Flying the friendlier skies

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KIS is sweet to both passengers and staff.
KIS is sweet to both passengers and staff.

As face-to-face customer service challenges go, Emirates Airlines is forced to play a heady game. The Dubai-based airline operates 2,500 flights a week, four of its regular runs being among the 10 longest nonstops in the air. Serving more than 70 countries, Emirates caters to a diverse and affluent customer base—as many as 500 of them at a time on the wide-body aircraft it operates.  To make the mix even more interesting, few of the 24 members of the flight staff on the average flight have flown together before, and the purser who manages them also is often working with them for the first time.

Got the picture? Yes, it's a potential customer service disaster at 35,000 feet.

For the past seven years Emirates took on this challenge by arming pursers with tablet computers to track and fulfill passenger needs, although the machines were closer to laptops in size. “They were constraining,” says Kevin Griffiths, SVP of cabin crew for Emirates. “They weren't able to deliver first-class service. We needed a complete re-envisioning of the system.” 

This week Emirates ushered in what it hopes will be a new era of service with the delivery of HP ElitePad 900 tablets into the hands of a few chosen pursers. Next month, it begins in-flight tests of 100 of the units, which were announced by Hewlett-Packard in October and don't become available to other customers until January. Meanwhile Emirates teamed with Microsoft more than a year ago on a Windows 8-based business application called Knowledge Driven Inflight Service, or KIS, to pack the pads with more personalized information about both passengers and crew.

“What's almost more important,” notes Griffiths, “is that pursers are eager to use it. It's elegant and chic, in keeping with the Emirates brand.”  Here's what the airline hopes KIS will accomplish:

Present a game plan for an ever-changing team.  Passengers are of prime importance, but so are the people who serve them. With more than 16,000 staff members at Emirates, every flight takes off with virtually a brand new team. Patrick Brannelly, VP of product, publishing, digital and events at Emirates was on one of the first KIS-enhanced flights last week and even he was surprised that the purser onboard had only worked with three of the two dozen staff members before. “They had 14 first-class and 75 business-class passengers to deal with, and they were impressed with the speed with which the new machine presented information,” Brannelly says. “For instance, the purser was able to click a button to see what crew members spoke which languages.”

Deliver better service to frequent fliers. “Of course, we have the preferences of all our Skywards program members in our database, and that's synched with the tablets,” Griffiths says.  “We know, for instance that a certain passenger likes golf and we'll approach them with a golf magazine.” Additionally, staff members are trained to pick up on other likes and dislikes of members and add that information to the database through the ElitePad. “If an interaction uncovers that that passenger is also crazy for soccer, our staff member will note it and update the member's profile.”

Build and strengthen the list. Griffiths hopes to also use the tablets to sign up more new members and to update information of current ones. “If we have a passenger on board from whom we got a lot of returned emails, there's a prompt in the system for an attendant to approach him and update the file,” he says. “We're giving customer data to the crew in flight, but there's a reporting mechanism for pursers, so we're hoping to get high volumes of information from them.”

When the test program is completed in 2013, Emirates aims to have more than 1,000 KIS tablets flying the friendlier skies.

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