Airline alliances have largely covered the globe when it comes to destinations served. But by their own admissions, they still have work to do when it comes to facilitating frictionless passenger journeys, especially on multiairline itineraries. Airlines editor Robert Silk caught up with SkyTeam CEO Kristin Colvile at the IATA general meeting in Seoul to talk about the digital network it is building and how that network will improve passenger experiences.
Q: Tell me about what you call the "digital spine."
A: Think of it as a giant translator. Between all of our 19 members, it doesn't matter what messaging language you use. We'll translate it all so we can connect airlines seamlessly and create this digital network.
Q: When did you begin this project?
A: We started five years ago. We are focusing on five customer experiences. One is service recovery. All 19 of our members can now rebook customers on any of the SkyTeam airlines. We are the only alliance that has that ability. The second pain point is loyalty programs. We've almost created this digital network so you can seamlessly earn miles, burn miles, apply for retroactive credit; all of that flowing through the digital spine.
Q: You said almost. Are some of your airlines not yet up to speed with this?
A: No. All of them.
Q: How does it work?
A: You want to use the app that you're most used to using, that's your preferred digital experience. It doesn't matter who the operator airline is. You can choose the seats. You can pay for baggage all the way through. You can check in all the way through. If you want more legroom, you can pay for it.
One we are focusing on now is [the third pain point of] seat assignments. That's rolled out with Aeromexico and Delta. We are looking to have at least half of the airlines interconnected with one another by the end of 2020.
Q: What is pain point number four?
A: Bag tracking. I want to know where my bags are. If I have a certain experience on my Delta app, for instance, that I know where my bag is at any point, I want that same experience regardless of who I fly. So we're creating this database to be able to track customers' bags. By the third quarter we'll have four airlines in that database. We'll have all our carriers in by the end of 2020.
Q: And the fifth pain point?
A: Seamless check-in. We'll have a pilot by the end of this year to seamlessly check in between airlines. What this means is -- to go back to the Delta example -- if you're flying a Delta codeshare but your operating carrier is Korean Airlines, it doesn't matter. You can still check in on your Delta app. Nowadays if you check in and there are multiple airlines on your journey ... you probably have to go to a counter to check in.
Q: At present, when customers experience a problem during a codeshare flight or itinerary, the airline they booked on can have difficulty addressing the situation if it wasn't the operating carrier. Will the digital spine address this problem?
A: We will ultimately get to that seamless servicing. But it's a continual journey. These are just the basics we are addressing right now. More pain points will come up as airlines innovate. And we just have to have the foundational capabilities to do that, which we have with the digital spine.
Q: Why is this so complicated?
A: Because it is industry leading. You are creating connections between completely disparate legacy systems.