Come fly with Delta's connected flight crew

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy March 4, 2014
Delta airlines is on an ambitious quest to commerce enable its cabin staff while providing flight crews with Microsoft Surface devices. Here are some of the early results.

I don't expect a great deal from vendor shows these days but Microsoft delighted by putting on stage not one but four customers at Convergence 2014, each of whom had a compelling story to tell. Of course they're scripted and practiced but of one thing I am certain, you never can tell what a customer will say when the lights go up. Nor when they are gathered together in a room full of media and analyst types.

That's what makes putting live customers out front so interesting and, for people like me, exciting.

Today's group came from Delta Airlines, Sunkist, New Belgium Brewery and the Lotus F1 racing team. There was a sense of deja vue since I have video'd New Belgium and the F1 team in years past when they were in the early stages of implementing their respective CRM and ERP solutions. But it was the Delta story that captured my attention this time.

Long story short, Delta is doing two things. First it is equipping its entire flight crew with Microsoft Surface devices to replace the 38lbs of flight manuals they have to carry on board a plane each time they fly. No big deal you might think since other airlines have followed a similar path. As a side note, just doing that replacement across the entire fleet saves 1.2 million gallons of aircraft fuel per annum. Weigh that alone against the lease cost of the equipment and you see  pretty nifty payback.

CIO delta
Theresa Wise, CIO Delta Airlines

It was even more impressive to see both Theresa Wise, Delta's CIO and a flight attendant on deck, showing off what they're doing. Live demos? We love 'em.

The interesting piece comes around adoption. When questioned on this point, Darrell Haskin, IT director Delta Airlines said:

Right now we have a hybrid policy where some pilots have brought their own devices. [For which read iPad - mostly.] The Surface provides capabilities such as split screen which of itself is enough to drive acceptance by the pilots. Over 1,500 of those that have yet to move have asked to get on the Surface in the next available round.

This was unexpected but shows how the right type of device for the job in hand can make a genuine difference.

darrell haskins - delta airlines director IT
Darrell Haskin - IT director Delta Airlines

The second thing they're doing is equipping the cabin crew with Windows phones that are hooked up to their retail systems which run on Microsoft Dynamics but also hook back into the back end SAP systems - mostly in real-time. I've seen these in action since I took a Delta flight to Atlanta. They're dinky things that seemed to work very efficiently. On the kinds of thing that can be done and looking ahead into the future:

Flight attendants will know your loyalty status so you'll be able to get a much more personalised service. How about if we know you like shows and could pre-order your Broadway tickets? What about when there are spare seats available in Comfort Economy or First? We can now sell those seats on the plane. If course there are some wrinkles to figure out around cabin baggage but you get the idea.

We see many possibilities so for example the biggest complaint by far comes when we run out of a particular food on the plane. Wouldn't it be so much better if you could pre-order and for us to offer you a discount for helping us?  There are many ways in which we could extend the commerce side of our business while improving convenience for the customer. We don’t have any of those things defined yet but that’s the direction.

Some airlines already do this kind of thing - Virgin America being the standout example - but this is the first time I have heard of an airline that is taking a multi-channel way forward on this topic.

In a later conversation, Haskin acknowledged that the site needs some work. I for instance had trouble with trying to purchase extras for my flight that ended up with me getting three GoGo (inflight WiFi vouchers) but no early boarding:

We are trying to influence their direction with the work we are doing but as you know these things take time. Success will drive this.

Why am I impressed? I tend to find that unless they have a small army of PR minders in tow, customers speak with the kind of candor that is always appreciated. In our conversations, Haskin came across as genuinely trying to shift the customer service needle in an industry that is the subject of regular and relentless ridicule. They're also taking a pragmatic approach, where a full rip and replace doesn't make sense but where adopting new technologies absolutely does pay back.


In talking with colleagues far more familiar with Delta's day to day operations, it seems the changes being made are not just helping the cabin and flight crews do a better job, service has improved. I know that on the near five hour flight I took this week and without prior knowledge of what they're doing, Delta 'felt' like it cares just that little bit more. That has to be a win-win-win.

As a final side note - many colleagues were left head scratching when Microsoft bought Nokia. This is what Forbes thought at the time. I take a different view as it relates to business applications. It is fascinating to see how a combination of devices, software and services provides Microsoft customers with a fully baked solution that makes sense in the real world. No other enterprise software vendor is thinking this way.

The question comes - in an 'internet of things' world, is the Delta example capable of being replicated. I put this question to Christian Pederson who leads the Dynamics AX product marketing.

There are certain markets where replicating a solution will not work. The airlines are a different matter. Let's just say we're fielding a lot of questions and we see plenty of opportunity.


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