SITA took the occasion of its annual Air Transport IT Summit in Brussels to announce an enhancement to its passenger management and distribution system Horizon that is aimed at helping SITA’s airline customers better understand passengers and in turn tailor specific offers and ancillary products to them.

At present, airlines use a number of different siloed customer-facing solutions for retailing of non-core products. Generally core booking systems often disconnected from myriad different marketing tools used to offer ancillary services.

Horizon’s new passenger ancillary sales portal wraps a fabric of connection that allows airlines to scoop up all that formerly siloed data, enabling airlines to offer relevant ancillary services consistently across any sales channel, be it mobile, online, agency or call center. The process is fairly simple: for those airlines who already use Horizon for their booking systems, Horizon already has access to customer data showing buying habits and preferences. Feeding that data back into a system to deliver ancillary products is a fairly trivial process. It also helps SITA in that it further demonstrates that value to be gained from using its suite of solutions.

“For those airlines that have adapted existing passenger systems to modern day requirements, the end result is disparate data sources and middleware solutions. So, we have designed Horizon to address this issue. Our data models support the golden principle of single source and holistic data shared across all systems and users that need it,” says SITA VP of passenger services Allison O’Neill.

As an example, passengers can view a priced seat map and purchase their preferred seat, additional bags and other ancillary services such as lounge access and meals using their mobile, tablet or PC. It lets passengers tailor their journey with the services they require, however and whenever they want. While much of this functionality was already available via Horizon, the new ancillary sales portal allows relevant ancillary services to be offered consistently across any sales channel – mobile, online, agency or call center.

At a time when margins in the airline industry are razor thin, this ability to better customize the passenger experience (#PaxEx) – and hence, ensure the highest level of conversion – is appealing to airlines. Moreover, for those 90 or so airlines that already use Horizon for their reservation system, this new functionality adds much value. Passengers can be offered appropriate services based on their individual preferences and loyalty program entitlements.

According to recent surveys, 82 percent of airlines are investing in solutions to improve personalization. O’Neill likens the value that Horizon brings to the experience that consumers have when buying online with a major retailer. Rob Schorn from SITA’s retailing arm suggests that clothing retailer Gap was SITA’s best-practice example for how retailing should be done.

But while this is good news, it brings into stark relief the reality that airlines solutions lag massively behind other retailing sectors. If we look at GAP, SITA’s own exemplar of online retail, the reality is that GAP scoops up far more than simply its own internal data when offering products to customers. Modern retailers take into account a wealth of other data points: an individual’s social media activity, sentiment analysis and cohort analysis for example. That airlines have no way of including the interactions their own customers have with them on social media into their solutions is jarring.

I put this question to O’Neill and Schorn separately and both of them reflected on the maturity level of airlines generally. Said O’Neill: “The airline industry is on a maturity curve, including more external data into Horizon requires two things: firstly airlines to be further along on the maturity curve and secondly a resolution of the complexity that exists in the industry.”

O’Neill also contrasted the retail industry with the airline industry. Her angle was that retail works in a relatively simple self-contained manner whereas airlines work in a complex ecosystem and have much more to navigate.

But retail is highly complex as well – it has supply chains, multiple retail systems, wholesale/retail and time criticality to balance. It sees technology as a way of resolving much of this complexity.

While some believe complexity is a barrier to better offerings in aviation, this perspective both undervalues what technology can do, as well as under-estimating the size of the problems that exist. Horizon is certainly a step in the right direction, but it is very much an initial step and only really recognizes the customer at the 1st degree.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.