by James Stanton, Creative Director IBM Studios Dubai

Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, and Cognizant, a leading provider of information technology and business process outsourcing services, recently announced a strategic agreement to drive digital transformation across the airline and its equity partners.

Under the three-year, multi-million-dollar deal, Cognizant will help Etihad define its digital strategy and reimagine the guest experience along a guest’s travel journey across the group. Peter Baumgartner, Etihad Airways’ Chief Commercial Officer, said: “Our guests are increasingly turning to digital channels to connect with us, and therefore we recognize the importance of delivering a personalized and seamless experience across all touch-points.”

As Creative Director for IBM Studios in Dubai, I applaud Etihad in taking this step because it puts their customer front and center in their business. And as someone with a deep-seeded passion for Digital Transformation projects – especially where IA / UX / UI are used to reshape Customer Experience – I think it’s encouraging when an airline admits it needs to change, or else…

But what could the future of customer experience in the airline sector look like?

Consider the future of booking flights. How would you search for a flight? How would you enjoy the experience of actually booking a flight? To go one step further, how differently might you feel when you engage with different devices at different stages of your booking journey at different times of the day? What if mobile was treated as the first screen?

etihad screen

To illustrate this, here’s an image of what a user would see checking in on mobile. Nothing really amazing about that, but what if there was an Account section that enabled an EA, PA or travel agent to login and manage someone’s journey via a simple dashboard, on any device? Enabling this could speed up the booking process, as well as save countless hours if this application was also linked directly to the finance department to save on manually submitting travel expenses.

To expand on this, what if customers never had to carry a paper ticket ever again? An electronic ticketing system built around mobile devices would not only make customer’s lives easier, it would also result in massive savings for Etihad. Imagine the experience: no ticket machine, no lining up at ticket counters, no unnecessary paperwork to misplace. That’s putting the customer first. And to move beyond bookings, what about the actual real-world experience of traveling?

etihad 3

Above is a digital screen located in the business lounge. As an Etihad customer walked past the screen, a Bluetooth signal would prompt a digital handshake of data to their mobile device to deliver a wealth of relevant information about the destination they’re traveling to.

This information could be saved to their account for later use, or they could immediately interact with the content right through to booking accommodation or buying tickets to the opera. Customers could also interact with a wide range of digital screens. They could review boarding times and receive notifications on their wrist. The Etihad app could help customers if they were lost, as well as inform Etihad ground staff of someone’s location and whether they’re on their way to their gate.

etihad 4

Moving one step further, Etihad could connect their customers via smart walls where they could share their trips, holidays and experiences in major airports like Dubai. This social share functionality could easily be deployed via the new Etihad Accounts system that lets customers select meals, beverages and even movies on their flight.

Will all this be available in three years’ time when Etihad’s project ends? Maybe. But even if it doesn’t come to pass as part of their digital transformation project, what is for certain is that this can only be a positive step forward for travelers worldwide, because once someone raises the bar in the travel sector, everyone needs to follow suit to remain competitive.