On the 11th episode of Enterprise Software Innovators, Mel Crocker, Chief Information Officer at Air Canada, joins the show to discuss how technology deployment enhances the customer experience and his insights on AI, data, and the future of air travel. In his nearly five years at Air Canada, Mel has been at the forefront of several high-impact digital transformation initiatives at the company. As one of the most dynamic industries in the world, the safe and reliable coordination of planes, passengers, and luggage is a complex patchwork of people, processes, and technology. Mel walks our listeners through how Canada’s largest airline utilizes both simple and highly complex technology to make the company more customer-centric. He also offers an exciting glimpse into how customers will experience air travel in the future.
While the technology enabling air travel itself is complex and impressive, the industry as a whole is still enmeshed in certain legacy systems that recent digital transformation efforts are helping optimize, especially from a logistics perspective. From setting up cameras at gates to monitor deplaning and refueling processes to using iPads to alert staff of broken seats or inflight entertainment systems, specific implementations of simple technology are having an outsized impact on customer experience: “We've got an iPad that carries the right application on it, such that on detection, which can be done by the flight crew during a flight, somebody will detect an issue that needs to be fixed. What we're able to do is ticket, get the information down to the ground team and if things are working really well, preposition the replacement part at the gate, such that during the turn we can make that change so that the next passenger who sits in that particular seat doesn't experience the same negative thing. That's the thing we're trying to get really fast, take advantage of simple technologies that are well known by everybody and make that happen.” Using technology to ensure planes are restocked, repaired, and refueled in a timely manner has a massive impact since one delay can often cause a domino effect, resulting in frustration and a less-than-stellar passenger experience.
As it relates to next-generation technology, AI is showing great potential at Air Canada to help optimize everything from long-haul flights to parts maintenance. Endless hours of simulation has given Air Canada immense amounts of precious data on flight location, numbers of passengers, aircraft availability, and more. The result? Long-haul flights (from Canada to India, for example) are a more pleasant experience: “A lot of simulation goes into ensuring that the flight lands at the right time, we get the right gate in the right locations in Delhi and it creates an experience that's useful for people. They get off a plane, at a time of day that’s not ruining their lives since they can sleep for at least part of the journey. When we do that simulation and we run that AI right, [a better passenger experience] happens.”
Parts maintenance is another area where Air Canada is deploying AI to improve existing processes. Rightfully so, aircraft parts and all repair procedures have highly exacting standards. Enabling repair crews with the right equipment at the right time is mission-critical to safety and a maintenance cadence that doesn’t disrupt travel plans for thousands of customers. Mel sums it up: “Picture how are you going to track all of your inventory, watch what happens throughout a year, and then preposition the parts where they're probably most needed as time goes on, such that if you do have to cancel an aircraft, you can either fix it rapidly or if you have to delay a flight, you can fix it rapidly, or at the very least, you've got another aircraft available. When you're running a complex network, you don't have planes all over the place; that becomes almost unsustainable. You've got to be incredibly thoughtful about maintenance and that's where we throw a lot of AI at it to try and get very smart at this.”
Looking towards the future of air travel, Mel sees multiple dimensions as having the potential to change how customers experience air travel. For one, smaller trips currently done via car or train might one day utilize eVTOL (electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing technology). As Mel puts it, “I think people are going to be able to order a flight in the same way that they order an Uber, then go from point A to point B through the air versus on the ground. I don't think it's that far from reality now. There's a lot of companies pushing hard on this, I think it's real.” For larger airlines like Air Canada, Mel envisions the innovations happening less in the way planes fly and more in how airport procedures will operate. From deploying biometrics technology to quicken security lines and checking documents to baggage scanning technology, the future of air travel promises to be a faster and more pleasant experience for customers. Forever a technologist, Mel is excited about Air Canada’s continued role in using technology to improve business outcomes: “We’re investing in technology to drive some of the optimizations that really let us compete on the level that we need to. We're in that phase right now so it's a very cool time to be with Air Canada.”