Abu Dhabi is getting ready for an innovation-loaded takeoff

When business travel and leisure mix: a look at Etihad flagship Airbus 380

This article is a crosspost from Fikra Labs.

If it wasn’t for all the great aviation innovations that the world witnessed throughout the years, we would be stuck on the ground right now.

From radars, GPS plane tracking, cabin pressurization which made it possible for us to travel 3,000 meters above sea level, to the plane’s flight recorder, known as the ‘black box’, which is placed in the aircraft to facilitate the investigation of aviation accidents and incidents, the flying experience has constantly progressed and improved with time and new technologies.

Fast forward to 2018, flying is now a combination of convenience, efficiency and luxury, to make today’s travelers feel at home, while in the sky.

A perfect example of this is Etihad Airways’ The Residence, available on the Airbus A380. The Residence comprises a private three-room suite, including a living room, a bedroom and a bathroom. The Residence also offers a private entrance to the airport, a private butler, discreet storage spaces, and a fine-dining experience.

“Our focus is really on the customer experience and bringing new concepts and innovation to the aircraft, to accommodate business and first class,” said Will Inglis, head of strategic projects at Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways.  

Last year, the aviation group partnered with German technology company Diehl Aerosystems, to manufacture 3D-printed plastic components into the aircraft. The utilization of 3D printing reduces the manufacturing time, the hefty costs, and could save companies like Boeing $3 million per plane.

The partnership will help Etihad save around 20 to 30 percent of the cost, “with the added benefit of not requiring tooling and avoiding any permanent modification to the seat,” said Jeff Wilkinson, engineering chief executive officer at Etihad Airways, in a press release.

At the forefront of innovation

Innovation in aviation extends beyond the flying experience. It touches the travelers’ decision making and attracts more tourists to Abu Dhabi. The goal of Etihad Aviation Group is to be the gate through which people will come in and explore Abu Dhabi. As a first contact between the country and tourists, Etihad will contribute to boosting tourism and hospitality in the Emirate. Once there, guests must be provided with different types of facilities to explore and have fun.

This is why Etihad Aviation Group, along with asset management company Miral,  Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Center (ADNEC), and Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT), have partnered to launch Fikra Labs, an initiative that aims to find creative solutions to boost the travel and tourism industries in Abu Dhabi.

Fikra Labs will be Abu Dhabi’s first accelerator, focused on these industries. Launched in February, startups are invited to apply to join the four-week acceleration program held at Etihad Innovation Center, and come up with innovative solutions to challenges set by the four partners. The challenges will be about leveraging data and advanced technologies to make the travel and tourism experience more connected. The accelerator will help participants refine their ideas and get them off the ground. It will adopt a comprehensive approach towards boosting tourism, as each of its partners has complimentary elements.

Etihad Aviation Group is in charge of bringing guests to the country, Miral offers them the facilities to make their stay enjoyable such as visiting Yas Island, ADNEC focuses on business travelers, and ADTC is in charge of managing the tourism sector and promoting it in the Emirate. “This is why the program is great,” added Inglis.

“Our next chapter will be on digital, customization, leveraging big data to better serve our passengers and [using] artificial intelligence to give customers what they want,” he said.

Data-driven transformation is key to understand visitors and target them better. However, it should be used wisely. Harry Bowcott, senior partner at global consulting company McKinsey, highlighted in one of his speeches that data and new technologies must always be applied, directed, and managed by human beings. In his talk, he listed few data myths, one related to how people view and analyze data. For him, people working in companies should not aggregate all the data and look at their results. They should just apply targeted data insights to existing problems they have been solving before using human judgement. Doing so requires human intervention at every level, to filter the unnecessary headache.

“Put yourself in the customer’s position. You’re using an online travel agency to find a hotel in New York. It gives you 941 properties. Are you really going to take hours to sift through all of them, squinting at slightly too small, slightly too fuzzy photographs of anonymous hotel lobbies and rooms? Travel is a high-anxiety purchase,” Bowcott said. “The first company that understands how to treat travel as an anxiety purchase will win big, and an understanding of people will be essential.”

Regionally, many travel startups are trying to decrease the hefty load of buying tickets and booking hotels, including UAE-based Holidayme, which acts as an online travel agency and has closed $7 million in Series A of investment in 2016; Dubai and Singapore-based startup Wego, which received $12 million of investment last September from MBC Group, and an undisclosed amount from Middle East Venture Partners; Rehlat, which was considered one of the most promising booking apps in Kuwait; and the list goes on.

Today’s travelers are tomorrow’s ambassadors

Stressing on making passengers’ experience better, Etihad Aviation Group signed a memorandum of understanding with Chinese multinational ecommerce group Alibaba and its affiliate, Ant Financial Services Group, to enhance the benefits and opportunities for cross-acquisition of loyalty points within the partners’ loyalty programs. This will include converting points to Etihad Guest Miles as well as redeem Etihad Guest Miles for Alibaba products. Etihad will also integrate Alibaba’s products with the airline’s travel experience, across its global route network, as mentioned in Etihad’s press release.

The aviation group is also engaging the youth in its challenges and giving them access to tools and trainings. This is mainly done through Fikra Labs, and other smaller initiatives. Not to be confused with Fikra Labs, Fikra University is a competition that was launched by the group in 2016, to focus on innovation and youth development. The competition, that’s limited to UAE students, also encourages youth to solve challenges related to the aviation industry.

Moving Forward forum, which was held last December in Abu Dhabi, is an event organized by the Procurement and Supply Management team at Etihad Aviation Group. The forum drew around 50 entrepreneurs from the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development and included a workshop about the procurements of the group and potential commercial opportunities with the fund’s members.

“We constantly encourage big government entities and big national companies to follow the example of Etihad Aviation Group in the field of supporting small and medium enterprises by reducing the restrictions to give them contracts,” said Adil Al-Mulla, vice president group procurement and supply management at the group, during the forum.

Changes to the travel industry are inevitable and disruption is yet to touch on the way the group will interact with customers and make their experience better at the airport, according to Inglis. He believes innovative ideas will create more jobs and drive the economy away from oil, and will eventually open up the country as a global destination.  “We have to do this in an innovative fashion and take advantages of the tech digital capabilities and the new ways of attracting people, and make Abu Dhabi a relevant destination,” he concluded.

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