Airline Lessons: The Case For Systems Integration

As a buyer, the better you understand the use case for what you procure, the more likely you are to deliver the right value to the business. In the case of airlines, obviously the big aluminum birds and all aspects of their maintenance is the principal concern. That said, there isn’t much to be done in the way of differentiation in that area – so much is regulated down to the last rivet and lubricant. That said, there are many surrounding aspects that contribute immensely to travel value for the end user perspective:

  • Seamless booking and check-in – from web site to airport monitors
  • Predictable experience – no surprises
  • Cleanliness – from the airports to the planes
  • Food service – international flights especially
  • Consistency across partners


Regarding the last bullet, my recent travels to Singapore let me sample firsthand how the Skymiles partner system of airlines works out. Being based out of Atlanta, Delta is my obvious airline choice. But for travel to Asia, Delta relies on Korean Air (its main partner in the region) for many of the actual operations. So, how does that work out – do the Americans and Koreans work well together? Short answer: no. Let’s look at what went wrong.

These days, you expect the user experience to be carried across systems as seamlessly as possible, with SSO (single sign-on), federated ID management, and/or deeper handshakes with solutions smoothly managing your data across otherwise disparate applications. Whether it’s your bank, P2P system, or airline – you expect consistency and retention of data across platforms.

It works well domestically, but not so much with international air travel. And there’s a definite lack of integration, as Delta and Korean Air solidly dropped the ball between them on several occasions:

  • Luggage allowances were extremely hard to figure out – my combination of using two airlines, flying between several countries, having Gold Medallion status with Delta, and paying with a Platinum Skymiles AmEx card – even though all was booked through, it all added to confusion (that took Delta around 10 days to figure out).
  • Seat reservations couldn’t be made – even though I could book the entire trip on, the seat assignments required setting up a separate account with Korean Air.
  • Meal preferences were forgotten – even though my SkyMiles profile has had the same “Asian Vegetarian” setting for years – and the Korean Air stewardesses (not the burly and surly flight attendants they so often have at Delta) scrambled to come up with a suitable combo meal. That exercise alone made it painfully evident how much more service-minded Korean Air is. But I digress.
  • Boarding passes didn’t work between the airlines – despite the shared DL flight number, I had to get my boarding passes reissued when “switching” between airlines – really? How many years have you partnered?
  • Reminders – in a nice attempt, when my Korean Air flight was delayed by 30 minutes or so, I started to get automated phone calls (when I was in Incheon, Korea) around a change. The downside was that the machine call never got to the point, there was so much rambling “fluff” content that I hung up fairly quickly since I didn’t want to pay for more international cell phone charges than I had to. The automated call must have been designed by the same team in charge of the Delta web site.
  • Luggage – finally some good news – it was never lost! Although they did rip one wheel off my Zero Halliburton suitcase. Oh well.


So, you can see how the corporate buyer needs to think more broadly about this. So much of the above was impacted by the types of goods and services that fall in the indirect spend category – from IT, to food, to print, to call centers. You can’t blame the business side – this is a corporate procurement failure. It’s not enough just to buy it. You have to put it into the business process from and end user’s perspective – only then can you tell if you did a good job. I’m sure all of the categories I’ve listed have been sourced at Delta, or at least back when Procurian (then ICG Commerce) was doing some of them for them. But sourcing only goes so far. The question is about closing the loop – making sure that what you purchase is what customers actually want to buy or expect to experience. You can't outsource that.

Finally, another red thread in this troubled experience is systems integration – please look at your own businesses and take a look at where you have similar gaps. There is no excuse any longer for not having your systems shake hands.

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