ANALYSIS: Using data to improve the onboard experience

Aviation

The use of data analytics is enabling airlines to improve and personalise the in-flight experience for passengers, from catering to retail products, reports Kerry Reals ahead of the World Travel Catering & Onboard Services Expo, a co-located partner event to AIX 2019

Next time you tweet a picture of the avocado on toast you had for breakfast, or comment on a photograph of someone’s dinner on Instagram, you could be helping to shape the catering options on the next flight you take.

The use of data analytics to enable airlines to make more educated guesses about which products will or won’t sell on board is becoming big business. By analysing and providing detailed information on what people like or dislike or what’s trending and what isn’t in a particular region, software companies say they are helping airlines to increase their ancillary revenues and reduce waste.

One such company, UK-based Black Swan, announced last April a partnership with Gategroup and Panasonic Avionics, aimed at “redefining aviation retail” through the use of data analytics and advanced demand forecasting.

Fast forward one year and the first live platform has entered service with an undisclosed carrier. It is being rolled out across all of Gategroup’s airline customers over the next three years.

“We recently delivered eCrew to one of our existing strategic partners, since they have some of the largest and most complex operations. With a robust testing programme in place, we were able to deliver a seamless launch,” says Marian Fagbemiro, global vice-president retail at Gategroup. “We currently have a strong pipeline of airline partners who are set to transition to this platform over the next few months.”

Using data provided by Black Swan, Gategroup can more accurately predict trends and shape its retail offer accordingly.

“We’ve been working hard on the data analytics front to create dishes that people are going to want, rather than trying to guess what they want,” says Black Swan chief executive Steve King. “We’re listening to millions of social conversations to see what kind of ingredients are trending in each individual country.”

KEY INGREDIENTS

These online conversations include discussions on cookery blogs, healthy eating forums and even “people talking about what they had for lunch” on Twitter, says King. This data is then “combined in a big bucket” and provided to Gategroup as “one metric” to support inventory decisions for in-flight catering and retail.

“Black Swan optimises data in a number of ways using Trendscope – its unique trends platform that uses data science to help us accurately identify, rank and predict trends,” explains Fagbemiro. “It is effectively a social listening tool which allows us to get to the heart of the consumer to know what they are saying, thinking and feeling.”

With this information, Gategroup is able to work out, for instance, “what the latest snack food trends are, the upcoming sandwich fillings or what the most popular soft-drink flavour variants are going to be over the next 12 months”, says Fagbemiro. “From there, we can craft and build product ranges based on this information.”

Gategroup has used the insights gained through its relationship with Black Swan to help “revolutionise” onboard electronic point of sale (EPOS) transactions. The EPOS “tool of the future” should enable airline crews to “intuitively engage with passengers on board” in order to conduct sales”, says Fagbemiro. It also needs to link back to a passenger portal, “allowing the passenger to choose what they buy, how they buy it and when – whether they use a seatback device or their own smart device”.

Gategroup is not the only airline catering giant to have realised the potential of data analytics. Since completing its acquisition of Irish technology provider and in-flight retail specialist Retail inMotion in early 2016, LSG Group says it has “developed an industry-leading proprietary digital retail platform that can help airlines optimise every part of the onboard retail process”.

Retail inMotion chief information officer Cian O’Cuinneagain sees the use of data as being “more and more important in aviation”.

That, he says, is why “we’ve made it a strong goal for Retail inMotion to build software that provides insightful information to our customers at every step of the onboard retail process, whether that’s in the back office, in the warehouse, on the plane or at their headquarters”.

He notes: “In the near term, we can better personalise the onboard experience of passengers by making sure the airlines are providing the products that they want to buy on board, and [there are] enough of those products on every flight.”

Retail inMotion’s software uses past operational and sales data combined with demographic analysis to help select onboard retail products that are “most likely to appeal to particular passenger segments”, says O’Cuinneagain. “At the moment, our team is transforming how we incorporate various data sources in nonlinear machine learning models to improve further the prediction of sales on board.”

King says the use of artificial intelligence can help broaden the “limited menus” often presented to airline passengers – chicken, beef or pasta, anyone? Instead of offering a limited selection of dishes, technology can help airlines to “cater for as many people as they can”.

According to Lufthansa Industry Solutions, dietary requirements are becoming increasingly varied and specialised, and in-flight dining is no exception. Data analytics, it says, can make it easier for airline caterers to meet these different needs.

“Customer wishes are becoming more diverse, which means an ever-increasing number of dishes for caterers to provide. This makes it more and more difficult for system caterers such as airline caterers and franchise companies to optimally stock their supplies. Predictive analytics provide one remedy,” says the German consultancy.

“Data analyses can be used to work out patterns and contexts for different material requirements and make reliable predictions about upcoming requirements. This allows airline caterers to minimise not just waste, but also high prices for replacement stocks.”

NEED FOR SPEED

Digitalisation also makes it faster and more efficient for airlines to transmit information about required catering changes from aircraft to staff on the ground.

“Recipes and stock lists are still frequently being changed centrally and manually in airline catering – despite production having to cope with a continuously growing number of special demands. This means that employees only find out about these changes later, which slows down production,” says Lufthansa Industry Solutions. “By digitalising processes, caterers can reduce the manual effort required to adjust production data, thereby accelerating production.”

In-flight connectivity is making it much easier for data on products that have sold well, as well as items that have proven less popular, to be transmitted from aircraft to the ground, according to King.

“The big disadvantage in our industry was that we couldn’t get our hands on the data. Trying to offload data from a plane was difficult and reliant on what was left over,” he says. That data can now be offloaded in real time, and this is “powering change”.

Personalisation is a key element when it comes to improving the in-flight passenger experience, and data analytics will drive its development going forward, argue proponents.

“It is clear that the future use of data to personalise the customer experience is enormous for commerce, both on the ground and in the air,” says O’Cuinneagain. “While the aviation industry may have a further distance to go in this regard, we think there are some short-term wins that are easily achievable – specifically through the use of our onboard retail software.”

By using data collected and generated by Retail inMotion’s Vector platform, O’Cuinneagain claims airline customers can “save money, reduce waste, simplify their supply chain processes and make sure they have the items on board that their passengers want to buy”.