First-Class Experience

Delivering Passenger Upgrades Means Airlines Must Manage Requirements—and Expectations



Alexandre Tahbaz, PMP, Air France, Ile-de-France, France

Airline passenger pet peeves are piling up.


“The biggest killer of ideas in this industry is time.”

—John Tighe, JPA Design, London, England

Complaints include flight delays, long check-in lines, lack of legroom and a demand for more digital convenience. The message is clear: No more than 59 percent of travelers from any region around the world are satisfied with their latest air travel experience, according to the International Air Transport Association 2017 Global Passenger Survey.

That's why—from booking to baggage claim—airlines are launching projects and initiatives to deliver a turbulence-free customer experience. There's a big emphasis on next-gen technology, with biometric tools that leverage fingerprints, eye scans and facial recognition being deployed to speed up the check-in process. Airlines also are diving into apps and other digital tools that help passengers get real-time updates on delays and reduce the likelihood of overbooked flights. Southwest Airlines, for example, completed a US$500 million project to upgrade its reservation system for domestic flights last year. The initiative is designed to reduce system outages that forced the carrier to cancel more than 2,000 flights in 2016—causing headaches for travelers and costing the company at least US$54 million in lost revenue and repairs.

Airlines also are launching projects to deliver creature comforts for passengers, such as upgraded cabin designs and new in-flight activities, including live entertainment and exercise equipment. In November, Singapore Airlines completed a four-year, US$850 million project to redesign cabin seating on its Airbus A380 fleet. The improvements ranged from plush first-class suites with stowable beds to economy seats with contactless card readers built into armrests so travelers can pay for in-flight movies or Wi-Fi.

These customer-centric initiatives involve complex project itineraries. For project and program managers at airlines, collaboration with third-party vendors, including design and tech specialists, is a must. Because customer needs help these projects take flight, savvy project pros build time into schedules to allow teams to properly engage passengers and incorporate their feedback. And teams must ensure that any changes still meet safety and security requirements.


Singapore Airlines' redesigned cabin seating on its Airbus A380 fleet. Below, private cabins on the plane's upper level


Airline project teams are craving customer feedback throughout the project life cycle, says Neil Chandler, product manager, post booking, Air New Zealand, Auckland, New Zealand. Such feedback can spark ideas and help align project plans to resolve specific passenger pain points. Mr. Chandler's teams use various methods to gather feedback, including online surveys, an online artificial intelligence chatbot, user testing and customer interaction analytics.




Southwest Airlines' self-service kiosks

Flight Patterns

Global air travel passenger volumes will take off in the coming years. Airlines are ramping up projects to improve low customer satisfaction levels and fill cabins.


“We have to be explicit at every turn with stakeholders about what is and isn't allowed.”

—Alexandre Tahbaz, PMP, Air France, Ile-de-France, France

“We use customer feedback to form a project hypothesis,” he says. For example, if feedback reveals a pain point in the passenger experience process, Mr. Chandler's teams use that information to pitch upgrade projects. “Should a project move forward, the user experience design will be prototyped and user-tested to ensure we have a solid platform for development and subsequent experimentation to test.”

When Singapore Airlines upgraded Airbus A380 cabins, it turned to JPA Designs to develop the new interiors. During the design phase and the prototype testing phases, JPA Designs fine-tuned its customer feedback approach beyond surveys and customer interviews, says John Tighe, design director, JPA Design, London, England. Rather than asking very specific questions, like “How did you find the comfort of the seat in position X,” the team asked more general questions about overall experiences and preferences. This approach can provide broader context and garner answers that the team didn't think to ask, he says.

For example, seeking in-service feedback on new cabin lighting from a range of age groups helped his team discover that some older passengers complained the light wasn't bright enough. That led the team to work with a lighting specialist to develop a system that provides multiple lighting levels to accommodate all preferences.

“You can't rely on the perspective of your project team alone to determine what customers want,” Mr. Tighe says.


“We use customer feedback to form a project hypothesis.”

—Neil Chandler, Air New Zealand, Auckland, New Zealand

Air France takes a similar feedback approach. During every cabin design project, teams will invite frequent flyers to test designs and prototypes. Their feedback is incorporated into final delivery, says Alexandre Tahbaz, PMP, project manager, aircraft interior modification, Air France, Ile-de-France, France. Sometimes the passengers are asked to choose among a few options; other times their feedback can result in tweaks to cushion size or table placement. Mr. Tahbaz has even sent a design back to the drawing board when passengers didn't approve. “We do this early in the project to reduce the risk of time lost,” he says.


Air New Zealand's Economy Skycouch is customized for small children.



While satisfaction and convenience might be the primary goals of customer improvement projects, safety and security must remain paramount. On digital projects, teams must ensure that new apps or other connected services won't compromise the private information of travelers. On cabin projects, every material and interior structure has to be tested and certified as safe by regulators before final prototypes can be approved.


Air France's Le Première cabin. At right, premium economy seats (top) and Air France's booking app


“It's a constant game trying to get everyone moving forward at the same pace.”

—Alexandre Tahbaz, PMP

“Whenever you introduce a new design or material or fabric in an airplane, you have to conduct testing to make sure it will work in the worst conditions,” Mr. Tighe says. “That adds time, cost and risk to the project.”

For example, during Singapore Airlines' business class upgrade project, his team delivered a new seat design made from lightweight carbon composite materials instead of heavier aluminum. The lighter material reduced the size of the seat structure without compromising comfort, giving passengers more legroom and allowing for 10 percent more seats per cabin. Before the new seat design was approved by regulators, Mr. Tighe's team performed rigorous testing in labs and on airplanes to gather evidence that it would comply with standards. “It's a nerve-wracking process, because by the time you get to regulators it's too late to start over.”

Mr. Tahbaz echoes that sentiment. “Safety regulations are extremely specific,” he says. For instance, on Air France cabin improvement projects, every material must be fireproof, the curtain that divides passenger sections can't exceed weight limits set by the manufacturer and the aisle must allow for evacuation to be completed in 90 seconds or less. “We have to be explicit at every turn with stakeholders about what is and isn't allowed,” he says.

On digital projects, Mr. Chandler's teams are tasked with staying up to date on ever-changing data-protection and privacy rules. For instance, any rule changes can affect how they capture and store information on their booking sites. “Our digital teams work with our legal team and other business stakeholders to ensure we comply with all relevant laws and regulation,” he says.



When airline project teams collaborate with third-party specialists for major initiatives, any lapse in oversight can create problems—even after the project closes. For instance, in the year since Southwest partnered with Amadeus IT Group to complete the reservation upgrade, glitches have caused multiple system outages that prevented customers from checking in or managing reservations on the airline's website. That's why project managers must ensure all key stakeholders stay aligned to strategic goals and the plan from start to finish.

Once a project kicks off, Mr. Tahbaz might work with a dozen or more suppliers, each of whom produces a different piece of the cabin design. All of these players need to work seamlessly together to meet project deadlines and requirements. “If there is a minor change from one supplier, it can impact the whole project,” he says. For example, if the supplier of the entertainment system is delayed, the seat manufacturer won't be able to install its piece of the project on schedule. “It's a constant game trying to get everyone moving forward at the same pace.”

“You can't rely on the perspective of your project team alone to determine what customers want.”

—John Tighe

He mitigates this risk by bringing all the suppliers together early on and getting clear commitments for delivery dates. Then he works with the team of suppliers to identify mitigation plans if things go off track. “If someone fails to meet their delivery deadline—which happens every time—we can go to plan B.” That can include bringing on additional resources, reducing scope or putting off some features for the next round of upgrades. “Whoever causes the delay is expected to cover those costs,” he says.

Whether a project involves seating, in-flight entertainment or a better booking interface on an airline's website, meeting deadlines is always a challenge. Many customer experience improvement projects are launched years in advance, which means airlines are selling tickets for the upgraded planes long before projects are complete. There's little room for error—and with the number of air travelers due to nearly double in the next two decades, airlines across the world face more pressure to roll out upgrades as fast as possible, Mr. Tighe says.

“The biggest killer of ideas in this industry is time,” he says. “Stakeholders have to trust that investing in these projects today will put them in a stronger position for the future.” PM



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