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Jetblue tech boss: our future is digital

Eash Sundaram at Jetblue

Eash Sundaram, executive vice-president and CIO of US carrier Jetblue, told delegates at London’s Aviation Festival that partnerships with Silicon Valley tech companies are a core part of the airline’s strategy.

The airline recently trialled ‘selfie boarding passes’ at Boston Logan airport. While there were a range of concerns around privacy to be worked through, said Sundaram, “the overall response in terms of customer satisfaction was outstanding.” He said the cloud-based system worked very fast, but there is a way to go before seeing dramatic time savings. “It’s still in the early stages – you still have to stand in front of a camera. But the next step is you have a selfie on your phone, and it’s validated via NFC [near field communications] and you just go through – so there’s no barriers between you and the gates.”  

The airline formed Silicon Valley-based Jetblue Technology Ventures in 2016, a venture capital subsidiary aimed at incubating and supporting travel tech start-ups. Projects include machine-learning airfare predictor Flyr, and a partnership with Boeing investing in Zunum Aero, which is developing hybrid-electric aircraft.

Sundaram said the airline’s inspiration for digital strategy comes from platforms like of Amazon, also citing online clothing retailer Zappos and medical booking platform Zocdoc. “The key thing we learned from Amazon is simplicity – taking something complex and making it simple,” he said. “Personalisation means the day of travel can be much more seamless, and so should the shopping experience. It shouldn’t take 20 steps to buy.” Last year Jetblue launched a partnership with Amazon, which offered the airline’s Trueblue loyalty scheme members points with every purchase on Amazon. 

He said that wifi is an “integral part of our customer experience,” adding: “We’ve had wifi in Jetblue terminals for years – you get it at home and in a hotel, why should an aircraft be different?”

Asked about the growth of low-cost carriers (LCCs) in the long-haul market, Sundaram said: “It’s no secret that we’re looking at our fleet strategies, at A321LRs and Neos. It’s ongoing – once we know we can support [a long-haul network] you’ll know about it.”

He added that Jetblue was founded as an LCC but is now a hybrid, with lie-flat ‘suites’ onboard its A321 aircraft.

Emirates president Tim Clark, also speaking at the event, said “putting the digital world at the centre of your business” was essential for airlines now – not only to compete with other airlines, but to avoid being “subsumed” by “predatory activity” from intermediaries intent on commoditising content and taking airlines’ margins.

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The only thing forgotten here is that humans do like to talk and feel welcomed

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