Earlier this year, Delta became the only airline named to Fast Company’s 10 Most Innovative Companies in Travel. Though the Atlanta-based carrier does have its share of flashy technology projects — a recently-announced robotic exoskeleton research group comes to mind — COO Gil West says that the majority of their innovation activities are focused on what they want to be known for: simply put, being the most efficient, customer-centric airline.
“For us it’s all about enhancing the customer experience, ultimately with an eye towards the next-generation traveler,” West explains. “We really believe that we can leverage technology and innovation as a competitive advantage, not just as a marketing tool, and drive the applications that are core to our customer experience.”
West says that innovation has always been integral to the core workings of Delta — it’s one of their three stated brand attributes — but it’s how they drive innovation that has had to adapt in order to consolidate their integration of next-generation technologies.
The first step in their process is The Hangar, the technology testbed opened in 2016 at Georgia Tech’s Tech Square. A staff of about 20 full-time employees, researchers, interns and contractors work out of The Hangar assessing new technologies for potential applications within what Delta calls the “travel ribbon.”
West says that The Hangar is valuable because of the company’s conservative approach to implementing those new technologies. As the world’s second-largest airline (as measured by revenue), anything that could disrupt the status quo could have serious consequences for millions.
“We are big believers in running pilots and perfecting those to the point that we can scale them. We’re not just jumping out and scaling things, which could lead to big failures,” he explains.
In order for the company to devote resources to pursuing the exploration of a new project, West says that its application for the Delta customer or employee must be clear. Those decisions are driven almost wholly by data.
“We have every possible metric you could think of for operational performance — we’ve got a very robust team that we put together called Operations Analytics Performance that cuts the data and helps us focus on where are our levers, where are opportunities, what do we do well, what do we do poorly?”
One such data-driven pain point was baggage tracking. In 2016, Delta became the first U.S. airline to deploy Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) bag tags, which allow customers to track their checked bags in real-time. The concept originally came through The Hangar and was developed with the help of Georgia Tech researchers.
The technology has broad implications — a study by the International Air Transport Association said that global RFID implementation could lower the number of mishandled bags by as much as 25 percent by 2022 and save the airline industry $3 billion over the next seven years.
Another challenge the company tackled is one every flyer is familiar with: nausea-inducing turbulence. According to NASA, turbulence costs airlines approximately $100 million annually — and, of course, makes the flying experience less pleasant. So in 2016, Delta released the industry’s first real-time turbulence insights app, the Flight Weather Viewer app, to help pilots spot and avoid turbulence.
The app allows pilots to by enter their flight plan and aircraft type, and view on a 3D map where they might encounter turbulence. When connected to Delta in-flight Wifi, it can update with changing weather in real-time during the flight.
These type of innovations often require partnerships, and Delta has tried to make it easier for the corporate giant to work with startups. West says they realized how important this was during their participation in Engage, the corporate-backed venture fund and startup growth program that Delta is a part of.
“We’ve adapted our contracts, supply chain, legal, so that we can be easy to do business with and so we can pilot and run different ideas,” he says. Engage has already offered them one contract with a portfolio startup of the fund, and West says more will hopefully emerge as the program matures.
Another startup partnership was with biometric identity company CLEAR, also a Fast Company Most Innovative and the only company in the U.S. that uses fingerprint and iris eye scanning to expedite the TSA line. Delta Members are able to join the program for a free or reduced rate, which West calls a “game changer” for customers.
Earlier this year, Delta expanded their biometrics capabilities by including CLEAR scanning at all of their Sky Clubs, as well.
Delta is so committed to that partnership, in fact, that they made an equity investment in CLEAR, securing a 5 percent stake in the 8-year-old company.
“That is another great avenue of innovation for us, looking at things differently from the lens of a venture capital company,” says West.
Finally, they have launched their own separate organizational entities within the corporate conglomerate. One such wholly-owned subsidiary is Delta Flight Products (DFP), an engineering and manufacturing business started in 2016. The company’s goal with DFP was to bring some of the work they contracted out to third-party firms, specifically on aircraft interiors, into the fold.
The unit employs hundreds of engineers, designers and manufacturing workers and focuses on things like aircraft cabin design and in-flight entertainment systems. It’s located in an Atlanta-based facility, separate from Delta headquarters.
West explains that part of their alternative approach to innovation is a result of, and a reflection upon, their presence in Atlanta. He points to examples like Engage and the many corporate innovation centers at Tech Square as demonstrations of how Atlanta-based corporations want to engage with startups and technology researchers.
“I think we’ve got an alternate model in Atlanta, where it’s the corporations that are the attraction,” West says. “We have the ability for the applications, and being large-scale companies we can partner and help scale the startups. I personally think this model has the potential to be even more powerful.”
All photos via Delta