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CIO podcast: Simon Lamkin, CIO Brussels Airlines

“I think it is really important that the customer can take responsibility,” says Simon Lamkin, CIO of Brussels Airlines. Lamkin, speaking at a Horizon CIO Podcast roundtable debate, revealed to peers how digital transformation in the airline sector is reshaping the customer experience, but also the business processes of airlines and airports.  

Lamkin has been CIO of Brussels Airlines since April 2016. The Englishman joined the airline headquartered in the Belgian capital following a 12 year career with the pioneering low cost airline easyJet.  You can hear Lamkin discuss the major disruption easyJet had on the airlines sector with fellow former easyJet CIOs Mike Sturrock, Andy Caddy and Colin Rees on this Horizon CIO Podcast.

Brussels Airlines is a full service airline operating different fare classes, long and short haul; and freight. Its aircraft fly to 120 destinations and was previously known as Sabena.  German airline Lufthansa took a 45% stake in Brussels Airlines in 2009 and last year purchased the remaining share.

Lamkin says the airline industry operates in two distinct environments; increasingly consumers are used to and demand a digital experience, but as a safety conscious and highly regulated market, the airline industry is still using many legacy technologies.  As Lamkin and his peers describe in the easyJet Horizon CIO podcast, full service airlines with a long heritage, such as Brussels Airlines, are carrying a great deal of legacy technology and processes.

In aviation we are a bit schizophrenic, as we have these web platforms that are driving business and on the other hand, we are a regulated travel company where we have to follow all sorts of rules,” Lamkin says.

“So it is very much we have to look at two sides. Technology is at the dawn of the fourth  industrial revolution and the Internet of Things, the aviation industry, despite being glamorous is still grappling with the third industrial revolution of computers,” the CIO says candidly.

“Too many organisations focus their thinking on the consumer end, it is a way for the workforce to come together, this is the thing that really exciting me. What is really exciting is how the consumer has changed our way of thinking, especially in aviation. If we go back 10-15 years we all went through the airport the way the airline told us to, now we all have smartphones in our pockets and we have access to Google maps, flight stats and maps of the airports so we can navigate and that consumerisation has taken some of the control away from the airport,” the airlines veteran says.

Lamkin points out that for years the air travel sector has been beset with a difference of opinion over the relationship with the consumer. He says at air industry conferences airlines and airport operates will claim they own the customer journey.

“They are both rubbish,” he says of the argument. “The customer owns the customer journey. I am traveling because I know why I am going and don’t you as an airline tell me what I have to do.” Another former easyJet CIO, Trevor Didcock told this scribe of how Michael Ibbitson, who was CIO of Gatwick Airport from 2012 to 2016 was a breath of fresh air for his collaborative approach to working with airlines.

“As a frequent flyer I get up at 4am on a Monday morning to get my 6.20 flight and I just need to get through the airport as fast as I can to maximise my sleeping time,” Lamkin says of his own personal regular flight needs, and how airlines and airports really need to understand each and every consumer and their unique demands.  

“I am a big fan of having many different ways to access the data, it would be arrogant of me to say ‘use my App’.  That only works if I can also check on Google and the airport’s App and they all say that your flight is going to leave at 6.55 because they all have access to that same information.

“All too often today you see two or three different variants. For you as a consumer it is already a stressful experience, but the stress increases if you don’t know if you have 10 minutes or 20 minutes for your flight,” Lamkin says. As a result Lamkin and Brussels Airlines are working on the hallowed single version of the truth.

“How can we aggregate the data and use it to create a seamless experience? That is the big challenge for any transport operator,” Lamkin says. The CIO says the challenge is expanded by the proliferation of Apps and different ways the consumer wants to travel through the airport, for example those that use a printed boarding pass and those using their smartphone and now the entrance of biometric technology.

“If we fly a long haul A330 you are looking at 230 on board, do we treat them all exactly the same? Do we segment them as a business passenger and an economy passenger or can we be a bit more specific and know that the business traveller is a frequent flyer that flies at least six times a year and has loyalty points? We are starting to drive that more and digital can make that happen. It is driving massive change in our industry,” Lamkin says.

“As an airline we try and differentiate ourselves and have different products and pricings to accommodate the changes that these low cost carriers that are disrupting our business have caused,” he says referring to how his previous career is impacting his current role. Lamkin says one of the challenges is fare classes: “It is a constant source of frustration to ticketing teams as we don’t have enough fare classes to create the innovation that they want. And the reason being is that we are all reliant on reservation and global distribution systems that all have one alpha character to differentiate the different classifications. So there are very few airlines that have an ability to have anything other than fare classes that match the 26 letters of the alphabet. It is your classic Y2K problem.”

Not only are digital methods changing how the consumer is treated on the aircraft, but also in the airport.

“When you start looking at an airport it is a massive ecosystem of players and different partners that have to come together, so we have baggage handlers, fuel suppliers, tug drivers, check in and boarding agents, security and immigration control. It becomes really complex as you are reliant on third party IT providers,” Lamkin says of the complexity that has to be digitised.

Culture change

All forms of transportation are being disrupted by digitisation and this is impacting internal processes and the consumer.  Lamkin references rail ticketing CTO Mark Holt from Trainline, who Lamkin says told CIO peers that organisations “need cultural change to be ahead of any technological change”.

“Holt then went on to say, by going through the transformation you go through another wave of cultural transformation as people really adopt the change. That really struck a note with me as when you go through that cultural change you enable your people to go and do so much more and come up with new ideas and new ways of working,” Lamkin says.  Holt spoke to the Horizon CIO Podcasts first CIO Summit and you can hear his presentation on this podcast.

Successful take offs

Since joining Brussels Airlines Lamkin has achieved a number of successful technology takeoffs that are enabling the airline to pilot a new course.  The airline has removed all paper from the flight deck of its aircraft with the introduction of the Electronic Flight Bag.

“This computer has all the charts, all the safety manuals, flight plan and the characteristics of the flight, the weights of the aircraft, the fuel the correct speed for takeoff and we have really pushed the boundary with that. That is a game changer, as we can now think about different ways of working.  

“So the crew don’t necessarily have to come to a crew room and report and talk about what is going on, as we can digitise that process. So we can think about savings in terms of crew space, reporting and we can think about different ways of running our operations and even change crew contracts. One of the leaders of this is one of our pilots. The digital transformation has really changed the culture of the organisation,” Lamkin says.

Lamkin believes the Electronic Flight Bag is an example of how mobility can improve the organisation through increased usability, reduced complexity and a reduction in business cost.

“If you have a mobile device and you can stand in front of someone and help them, and if they drop something you can bend over and pick it up, it is a very different experience and you can quickly see if someone has bought two or three bags,” Lamkin says of experiments with mobile device check in replacing desks.  

“One of the exciting things about creating change in this space is you find the opportunity to find something different that you had not anticipated. Last summer in Belgium they have a monstrous dance festival called Tomorrowland.  You have this large contingent of festival goers, they are all going to be travelling with bags and you are going to create an influx of bags at the same time, so we created a bag drop at the festival, a couple of trucks, the same mobile technology and it takes the bags off the travellers. They were happy as they didn’t have to lug their bags to the airport, we were happy as we were taking a blockage out of the supply chain and they could get through the airport. It was a simple disruptive process that we could do for the airport and it was a simple change that took two or three weeks to create the change,” Lamkin reveals.

Brussels Airlines operates a large number of routes into African states. As a result the CIO and his team have had to work on ways to improve the flight turn around and therefore business processes in environments that are not always technology friendly.

“We have spent a lot of time looking at the problems of turning an aircraft around in Senegal or Freetown in Rwanda and they all have their own different problems. In Europe we take for granted the access to energy and the internet. We now expect it in our seat in an aircraft. These things are not always available 24/7 in some of our stations and I witnessed it myself in Senegal and Gambia,” Lamkin says of environment completely different to the holiday hotspots easyJet typically flies to.

“The power does goes off, during the check-in it went off five or six times during and we all know that if the power goes off you have to wait for the system to reboot and you can’t do that in the middle of a check-in process. So I have talked for many years about having an airport in a box and we have created one. A packing case with a laptop, USB peripherals to keep the power down, a UPS and a 4G router to connect it and irrespective of what is going on with the local telco and the power we have removed risk. It has really been a massive game changer in those countries.”



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