How airlines and airports can change the travel industry together

This interview promoted by World Aviation Festival brings together Ursula Silling, CEO of Branchspace, and Stefanie Harder, Director of Passenger Management at Hamburg Airport, to discuss the collaboration between airlines and airports and the role of technology in the travel industry.

Both Ursula and Stefanie envision an ideal travel experience. They both describe a scenario where the journey through the airport is seamless, convenient, and interconnected. Building upon this aspirational model, the conversation explores the necessity of collaboration between airlines and airports to transform this vision into reality. Drawing on their individual experiences within the industry, they also discuss the barriers to achieving a seamless journey and the role of technology in facilitating collaboration between airports and airlines.

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Read the full interview with Jessica Brownlow:

Ursula: For most of my career I worked directly with airlines, big and small ones, in different marketplaces. I also at some stage managed a think tank in a joint venture with Hamburg Airport. I think the common thread throughout this was that it was always focusing on the customer and driving digital and direct customer relationships. And innovate to make a difference in the marketplace.

This is also why I joined Branchspace as we have the solutions and services that I've always dreamt of in my position as CCO and EVP Commercial in airlines. And I was always driving cooperation with airports as well.

Stephanie: This is how I know Ursula. We've known each other for over 20 years, I would say. My first stopover at an airline was 20 years ago at Deutsche BA with Ursula. I was responsible for communication, at that time Ursula was in networking and that was my first step in the airline industry. Then I changed over to airports and I'm with Hamburg Airport now for 20 years, and I was the speaker of the airport, responsible for communications and passenger service for a long time.

Five years ago, we did a refurbishment, reorganized everything and set the organization along the customer journey. This is my new position. My organization part looks after every touchpoint the passenger has with the airport. That starts with the communication at the beginning, the parking terminal, everything with baggage, VIP services, lounges, hygiene, and cleaning.

Jessica: Today we're gonna be discussing the customer journey, and we've got a fantastic opportunity, given your combined experiences with airlines and airports, to look at the collaboration between the two and what that can bring and perhaps what's missing at the moment. So, could I start by asking to describe what the experience of the traveller would look like in the ideal world?

Ursula: I’ll keep it very short because I think it's all about what the customers expect. Even in our kind of pre-conversation when we were spontaneously starting, we were already discussing different requirements that different people might have. At the moment, I think we often have this mass thinking approach, but actually, there might be those customers who just want a fast and efficient way of going, doing their travel, from booking to making changes.

Then on the day of travel, going to the airport, going through the airport. Ideally, everything should be seamless. There are others for whom this quiet and some space are more important and some comfort. Maybe others, if travelling and flying once or twice a year, they want some adventure. They want actually to be early at the airport to have some experiences and inspiration and then there might be others with some special needs.

When my mother travels, she's now at an age where she’s afraid of those long distances at an airport. Families might want just a porter service. I think the ideal booking is just like one click and the ideal day of travel and going through this is the same. If I want anything else, I should be able to still do it on the day of travel. Maybe reduced queues, so I don't have to wait, knowing I don't have a long distance to walk and I can spend my time better at the airport. If you are very environmentally conscious also think about what does my travel now mean?

Thinking more interconnected, how do I get to the airport? Can I not book everything already at once? And I can arrive by train or public transport or maybe by bicycle or can I walk to the airport? I like walking to the airport. But there are not that many ways where it's easy to do.

Just some thoughts about what the customer is really looking for, and the ideal is always that it's seamless stuff, very easy and effortless.

Jessica: Stephanie, you could highlight the ways that it's sort of similar or different to what Ursula is putting forward.

Stephanie: I see it exactly like Ursula. The thing is that the customer is not a stereotype. But we don't have the resources to focus on every single need. So we have to focus on the touchpoints all the customers have with the airlines or the airports and make pain points that they might have less frequent, so we have seamless travel for everybody.

If you have time then you can focus on the greatest part of customers, whether it be the business traveller, or the families, or the elderly people. I think that's the challenge, that you have different types of people.

Jessica: A couple of themes that were coming up there was this seamless experience, but also the awareness that the customer isn't the same universally and catering to that when possible, and making sure these touchpoints run as smoothly as possible. So we can turn now to how collaboration between airlines and airports could feed into this, what's missing and what could, could further collaboration produce.

Ursula: I think there are actually lots of opportunities when really thinking more holistically and given that airlines have realized they need to move to better digital experiences and think more like retailers. This actually opens the way together with the fact that we are in a world now where technology enables everything. It's just about being smart and knowing what you want to use it for and how you can add the best value and also achieve ultimately the best return on investment. There are lots of opportunities to think about from the customer's perspective. When they book their flight, they are very much focused on their flight or the link to the hotel.

Depending on the specific needs of some services that affect the airport, and some of them are in the meantime quite easy to add immediately, if I think about this, going through the airport path with booking the fast track, for example, directly with your booking. But I think there could be much more to actually tailor your need to your personal preferences if including many more services. This could even be pre-order some meals so you don't have to wait, but you also know what you get. Maybe pre-order some items in the shops and really know that the things you had actually wanted to buy and you haven't really managed to do. Maybe you also think sustainably and don't want to use too much postage and just order it online. So you could pick it up at the airport on your return if you know you can actually really buy it. So those could be already some services where you could make a difference.

Could you also buy your place in the queue? There are even opportunities now to have these virtual queues where you can actually have a cup of coffee while you are waiting. This can apply to a number of services for the airline itself with the waiting times for the bag, and also the safe services, to just drop off the bag yourself, and then rather use the time for valuable activities. Just a few examples. I think there could be a lot more.

Jessica: Stephanie, I believe Hamburg Airport does have this regulation with queuing slots. So could you expand on that?

Stephanie: There is a lot of development in the past two years. It happened quite a lot in digitalization and automatization. The problem is that all the organizations have different systems and these systems don't speak to each other yet. The seamless travellers, as described, would be a great thing for the future, but there are always these problems with little details. The consciousness that the traveller would like to have that kind of service is there and is done. Like Ursula said, the baggage drop-off machines we have at almost every airport or the system where you can book a slot in the security lane. So you know at what time you can go there and go through the security quickly because that is one of the major pain points we have in the aviation industry. We had a lot of queuing there in the past year. I think that the future is in digitalization and collaboration between airports and airlines.

The systems speak which each other and the aim is that for the customer this is a seamless thing. They don't really notice whether they are now with the airline or the airport. But we hand each other the customers and they don't notice it, but in the end, they have a good experience.

Jessica: That idea of the seamless transition from almost ownership of the airline from the airport to the airline, what do you think is prohibiting that from being so seamless at the moment? Do you think it's just the sort of siloed nature of the industry, or are there other works at play?

Stephanie: Well, I think it is. It's a big industry and we need more thought of partnerships than standalone organizations. As we had the discussion about sustainability and the attractiveness of our industry, I think that is one major point we have to look at in the future. All companies that work in the industry concentrate on being one industry that focuses on the customer. Then we will be attractive again, and we’ll have staff again, and then it will be easier. The other thing is that all the computer systems have to be aligned. That's very important, and we have to invest in the future.

Jessica: We've touched on it a little bit already, but just in case there were bits that you haven't mentioned, the role of tech in enabling this collaboration. So you mentioned the computer systems and we've spoken about the seamless transition. Do you have anything to add to that Ursula?

Ursula: I think there's, on the one hand, the realization, if I just look at this retail thinking and this digital commerce thinking, there is the realization that it's needed, but it takes time to really implement the state of the art technology. That's what we see from the process of realization to going through an RFP and then implementing this. I think what is also linked to it is that it is a whole transformation process. Apart from the lack of staff in some areas that Stephanie mentioned, I think there are also the skills of the staff in relation.

It is very important to understand when going through such a transformation, to be able to add business value and also ensure that there is the openness and this holistic thinking to say: “Yes, why don't we immediately offer these queuing slots and they can be booked instead of their customer having to search elsewhere, why can't the customer just book this?”.

On the day of travel or a couple of days before, just added this whole plan already. I think this kind of thinking and also this exchange of ideas, it's where it needs a bit more maturity and having started the journey and seeing some successes to be able to start this innovation process and this open-minded approach.

Jessica: Stephanie, did you have anything to add to this?

Stephanie: Oh well, if I start to add we will not finish. We touched on the points that are important and it would be only a few steps if we would go ahead now. We always have the customer needs in the focus there.  I think that's the important thing, that we are not doing it because we want to do digitalization and it's a cool thing. It's more that we want to ease the travel for the customer and have to focus on what is really needed. I think we mentioned quite a few things that would be good to focus on in the future.

Ursula: Some of the items to facilitate this, make it really easy, can be biometric travel. There have been some activities now in place so that you can actually walk through everywhere much faster. Also, some of these machines where you don't need to take out your laptop or any other stuff anymore. They make the whole process faster. And if you look at some of the alliances that were formed by airlines, there should be airports in there.

There should be rail in there. Lufthansa started an alliance with rail companies. There should be hotels in there. There should be main stakeholders in there. And this could altogether help this process and help this process. The technology is now there that you can actually really make easy integrations and also fast integrations and ultimately be very effective.

Then you can start to innovate. There might also be some of the governance points to think broader of formalizing such relationships, which could help to move in that direction and ultimately address these items like sustainability. How can we do this better? What can we do more and get this holistic thinking across?

Jessica: That's a really interesting point. Thank you for bringing that up. Taking it as a broad overview of the travel experience and sort of collecting minds on that. So facilitating movement between each of those stages. Even how you're getting to the airport, like you said, adding rail into that conversation and the products that could bring the experience for the customer as well, because they'll experience it much more seamlessly if we can integrate across all of those. That's a really fantastic point to leave the conversation on and that's given us lots to think about.

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