One of the largest airlines in the world, Delta Air Lines is also one of the busiest – transporting hundreds of thousands of passengers every day. Here, Delta’s Vice President, Los Angeles & Sales – West, Ranjan Goswami, explains why the carrier remains at the forefront of innovation and outlines some exciting plans for the years to come.
The airline industry is one of the most ever-changing in the world. How does Delta Air Lines ensure it is responsive to the latest developments and trends?
Change has been the one constant throughout Delta’s 90-year history. To remain relevant, we have to keep innovating and Delta has a strong track record in this area. For example, a few decades ago we were the first airline to offer a live television broadcast. Today, we offer an enormous range of initiatives, whether its mobile bag check-in, tracking services with our app or in-flight Wi-Fi, just to name a few. The dynamism and competitiveness of the industry requires you keep innovation and new ideas front-of-mind at all times.
Delta has a partnership with Georgia Tech to explore solutions for employee and customer challenges. How does this arrangement work?
This partnership is centred on a facility in downtown Atlanta called The Hangar. There are Delta and Georgia Tech people there who examine a range of different problems we need to solve. Together, we’re trying to find applied technology to help resolve those issues and we’ve had some great outcomes. For example, we created a device called The Nomad to address the impact of big weather events at our major airport hubs. Often, when an incident occurs, we’ll have a long line of people waiting to get re-booked and it’s important we get them out of these lines and into our gate holding areas as quick as possible, so they can sit, and we can service them. The Nomad device is in the palm of our agents’ hands and allows them to engage with customers and track any digital transaction. It’s a really great example of how you can take technology that is available today – in this case hand-held devices and cloud computing – and create an interface that agents can use to troubleshoot and do re-bookings and other things people need in a rapidly evolving situation. Some other examples of work coming out of The Hangar include bots to pre-select meals, a “flight family” communication system that allows teams working a flight to more easily communicate digitally, and cargo pallet tracking.
How important is it to undertake partnerships with other companies and how does Delta decide on which opportunities to pursue?
We know we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. At Delta, we are good at travel and we are good at connecting our customers across our hubs. However, there are so many partners who do other things well. For example, we’ve been working with DishTV, a leader in the space of satellite TV. They had a great product and we were able to integrate it in our in-flight entertainment system and make it work. We were the first airline to really launch in-flight Wi-Fi on a massive scale about five years ago. We work with Gogo who are pioneers with that technology and one of our recent successes with them is launching free messaging. No matter what platform passengers use, our 1,000 aircrafts enable customers to text for free to friends and family on the ground. It’s about understanding who the leaders in their fields are. We make sure we’re paying attention to which potential partners have the same sense of innovation and wanting to improve as we do.
There has been a lot of discussion about how new biometric technology is transforming the travel industry. What is Delta doing in this space?
We have invested in a company called CLEAR, which is the largest biometric database in the United States. The technology allows us to expedite passengers through security screening with dedicated lanes where they are validated by fingerprint or eye scans. We’re utilising CLEAR’s incredible technology and piloting it at certain locations to see how it can work. Delta is so big now. We carry almost 600,000 passengers a day on approximately 5,500 flights a day, which is more people than any other airline in the world. So, examining technology that can help us improve the airport experience for our large numbers of passengers is essential for us. Importantly, Delta is committed to piloting this type of technology, as well as any other innovations that we consider. This allows us to test the concept out in a limited fashion and understand the pros and cons. Then we can iterate it and tweak it a couple more times before rolling it out more broadly.
What is the major expectation corporate travellers have today?
Above all else, we are a reliable product. We are selling customers a schedule and making a promise that we will stick to that schedule and get people and their things between two points as advertised. Operational reliability is paramount, and we are now operating at a reliability level we haven’t seen in the history of the aviation industry. Delta regularly tops several important reliability categories. We’ve had the least number of cancelled flights, mishandled bags and consumer complaints for five years running. Last year, Flight Global named us the most on-time airline in the world. We had 242 days of no mainline cancellations in the 2017 calendar year. Similarly, we had 324 days last year without a maintenance-driven cancellation. Customers expect reliability because they have things to do. They’re not flying us for the sake of it; they’re flying to get on with their lives.
How important is the digital experience for airline passengers?
These days it is critical – and equally as important as the physical experience of flying. People rightly demand you have a website that is intuitive and easy to use, as well as being mobile compatible. You need to provide all the information they need at the right time and in the right place. About 70 per cent of all our digital interactions are now via mobile device and almost half of our digital shopping transactions are through mobile. There is so much passengers can do while on the go with mobile. They receive real-time updates where their bag is, they can change seats or upgrade. Digital mobility is as important as the reliability promise. We also know how important the multi-screen environment is for busy people and we don’t want you to sacrifice that when you fly with Delta. We make screens available, as well as content streaming, free messages and Wi-Fi connectivity. We want people to feel as connected as they are on the ground.
What is a key change you see happening to the airline industry over the next few years?
We are going to see a proliferation of choice for customers. This is already well underway and will only grow in years to come.There used to not be so many differentiated products available. Delta has led the way in this area, introducing branded products that people can understand before deciding what suits their needs. We have our Delta One product, where we’ve introduced Suites, which includes a flat bed and direct aisle access with a sliding door. This also incorporates amenity kits, noise cancelling headphones, and great food and beverage offerings. There’s Delta Premium Select, our premium economy offering with more legroom, better seats and screens. There’s our Main Cabin, which has our complimentary food and drink options, and we now have Basic Economy for budget conscious travellers that just want their seat, and don’t care so much about where they sit or the need for flexibility in their travel plans. We want to cater to all different traveller types, while underpinning these different options with our Delta reliability, which everyone gets to enjoy. Going forward, this customer choice is going to be fundamental to airline success.
There is a lot of attention on a passenger’s experience in the air. How important is their travel experience on the ground?
It’s just as important. Our role is tomanufacture connectivity for customers to go from any point on Earth to any other point. It is not just about flying. And for Delta, that is why we collaborate with a range of partners to ensure we can help people get from, say, Christmas Island to Mobile, Alabama, with as few stops as possible and in a convenient way as possible. To do that you have to design airports with connectivity and ease of navigation. Delta has been a real leader in this area. In Atlanta, we have parallel concourses connected by a train, while in Detroit we have some 120 gates under one roof, all with jet-bridge boarding. We are committed to continuously updating our airport infrastructure. We’re spending US$12 billion in airport modernisation programs, either directly or because we are large tenants at our key hub airports, including almost $2B at LAX, our gateway from Australia to North America together with joint venture partner, Virgin Australia. All this investment means better connections, and less wait times to get through airports. While we want to make the airports appealing, we also want people to spend as little time there as possible. They need to get on with their journey, so that seamlessness is always front of mind.
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About Ranjan Goswami
Based in L.A., Ranjan oversees commercial strategy and customer experience for Delta’s largest West Region hub at LAX, including the airline’s growth to nearly 180 daily flights to 70 destinations; its community, civic and public engagement; and its $1.9 billion plan for the Delta Sky Way at LAX, which will modernise and upgrade Terminals 2 and 3 and connect them to the Tom Bradley International Terminal in the next five years. He also oversees Delta’s commercial relationship with Virgin Australia.