Inside Iberia Iberia Plus

Improving the customer experience with AI

Ferrán García Rigau, Director of Data and CRM at Iberia, talks about the applications and evolution of artificial intelligence in the company’s operations.

When did Iberia start using AI?

It all came to fruition in our transformation process, which began in 2013 with the arrival of Luis Gallego. That’s when we began to improve both the levels of customer satisfaction and our financial results. Around 2018, we took a good look at things, and we saw that we needed to take the transformation to an even higher level of sophistication so that these areas of improvement would continue to grow. It is at this point that the Data and Artificial Intelligence Centre of Excellence was created, which is why I came to Iberia. What we do at the Centre of Excellence is collect all the company’s data in a centralised place. This allows us to use the data differently to create case studies for improving our operations, the customer experience, our sustainability plan and so on. Thanks to the power of this data, the application of artificial intelligence models began in 2019.

How do you collect and analyse all the information?

Our strategy has been to create a single data platform where we have information gathered from what we call the ‘Iberia 360’. For example, with regards to our customers, we store direct information about the flight experience through the 800 survey responses that passengers who fly with us fill out on a daily basis. We also host the CRM, our customer relationship management system, where we monitor when and why a passenger calls or writes to us, and – if they file a complaint – how we handle it. We also collect data on Iberia’s internal day-to-day operations: our flight management systems, aircraft maintenance, financial results and business initiatives. We cross-reference data in order to identify when the customer is having a problem to understand why it is happening to them or, on the obverse, to understand what has turned a trip with Iberia into a perfect flight experience.

How is this data protected?

Firstly, we apply the principle of security by design both in the design of the platform and in any of the improvements. This consists of working with the cybersecurity area from the outset to ensure that – even from the very moment we start to think about a new development – we will not run any risk of cyberattacks. As for the part more related to data protection, the first thing is to coordinate with the legal department, applying various levels of protection within the platform. We’ve got the most sensitive data – the most legally protected data – stored in a super-secure place. We only access it when, for instance, we need to contact a specific customer in a special situation. However, we do not use any type of data with personal information to do anything with AI models. We work with data that gives us strategic insight but is anonymous.

What applications of AI have served to most clearly improve the passenger experience?

We were clear from the beginning that we didn’t want to keep AI in the laboratory; we didn’t want to create a department simply to announce that Iberia was also developing this tool. We wanted to bring AI into the day-to-day operation of the company. So, we’re divided into areas to apply AI at the end-to-end of our value chain, from the moment we design our portfolio of destinations until the customer lands and picks up their baggage. To date, we have developed 29 AI models applied to all areas of Iberia. The first ones we designed were to improve the customer experience through customisation. In recent years, we’ve been focusing more on sustainability. We are working very hard to anticipate what will be needed on each flight so that nothing is wasted in terms of both food and fuel. An interesting example is the way we seat people on the plane depending on how full it is. We’ve got to balance how they are distributed because, if there is more weight on one side during take-off than on the other (we also take into account the distribution of the hold), much more fuel is used. However, we must also bear in mind that families want to sit together, that there are passengers who need a specific seat, that people traveling on business or have a connection need to get off the plane quickly. AI helps us manage this.

Are we moving towards increasing customisation in the services provided to customers?

Yes, and we have great examples. We used the 800 survey responses I mentioned that we receive every day to understand what we can improve about the physical experience to generate a more positive impact on the customer. What will you value higher: better seats or a new meal offering? In this sense, the redesign of the entire long-haul experience we launched last year was very important. Thanks to the data managed by AI, we understood the new needs that had arisen in certain routes after the pandemic. Another example of this is the way we design the digital experience on our website. We have applied the principal of customisation, so that we can suggest where you can fly to or what products or services you can add to your flight – such as a seat reservation or extra luggage – based on AI models that predict what type of service you may be interested in. Recently we added a Generative Artificial Intelligence Assistant in the Private Area, which you can ask directly: “Hey, what beach destination do you recommend for travel with my family?” It will give you recommendations and then help you search for flights.

What role does innovation play in operations?

We have recently relaunched biometric boarding on the Air Shuttle between Madrid and Barcelona, after having proposed it as a pilot project in 2019. It works well in such a high-traffic corridor and also with a type of passenger who, in many cases, is delighted to board as quickly as possible by simply showing their face and without having to take out their wallet. Although there are still some aspects that need to be fine-tuned or resolved – for example, on long-haul routes or when there are children – we believe that this type of innovation is the near future, especially because, for 80 per cent of customers in our network in Spain and Europe, it’s a very good solution and the technology is already available.

Ferrán García Rigau posa junto a una maqueta de uno de los modelos más recientes de avión obtenidos por Iberia

What are the biggest challenges facing the air transport sector in this field?

I like to see challenges as opportunities. AI is unlocking many technical possibilities and the big challenge for many companies is to get hold of the data in order to start applying those options. In our case, we’re lucky to have been working on this for five years. We’ve gained a lot of ground. We do understand that, at this point, collecting data is a challenge, but not initiating a strategy in this area is a risk these days. Beyond this, there are issues that must also be considered, such as regulations that are being developed. However, honestly believe that we at Iberia are working very much in line with what, for instance, the European Parliament is proposing. For us, the challenge is to be on the front line.

AI is developing at increasing speeds. How do you envisage the Iberia experience in a decade’s time?

That’s a big question. It’s hard to answer because we have many paths ahead. What I imagine is that AI will become indispensable to all of us in our daily lives, just like the mobile phones that we all carry in our pockets. Regarding the Iberia experience, AI will transform the way we travel, from the way you decide on your next destination to the way you manage your booking. It is likely that, thanks to AI, you’ll be able to decide what you want to eat on your flight or what digital experience on board you would like to have – and they’ll have it ready for you on the plane. Even augmented reality is out there, and we’ll probably see that on airplanes as well.