“Digital changes the game entirely,” says Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian. “The big thing you’re going to see us do is to bring the technologies, not just into the hands of the customers going mobile in terms of controlling your experience with Delta, but into the hands of our employees. This is so that our flight attendants, our pilots, our gate agents, our people in reservations and in maintenance, can actually start to interact more efficiently with each other and with customers to continue to run an even better operation.”
Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines, discusses the impact of technology and innovation on Delta’s operations, customers, and employees, in an interview by Kara Swisher at the 2019 Code Conference:
Predictive Technology Dramatically Lowering Maintenance Cancellations
The data is already there. Yes, the new variants are throwing off more data. The problem we have with a lot of the aircraft and the engine data that’s being produced is trying to figure out what you do with it, what’s relevant, what’s the real meaning behind it? We’ve got amazing predictive maintenance technologies that we’ve already at Delta deployed. We run the best maintenance operation in the world.
Ten years ago we bought Northwest Airlines and we had a really difficult year in our first year of integration. We had 6,000 cancellations due to maintenance alone in that year. In one year, in 2010. This past year we had 60 the entire year, a 99 percent reduction in maintenance cancels. No airline the world can talk to those types of numbers. It tells you that it’s predictive technology and engine technology. We’re using the data. I don’t know what more data we’re going to get to. You’re not going to get better than 60 in a year. We’re already pretty skilled in that knowledge set.
Digital Changes the Game Entirely
There’s a lot we can improve (with the consumer experience). I’ll tell you that we are within our peer set doing a great job as we’re innovating. The thing we had to do as a 95-year-old company is that we had to build the foundation. We’d spent several years building the infrastructure, the architecture, and being able to get at the data. It was truly an incredible maze of spaghetti thrown all around the company with all the legacy systems. We’re bringing the digital technologies almost on a weekly basis now into the market.
Our Fly Delta app is one of the best-rated airline apps out there and will get better. There’s more we can do. The big thing you’re going to see us do is to bring the technologies, not just into the hands of the customers going mobile in terms of controlling your experience with Delta, but into the hands of our employees. This is so that our flight attendants, our pilots, our gate agents, our people in reservations and in maintenance, can actually start to interact more efficiently with each other and with customers to continue to run an even better operation. Digital changes the game entirely.
We Are Not a Technology Company At Its Core
As we continue to expand our technology with digital and being able to let our consumers know more about us so we can know more about them and be able to engage in a deeper relationship, we have to maintain that same level of trust and care that we have with putting you in the sky as compared to protecting your private identity and your data.
We have a lot of people looking at all the technologies that we’re thinking about rolling out making certain that they comply with all privacy laws. We’re not a technology company at its core. We’re not ever marketing the data or selling the data but we still want to make certain that we’re adhering to those same privacy standards.
The Flight Experience Continues To Get Better
The flight experience continues to get better. Our operational performance has been incredible. We just ended this past weekend a run where we had over 40 days in a row without a cancellation around the world. These are running levels of excellence and performance that we’ve never seen. The flying experience is getting to a point where value for money is also significant because consumers today are paying 40 percent in real dollars less than they did 20 years ago for the price of tickets.
The deregulation of our industry back in the 1980s has worked and democratized travel and it has brought people out. I never stepped foot on a plane before I was 25 years old. How I ever got this job I’m still not quite sure. Flying wasn’t affordable. It wasn’t something I did when we grew up now. Our kids think you are a dinosaur if you don’t fly.
The Big Change Is Going To Be In The Airports
I think the big change is going to be in the airports going forward. The airport’s going to look significantly different. We’re going to try to take the stress out of the airports. One of the things about airports, we’ve got to remember, these were built 50, 60, or 70 years ago, for an era that has long past us. So volumes, security apparatus, even the physical layouts. Back then people would come to the airports to look at the marvel of the front head house we call it, the front door, or the artwork.
When did you ever spend time in the front of an airport? You never go there. Now you just go directly to security. You don’t even stop at the counter, you’ve got your mobile. But all of our physical layout is up front. We’ve got to flip it around and put our physical layout back by the gates where people want to get to. We need to make that front almost the security, getting into the property, to begin with.
You’re Going To See a Very Different Boarding Process
You’re going to see a very different boarding process. That’s the other tremendous stress. This is where you see people looking to line up and everyone wants to get on at the same time and most of their earthly belongings. Why does anyone want to sit in an airline seat longer than they have to? People don’t, but they want to get on board and they want to make sure their property gets on board with them. If you have confidence (with RFID technology, which we’ve now rolled out) that your bag will be there waiting for you when you get to the baggage area at the end of the flight, would you really try to carry that bag on?
We’re looking at even taking the boarding cues out, taking the podiums out. With podiums it just gives people reason to line. What if there are no podiums? We will have chairs so people can sit down and agents with technology in their hands. With the digital technology that I’m talking about, they can serve as a host or hostess rather than a ticket taker. That’s how you build relationships. That’s what we’re designing.
5G Is Going To Be a Big Deal For Us In The Airports
We’re experimenting with it but it’s knowing that the agents are out there with the technology in their hand and that’s who you need to talk to. These people will be trained to try to scoop up bags if there are bags that can be checked, but again it’s going to take some time. There has to be confidence that the technology works and it’s being delivered on. We put the technology in and there are still teething pains. A lot of it is going to be around network bandwidth. 5G is going to be a big deal for us in the airports. We actually will have the Wi-Fi capabilities to actually implement this at the level of fidelity that we’re looking to create.
With the RFID technology that we have today, we have scanners out there, we have sensors. They’ll pick up the bags that will be going on to the belt loader. The belt loader is trained that if a bag is going to the wrong destination it will stop the belt loader. It will cause the gate agent or the ramp agent to go look at it and figure out where that tag is and get it onto the right plane. It will also be able to track it. You can track your bag on the Fly Delta app, you’ll know where it is. You’ll see it get to the baggage claim before you do. It will tell you what baggage area you need to go to. That what we’re creating for the future and technology is going to be critical in getting there.