staying afloat because nobody else has got it right yet either.

Say that to yourself every night before bed, the future of our industry depends on it.

NB: Airline mobile image via Shutterstock.

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Evan Konwiser

About the Writer :: Evan Konwiser

Evan Konwiser is a contributor to tnooz and currently the VP digital traveler at American Express Global Business Travel.

He was previously the co-founder of Lark Travel Group, Farely, and FlightCaster. He has spent the last six years working with travel start-ups and consulting on new technology and trends in the travel industry.

He started FlightCaster in 2009 to provide better tools for travelers using advanced technology.

After FlightCaster was acquired in 2010 by Next Jump, Evan managed Next Jump's travel distribution business, which includes employee discount programs for Fortune 500 companies.

Prior to FlightCaster, Evan was a consultant at Bain & Company and he also spent time at Kayak. He's an industry blogger and speaker on both consumer and corporate travel topics, a recipient of PhoCusWright's first ever Young Leadership Award and a two-time member of the critics circle for the Travel Innovation Summit.



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  1. David Thomson

    I’m not sure these are working.

  2. Greg Abbott

    Evan, as usual – on point. I like your mention of those orgs recognizing IT as the game-changer it can be. As Alex has proven, product iteration cost can indeed be kept lean and can be much less costly than brand damage resulting from IT stagnation. Unfortunately, the shortcomings you’ve expressed don’t come as clearly into focus until “someone else does do it right”… then all the others just follow like sheep. Think rev mgmt teams during air fare wars…ugh. Am I becoming tainted? Anyway, thanks for continuing to challenge us all!


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