Lessons from a Spanish low-cost airline planning to become number one in Europe for customer service.

By Anastasiya Markvarde for bel.biz

Which city do you prefer, Barcelona or Amsterdam? It’s a tough choice so I would probably not be able to decide. Our today’s heroine, however, seems to have found a solution of her own. It’s an absolute pleasure to present Simone van Neerven, the Head of Innovation of a Spanish low-cost airline Vueling. Simone is coming to speak at the GEW Belarus in November 2019 so I couldn’t help asking her all kinds of questions about innovation, from serious to provocative.

Simone knows the airline industry inside out. After a long career at KLM Royal Dutch Airlines in the Netherlands, she quit and moved to Barcelona to become Vueling’s Head of Innovation. And this is only a part of the story that you can enjoy below.

– My first question for you, Simone: innovation of the airline – is it happening more outside or inside the aircraft?

That’s a good question! I would say that most innovation for me and my team happens outside the aircraft. It touches all the aspects from the moment a customer gets inspired to travel till the moment he leaves the airport or even further. It means that our focus is mostly placed on the stages of the journey that happen outside the aircraft. By the way, any innovation inside the aircraft is difficult, it needs to be approved by an aerospace company – Airbus for example, so each tiny aspect you would like to add or change needs to be confirmed, every small change is regulated to guard the safety of the plane.

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Simone van Neerven (photo – Simone van Neerven)

– What technologies are you mostly focused on right now at your innovation projects? And which of the already released products or features are you proud of? 

It’s good to have an understanding of the structure: I am the Head of Innovation and I have a colleague who is the Head of Data so her team focuses more on technologies such as AI and ML. My team also experiments with that but everything that has to do with data is their expertise. The data team deals a lot with airline operations: how can we provide best schedules, how can we deal with disruptions in the best way and so on.

My team is much more explorative. We are focused on making demos and prototypes fast and then test them with real customers. We experiment a lot, like making a hologram with a chatbot in it, piloting with blockchain, testing voice in different ways, playing around with image and video recognition, RFID and so on. Besides developing ourselves and collaborating with startups, we also work with big corporates like Google and Amazon. We have implemented solutions with Alexa Voice and introduced a WhatsApp Chatbot.

I am most proud of my team rather than any specific project. With our approach that is human-centered we really immerse ourselves into the customers problems. We do real deep research to identify pain points of our customers and then try to come up with solutions.

– As I understand, most or the solutions you are working at are about customer experience. What’s the evolution of customer reaction to any user-related innovation?

Here we are dealing with two major groups of customers: those who travel a lot and those who do it just once or twice a year. Frequent travelers are more receptive to any know how, they are used to deal with digital solutions.

I have four researchers that shadow, and follow, and interview people in the airport. This is a very good way to discover things you would never learn by just staying at the office. When the researches get back, we visualize how the customer goes through all the stages of his flight and we identify problems at each step of the journey. To solve them, we either develop things or look for startups that have a ready solution. This approach of customer centricity in innovation really matches Vueling’s strategy: to become the best low cost carrier for customer experience in Europe.

We spend a lot of our time on developing new concepts and building prototypes. I push my team to ship these prototypes early and test them with real customers. Because I don’t want to spend a lot of time on things that our customers eventually don’t understand, like or use. Usually people are really surprised we involve them in the development of our solution. It excites them and their reaction is nice. In the end, it’s pretty hard to launch something that everyone likes 100% so you always have a percentage of people complaining. But I would say more customers tend to be happy with our new solutions.

– Just out of curiosity: is it possible for you to relax while flying and not to observe the job the airline is doing? 

I really do fly a lot – I have just had my one hundredth flight of this year! Sometimes I also take the train because I think there is also a means of transportation we need to look into, especially for short distances.

When I fly, I always keep looking around and noticing interesting things. But it does not feel like working, it is just in my DNA, so I get to relax at the same time. When I see something interesting, I take pictures and send them to my team for research purposes. When I fly with another airline, I always pay extra attention to see what we can learn from them.

– To what extent does technology implementation depend on the airport? How big is the challenges to introduce innovation in smaller airports? 

Somehow in the aviation world airports and airlines always struggle to really collaborate together. And that’s surprising because we have the same customers, right? Therefore, I always try to create a win-win solution where both parties can benefit.

In Spain we collaborate closely with AENA (AENA is an abbreviation for Aeropuertos Españoles y Navegación Aérea or Spanish Airports and Air Navigation – author’s remark) – an airport governor for 40 airports in Spain. They are so large so they have their own roadmaps for implementation of the innovative products. This can lead to some challenges on our timeline. For instance, take our facial recognition project. We have the prototypes and we are ready with this technology, but AENA has their own implementation roadmap which takes a bit longer that my team wants. But it’s not easy, I also understand the airports strategy: they don’t have just one airline, they have many airlines and cannot adjust their infrastructure to each one.

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Experiment with facial recognition during boarding at Vueling (photo https://www.futuretravelexperience.com)

 

Therefore, in my team we always try to come up with solutions that are independent from the airport infrastructure as much as possible. So that whatever we develop, we can bring it to any airport. Like in the case of facial recognition, we are developing a mobile solution that we can use at the gate while boarding the flight and take it away when we are ready. In that way we can offer a consistent Vueling experience to all our customers at all airports anytime.

– Vueling, which is part of the International Airlines Group (IAG), recently presented one of the most ambitious strategic projects. The target is to become Europe’s number one airline for customer service in the low-cost segment by 2023. Can you comment on that?

That’s right, just to be clear: we are a part of IAG – International Airlines Group – that also includes British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus, LEVEL, IAG Cargo and other airlines. Vueling  differs a bit from British Airways and Iberia, as we are a true low-cost carrier.

In Europe you have Ryanair and Easyjet, which are the number one and two low-cost airlines. Vueling comes in third and our mission is to provide the best customer experience amongst low cost carriers. For example, you see that the Vueling crew is really nice. I hear our customers say this all the time. To support Vueling’s mission, I have put human-centered design in the heart of the innovation strategy to make sure our innovations really make sense and add value to the customers.

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Vueling cabin crew (photo https://thedesignair.net/)

 

In general, people are getting used to a better customer experience with less friction. They experience that in other industries and start to expect that everywhere. For example, take Amazon with their one-click pay. People are getting used to pay in just one click. This is what we need to think about when we are designing our services: how can we get all the friction out of their travel journey.

– We talk a lot about AI, Big Data and other technologies but we understand that those beyond innovation are people. Can you tell me more about your team and how you manage to attract innovation specialists to Vueling? And how diverse is your team?

I have 14 people in my team including one intern. Four of them are developers and I also have one product owner to manage this team of developers. He determines the backlog of the developers’ team and helps a lot to connect with IT and the business. I have one guy who is a real techie guy. He can build prototypes with all kinds of technologies and sometimes he delivers them within just a couple of days. I also have four service designers who work on the design of our solutions and do a lot of research on human behavior. And I have three guys that I call product managers. Each of these product managers is focused on one of the three strategic initiatives in the innovation lab: the future airport experience, the future of ground operations, and the future of customer interaction.

When I started at Vueling, there were only Spanish guys with a background in IT or engineering in the team. I was the first woman and also the first foreigner (I am Dutch). Now I have four women in my team, two of them are Spanish but with international working experience. One is from Venezuela but raised in Italy, and one is from India. I also hired a guy from the UK. Besides a better gender mix and more international focus, we also have different backgrounds and different ages (not everybody is super young or super old). The one thing we all have in common is that everybody needs to be a little bit crazy. Otherwise they wouldn’t fit in the team.

How do I attract people? I don’t have a golden key for that but what I do is show to the outside world that we are doing super cool stuff. For instance, I post interesting and inspiring things on social media and I notice that my team members are starting to do that as well. I try to go to events as a participant or as a speaker because I think there is a lot of hidden talent everywhere.

I don’t have a very active recruitment policy right now, but a lot of people are asking me to join the team. I realize I am in a luxury position to pick the best people.

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Simone van Neerven speaking at Hamburg Aviation Conference (photo – Thinkfuture-now)

 

– You live between Barcelona and Amsterdam. What are the energy drivers for you in both of the cities?

The reason that I live in two cities is because I work for Vueling in a freelance construction and my company reBel.la is a tax resident in the Netherlands. That’s why I cannot be in Spain for more than 180 days per year. Therefore, I travel a lot back and forth between Barcelona and Amsterdam, which means I am super connected to our product, services and the entire travel experience. It gives me a lot of insights and inspiration on what we can improve and innovate.

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Vueling aircraft (photo https://www.ideal.es)

 

Also, in my team we are not only working on solving the pains of today. We are also exploring what happens in the future and how we can stay relevant. Here the distance really helps me not to be sucked in the problems of today. I guess if I were sitting at the office all the time, I would get drowned in the routine. Being away, in Amsterdam, is a good opportunity to reflect, read a lot, catch up with trends and learn about new things.

I am enjoying the best of both worlds. Barcelona’s lifestyle means sun, nice food and culture, and a great outside life. Amsterdam is my home where I am surrounded by many wonderful friends.

– Could you share some insights on the Three Horizons methodology that you use in your work?

With the Three Horizons methodology we can divide our time and energy in a logical way:

– Horizon 1: the current pains of the organization, say from zero to two years from now;

– Horizon 2: those future activities happening in five years from now;

– Horizon 3: the more crazy, disruptive stuff that we see coming in from five to ten years from now.

What I do is I divide my energy and my team’s energy among these three horizons. For the first one, we are solving problems of today with new technology. For the second we create visions of future, like three to five years from now, on all our strategic initiatives that I mentioned before (future of ground operations, future of airport experience, future of customer interaction). For example, for the future airport experience we created an animation to visualize how it will look like when you would go to the airport in five years from now.  And what concerns the third horizon, we collaborate with IAG, since these are quite strategic topics.

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Simone van Neerven (photo – Simone van Neerven)

– Please give us a brief summary of Vueling’s collaboration with startups. I have seen that IAG has launched the 2d Hangar 51 global innovation program in Spain in collaboration with Iberia, Vueling and IAG cargo. Are there some success stories to share?

That’s right, the Hangar 51 accelerator program is organized for the 4th year already and for the second time it takes place in Spain. It runs once a year and lasts 10 weeks. It has just started with a great kickoff in Madrid on September 30 2019. Our program is quite interesting, especially for startups since you get full support of a very senior leadership of the airlines. All the CEO’s of the airlines are really supportive and the startups work very closely with the business to build a successful use case in just 10 weeks.

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Hangar 51 (photo – https://www.eu-startups.com)

The program runs in Spain this year, so Vueling and Iberia are obviously heavily involved. Vueling is collaborating with 4-5 startups. My team supports the business and the startups to make sure there is progress. By the way, about 60% of the startups that applied for the Hangar 51 program this year came outside of the aviation industry and the startups came from over 50 different countries! So we are very open to solutions, wherever they come from!

To mention some examples, two startups that were part of the program in the past are Volantio and Mindsay (former Destygo). They have solutions that are now deployed in several airlines of IAG already. So, Hangar 51 is an organized way for us to scout for and work with startups.

But we are not limited to Hangar 51 and we can scout for good solutions ourselves too. An example of that is Bag on board (B.o.b). They collect your luggage at home and check it in for you at the airport. We have quite a lot of interest and responses on that. Automatic bag collection and check-in is a good example of innovation outside the aircraft, by the way!

– Does it mean a startup with a relevant solution can approach you?

Well yes, they can approach me of course. I get so many messages, that it is hard to keep up with them and reply to all of them. Obviously, Vueling cannot work with several hundred startups each year so we have to choose. But if we see something interesting, we are definitely open to explore a collaboration!   

– What is Vueling’s relationship with other IAG airlines in innovation activities? And in general, knowing you have experience of working at KLM: what is the difference in innovation in a low-cost and a legacy airline?

I really push my colleagues to collaborate within the IAG Group. I contact other group airlines proactively in order to exchange our innovation experience. We don’t see them as competitors. In fact, there is a healthy competition which stimulates the creativity and deployment and we do share insights with each other. For instance, this Bag-on-Board service comes from Iberia. They had already implemented this solution and encouraged Vueling to try it as well.

Anyway, I truly believe we just cannot afford to compete within the group, we’d rather use our strengths to compete with others. Here I have a learning from Airfrance-KLM: they still struggle to collaborate after their merge in 2004, unfortunately. I find it painful to see because I know KLM is a cool and powerful brand with loads of potential that could flourish even more if there would be better collaboration. I really wish for them this situation improves. In my opinion, the model inside IAG is healthier: each airline has its own entity, its own profit and loss, and its own freedom, but we do need to perform well. And then collaboration helps in driving the results.

As for innovation in a low-cost segment, I don’t think it differs that much from the legacy carriers. Probably, only in some aspects, like in Vueling we are not innovating on high-end services just because our customers are a bit different. At the same time, we focus more on innovation in delivering extra (paid) services, called ancillaries, but many legacy airlines have also started to do that. Therefore all airlines have more or less the same challenges.

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Vueling planes (photo https://www.anna.aero)

 

– Vueling is one of the few low-cost airlines operating in Minsk. Do you have any particular experience in Belarus or CIS region?

No, unfortunately not yet. However, I have friends in Barcelona who are startup founders and all their developers are in the CIS region. That’s why I was really interested to come to the GEW Belarus – to look into this market because I think there are a lot of opportunities in terms of startups or developers here other companies are not exploring

In this respect I also think we need more connections of startup ecosystems in Europe. We are trying to compete but the only way to give an answer to Silicon Valley or China is to be united. 

– And finally, the last and the most important question for our audience: when do we have Wi-Fi on board in all the aircrafts?

This is an easy question to ask but a hard one to answer. We are working hard on it as almost every airline. But the technology gives more challenges than expected. The project is managed by my colleagues from IAG since all the airlines within the group want to launch it. It requires quite some investments and we learn a lot along the way, so we better do that together. Technically there are some issues that I am not very deeply aware of, but I expect this to happen more sooner than later.

At the same time, we are exploring new business models that will come with having Wi-Fi on board. This will drastically boost customer experience. Customers may use this time to prepare their further travel: to book a hotel last minute, for example. It means there will be lots of implications and I am excited to see how people are going to react and how it will transform our services. 

Let’s wish Simone a nice flight to Minsk that will add another passenger experience to her collection! And make sure you are here for the GEW Belarus on November 18-19 in Minsk where Simone will be speaking on how to develop Innovation and build corporate culture based on Vueling experience.