At first glance, aviation is one of those rare industries today that remains relatively untouched by the digital technology revolution.

If you want to get from one country to another quickly, then air travel is still your best option and it remains fundamentally unchanged since Dutch airline KLM first began operating 99 years ago.

However, beyond the basic mechanics of flying, air travel is being transformed in almost every other respect.

KLM’s own journey towards digital began through circumstance rather than choice: when an ash cloud grounded flights across Europe in 2010, the company quickly discovered it was able to communicate with its customers more rapidly via Facebook and Twitter than through call centres.

This revelation now informs the company’s whole strategy, according to KLM CEO Pieter Elbers, who says the company’s philosophy is that digital is a given, whether you like it or not.

“Transformation is a choice and we really need to combine these two aspects in moving forward and making sure that we adapt our company.  We pioneer like we have pioneered with other stuff in the past,” said Elbers, speaking at TCS Summit Europe 2018 in Budapest.

Embracing AI

Choosing digital transformation has led KLM to seek out the best ways of maximising its connections with customers on social media.

Working with IT specialists including TCS, the airline has developed an Artificial Intelligence-powered chatbot, called BlueBot, to help meet customer demand.

“We get some 170,000 social media interactions on a weekly basis,” said Elbers.

“They include requests like ‘what is happening with my flight’, or ‘what is the weather like in Tokyo’? We do not need an agent to type it in. What you want as a response is ‘16°C, could be some rain, I recommend you take a jersey with you’. That would be real customer interaction. We tried to make the change and use AI to help us going forward.”

Using AI in this way also frees up KLM staff to engage on more urgent and non-standard enquiries.

The personal touch

The key is to apply the latest technology to both aid greater automation, while also enabling staff to offer customers a personal service.

“It is important that we find this balance between what we are doing in terms of all the great new technological opportunities, and what we will get and continue to do in terms of personal interaction and personal service.”

For example, BlueBot is also being deployed in Google Home smart speakers to help customers with packing and in Facebook messenger to allow customers to book flights within the app.

At the same time, 19,000 tablets have been given to KLM staff and combined with cloud applications to help ensure they give customers the most up-to-date information, and a more personalised service. Elbers said examples of this could include speaking to customers before the flight to get their food order, allowing them to choose from a greater choice of meals.

Agile R&D

While some sectors such as banking may increasingly find their core product becoming a technological product, effectively turning those companies into tech firms, Elbers told the TCS Summit audience that KLM would always be an aviation company that uses technology, rather than vice versa.

As a result, the company needs to be lean and agile in the way it meets the digital demands of both its customers and its workforce.

In response, the company has created a Digital Studio function that sits alongside the business, but operates in a similar way to a digital start-up, developing new products at a much faster rate than traditional R&D at the airline, according to Elbers.

“What we have done with our digital studio is allocate an amount of money and give them the freedom to make what they think is necessary,” said Elbers.

One of the first products to come out of the Digital Studio, launched in 2016, is a Virtual Reality simulator to train mechanics, cabin crew and catering staff.

The company is also exploring technology such as augmented reality headsets for engineers, and using the BlueBot chatbot in other areas of the business, such as HR.

An agile response to delivering technology can also mean adopting a “less is more” approach to giving customers what they want, said Elbers, citing the example of KLM’s own app.

“With the help of TCS, we worked to make sure that rather than spending millions and millions in getting people to our website or our apps, we looked for an alternative,” said Elbers, adding that the app they have created will probably only be used by the majority of customers a few times a year.

The company started working with Facebook to find an alternative way of delivering boarding passes to its own app, and quickly “discovered there was a whole world out there”. It now distributes 10,000 boarding passes through Facebook and WhatsApp.

“By being aware of where customers are, we can connect with [where] revenue generation will be going,” Elbers said.

By paying attention to the journeys that its customers are making, KLM can continue to be their choice when that journey takes them to the skies.