Google. Apple. Facebook. Delta?
Airlines weren’t born in Silicon Valley. And their executives don’t wear hoodies. But airlines are indeed some of the global economy’s most zealous adopters and even innovators of advanced technologies. Already, new technologies are reshaping many areas of the airline business.
In 2017, it’s nearly impossible to hear an airline management presentation that doesn’t include talk about investments in information technology. Delta, for its part, plans to spend nearly a half billion dollars on IT investments this year. Ryanair has an entire new division focused on creating new digital technologies applicable to travel. JetBlue established its own venture capital fund— based in Silicon Valley—to invest in promising travel-related tech startups. Avianca hired a Microsoft executive as its CEO. Emirates hired the celebrated airline executive Christoph Mueller to be not its CEO but its “Chief Digital and Innovation Officer.”
These are just a few examples highlighting how much attention airlines everywhere are giving to information technology and digitization. This is not entirely new—airlines have long been pioneers of commercially transformative technologies, from computer reservation systems to online retailing. But today’s investments are escalating in scope, ambition and dollar value, touching on all parts of an airline’s business.
The aircraft itself is becoming more technologically advanced. True, today’s jet doesn’t fly faster than those flying decades ago. Combine that with the impact of underinvestment in air navigation technology, and it now takes 30 minutes longer to fly between Dallas and Philadelphia than it did in 1979, as American CEO Doug Parker recently noted. But gains have been large in areas like fuel efficiency, range, comfort, cockpit automation and reliability. Aircraft manufacturers are themselves enthusiastic adopters of cutting-edge developments like 3 -D printing, automation, robotics, data analytics, machine learning, materials science and artificial intelligence.
Many of the IT investments airlines make are with operational improvements in mind. Carriers are becoming smoother operators because of developments like better software to manage crew scheduling and passenger reaccommodations following disruptions. As carriers equip…
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