Qantas gets iPads. So did United. So what?

iPad mania is all the rage in the airline industry. But does it make a jot of difference to the customer experience? Not as far as I can tell.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

Depending upon the person you are talking with, iPad is either cool (CEO/CFO types c.2010), running the business (delusional sales people, c. 2011) or as seems now to be its real purpose - saving paper and airline pilot's aching limbs. 

Earlier today, Suzanne Tindal reported that Qantas pilots are being issued with 64GB iPads. The deal is sized at 2,200 units. The report includes some oddities. Tindal says:

The devices will replace the flight plans, manuals and forms, and will keep pilots up to date with flight data.

Two apps have also been created specifically for pilot use: a charts app created by Boeing subsidiary Jeppeson, and a Qantas-built app to provide other flight information.

Last year, Next Web reported that United was taking on 11,000 iPads. Again, Jeppeson is the primary software supplier. So far so good. Then we get to the Qantas PR:

"The revolutionary capabilities of iPad technology, combined with the powerful customised apps, give our pilots the ability to replace cumbersome hard copies — saving time, resources and costs," Qantas technical pilot, captain Alex Passerini, said in a statement.

"This initiative is a response to strong demand from our pilots for a simpler, more efficient system, and follows extensive testing and development work, including close consultation with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority [CASA]."

Do you believe any of that? The first paragraph is far too buzzword compliant for my taste. The second only makes sense in the context that pilots actually know what they're looking for. Doesn't it make better sense to say that Qantas saw what competitors are up to and realised they needed to do something? Or rather that iPad is becoming standard cockpit gear following FAA approval. And what about OneWorld alliance initiatives in this area? Anything happening? Not as far as I can tell. 

More to the point, while it might be great that pilots will be relieved of a heavy operational burden (sic) how exactly is this going to improve things for customers? In two words: it doesn't. At least not obviously. 

As I was thinking through what this means, it struck me that iPad mania is blinding companies to genuine opportunities for improving the customer experience. For example, if the pilots are using iPad with wifi, why not extend that service to the whole plane? Anecdotal evidence from people I know and my own experience suggests there will be no shortage of takers. Look at the love Virgin America gets

In United's case, wifi connectivity alone might do something to turn the dial down on Ray Wang's ongoing beating up of America's unloved airline. I see there are plans to do so. Unfortunately it will only reach the whole United/Continental fleet by 2015. Why?

As innovation in companies becomes more than just a convenient and exciting buzzword, is it not time that those same companies thought about IT differently? Is it not time to be considering IT as transformational instead of as an incremental Band-Aid?

If you agree then that changes the nature of consultancy. But therein lies its own problem. In a recent post on the topic of incumbancy, Vinnie Mirchandani said:

An executive told me a few weeks ago “My outsourcer has been reading too many of your innovation books. We hired them to do fairly mundane application and infrastructure support. Instead of doing that better, cheaper, faster, they are always offering to help us with our innovation projects”.

If they are bored doing what they were hired for, why don’t they resign that contract and restructure themselves as an innovation focused firm? Of course not, and they would want a hefty early termination fee if the client asked them to leave.

To my mind much of this incrementalism starts with IT analysts. They have a history of focusing on bits and bytes for consumption by the CTO/CIO instead of focusing on what the business really needs. In recent times, the trend has been to big up the latest shiny new toy in homage to the fashionista way in which (largely Silicon Valley/Boston based) vendors and analysts dance around one another. Add in a healthy dose of ADD among hard pressed business people and you have a heady marketing mix that I would argue works against management's ability to think beyond the latest thing and obvious purpose. 

Innovation everywhere may be a wonderful thing, offering a corrnucopia of opportunity. But unless it is tempered by some deep thought into the possible then I doubt very much whether the promise of better customer experiences will ever be truly materialised.

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