British Airways Crews Tap Into IPads for Lowdown on VIP Flyers
British Airways flight attendant Daljit Kaur used to sift through five pages of printouts before takeoff to memorize details of key customers. Now a flick of her finger brings their names and foibles immediately to hand.
Kaur, a 28-year BA veteran, is one of 1,200 crew issued with Apple Inc. (APP) iPads in a bid to lift service standards. Data is loaded 24 hours before a flight and updated until departure, with the tablet small enough to be used discreetly in the cabin.
“I’m ahead of myself in knowing where our corporate and high-value customers are sitting, and who needs help,” Kaur, a cabin-service director, BA’s highest rank of flight attendant, said in London following a flight from Istanbul. “They look at you and say ‘have you been on a special course?’”
Carriers are intensifying competition for premium clients as the economic slump hits travel budgets, with Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. spending 100 million ($157 million) on frills including a cheese trolley and afternoon tea and Deutsche Lufthansa AG (LHA) adding flat-bed seats that offer 8 percent more space. Industry earnings fell 55 percent last quarter and will slump by $1.4 billion to $3.5 billion this year, the International Air Transport Association estimates.
London-based British Airways, the market leader on the most lucrative premium route between Europe and North America, became the first carrier to equip crews with iPads when it began issuing them in November after a three-month trial, and aims to distribute as many as 2,000 to senior staff over coming months.
While the unit of International Consolidated Airlines Group SA, Europe’s third-biggest carrier, declined to say how much it will spend, that number of devices would cost just short of 1 million pounds at current Apple iStore prices.
The iPad 2s supply seating plans and passenger profiles, helping to identify BA’s gold and black loyalty-card holders -- its most frequent and highly valued flyers -- so that Kaur and her colleagues can greet them personally as they board.
Information available includes journey details, special meal requests and specific medical needs, and flight attendants are also authorized to use the tablets to submit customer complaints, speeding up response times, British Airways (IAG) said.
“The crew does it so that passengers don’t have to run around on holiday trying to do it themselves,” said Pippa Grech, who manages the iPad program. “Otherwise, by the time they get off the plane, they think ‘oh, I won’t bother about it.’” The initiative has produced a “positive response,” she said.
Paul Johnston, 30, a consultant at Cap Gemini SA (CAP), Europe’s largest computer-services company, said BA’s customer care is “generally very good,” though the more tailored approach has yet to impact regular flyers in the premium-economy cabin.
A silver-card holder in the loyalty program, Johnston says he’s eager to be elevated to gold status after traveling twice a month from London to Atlanta since June, and that BA could better harness new technology to spot passenger trends.
“There’s an opportunity to maybe identify patterns in terms of travel rather than just waiting,” he said. “A passenger may be a bronze-card holder, but if they fly across the Atlantic six times in two months they’re likely to become a big customer.”
While British Airways is so far unique in handing iPads to cabin crew after Apple’s introduction of the touch-screen tablet created the computer industry’s fastest-growing segment in 2010, other carriers have experimented with more basic platforms.
Emirates, the largest international airline and one of a number of fast-expanding Gulf carriers that’s squeezing BA, has provided crews with passenger details via its “knowledge-driven in-flight service,” or KIS, for more than five years. The Dubai-based company’s pursers are issued with Thinkpad laptops from Lenovo Group Ltd., the second-biggest maker of personal computers, that convert into tablets operated with a stylus.
Other carriers have utilized iPads in different ways, with AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, BA’s U.S. ally, becoming the first in the world to issue the devices to pilots as so-called Electronic Flight Bags, replacing paper manuals and navigational charts formerly held in a carry-on kit bag weighing 40 pounds.
The switch won Federal Aviation Administration approval in December after months of tests on routes including Los Angles-Tokyo and is being applied across the Boeing Co. 777 fleet. Other tablets may be used should they get FAA backing, AMR said.
The Fort Worth, Texas-based company, which is currently in bankruptcy protection, is also replacing the personal in-flight entertainment systems in the premium cabins of its Boeing 767 planes with 6,000 Samsung Electronics Co. Galaxy tablets.
Qantas Airways Ltd. (QAN), Australia’s No. 1 airline, said Feb. 1 that a single 767 is testing a system that streams online content to iPads handed to passengers, who will be able to view films and media from their own devices as the trial progresses.
The use of iPads and other tablets is likely to proliferate as on-board Wi-Fi becomes more common, said Kevin O’Sullivan, lead engineer at the research lab of SITA SC, the top provider of information technology and telecommunication services to airlines. BA currently requires crews to download data before they board, and to send fresh information once they disembark.
“With Wi-Fi you can start to do really interesting things,” O’Sullivan said in an interview. “If a flight is delayed you can consider who has a connecting flight and, if you are running out of time, you may need to reorganize them.”
Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. (293), Asia’s largest international carrier, is looking at how it can provide crews with tools to access passenger information “in a real time manner,” the Hong Kong-based company said in an email, without providing details.
Still, carriers need to judge how much information they can collect without provoking a backlash over their probing of people’s travel and spending patterns, said Andrew Curry, a director of The Futures Company, a technology consultancy.
“It can go a stage too far,” Curry said. “You start to think: ‘These people don’t really know me, they just have a data profile.’ And there’s also a point at which we start to find people having a lot of knowledge about us slightly spooky.”
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