While the Covid Pandemic has come closer than anything to destroying the commercial aviation industry, the sector is said to have cumulatively lost something like $60 billion dollars over these years. Future-proofing any business operating in that market has, therefore, come to be an important objective.
Speaking at the recent CAST Software Intelligence conference, Eash Sundaram, Chief Digital and Technology Officer of US airline JetBlue explained how the company set about that objective and cast some light on the behind-the-scenes role that software intelligence and analysis specialist CAST had in making it work.
JetBlue’s approach is an interesting object lesson for other organizations in how to find greater strength by looking beyond and behind the first, most obvious assumptions about what the nature of the business is. For example, it would be obvious to assume that, as an airline, JetBlue’s business is about flying airplanes filled with passengers. Well, yes, but behind that, management realised, lay something else – a travel technology company. Sundaram explained:
If we turn ourselves into a travel tech company, we have a lot more products that we can offer to our customers. They look at this as a lifestyle brand than just an airline now, so there is an opportunity for us to build those products and sell them.
That means getting directly involved in identifying and exploiting the latest and greatest technologies in a number of related areas. Even if JetBlue hadn’t wanted to change, it realised change was being forced upon it by developments in and around the business of flying aircraft. For example, pricing airline seats has completely changed in the last couple of years, with AI becoming an increasingly important tool. Predictive maintenance has become the norm and every single process in the front-line management of airlines is radically changing.
Planes are just part of it
Working with the start point that everything can be monetised, the company’s co-founder and ex-CEO Dave Barger observed that JetBlue is actually a customer service company that happens to fly planes – and so it got involved in finding and developing those services. Key to this was setting up a Venture Capital business in Silicon Valley.
The company had already put in live TV and high speed WiFi into the seat backs, but also saw an opportunity to develop technologies that would not only give JetBlue innovative products or services, but could also grow their own footprint in the world. Its Silicon Valley operation now consists of VC professionals, an innovation lab, and a partnership ecosystem that comes together to identify and find solutions to futuristic industry problems. Typically, these are startups with a small staff, some Series-A funding and, most important of all, a product that looks a good fit but is not mature. Sundaram explains:
This is not just an investment; this is so strategic to us. Our wholly-owned subsidiary JetBlue Travel Products, which is based in Florida, is really bringing most of these products to life, This is critical for us. Hopefully, we'll have a few exits, we've had one exit last year with a company called Chip Security that was sold to F5. It was a pretty good success for us.
The key starting position, however, is to find new technologies and applications that can come into JetBlue and add something of value to the travel consumer services ethos underpinning the business. One of the potential downsides of this is the fact that this process has a tendency towards building a fractured environment, what he calls a very complex ecosystem delivering a mix of customer and product experiences:
This is where tools like CAST come into play for us better to seamlessly connect these products behind the scenes and understand the complexities of the ecosystem when you build something from the ground up. And when everything is built in-house, you have greater control on the connectivity, the efficiencies and we know what seamless customer experience we can deliver. But when you work with start-ups, it becomes a little challenging because each startup has its own vision and vision of how they build products. At the end of the day, JetBlue still has to project itself as one single unified customer experience strategy and this is where we've started leveraging tools like CAST to see not only how we can bring these companies on board, but also connect the dots behind the scenes in terms of driving a very seamless experience.
Get a theme or two, then focus
The company aims to focus on a limited number of themes at any one time. Over the five years the VC operation has been running, these have changed, although they all fit into the twin goals of enhancing customer experience or customer journey. Themes cover areas such as service technologies, biometrics - especially the challenges and opportunities with touchless experiences - aviation operations and management, aeroplane maintenance, and technical operations and management. As Sundaram observed, running the technical operations is completely different, like night to day, when older planes are compared with the evolution of a lot of new aircraft:
A lot of new technologies coming in are re-shaping this business in terms of our logical expansion and extension of future-proofing, with examples going beyond being an airline:. We are re-imagining the accommodation experience and the most important thing, sustainable travel. I'm very proud to say that, in terms of carbon neutral strategies, and electrification of our ground equipment, this industry has spent more time in this space, being socially responsible. There's a lot more to do in this space and the venture capital is key to that.
All these developments make it crucial that Sandaram and his team achieve the highest levels of integration behind the scenes, especially when working with a wide range of contributing partners. He acknowledged that this can be a problem sometimes, given the pace at which new developments can be added to the overall portfolio. This puts real pressure on building the underlying architecture and standards needed to make that integration continue to work.
This is where CAST has added real value in helping JetBlue map out the relationships and interactions between the component services, He points to the e-commerce stack as a case in point, now rated as one of the best in the travel business for both desktop and mobile user devices and for both iOS and Android mobiles.