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JAL: Digitally reimagining the air travel experience
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JAL: Digitally reimagining the air travel experience

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Words: James Lawrence | Portrait photography: Yasu Nakaoka — August 2020
Akira Mitsumasu, VP of global marketing at Japan Airlines, explains how the carrier is applying advanced technology to create a more human-centric, trusted passenger experience — one attuned to a pandemic-altered world.

Of all the business sectors that have been a dealt body blow by the Covid-19 pandemic, the travel industry — and airlines in particular — rank among the most badly hit. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), global passenger numbers have dropped by around 90% since the start of the crisis, with ticket sales figures not expected to return to pre-Covid-19 levels until 2024 at the earliest. Indeed, the situation represents an existential threat to many of the world’s carriers.

In the face of this prognosis, Akira Mitsumasu, VP of global marketing at Japan Airlines (JAL), is not unduly downhearted; instead, he prefers to take a longer view. Mitsumasu sees the crisis as a chance to put into action some of the new thinking around customer-centricity that the business needs in order to set itself up for success over the coming decades. Unsurprisingly, a lot of this will be heavily reliant on the application of digital technology and JAL’s ability to extract game-changing value from the large amounts of data it generates and collects.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to stop, think, reflect and reset if necessary,” says Mitsumasu, encouraging some lateral thinking. “What we need to consider is that if we we’re starting from a clean slate, how would we like to create travel for the future?”
People-first design

For the ¥1.41 trillion ($13.2bn) company, there are two key pillars to this re-imagined future, he explains: human-centric design and the concept of ‘incentive compatibility.’

“The idea is to use advanced technology to create a more human-centric experience, where even though we’ll see more automation and more AI coming in, everything is really designed around human behavior. So you’ll still have that human touch. We’re still at the advent of this at JAL, but we are looking deeply into the full customer journey, trying to understand how people behave at different points on that journey and what they really want from that. And of course this needs to be supported by a lot of data analysis behind the scenes.”

“JAL’s Akira Mitsumasu”

For Mitsumasu, that means going beyond traditional market research and delving deep into customer sentiment to find the true value that may not always be immediately apparent. “We have to make use of more data analytics to really understand how our customers actually behave, and what their preferences are,” he says, pointing out that such insight is not often surfaced in questionnaire surveys when the interviewee is being forced to think of things they are not experiencing.

“We want to examine the actual experience so that we really understand how passengers are feeling, when they are faced with a certain situation, to understand their emotions and sentiment — in other words, the customer’s perceived value versus the producer’s intended value, which can be so different. We may think we’re doing a great job providing a very high level of service, but if the perceived value or perceived quality is actually lower than that, then it’s clearly not working.”
Incentive compatibility

He gives the example of a user-journey mapping exercise that JAL has undertaken to spot some very subtle customer needs that may never have emerged otherwise. “We now know that people don’t like someone queuing behind you when you’re using a self-check-in kiosk in a foreign country, or using one for the first time,” he says. Often holding tickets, ID documents and a phone, while keeping an eye on perhaps multiple pieces of luggage, “you will typically be a bit nervous, or slow, so you don’t like the idea of someone standing behind you [subliminally or directly] urging you to hurry up.”

The simple solution is the introduction of partition screens. “This will be good for the person waiting and also for the person at the kiosk,” he says. “It’s the kind of human-centric design that solves the sort of problem we often seem to overlook, and is an area we are working on to improve.”

Closely connected to human-centric design is the concept of incentive compatibility, a marketing approach that aims to position the needs of the customer and those of the business as closely together as possible. The example Mitsumasu offers here is how the future of travel can be redesigned to ensure there is no conflict with the environmental agenda, by reaching a situation where people do not need to travel less in order to avoid damaging the planet.

Again, it’s a question of lateral thinking and asking, ‘does it have to be this way?’ “There is a kind of false dichotomy here because we believe travel is something that promotes physical and social wellbeing and hence promotes overall life satisfaction. But at the same time, we have to address the environmental issue, using data to guide us [the airline industry is responsible for around 2% of human-induced carbon emissions].” Recognizing that, JAL have announced that it will progressively move towards zero carbon emission by 2050.
Driving trust

This clear-sighted focus on solving both large and small challenges in the most harmonious way possible will be essential to survival in the post Covid-19 world, Mitsumasu believes — and JAL’s kaizen approach of spotting problems and finding elegant, customer-centered solutions is supported heavily by investment in digital technology.

“It plays a vital role,” he states, citing the example of how JAL listens to its customers more effectively by using AI-driven data analytics. “We collect lots of customer comments, often in different languages. Those are all machine translated and verified by human agents, and then we crawl through all the text with natural-language processing capabilities — so we don’t pick up just one word, we pick up the context and truly understand what are the pain-points and what are the gain-points. As a result, we can work out what factors are driving, for example, customer satisfaction.”

What has become apparent from this, during the Covid-19 epidemic, are the overlapping needs for both trust and safety to help tempt customers back to air travel. And that has resulted in JAL intensifying its focus on enhancing both.

“JAL’s Akira Mitsumasu”

“When we talk about trust today, we often think of the digital environment,” Mitsumasu says. “Obviously, the core part of this [such as data security and advanced technology] we need to deal with constantly. But equally important is having human trust. And that's very much about developing relationships with our customers. Without those elements — and the best technology available — if you don’t have that human touch and feel either ‘I trust this agent’ or ‘I believe I'm being taken care of’ then you won't believe in this company. It defeats our very purpose.”

Addressing safety concerns in the context of the pandemic, JAL is working hard to deliver touchless solutions and smart airport capabilities that will minimize the risk of passing on or contracting infection. Allied to this is the airline’s One ID concept using ‘know your customer’ (KYC) methodologies and facial recognition, where customer data is used to help create the smoothest possible journey through an airport.

“We have been hearing from customers for quite some time now that wherever they are in the airport process, they have to show their identity, explain who they are. And that gets repeated throughout all the various touchpoints,” says Mitsumasu. “So our solution will have KYC elements embedded into a biometric system so that we use your image at the check-in phase, and then you can use that later on for baggage, security, boarding and, hopefully in future, for passport control as well. The whole idea is to create a seamless and frictionless travel experience.” Although some of JAL's initiatives are currently being postponed due to the Covid-19 situation, he adds, the technology-enabled human-centric vision remains unchanged. 
New trip scenarios

An important element of this kind of approach will be putting passengers more in control of their own experience, Mitsumasu explains. “So travelers are no longer just passive recipients of services. No more: ‘This is your meal, that’s it. This is your seat, that’s it.’ Instead, you’d have more options and more control over your trip.”

A consequence of this is allowing customers to have greater jurisdiction over their data — something that paradoxically can create huge marketing benefits, he believes. “So if a customer decides to share their personal data and preferences — their choice of airline, hotel, car rental company or something else at their destination — they don’t want people to just use that information, they want to have control over it.” To process get that right, Mitsumasu has been working with IATA as part of a think-tank seeking to understand how best to create new solutions that give customers that full sense of control over the information they might want to share with third parties for each trip.

“JAL aircraft”

And that, he continues, will be very different according to the nature of the trip. “If I’m on a business trip, my needs, departure time and who I would like to share my data with will be very different than if I’m going with all of my family on a vacation. So we need various different use case scenarios and the idea is to both give allow customers full control and avoid the inefficiencies of us second-guessing the trip scenario, which is typically what we have today in marketing.”

To achieve all of this, Mitsumasu is keen to leverage partnerships that will deliver added value and help achieve this heightened state of customer-centricity. “Typically, airlines have been doing almost everything in-house,” he says. “But I think, increasingly, it’s much more about how we can collaborate with external entities who would be able to provide us with the capabilities that we lack and will be able to provide them in a much faster, more agile and cost-effective manner.”

All of this, he believes, is necessary if airlines want to survive. “In the ‘new normal,’ I think there will be high expectations from travelers that we will not just revert to the old ways of traveling.”

First published August 2020

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