Air China’s Dr. Zhihang Chi opens APEX TECH with Keynote Address on Elusive Nature of PaxEx


APEX TECH 2023: Day One – Self-described technologist turned business executive” Dr. Zhihang Chi, Air Chinas Vice President & General Manager, North America opened his keynote address yesterday at the APEX TECH by apologizing for the rain. Which, in a round about way, reinforced his overriding message that the airline passenger experience is often defined by forces beyond the airlines control. 

“My personal view is that APEX, which I understand stands for airline passenger experience, is probably the trickiest subject in our business, because it is so subjective, and is so elusive, so personal, pleading, fickle and volatile,” said Chi. “The same passenger under identical circumstances, can have a completely different experience, perhaps because of his or her physical or mental state.”

Dr. Zhihang Chi

Noting that he recently had the best hamburger ever on a Cathay Pacific flight but that next time he might crave a Caesar Salad instead, Chi joked that that’s how elusive and fickle even he himself can be and that is why it’s “virtually impossible to enumerate all aspects of the passenger experience.”

Chi then encouraged TECH attendees to ask themselves when they think the passenger experience begins and also, perhaps even more importantly, when it ends. 

“These days, we talk a lot about the end-to-end passenger experience, meaning leaving the home to arriving at the destination. But as long as APEX stands for airline passenger experience … any efforts by an airline to control and internalize the passenger’s complete journey and total experience will be counter productive,” said Chi. “Grasp all, grasp none, as the old saying goes.” 

Even the experiences that can be influenced and controlled by an airline are tricky, added Chi, because oftentimes the issue has nothing to do with the carrier’s customer facing staff, or people, but everything to do with what’s happening behind the scenes. 

Citing Air China’s accounting department, home-based call center and maintenance people as being the real unsung heroes of the carrier’s passenger experience, Chi added that technology is also key in keeping passengers happy these days. 

“Technology is critical but it doesn’t need to be fancy. We don’t necessarily need the newest and coolest but each airline needs to understand our own positioning based on which technology solutions work, then create baby steps to deliver continuous improvements. Or as they say, in Japan: kaizen.”

After sharing a few amusing anecdotes about a recent flight from Europe, Chi wrapped up by noting that in his view, the airline passenger experience is all about setting the right expectations. 

“The same passenger can be perfectly happy flying on an ultra low cost carrier when he travels on a family vacation and on a full service carrier, when he travels on his company’s time.”

“Always under promise and over deliver and focus on reducing variability,” said Chi. “Personally, I was totally impressed with the service in first class on Emirates. But I’m also equally impressed with my experiences on Southwest. Always happy, always over-delivering.”