Vistara’s Vinod Bhat on How Digital is Reshaping Flying Experience

Vistara’s Vinod Bhat on How Digital is Reshaping Flying Experience

Vinod Bhat, CIO of Vistara Airlines, foresees an exciting future for the aviation sector – one that’s high-tech, omnipresent to customers and is driven by the drift towards an entirely new flying experience. When Bhat joined the airline in March 2021, the industry was at the peak of the global crisis. Fast forward to 2022, Bhat believes that the sector is all set to rise high, powered by digital & contactless technologies and sustainable operating models.

In this exclusive chat with CIO Dialogues, Bhat talks about the future of flying, how contactless/touchless technologies are reshape flying experience and what lies ahead for an aviation sector CIO.

During the peak of the pandemic, the airline sector went through a massive turbulence of unparalleled nature. How would you recall the role of technology in helping the sector survive, optimize cost and prepare for better times?

In my view, the biggest challenge for the airline industry at the initial stages of the global pandemic was to rebuild the customer trust. People across geographies were really hesitant to travel due to safety and hygiene concerns. And almost synchronically, airline companies had to address the changes and challenges that came along with a distributed workforce and its connectivity, security and well-being requirements. The other key priority for us to was to adhere to the stringent government regulations. In what I would like to call the ‘survival phase’, it was all about ensuring that these three key pillars of the business run as usual.

In the subsequent ‘sustain’ phase, players looked at sustaining this new operating model by supporting remotely, delivering touchless and digital services to customers through their devices and also at the airports.  Quite interestingly, the pandemic compelled firms to relook at the business processes and understand where exactly they needed digital interventions – be it engineering, ground services, flight operations, safety or commercials. This has led us to strengthen our digital transformation roadmap further.

In the ‘scale’ phase, which is what the industry is currently undergoing, we are now able to take this digital transformation initiatives to the next level. And in all these three key phases, technology has certainly played an instrumental role in helping us meet our goals.

What would be the top strategic priorities for the sector as demand rises and players continue to reinvent?

The aviation industry’s key priority will continue to be the transformation in customer experience across digital channels. The trend that I see emerging, and I believe will potentially transform customer experiences in the industry, is the shift to omnipresent services. Airlines have reached a fairly matured level in providing multi-channel services to customers through mobile and web interfaces. But customers are now omnipresent and airlines need to serve the customers wherever they are. A great example here is to serve customers on messenger services, rather than expecting them to get into an app or a web interface.

Other top priority for airlines operators from a revenue perspective will be capturing the demand and predicting it better. We continue to live in an uncertain world and it will be critical for airlines to understand the optimum routes, right networks and plan the operations well.

While Security will continue to be the table stakes, data analytics and Insights will be ever more important going forward. Airline companies generate tons of data, but going forward, leveraging the data for inferences, better decision making and moving from ‘reactive to proactive to predictive’ model will be essential to thrive in the new market dynamics.

What does the future of flying look like? How is technology transforming ‘experience’ for travellers?

Touchless and contactless will continue to be key business imperatives. This means that passengers will see a lot of automated services and self-service technologies that will enable the new flying experience. We will experience more advanced use cases across the value chain - from e-boarding to self-baggage drops to smart kiosks, with the help of technologies such as biometric technologies, IoT, RFID and Blockchain.

For example, biometric technologies will make physical boarding passes a distant memory. Your face will be the boarding pass – which would enable a truly seamless and touchless flying experience. Smart kiosks will deliver similar experiences to passengers by future-proofing the airports for a touchless journey through biometric capabilities.

When 5G gets rolled out, many of these services will be further enhanced, with real-time responses to customers. Metaverse technology is also getting tested for quite a few use cases in Aviation.

The global pandemic has significantly reshaped the aviation industry, which is historically conservative in its practices. What are the challenges that the digital disruption places before an aviation CIO today? 

The value that technology brings to the table has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a great springboard for CIOs to further elevate their transformation efforts. That said, how a CIO builds a compelling business case around technology, and how he/she is able to align it with the company goal –be it transformation, growth, customer experience etc. – is going to be paramount. The aspects of data and cybersecurity needs further review and validation in the current pandemic era.

The other biggest task ahead of the CIO is dealing with the whole organizational change management in terms of upskilling and cross killing people because technology is moving at a very rapid pace. We need to make sure that there is a strong competency plan where the digital skills or the competencies are constantly being provided to employees across functions. That’s going to be critical for the effective adoption of digital technologies across the board. So, CIOs need to start communicating these aspects well within the organization.

More specifically to the airlines sector, which has always been a heterogenous environment, CIOs need to collaborate closely with their technology partners to drive their transformation agendas within the timelines.

What are the key technologies that CIOs in your sector will reckon on, to continue transforming the entire value chain?

Aviation sector’s future is certainly going to be more data-driven and this data journey is going to have a progressive roadmap. From that perspective, I see AI/ML playing a huge role in enriching organizations’ data journeys. AI will be extensively leveraged to address the several pain points around data and how it can be effectively used to solve business problems and effective decisioning.

Biometric, as I mentioned earlier, will be a game-changer for the industry, in enabling touch-less and contact-less travel. Another technology that will enable contact-less traveling and social distancing is IoT. Not just that, IoT will be largely explored for a variety of new use cases such as occupancy monitoring, social distancing measures at airports, MRO in engineering and so on. With the advent of 5G, edge computing will take prominence. Once again, how to drive insights out of the massive amounts of data generated by these IoT sensors is something that every other aviation player is focusing on.

The other area where I see a lot of innovation happening is security.  Cybersecurity is being completely transformed with so many threats surfacing during pandemic. SASE – secure access service edge- is set to revolutionize network security as we speak.

Personally, I am passionate about how AR and VR is reshaping training of crew and maintenance staff. Along with Metaverse, Digital twins, these technologies will be leveraged further to improve customer experience, maintenance capabilities and cut down operational cost.

I see lot of excitement around these technologies, which not only transform customer experience, but also help airline operators to be more sustainable.