Building for Innovation – FTE Europe Innovation Labs & Digital Transformation Round Table with WOW Air, Heathrow Airport, LocusLabs and SITA

During the FTE Europe Innovation Labs & Digital Transformation Round Table, which took place two weeks ago, FTE, together with co-founders of HackHorizon Kristy Hart and Kostadin Kolev, brought together some of the biggest players in the airline and airport space to share their experiences and views on how to build innovation initiatives for the future. Participating in the Round Table were: Sveinn Akerlie, CIO, Head of WOW Labs, WOW Air; Chris Annetts, Retail and Service Proposition Director, Heathrow Airport; Jack Loop, Director, LocusLabs; and Renaud Irminger, Director, SITA Lab, SITA. Here, we provide some of the key discussion points that came out during the session.

Sveinn Akerlie, CIO, Head of WOW Labs, WOW Air, opened the discussion by depicting the current state of the industry. He said: “We recently made additions to our fleet with the new A320s. These are cutting-edge aircraft, but they still use floppy disks.”

So, here comes the question, how big travel organisations can innovate and be less hindered by legacy technology?

Most travel players are encumbered by legacy systems  

To try and tackle the challenge of legacy in travel, companies need to use APIs as a force multiplier to accelerate the pace of transforming the way things are done. This has a huge potential upside as airlines and airports obtain much more data and knowledge about their customers than other industries.

In the case of SITA Labs, which was established by SITA board members in 2008, the aim has been to break the mould. In the last nine years, SITA has built 80 projects, 12 of which have now been taken up and fully integrated into the business.

Renaud Irminger, Director, SITA Lab, SITA, commented on the importance of iterating fast and testing new ideas to solve the big challenge in the industry. “You need to digitise because otherwise you can’t make changes in real time.” Industry players need to move past legacy tech and have a basic digital infrastructure they can iterate and build even faster. This is what is currently happening with the rapid digitisation of boarding passes – paper becomes the enemy.

As a new airline, WOW Air has found it easy to set up structures that are better geared towards being innovative. Most airlines tend to get “stuck in the spiderweb of legacy”, as Akerlie explains, “and therefore, we need to keep nimble to avoid the danger of falling into the same trap.”

WOW Air is working in two-week sprints and adopting a lean methodology to build and test new concepts and projects that it believes will add value to the airline. However, this is not a small feat, even for a new airline, as it has had to completely rebuild its PSS twice in the last five years so it can maintain its ambitious development cycles.

One thing that being a new player has allowed WOW Air to do is to bring new people in who are not weighed down by the perceived limitations of the industry. The brute force of the start-up or outsider mentality to do something just because it’s the right thing to do is what often gets the job done.

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