Digital Conference San Francisco 2012

British Airways: Future of Airline Travel Is Data-Centric Personalization

Company Merged 200 Data Sources Into Single Database to Inform Customer Experiences

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British Airways has seen its future, and it includes a customer-service experience transformed by data to create much more personal and convenient interactions between consumers and the brand.

Simon Talling-Smith, exec VP-Americas for British Airways, outlined the company's plans for its "Know Me" program at Ad Age 's Digital West Conference in San Francisco on Thursday.

BA has spent almost a decade trying to corral all of its passenger data from 200 sources into one database. Its goal is to use that information to make consumers' experience with the airline more convenient and rich with value. The key, Mr. Talling-Smith said, is to present that personalization to passengers in a way that impresses them rather than spooks them.

"When we get it right," he said, "our customers don't like it -- they absolutely love it."

A good part of that endeavor has been spent building the infrastructure to support the number-crunching. But the piece that is perhaps harder, Mr. Talling-Smith said, is getting the plane crews to recognize the importance of reading notes about passengers and then delivering them a certain message.

For example, he said that on a flight in which the crew is aware that a passenger is flying business class for the first time, staff would welcome the customer, show her how to use her seat and then note how she reacted. In another scenario, the staff could identify a traveler who normally flies business but is on a personal vacation with his family in coach. The flight staff would thank him for flying with BA, maybe offer him a glass of champagne and make a fuss over him in front of his family, which always wins points, Mr. Talling-Smith said.

The introduction of onboard iPads has made sending such passenger-specific communication to in-flight personnel easier. But he noted that getting the staff to make use of the tablets is still a challenge. "Probably half of the messages don't even get delivered," he said.

Less noticeable are approaches such as customizing online booking to show direct flights first if that 's what the passenger prefers or tailoring offers to fliers based on past travel. (For way too long, Mr. Talling-Smith said, email offers have been delivered in a way that make them "little short of spam.") The strategy extends to the airport as well; if a passenger is visiting the airport lounge for the first time, meet her and escort her there.

Still, "unquestionably the biggest wins still come in flight," he said. And those moments of personalization have to extend to the bad news in addition to the good. So in the future, British Airways passengers whose bags don't make it onto the plane before takeoff may get that news on the plane.

"You should never be the last person standing at the carousel," he said.