Xia Cai on How Qatar Airways is Establishing the Role of Technology in Hospitality


Photo: Adam Robertson

The second day of APEX TECH opened with a keynote interview between APEX CEO Dr. Joe Leader and SVP Product Development and Design at Qatar Airways Xia Cai. The conversation focused on the importance of creating efficient digital ecosystems that work seamlessly to improve the passenger experience without encroaching on the traditional sense of hospitality associated with Qatar’s brand. 

Firstly, Cai talked about what the airline calls its “Seamless Digital Management Platform,” which is a new in-house app that provides real-time flight and customer updates to crew via iPhone to help deliver a more personalized service onboard. 

Following extensive testing by 100 crewmembers, the iPhones have now been rolled out to Qatar’s 15,000 flight crew, and a new dining module went live on February 20 that “allows the cabin crew to seamlessly manage ordering with guests, as it is fully integrated with our backend system to help manage catering inventory,” Cai said.

In terms of the app’s future capabilities, she emphasized, “It’s a long road map to continue to where we want to go,” but revealed that “predictive maintenance and service recovery are on the horizon, so being able to deal with things then and there if there’s an issue with the IFE or the meals. The crew can react in real-time, but can also store data for our operations team to make sure we continuously improve.”

“We’re a big airline now with 250+ aircraft, so delivering consistency is important while still maintaining our DNA”

Cai highlighted that the app is complimentary to the human touch, and said the airline is mindful of not “over-engineering” its approach to personalization: “We won’t remove the physical menu card even though the crew has a digital version. We want to have a dialogue [with passengers], as that’s the aspect [of the journey] travelers remember.”

This same consciousness applies to in-flight entertainment. Cai noted that personal space and privacy is important to Qatar’s customer demographic, and for that reason they will not “blast” people’s names across the seatback screen. “The personal touch is already there with our crew introducing themselves personally to every passenger,” she explained.

This isn’t to say that Qatar is shying away from technology. On the contrary, Cai is very enthusiastic about the possibilities presented by Panasonic Avionics’ Astrova IFE system, which will be installed on its Boeing 777X fleet. “We’re so obsessive about detail and ambience, and as a hard product it works well with our industrial design DNA, but we’re really excited about the backend.”

In particular, Cai extolled the benefits of Panasonic’s Modular Interactive (MI) solution, which allows airlines to easily customize their GUIs. “We usually all get stuck with [a GUI] for six or seven years and then do an ATP. [With MI] that whole process is gone, so we can be really dynamic – we need this with all our sponsorships, and to tie in with the airport and duty-free.”

“It’s about understanding the convergence of PEDs with seatback and connectivity – what does that mean?”

Tools like MI will likely help Qatar Airways better tell its story. “We’re a flag carrier and we need to tell Qatar’s story as a brand and as a country. Hamad Airport is a destination itself and we need to communicate that,” Cai said. 

The ongoing close relationship between Qatar Airways, Hamad International Airport and with Discover Qatar, the airline’s destination management division, allows for unique access to customer feedback across the passenger’s end-to-end passenger journey, something Qatar’s new CEO Badr Al Meer is keen to capitalize on. “Every two weeks we get together with the airport and Discover Qatar to share knowledge so that we can make changes in a timely manner,” Cai revealed.  

In terms of entertainment content, Cai said that it is a challenge to cater to everyone, but that its Oryx One IFE system is backed up by “very robust business intelligence tools.” She continued, “We’re very good at understanding who our passengers are and where they’re going. Panasonic and Thales provide passenger usage data, and we work with our current content service provider Spafax on this too.”

So, what does the future passenger experience look like for Qatar Airways? “We’re a big airline now with 250+ aircraft, so delivering consistency is important while still maintaining our DNA,” Cai explained. “We’ve talked about a digital connected experience for a long time, and we’re getting to the point where things are converging. We have very good bandwidth and latency [with our connectivity] as well as open architecture from our IFE suppliers, so it’s about understanding the convergence of PEDs with seatback and connectivity – what does that mean?”

Read about Delta Air Lines’ Ekrem Dimbiloglu’s keynote interview during APEX TECH 2024 here.