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Data helps reshape travel sector as flights take off

Richard Cudd Profile picture for user Richard Cudd July 1, 2022
Summary:
Richard Cudd of Confluent examines how airlines can put data into motion to respond quickly and accurately to the needs of the industry.

Airplane on runway © Bilal EL-Daou - Pixabay
(© Bilal EL-Daou - Pixabay)

After the global grounding of air travel during the pandemic, the travel industry is rapidly starting to take off again. In April, the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) published an upbeat forecast following a major increase in global international flight bookings. A month later it predicted that some countries could bounce back and see levels return to near pre-pandemic levels. 

In the same month, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) released its latest data reporting that the recovery in air travel continues at pace, as travel restrictions are eased and people start planning for trips abroad.

Or to put it another way, the evidence is mounting that following the restrictions of the last couple of years, people are once again flocking to book flights and spread their wings. Such is the rapid ascent in demand for air travel that some airlines have struggled to keep up, with reports of long queues, delays and even flight cancellations

Data can fuel the travel industry

While no one wants their travel plans disrupted, it is yet further evidence that the travel industry is springing back into life. But this is only half the story. The extensive mothballing of the industry during the pandemic was used by many airlines and airport operators as an opportunity to carry out work to modernize back-office IT systems.

A significant part of the spend revolved around the vast amounts of data held across organizations and how best to use this to support a return of customers – and a return to growth.

Airlines knew that once travel restrictions were lifted, their whole business — from sales and marketing right through to day-to-day operational matters — would need to get up to speed to capture returning business. But when it comes to data and how it’s used, there is no blanket approach, even if it’s in the same sector or among competing airlines.

Data can help airlines compete on an equal footing

For many long-standing flag carriers with established brands, relying on legacy data platforms while requiring the agility to respond to changing events and competitors was singled out as something that needed to be addressed. Put simply, the processes underpinning these businesses relied on disparate data siloed in different systems and across different lines of business.

In some cases, these big airlines found themselves in the position of playing catch up with more nimble, budget competitors and needed ways to be more responsive.

For airport operators – especially large hubs such as Heathrow, Dubai, or Los Angeles – these aren’t just places where air travel begins and ends. They’re shopping malls and hospitality venues where pre-flight and ‘touch down’ spending is part and parcel of the travellers’ experience.

To maximize return, airport operators - and the retail and hospitality brands that lease this valuable footfall space – have turned to data to provide extra insights to increase revenue and foster customer relationships.

Solving the legacy storage conundrum

And they also looked at the experiences of tech-based firms, such as Airbnb, to see how data can be used in areas such as dynamic pricing, using real-time data pulled directly from websites and other online sales channels.

Such business techniques may be relatively straightforward for companies built with storage platforms designed for dynamic processing of data. For established airlines, for example, with legacy storage solutions, the technical challenges of transitioning from stored information to data in motion is a little more involved. But it is being done.

Putting data in motion

Speaking to companies across the travel industry, it’s clear that having data – and acquiring new data – isn’t a problem. The issue that they need to address is that it’s stashed away in different databases and systems. And they need to know how to bring their data to life. Making data work simply can't wait in this industry.

If data is to be of real use to how a travel company responds to customers, it must be in real-time to respond fast and accurately.

Like all industries, travel businesses operate in real time. Their customers want to be able to book flights quickly, sometimes in the spur of the moment for a last-minute weekend away. So, data analytics has to work as fast – if not faster – to ensure sales aren’t missed or customer connections lost.

Of course, it's not just bookings that airlines need to reappraise with regard to data. They’re looking at building digital pipelines across the entire travel business so they can unlock data and gain new insights. That includes sales, online operations, supply chains, retail operations - and even aircraft themselves.

And if data is being worked at speed, it means the delivery times of new data-centric IT projects delivering these new projects have also got to be reduced. What may have taken two years to scope out, plan, implement and fully commission, now has to be done in a matter of months.

Perspective provides insights

I’ve been lucky enough to work with a number of big operators in the travel sector over the last couple of years. And I’ve seen first-hand the issues being faced, and how CIOs and CDOs have reacted to the challenges they faced.

I had a window seat on their businesses, and it’s given me a unique view into how industries react to changing events. With the airline industry and travel sector now opening up again, it’s a much-welcomed green light for those looking to get away for a well-earned break, reconnect with family and friends, or travel for business.

It’s also great news for those who work in the industry – and the network of suppliers that help keep it afloat. What’s needed now is a sustained recovery – underpinned by data-driven insights and connections - to build back confidence as the industry returns to full capacity.

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