Nicole Jones knows marketing. She started her career with Delta in its marketing department after spending time at Turner Broadcasting organization. But her work at The Hangar — Delta’s global innovation center at Tech Square — is not mere marketing. She is tasked with keeping one of the largest airlines in the world at the vanguard of air travel innovation.
Jones grew up in Atlanta and studied computer science at Spelman College before obtaining an MBA from Emory. Today, she leads a 20-person team on initiatives to keep Atlanta’s hometown airline efficient and customer-centric. “The ability to see innovation come to life across a global footprint gets me excited every day,” she says.
Jones described the strategic role of The Hangar amidst the corporate giant that is Delta, a $40B organization. Her team is responsible for harnessing and expeditiously testing ideas from Delta’s 80,000 employees in an effort to better the travel experience for the airline’s passengers, while adding efficiency across the operation.
Here’s more from our chat with Jones (hint: it includes talk of an upcoming “meal bot”):
You entered Delta as a marketer, but your background is in both information technology and media with Turner. How did you land in your current role at The Hangar?
This role is the perfect mash up of my technology, marketing and strategy background. Delta was looking for someone who was business-minded, entrepreneurial and passionate about the role that technology would play in Delta’s future.
The four years that I spent in Marketing with Delta provided me with an opportunity to really understand Delta’s positioning, product and core customer. My time at Turner is where I built my strategy chops, focused on nurturing and implementing innovative ideas from employees across the company that built the brand and drove long-term revenue growth. The first half of my career, I helped teams develop plans and navigate successful implementations of e-commerce technology.
What is the most rewarding part of your day-to-day work?
The most rewarding part of my job is the teams that I work with every day. Working in The Hangar allows me to engage with employees from every operating division within Delta. Delta employees are extremely passionate about the brand and committed to delivering the best experience possible for our customers. Our employees truly care about our customers and their experience with Delta. Although The Hangar is a physical location where we harness and amplify employee ideas, innovation is happening across all areas of Delta.
We’re seeing a lot of innovation in transportation. What in aviation can you highlight as innovative and new? Is there something on the horizon in the industry that we ought to know of?
The future of air travel innovation is anticipating customer needs and rapidly building solutions that address those needs. Delta is working to be the best at moving people and products around the world — our efforts save and maximize customers’ time, while making the travel experience more enjoyable. Digital recognition of customers, biometrics, artificial intelligence and machine learning all provide us with great insight into customer needs and the ability to maximize their time and experience.
From our biometric boarding pass test at DCA and our self-service biometric bag drop in Minneapolis, to using RFID technology to give customers the ability to track their bags in real time and developing a proprietary app that helps pilots better forecast weather in flight, Delta is leading the industry with technology that impacts the customer experience in meaningful ways.
Is there anything specific coming down the pipeline that we can expect to see from Delta before the end of the year?
Delta has several innovation items in final phases of development or testing. Just to name a few:
- A pre-select meal bot which allows a subset of customers traveling on international flights in the Delta One cabin to select their meal preference in advance of their flight.
- A mobile application that allows lobby and gate agents to perform a number of flight-associated tasks without having to be tethered to a PC behind the gate counter. Essential features include assigning and reassigning seats, checking a customer’s reservation status and scanning boarding passes.
- Delta is prototyping interactive voice solutions that will allow customers to check flight status, search for flights or check in using only their voice.
- Flight Family Communication: The Hangar, in collaboration with a cross-divisional team of Delta employees and the Operations and Customer Center, developed a system of devices that allow for real-time action items for pilots, flight attendants and gate agents for their assigned flight. The devices and real-time notification solutions allows employees to spend more time serving customers versus traversing the jet bridge to communicate with one another.
What’s the long game for The Hangar? What kinds of projects do you foresee a few years from now?
Since opening the doors to the Hangar about one year ago, Delta has benefited from having an innovation center in close proximity to students, startups and other corporate innovation centers in the Tech Square community. We have proven that the Hangar is no marketing stunt, but a space that supports and facilitates real change and innovation across Delta to benefit employees and customers.
Several of the innovation concepts led by The Hangar have been adopted within the operation and we’ll continue demonstrating this value and harnessing a broader ecosystem of innovation partners for the long term.
Images via Delta Airlines.