Airline technology use cases: insights from Alaska Airlines

Promotional card for webinar with Gus Naughton from Alaska Airlines

In our recent webinar about airline technology, Gus Naughton, Senior Software Engineer — Emerging Technologies at Alaska Airlines, discussed how to use consumer-grade solutions for aviation innovation. As an experienced Software Engineer, Gus highlighted the journey from ideas to implementation and talked about airline operations’ future.

Some background: Gus’s career in aviation innovation

Just a fun fact to get started: Alaska Airlines gifts “wings” to their employees. When you hit 6 months, you get a metal pair of wings. After 3 years, you get rose gold wings. And Gus? He’ll be getting his gold wings in September 2024, having worked at Alaska Airlines for 5 years.

As Gus’ career at Alaska Airlines started just six months before the COVID-19 pandemic, right after the merger with Virgin America. At this point, their main focus was on how to deal with mixed aircraft fleets (Airbus versus Boeing) and how to strengthen their position in the Pacific Northwest, specifically Seattle and Portland.

In March 2021, Alaska Airlines joined the oneworld Alliance, and Gus took a lead role in some aspects of the integration, such as positioning themselves as a global booking carrier. By ensuring the discoverability of international destinations and seamless airport connections, they were able to become more than a domestic airline.

Revolutionizing airline technology with the electronic bag tag

Following those projects, Gus started to work on more experimental techniques for airline technology, including the electronic bag tag. This tag allowed them to move the checking of bags away from the kiosk (and the airport queues), and ensure check-in at home, 24 hours in advance.

Passengers can just tap their mobile against the tag to get the bar code with updated routing information. Then all they have to do is simply drop off their bag at the self-bag drop at airports, and walk away.

Passengers appreciate the possibilities of airline technology, such as easy bag drops and Bluetooth baggage tracking.
Passengers appreciate the possibilities of airline technology, such as easy bag drops and Bluetooth baggage tracking.

This innovation marked a turning point in Gus’ career, from software engineering to the intersection of operations, hardware, and software. The change came with its challenges, as Gus had to get used to the many regulations and procedures that mark the aviation industry.

Innovation in aviation: versatility and efficiency

Before diving into other projects, Gus takes a step back to reflect on the definition of innovation, as the term means something different to everyone.

At Alaska Airlines, it involves:

  • New business models;
  • New technology capabilities;
  • New customer and employee experiences.

For them, a successful innovative practice entails realizing positive change at the intersection of those three elements. And to achieve that, they often start by using consumer-grade solutions for their airline technology. This enables them to simulate passenger experiences in their sandbox and define specific requirements and metrics for the solution.

Together with vendor partners, they can then develop the right solution for their problem, reenvisioning the airport gate, and building technology that matches their goals. Bob’s TravelTag for example is being developed in close relationships with leading airlines, ensuring operational efficiency and easy implementation.

Use case airline technology: baggage counting

A current focus for Gus and his team is the use of computer vision to count carry-on baggage and know how many bags are boarding the aircraft. It gives them an accurate measure of how many bags they can fit in the designated groups. It also provides them with a data point for every single flight. This “counting bags” technology improves passenger satisfaction by reducing unnecessary gate checks and supports Alaska Airlines in managing aircraft weight and balance.

As with many developments in airline technology, it is important to have a well-structured plan.

For Gus, key strategies include involving executive sponsors in the early stages of the development and keeping stakeholders informed throughout the entire process. Gus also highlights the importance of ensuring that new ideas are not developed in isolation and are aligned with the company’s broader goals. And while there is always a risk of failure, Gus remarks that every failure is a lesson and a step to success.

Looking at the future of airports and airlines

What will the future of aviation look like? This AI-generated image of an airport gives us a glimpse of the possibilities that could exist.
What will the future of aviation look like? This AI-generated image of an airport gives us a glimpse of the possibilities that could exist.

Looking ahead, Gus is keen on understanding passenger expectations for the airport experience over the next decade. He speculated on future scenarios where airports could either become social hubs or streamlined portals focused on efficiency. In both cases, implications for airports and airlines will be significant, including robotics, operational changes, and data collection.

Thanks Gus, for your insights on airline technology!

As Gus is preparing for the future of aviation, he encourages all airline partners to be open to explorations, putting their problems out there and seeing what comes back to them. He also engages aviation experts to look beyond the airline space and find solutions in other industries, such as tech, entertainment, or hospitality. Because embracing new technologies and methodologies will be crucial for airlines to remain competitive and responsive to evolving customer needs.

See you at our next webinar?

The full recording is available on our LinkedIn page and YouTube channel.

Stay tuned for future discussions as we continue to explore the dynamic landscape of the aviation industry.

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