Thoughts from the IATA WPS on travel disruption

Rob Broere, IATA & Emirates, Stuart Birrell, Heathrow Airport, Christopher Duck, American Express, Jonathan Keane, Accenture, Ravindra Simhambhatla, United Airlines, Rob Sinclair-Barnes, Amadeus

Thoughts from the IATA WPS on travel disruption

It’s not often that you hear a panel of different players from across the travel industry agreeing on one topic – particularly when that topic is the cause of many a headache for service providers and travellers alike. Yesterday, disruption was that uniting factor, as the IATA World Passenger Symposium hosted a debate to specifically address this problem. The result was a transparent and lively discussion, with several paths forward being placed on the table.

Panellists agreed that disruption was a top priority that the industry needed to address for the benefit of passengers, airlines and airports – citing the capacity crunch that will soon be affecting the industry as one of the main factors.

“One of the issues we face is that the airport environment is not designed for disruption, it’s designed for normal use,” commented Stuart Birrell, CIO, Heathrow Airport Ltd. “During a recent incident we found we had to take care of 15,000 suitcases, with no space to store them.”

It was clear during the debate that certain levels of disruption are unavoidable – and speakers expressed surprise that the industry hasn’t moved to treating disruption as a ‘planned incident’. The importance of data analytics was raised – which could be used to better define recovery options for interconnected service providers. Certainly, each incident is unique in itself, but what remains constant are the main root causes. “We shouldn’t have to treat every incident as if it happened from scratch,” said Rob Broere, IATA StB Co-Chairman, VP IT PSS and Passenger Experience, Emirates.

American Express’s Christopher Duck, Director Customer Experience, said that the perspective of each customer should be taken into account in any given situation: “We need to move from addressing the point of sale to the point of the customer.”

In line with this comment, Rob Sinclair-Barnes, Amadeus’ Strategic Director in Airline IT Marketing, and the moderator of the panel, gave an example of a recent flight that he took which experienced disruption. When the airline began re-accommodating passengers he was top of the list as a business traveller and a frequent flier. At the airline desk he came across another passenger who was about to miss his sister’s wedding. Yet despite offering this passenger his seat the airline sadly couldn’t accept – they had to give the seat to the next frequent flier on the list.

Whilst there isn’t always a perfect solution, putting the customer first would surely allow different alternatives in such a situation.

Social media, and its role as a hindrance or a help was also discussed in the session. Ravindra Simhambhatla, Vice President, Info Technology, United Airlines commented that the airline was putting social media to a positive use by installing a chat in its mobile app which had resulted in a direct improvement in customer satisfaction, while Heathrow said its social media team have strong ties with their operations team, to keep them constantly abreast of what is happening with passengers.

Finally – panellists were asked what solutions they see when looking to the future. Accenture’s Jonathan Keane, Global Industry Lead for Aviation, commented on the importance of when to make decisions regarding a potential delay, pointing out that the resolution of this issue would be a key brand differentiator to those that invested in measured improvements. If these decisions were made at the right time, the worst of the disruption could be removed before it happens.

The panel ended with a focus on the traveller. Christopher Duck from American Express summed up a crucial point by saying that all he would like is a bit more empathy from airlines when delays do happen. We all want a human reaction, and to be treated as a valued customer. That’s something that can perhaps be solved as fast as the industry is expecting, whilst we progress towards a more collaborative resolution in the near future.

I invite you to download our whitepaper, Shaping the future of airline disruption management, for more insight into this critical subject.


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