iPads take flight with British Airways

November 1, 2011

British Airways' goal was to explore using the iPad as an onboard customer service tool and more, and initial feedback has been positive, according to the airline’s customer programs team in charge of the project.

Detailed customer information helps cabin service directors refine and personalize their interaction and communications with travelers. While crew members normally have to sift through reams of printed text, the iPad makes more detailed information easily searchable and accessible.

The project is the airline’s third attempt to digitize this process. But where similar trials with laptops and rugged-ized devices failed, the iPad is hitting “a real sweet spot”, says BA technical architect Justin Davis. “Whatever we tried in the past, it never really stuck. This seems to be sticking.”

Launched at the end of June, following three months of development, this trial formed part of a longer-term strategy to increase engagement between customers and cabin crew during a flight. “It’s about providing the tools to make their life easier onboard,” says Pippa Grech, project manager of BA’s customer programs team. “But it’s also about providing up-to-date information on travelers, so that our crew can provide better customer service.”

Initial deployment = 100

Around one hundred iPad 2s were deployed to senior cabin crew members and flight officers, giving them access to pre-loaded information such as customers’ company details, BA membership club status, cabin preferences, or past feedback and/or complaints. The crew retrieves the information via the Enhanced Service Platform (ESP), a proprietary platform developed in-house that houses BA’s enterprise app store, which as of now is comprised of three apps for three tasks—customer intelligence information, electronic forms, and document management.

The crew can also access the Oneworld alliance’s flight schedules and log incidents and feedback electronically. According to Davis, “the time it takes us to get that feedback back into our business intelligence system has gone from three weeks to three days, so that’s powerful”.

The trial went extremely smoothly, with the IT team and dedicated usability experts refining the apps in response to staff feedback, says Grech. The main challenge was getting the devices to the globally dispersed staff in the first place.

Choosing the right tablet device was also easy, despite the number of manufacturers and operating systems currently in the fray. “iOS is a very productive and engaging platform to work on,” says Davis. “Also, it has better security infrastructure in terms of data encryption. We have valuable data about customers, and what happens to that data is very important to us. To this end, the data on the BA apps is encrypted and, more importantly, deletes itself from the app when no longer required.”

The tipping point

The trial’s results are still being evaluated, but it’s likely that the project will be extended, according to Grech. With around 3,000 senior cabin crew employed by the airline, the next deployment could be sizable. “It could be the tipping point for our cabin crew,” says Davis.

But BA’s tablet thinking goes further still. On its London City to New York JFK flights, BA is combining the trial with the route’s onboard connectivity, and the company is exploring iPad functionality in other areas of the business, such as engineering. In addition, the iPad trial gives staff access to email and calendaring on the go, which fits with BA’s wider goal of improving engagement and communication with its staff.

In fact, Davis believes that iPads will increasingly be used company-wide to facilitate collaboration, with further apps currently in development for the ESP. “We fully anticipate that tablets aren’t going away,” he predicts. “They will increasingly be a major part of our IT estate.”

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