Emirates: Data and the Future of Air Travel

Dubai-based Emirates has been and will need to continue bringing together advanced data and analytics capabilities to build a new, high-quality passenger experience for customers.

One of the most consistent comments about airline travel over the past couple of decades is that the quality of the passenger experience has only gotten worse. Whether it is more seats being crammed onto an aircraft, oversold flights, or increasing use of ancillary charges such as bag check fees, passengers have had little to cheer about. Yet one major airline, the relatively young Dubai-based Emirates, has aimed to buck this trend by focusing on providing a high-quality passenger experience. The airline is focusing digital technology efforts around speeding travel time, investing in new research on passenger habits, and improving ground infrastructure.

Most passengers dread the notification that an airplane has entered a holding pattern due to airspace and landside congestion. The issue emerges due to requirements for how much distance aircraft must keep from each other, limiting runway throughput at key peak times. Poor airspace management could cost Middle Eastern carriers up to $16 billion over the next decade if they fail to address the challenge[i]. Emirates and other Middle Eastern airlines are thus working extensively with the air traffic controllers to improve the use of technology and data sharing between entities, allowing air traffic controllers to better track airplanes operating in closer vicinity to one another, and thus increase overall airspace throughput[ii].

When Emirates moved into its new dedicated Terminal 3 at Dubai International Airport, it came with one of the most sophisticated baggage handling systems to date. The system, leveraging over 800 RFID scanners and 90 kilometers of baggage carousels, is capable of handling 15,000 bags per hour[iii]. The reality is that Emirates and its baggage system is not quite meeting passenger expectations however, according to the influential Skytrax ratings[iv]. The airline thus has scope to improve its offering here in collaboration with the company managing the Dubai Airport, likely through the use of even better baggage tracking and processing efforts, and emergent systems that allow passengers to track baggage in real time[v].

More recently, Emirates has also begun to look into more theoretical ways of enhancing service efficiency and improving the customer experience. The airline has launched a Data Science Lab at Oxford University as part of a five-year partnership. The goal is to apply Emirates data and expertise from Oxford’s mathematics, engineering, and social science faculty to analyze data, develop machine learning techniques, and better understand how customers interact with the airline[vi]. The collaboration could provide Emirates with industry-leading insight on passengers, and better capabilities to process their own data in the future.

Looking forward, there are a number of next steps for the airline, as it looks to burnish its premium credentials. Airlines already collect considerable data on passengers across the booking and trip experience, and through frequent flyer programs such as Emirates’ Skywards program. Emirates could begin using this data to enhance the personalization of the experience – pushing alerts and updates, integrate biometric data to speed border control, personalizing duty free alerts, and selling key services on the airplane, among others[vii]. Emirates has already begun moving in this direction through its basic trip management smartphone app, and recently launched an additional app that allows passengers from non-visa on arrival countries to apply for a UAE visa[viii].

Emirates has succeeded in building a very well-known and regarded brand, and has rapidly emerged as one of the largest airlines on the planet. Future prospects remain very bright, should the airline succeed in even further enhancing its data analytics and leverage that increasing insight to improve the overall customer experience. For Emirates, time remains of the essence however – the playbook for enhancing the customer experience is well-known in the industry, and the airline will want to ensure it remains ahead of rivals in the Gulf and Europe. (776 words)

[i] Shereen El Gazzar, “Congested airspace could cost Middle East $16 billion over next decade,” The National, 7 March 2016, http://www.thenational.ae/business/aviation/congested-airspace-could-cost-middle-east-16-billion-over-next-decade, accessed 15 November 2016.

[ii] Shane McGinley, “Sky’s the limit: tackling aviation congestion in the Gulf,” Arabian Business, 28 November 2015, http://www.arabianbusiness.com/sky-s-limit-tackling-aviation-congestion-in-gulf-613620.html, accessed 15 November 2016.

[iii] “Dubai International Airport: A baggage handling system for the gate to the Arab world,” Siemens, http://w3.siemens.com/market-specific/global/en/airports/baggage_cargo/Documents/al_dubai.pdf, accessed 15 November 2016.

[iv] “Emirates 4-star airline rating,” Skytrax, http://www.airlinequality.com/ratings/emirates-star-rating/, accessed 15 November 2016.

[v] “Future Travel Experience Onboard 2025 Think Tank,” Future Travel Experience, December 2015, http://apex.aero/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/onboard-2025-thinktank-dec-2015.pdf, accessed 15 November 2016.

[vi] “Oxford-Emirates Data Science Lab will streamline air travel,” University of Oxford, http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2015-10-29-oxford-emirates-data-science-lab-will-streamline-air-travel, accessed 15 November 2016.

[vii] “Future Travel Experience Onboard 2025 Think Tank,” Future Travel Experience, December 2015, http://apex.aero/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/onboard-2025-thinktank-dec-2015.pdf, accessed 15 November 2016.

[viii] “Emirates passengers offered app-based visa application service,” Future Travel Experience, November 2016, http://www.futuretravelexperience.com/2016/11/emirates-passengers-offered-app-based-visa-application-service/, accessed 15 November 2016.


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Student comments on Emirates: Data and the Future of Air Travel

  1. This is a great rundown of the wide range of ways Emirates is leveraging technology in its operations. One aspect of your post that I found very intriguing was the reliance of Emirates (and other airlines) on governmental infrastructure and systems and how that will change with technology. There are significant challenges with this because governments typically lag behind the private sector in implementing technological change. I’d be curious to see how airlines and passengers are spurring increased adoption of new technology by governments around the world.

  2. Great post. Building on Sam’s point, I wonder if Emirates’ work can be replicated in other countries? As a state-owned airline, Emirates and the government go hand in hand, so it is in both parties’ best interests to collaborate (Also, I assume that Emirates has significant influence on the airport in Dubai). How easy, cost-effective or feasible would these efforts be for someone like JetBlue, a non-government backed publicly listed airline with limited clout over multiple airports?

  3. Good read, Adam ! Having lived in the Middle East for a long time, I can safely say that while almost all ME airlines (Etihad, Emirates, Qatar..) offer superior flying experiences when compared to US airlines. However when I think back on what allows them to do this, I do think that the backing of the governments and the resources provided to them is instrumental in helping them achieve this. The lower cost of human capital is another factor that helps Emirates provide superior service. I am surprised that even with all the technology that is present in T3 at Dubai airport, there are still complaints over baggage handling. This makes me wonder if conventional devices such as RFIDs have reached a limit in terms of the volume that they can handle.

    Dubai has increasing become a travel hub and will probably see even more passengers over the next few decades. Maybe there needs to be a change in the way Emirates and other airlines think about technology in customer service. To quote from a recent HBS case, incremental benefits can only get us so far. With all the backing and resources, Emirates has the potential to create the next big bang in technology and I for one would be disappointed if they are not able to be leaders of change in the airline sector.

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