- Digital transformation for some companies means splashy new technology like in-store robots or automated warehouses.
- But for others, particularly highly regulated industries like healthcare or aviation, the push to make more incremental tech advances can have a profound impact on the business.
- Alaska Airlines was one of the first carriers to use iPads in the flight deck and employ new satellite-based navigational tools to improve operations, according to head of fleet technology Brett Peyton.
- And while the pace of innovation may be slower, Peyton says the company is continuing to look at how new tech can help reduce fuel costs and lower emissions.
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But for some sectors, the most critical improvements are often much smaller and don’t receive fanfare. That’s the case for the airline industry, where new tech has to undergo substantial testing before it’s infused into the aircraft to ensure that it’s safe and abides by federal regulations.
Such a restrictive mindset can be difficult, particularly as the hype around artificial intelligence continues to grow.
But instead of trying to immediately capitalize on the buzziest new applications, airline tech chiefs need to get comfortable with innovation cycles that are much slower, according to Brett Peyton, the head of fleet technology at Alaska Airlines. As a 20-year veteran of the carrier and retired Boeing captain, he knows all about balancing the needs of business with the mandate to keep a continuous eye toward transformation.
“It’s not a big bang,” Peyton told Business Insider. “You don’t always want to be out there trying to change the world when you’ve already got a safe system.”
That’s not to say there isn’t the potential for significant changes. Delta Air Lines recently announced a quantum computing partnership with IBM and demoed several new applications at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show — including one that allows passengers to see just their specific travel itinerary on screens around the airport.
Alaska Airlines was one of the first to put iPads in the flight deck, according to Peyton. It was also a pioneer in using required navigation performance, or RNP — an industry term that refers to satellite navigation, as opposed to ground-based navigational tools — to improve flight efficiency.
At the Santa Barbara airport, for example, RNP helped Alaska Airlines cut track miles, reduce carbon emissions in its planes, and reduce the noise profile of incoming and outgoing jets. It also allows the carrier to fly in lower visibility and harsher weather than rivals, said Peyton.
Now, nearly every airline employs it.
A ‘bifurcated approach’
And Alaska Airlines is continuing to innovate. The company is exploring how new tech could be used to continue to reduce emissions and cut fuel costs — improvements that vary in terms of how quickly the company would be able to implement the applications into its fleet.
“It’s sort of a bifurcated approach. You have this slow-moving flight deck tech-iteration cycle,” Peyton said. “And then on the other side of things, if you’re looking at a handling of data, you can move that along a little faster. And we’re in there with the best of them looking at emerging technology on that side.”
On the maintenance side, for example, the carrier is exploring how information can be transferred from the aircraft and analyzed to determine the health of the plane and fix issues before they arise — a concept known as predictive maintenance.
And even the use of tech like the iPad that has been in cockpits at Alaska Airlines since 2010 is evolving. Pilots can now get live route updates via the device based upon factors like wind speed or changes in air traffic that shifted from the initial course developed prior to takeoff.
“There’s a lot out there that can be done just through small iterations that take years to manifest in the way that you want, but that do have a meaningful impact,” Peyton said.
With such a careful approach to tech overhauls, Alaska Airlines has to work with partners that are accustomed to slower rollouts. So instead of immediately revamping its fleet of 238 planes with the new applications, the company will start with a sample size as small as three planes for the more drastic changes.
“To go out and spend 15 million bucks all in one fell swoop without having tested it thoroughly is irresponsible,” Peyton said.
Other highly regulated industries like healthcare and financial services can face similar challenges in trying to digitally transform the business. Like the approach taken by Alaska Airlines, the key is to start small and figure out what investments will produce the most returns — whether that be financial gains or improved customer satisfaction — before spending heavily on scaling the projects.