While Virgin Atlantic IT director David Bulman acknowledges that technology is a crucial way forward in shaping the fortunes of the global airline industry, he believes that customer service depends on creativity, rather than technology for technology's sake.
"We're in a world right now where the price of fuel is killing us all," Bulman told delegates at SITA's 2012 Air Transport IT summit in Brussels. "We have to look at our processes, look at our people, and change the way we work."
Bulman explained how Virgin is "doing some of the same things that other airlines are doing", including replacing 40kg flight computers with tablets, and supplying air crew with portable devices so "they know where everyone's sitting and what they want".
However, though Bulman agreed with earlier speaker Alex Cruz, CEO of Spanish airline Vueling, that "the kiosk is dead, and check-in is dead", he was adamant that this "doesn't mean that everything becomes automated".
"I was very interested to hear that old phrase come up this morning, and people saying 'Who owns the customer?' You don't own the customer, the customer owns you," he said.
Bulman explained how Virgin, which plans to invest more money in IT every year, is "trying to map out the whole customer experience, trying to figure out how the whole process works for them. [We are] talking to a lot of customers, and trying to figure out a different way of doing IT."
Bulmer added that the current focus on self-service is another bone of contention for him.
"We like the fact it lets [customers] get to the plane quicker, but let's not forget that that's something we've done a lot of research about over the years. But there's a large proportion of customers who – guess what? – hate flying. They hate flying. They hate you. They do it just to get a result."
The IT solution, said Bulman, is to focus on customers who "want their hands held", and to apply IT to enable staff to "get out in front of the customer, and find out information about them," using technology in particular to cross-sell and upsell airline travel upgrades.
"If you want to get them into the lounge, you have to show them what the lounge looks like, or to upsell to first class, show them what the seats look like," he said.
Instead of having staff "sit behind an intimidating desk", Bulman said, the pre-flight process should be "a conversation rather than a process, and a mobile device is a clear way to do that".