The future of aviation: automation, ancillaries and customer delight

Pamela Whitby catches up with aviation innovator Duffel which is fully funded and focused on radical simplification

The storm around flight refunds and exchanges during the coronavirus pandemic is leading airlines to redouble their automation efforts in more ways than one. Looking to be at the forefront of this innovation when the industry begins to recover is aviation technology firm Duffel, which by the end of 2019 had raised $51-million and signed partnership agreements with 18 carriers including British Airways, Lufthansa Group, Cathay Pacific and American Airlines.  

CEO Steve Domin, who sounds rather more sombre than when he spoke to EyeforTravel in October last year, says: “The last few months have been operationally challenging for everybody and we haven’t been spared. But we are well capitalised and are really focused now on building out the product and improving its features.”

Over the past six months, there have been many developments for Duffel both on the commercial and product side. While some of the innovation was already par for the course prior to Covid-19, the avalanche in demand for vouchers and refunds has dramatically accelerated the move to full automation. According to Domin, some airlines are innovating faster than others but “there is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to the servicing part”.

New connections and opportunities  

The recent appointment of Norberto Lopes as chief technology officer is part of Duffel’s strategy to do things differently, and more efficiently in aviation. Domin and Lopes worked together at start-up GoCardless, which helped to create the digital ‘pipes’ needed to connect the fragmented payment sector – a bit like what Duffel is now trying to do with aviation. As Domin explains, one of the firm’s internal mantras is “facilitating the connection between different players of the industry”.

What I think is probably necessary is a different approach, a more radical simplification

As an outsider, Lopes brings fresh eyes to an industry that has become victim of its own technological success. “What I think is probably necessary is a different approach, a more radical simplification,” he says. Perhaps by asking the question: “How would we do this if we did not have all of this history [legacy systems] bringing us down?”

Among the opportunities that Duffel sees are to:

  • Tackle unnecessary complexity. In other words, streamlining processes and interfaces to improve the experience for the developers building tools for travel agents and the end customer. Today this is still difficult, says Lopes, who believes it should not have to take a year to build an application for a mobile phone! 
  • Connect the dots. Another challenge is fragmentation. For example, one firm may deliver a great pricing engine and another excellence in search. The idea is to bring those two together in a way that enables developers to build a great end customer application.
  • Deliver self-service. Duffel already has an API for searching and booking, cancellations and refunds but is looking to tackle other areas like seat selection and exchanges in a highly user friendly way. “If we want to make that rich offering a reality for consumers, then we need to give the tools to developers that enable that,” Domin says.
  • Drive ancillary revenue and automation. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, airlines and travel agents were looking for innovation in the ancillary services, and today that is more important than ever. Say Domin: “Anything that drives demand is good, and also because we are in a cash-constrained environment, anything that helps improve margin is good and ancillaries will play a big role in that.” Automation will be also “super-important”. In fact, anything that helps to reduce the burden of support of customers, while improving the experience.”

Lopes, who also brings his experience in the computing gaming industry to the table, says that what he learnt there was that it is possible to “put quality at the front, keep things simple and delight customers”. He hopes to bring some of that innovation to travel industry too because he is “pretty sure people don’t like to spend hours searching for a perfect flight.”

With demand crippled to levels not seen since 2006, and schedules drastically reduced, Domin understands that the roadmap for recovery is highly unpredictable and dependent on numerous external factors. So in the short term, the fledgling firm with ambitious goals is focusing all its energy on building products that will help airlines and agents to cut costs and delight customers when the skies begin to brighten.

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