For the IT chiefs of the airline industry, doing more with less, embracing virtualisation and increasing the use of self-service technologies are all familiar challenges. This year, however, there’s a new test to add to the list – how to keep up with Apple.

With the growth in the adoption of high-end gadgets like smartphones and netbooks, CIOs are faced with the problem of working with staff whose home IT is faster, better and more user-friendly than what they use in their average working day.

It’s an issue multiplied for the airline industry where customers – who are accustomed to easy-to-use apps and hardware – are confronted with unintuitive airline systems during their booking process or journey.

The problem is also made more acute by air passengers’ thirst for, and familiarity with, new gadgets – according to analyst house Forrester, travellers are around 18 months ahead of the mainstream adoption when it comes to technology.

“A customer who bought an iPad last week when you’re sitting behind an eight-year-old PC and you’re doing some green screen emulation… they’re not going to have patience with that,” Jay Fredericks, CIO of Delta Airlines, told the Airline IT Summit in Brussels.

While the iPad may be unlikely to become as widespread a customer-facing tech as a self-service check-in desk, for example, due to the rigours it would face – “five-year-olds bashing it all day” – Fredericks believes the industry “needs to leverage consumer technology” in its operations.

Apple iPhone 4

The iPhone 4: airline IT chiefs want to emulate Apple’s ability to make computing fun and easy
(Photo credit: James Martin/CNET)

Apple, which recently sold its two-millionth iPad, is regarded by airline tech chiefs as the consumer technology standard that the industry’s IT should aspire to.

“I absolutely do believe that the iPad and tablet computing is gaming-changing… people expect computing to be fun and easy to use and that’s the challenge we have got,” Paul Coby, CIO of British Airways, told the conference .

“Google and Apple have reset the bar on consumer applications,” he added.

Tony Tyler, CEO of Cathay Pacific, agreed that Apple’s mobile tech has caused travellers to expect consumer-facing IT to do better.

“Most people’s experience of IT is playing with apps on their smartphone or their iPad… they know that [such technology] works and it works smoothly and intuitively,” he told the conference.

“Apple has done a good job in setting the bar high and our customers can’t understand why we can’t match that,” Tyler added.

Emulating the iPad maker is no mean feat, however. CIOs at the summit stressed that making processes and technology appear simple and easy to use is in itself increasingly complex. They cited the familiar business problem of information held in silos as one of the main barriers to achieving Apple-like systems.

“Bringing information together in that way is not possible with distributed IT,” Cathay Pacific boss Tyler said. The airline’s own information management function has recently been remodelled, away from a traditional approach of embedding IT workers within individual business units, which saw information, systems and processes become siloed within those departments.

Setting up the intuitive and easy-to-use systems that consumers crave will necessitate not just streamlining one airline’s technology but could also include that of the whole industry. Travellers’ journeys often don’t involve just a single carrier, say the IT chiefs – so why should the infrastructure underpinning it?

According to BA’s Coby, the obstacle to such information sharing comes from a lack of airline technology standards – once clearly defined by Iata (International Air Transport Association), they are less so now.

“I think that’s to do with the speed of technology – things move on, and I think it’s to do with – and rightly so – talking to your competitors. Talking about message speeds or protocols is probably OK,” but greater co-operation could raise legal issues, he said.

The British Airways CIO believes greater information sharing is possible nonetheless – “none of this is insurmountable,” he told – and foresees a role for organisations like Sita or Iata in helping to create a larger degree of interconnectedness between the airlines.

Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, CEO of Air-France KLM, however was less optimistic: “The [airline] CEOs have a meeting together, saying ‘we should do common systems, common standards’,” he told the summit. “Two years later, they meet up again.”

And two years later, said Gourgeon, they’re still saying ‘we should have common systems, common standards…’