Aer Lingus’s Dave O’Donovan: ‘We’ll be a digital one-stop shop for travel’

17 May 2019

Dave O’Donovan. Image: Aer Lingus

Spearheading the digitalisation of Aer Lingus, Dave O’Donovan says the future of travel is literally in the hands of the guests.

Dave O’Donovan has been director of digital and mobile at Aer Lingus since 2017. He is responsible for the ongoing digitalisation of the Aer Lingus guest relationship.

He has extensive experience in digital technology leadership across multiple industries, in both start-ups and large corporates.

‘It is entirely in our interest to make it as easy as possible for you to spend money with us’

Prior to joining Aer Lingus, he was the North American FS lead for analytics, strategy and transformation at Accenture in New York. Here he led engagement with a global payments provider to develop and deploy an enterprise big-data warehouse for analytics and reporting users globally.

He also held the positions of head of the Financial Services Analytics and Innovation Center at Accenture New York and director of technology at Archetypes Inc.

Is it fair to assume the entire business of travel is a vast e-commerce ecosystem waiting to be exploited?

When you think about travel, for a lot of people it is about the airfare. Our big challenge is, how do we remain the place you go to look up your flights versus going to Skyscanner or Expedia – and, when there, look up on airlines’ routes or networks and get the holidays and hotels in one place. We will be a digital one-stop shop for travel.

At the same time we can’t cut off our noses to spite our faces. We have to play with platforms like Expedia and Travelocity and all of the other aggregators.

Even if you make a booking elsewhere, we will manage your booking. Maybe when going to the airport you are opening the airline app because we are showing you how long the line is for security and maybe there is a cross-sell opportunity to buy priority boarding.

Not only is it a good guest experience, it is actually critical to our strategy.

How does technology underpin your growth strategy?

As Dublin Airport gets busier and busier – April was the biggest month ever – technology becomes increasingly important to actually deal with the physical restrictions and numbers of people trying to use the airport, and that’s where we have an increasingly more important role to play.

Airlines definitely have work to do on the e-commerce side but, just as important, we have a ton of work to do on the operational side.

Traditional industries need to understand that as far as the guest is concerned, it is not really the Dublin Airport Authority’s problem, it is our problem. Because we are the ones serving the experience.

How do you use data more effectively to create that compelling customer experience?

You have implicit permission to use information to be helpful. As soon as you cross the threshold and use it to be annoying, you have a problem.

The Amazon experience, for example, is easy, competitive, one-click and your order is on the way. Similarly, our job is to make it as easy as possible to buy from us. How do we make it as easy as possible for you to request an upgrade through our app? If we come back asking for numbers and dates of birth, you won’t bother. It is entirely in our interest to make it as easy as possible for you to spend money with us.

Would it be fair to describe your technology strategy as customer-first?

In general, the airline industry was the technology leader of the 1960s and 1970s. The airlines and the banks were massively taking advantage of technology and building incredibly complicated systems that have served us well. Our IBM mainframe, the most expensive piece of kit bought in 1967 at a cost of IR£4m, is 50 years old this year and it is still going strong. For me that is an engineering marvel, but is a total nightmare to build a modern customer experience on top of.

In the 2000s, airlines had other problems and probably weren’t investing in new technology, but in the last couple of years we have continued to do so and it is very much guest-focused.

In Aer Lingus we run a net promoter score called Voice of Guest. We send out surveys to 1.7m passengers a year with an 8pc response rate. Every month, the executive team gets a granular readout of how we are doing across 50 different areas, from how long to check-in, timeout on the website, temperature in cabin, was the seat comfortable, did bags arrive on time, how was it dealt with? We have a heat map that tracks these metrics across four quadrants and tells us where we have our biggest problems, based on the size of the problem and impact of the problem, and we use that to actually drive investment decisions.

How do you manage the immense job of digital transformation?

I have a team of 100 people focused on the website, the mobile apps and the middleware, and then other teams dealing with deeper back-end, run now by the IAG Group.

At any point in time I might have 300 people working across digital and mobile properties in Aer Lingus.

In terms of security, what are your thoughts on how we can better protect data?

I think everyone is incredibly aware of the risks that are posed by cybercriminals and unwanted actors trying to hack into your systems. We spend a lot of time ensuring our systems are secure, including regular external audits. I have a security team in my team as well as a bigger team at IAG to make sure we are secure, passing on threat vectors so we can be secure together. Every company in the digital world has a cyber risk because the threats are getting bigger and bigger every day and you have to stay incredibly focused on it.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years