Ben Singleton, director of Data Science, JetBlue Airways, taking part in a fireside chat with APEX/IFSA CEO Dr. Joe Leader at APEX TECH.

Ben Singleton, director of Data Science, JetBlue Airways, taking part in a fireside chat with APEX/IFSA CEO Dr. Joe Leader at APEX TECH. Image: Greg Verville

Airlines were once pioneers in data automation – their early passenger reservations systems represented groundbreaking progress in computing and data processing. But that was a long time ago, and airline data systems of today often manifest as silos of information, difficult to manage and correlate.

Delivering the new “digital retail” experience so many airlines talk about requires breaking down the barriers between siloed data sets, and that is not an easy task. This week at APEX TECH in Los Angeles, JetBlue Airways’ director of Data Science, Ben Singleton, described some of the progress the carrier has made on that front and also looked to the future, describing what is yet to come.

JetBlue is still working on connecting its various data systems into a single management interface, but many of the sources can be cross-referenced today, according to Singleton. Still, his goal is to be able to deliver answers to “even the complex questions” in just a few hours, not a few days, describing that as “table stakes for an airline today.”

“If you are a die-hard Patriots fan and fly to all of the games we ought to know that about you and target you in that way with appropriate offers and messaging.” – Ben Singleton, JetBlue Airways

Singleton believes that in-flight entertainment systems need to be connected to a traveler’s booking history and even potentially a browsing history. This is not just about making movie recommendations on board, but about understanding the different expectations for a passenger traveling solo versus other parties on the same passenger name record (PNR). Whether it is pricing paid seats differently or recognizing a “splurge” trip and trying to induce an upgrade sale (something JAL’s VP Global Marketing and APEX Board member Akira Mitsumasu, addressed in a prior session), the opportunities for increasing the airline’s revenue remain broad.

Figuring out how much to charge or when to push those offers remains a mix of art and science. Singleton hopes to leverage machine learning techniques and the company’s data collections to shift that more to the science side. He said, “We ought to be doing dozens or hundreds of experiments at a time in different markets to understand how behavior changes and quickly react and hone in on what optimal pricing might look like. We’re not quite there yet but that is the vision we need to strive for.”

Stretching the data back to browsing history and an even more personalized experience, Singleton raised the idea of better understanding not only when and where a passenger is traveling, but also why they are taking the trip: “If you are a die-hard Patriots fan and fly to all of the games we ought to know that about you and target you in that way with appropriate offers and messaging. It is about being hyper-specific. Yes, there’s a point at which it starts to get creepy and we have to tread that line carefully. But at the end of the day we need to provide offers and advertising that is specific to our customers’ needs.”

The “appropriate offer” could mean a unique flight opportunity. Or it could be something else tied to the team, like a meet-and-greet experience on the ground. Or even a surprise-and-delight opportunity for crew members to deliver on board. As the data mining improves and the airline becomes more connected, end-to-end the opportunities will continue to grow.

During APEX Tech, JetBlue Airways received the 2020 Regional Passenger Choice Award for Best Seat Comfort in North America.

Read more coverage from APEX TECH January 2020.