Ai Editorial: Reaping the benefits of “an airline ecosystem” – JetBlue shows the way

First Published on 13th February, 2018

Ai Editorial: JetBlue Technology Ventures (JTV), the corporate venture capital arm of JetBlue, not only understands the trajectory of an early stage start-up but also partners with the parent company to find innovative technology solutions that resolve pain points from the customer journey. Ai’s Ritesh Gupta learns from JTV’s Christina Heggie how the efforts are coming along. 


As travel brands find themselves in the midst of what is being described as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, the race – to survive or to innovate as a business, to excel in the arena of customer-centricity, to outrival competitors – has clearly intensified.

In today’s era of “datafication” and unceasing connectivity, businesses have to consider a broad swath of technologies to serve travellers optimally; how to be part of the trends including the Internet of Things, data science, artificial intelligence etc. so that these businesses can emotionally connect with travellers?

Imagine what needs to be done in real-time to make every interaction with a traveller contextually relevant and personalized.

Companies today are trying to solve the issue of a digital identity in a connected world, understanding each and every click, evaluating unstructured questions, considering past interactions and buying patterns, and coming up with a relevant answer or deal via the customer’s chosen touchpoint in real-time. Yes, the conundrum is riddled with complexity, but that’s what the race is all about. Owning the customer data and shaping up experiences that fit in perfectly within the passenger journey.

So where do airlines stand today?

If one were to assess the parameters of knowing about a traveller/ customer and having a say especially in the early part of the booking funnel, then airlines lag behind. That has been the story for years, but now the gap, with front-runners being the likes of Google, Amazon, Facebook etc., will increase if airlines don’t respond.

“We have a long path ahead as an industry when it comes to personalization and a seamless journey for the traveler,” says Christina Heggie, Investment Principal at JetBlue Technology Ventures.

She asserts that it is imperative for travel providers, including airlines and hotels, to gather customer data in a single database or warehouse, build on it with additional customer insight, and accordingly make progress in the right direction. “If a company can’t access their own customer data, record behavior, analyze purchase history and access all information in a single repository, then we (airlines) can’t even get close to attaining customer-centricity.”

While data platforms, or even marketing technology and automation tools, have been around for a while, airlines have rather been slow to act. And a lackadaisical approach wouldn’t help as trends like artificial intelligence-powered booking are gaining momentum. So even as there are promising developments such as voice-powered search or immersive virtual reality experience that can make it much easier to plan a trip, airlines likely have a number of steps to take before they’re able to deliver a seamless travel journey.

Heggie acknowledged that factors such as legacy technology and a siloed approach to decision making have for long bogged down the functioning of carriers but it is time to brace up for the future. Other than transforming themselves as organizations to embrace digital agility, airlines also need to be a part of the emerging digital API ecosystem. It is important to note that today’s digital economy works through a platform economy model.

Being part of an innovation curve

It’s been almost two years since JetBlue, as a parent company, chose to incubate, invest in and partner with early stage start-ups via JetBlue Technology Ventures (JTV). The team at JTV not only understands the trajectory of an early stage start-up but also partners with the parent company in removing pain points from the overall journey of travellers. In all, there are around 16 portfolio companies that JTV is associated with. Heggie shared that the majority of the JTV’s portfolio “are companies that would work with JetBlue in 2-5 years”, even though some might begin commercial pilots in less than 2 years, and a small percentage of the portfolio includes moonshot investments. Airlines are adept at doing what they have been doing over the years, and since operations are process-centric and complex, it can be challenging to divert resources into new innovation projects. “So we would typically interact with the JetBlue team, bring about the new offerings in front of them, and get closer to a point where start-ups would be ready to work (with an organization of JetBlue’s stature and size),” explained Heggie.

So, whether capitalizing on artificial intelligence for trip planning (via partnership with Utrip, a destination discovery and planning platform that helps in crafting a personalized, hour-by-hour vacation itinerary) or counting on big data to predict airfare (via FLYR) or keeping track of all interactions related to customer service taking place on a JetBlue-owned channel (via Gladly), JetBlue is ensuring that it is preparing for the future through partnerships and pilots that steadily lend a new dimension to what it has to offer as an airline.

Overall, the team at JTV focused on five investment themes which include a seamless customer journey; technology-empowered service; the future of maintenance and operations: innovation within distribution, loyalty and revenue management; and evolving regional transportation models. 

JetBlue’s own ecosystem

It is being highlighted that certain companies are controlling the top part of the travel planning funnel, and airlines are increasingly relying on 3rd party sites for traffic generation. Heggie says there are clearly limitations to what technologies companies can do in this sector, and one of them is having a say in the actual consumption of the travel product. “If our customers don’t care about us as a brand, then we are just another airline and risk becoming simply a commodity transporting them from point A to B,” says Heggie.

And if airlines intend to have a bigger say in the booking funnel, including monetization via targeting the “second wallet” in the era of “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, then crafting one’s own ecosystem is must. We assess one example of how JetBlue is gearing up for the same:

“Customer service is one of the areas that JetBlue has always been laser-focused on, and we wanted to find technology that would truly transform customer service, delivered by a company that puts people at the heart of what they do,” said Heggie. Today this initiative has progressed to a level where it complements tracking every interaction on JetBlue-owned channels and then linking with a “profile” of a traveller. “We chose Gladly in order to aggregate a single view of the customer (on service channels). So all interactions (say featuring a JetBlue account on Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Instagram etc. or an interaction at the airport or with a call centre executive) are captured and aggregated into a single conversational view of a customer. (This doesn’t encompass conversations from 3rd party sites). This means a passenger doesn’t need to share their story or request again,” said Heggie. “This offering (from Gladly) sits on the top of a CRM and enables customer service. It can aggregate data on its own too – relating a profile’s social media handle, email id, phone number etc. So it’s an adaptable platform that way.” There are multiple benefits of this approach:

  • Personalisation: Gladly has strengthened the personalization of JetBlue’s customer service, which for an airline known for its customer service is key. Gladly puts all customer conversations - regardless of communication channel - in a single place to ensure meaningful and context rich customer communications. Whether it's via email, call, text, tweet or chat, Gladly helps JetBlue deliver personalized, empathetic service to our customers. By capturing data and maintaining profiles, any organization can move from mass personalisation to macro personalisation to micro personalisation, and eventually to analytics-driven personalisation. In case of JetBlue once a contact is established via customer service, and post this the response to a search/ request can be tailored for a superior experience. 
  • Empowering crew members: Gladly’s tool enabled JetBlue crewmembers to respond to customer service both faster as well as more effectively. Specifically, the pilot metrics delivered higher customer and crewmember satisfaction, as crewmember were able to respond to more comments in a more effective and holistic manner, enabling them to deliver better service to the traveler. “Providing this JetBlue experience more than getting them from one place to another - it's about building meaningful relationships with our customers and treating them with humanity as people, not numbers. Gladly provides JetBlue with the tools our crewmembers need to deliver this kind of exceptional experience through seamless conversations and a single holistic view of the customer,” said Heggie.  
  • Overcoming siloed decision-making: A major benefit of a central repository of data also means that various departments within an organization can avoid siloed decision-making. Gladly is a step in this direction, as the platform brings together disparate data points on customers (from contact information to conversation threads) to build a more complete view on our customer service.

The company is also constantly evaluating other trends, for instance, blockchain technology. One of the beneficiaries has been Filament. The company’s decentralized network stack allows any device to connect, interact, and transact value independent of a central authority. The focus is on asset management, and JetBlue believes the solution’s smart contract capabilities can contribute in operations of airlines by tracking of assets. Heggie expects blockchain technology to play a significant role in loyalty, travel distribution and payment space.

Standing out in the race

As it turns out, JetBlue is taking rapid strides to stand out in the race. By adopting the corporate venture capital model, the team is focused on strategic returns in today’s world of rapid innovation. And the outcome is expected to be robust – removing pain points from the journey of the travellers, and being in control of the dialogue with the customer.

And the culture of learning and testing with the entire organization involved is a major pillar. “The goal is to learn from the start-ups, strengthen the JetBlue ecosystem, and pave way for these start-ups to transform our industry,” concluded Heggie.

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