by Martha Heller

How JetBlue leverages digital technology for safer travel

Oct 21, 2020
AnalyticsInnovationIT Leadership

The airline's technology chief, Eash Sundaram, explains how solutions originally introduced to enhance the customer experience are now helping ensure safety during the pandemic.

Eash Sundaram, chief digital and technology officer, JetBlue
Credit: Eash Sundaram, chief digital and technology officer, JetBlue

JetBlue had a strong start to 2020 with a great balance sheet, an innovative product line, and high customer service scores. 2020 also marked the 20th anniversary of the $8 billion airline, which meant celebrations and excitement about the future.

But then, of course, COVID-19 came along, and leadership quickly realized that of the airline’s values — safety, caring, integrity, passion and fun — the first two would be the focal point for the foreseeable future. “We put our energy behind two themes: the health and safety of our customers and crew members, and ensuring healthy finances to get through the crisis,” says Eash Sundaram, chief digital and technology officer, who also runs JetBlue Technology Ventures, a tech incubator for the travel industry.

Despite the level of work necessary to maintain the airline in the present, JetBlue is acutely focused on the future. In July, it announced a major partnership with American Airlines, which promises JetBlue customers access to expanded routes and easier connections, check-ins, and baggage transfers from one airline to the other. JetBlue is also continuing to innovate on customer engagement technologies, to enhance the experience for customers who will travel more when the pandemic is on the wane.

‘Touchless travel’ technology

“We have a history of leveraging digital solutions to drive frictionless travel, and these are really helping us get through this crisis,” says Sundaram. He cites the biometrics technologies that JetBlue introduced two years ago as a case in point: “In the past, we’ve used biometrics for frictionless travel,” he says. “Today, those same touchless solutions are helping our customers be safe.”

In originally launching the biometrics program, Sundaram and a cross-functional team focused on the customer. “Our customer experience mission is to create personal, simple, and frictionless travel. With any technology solution, that’s where we start,” he says. “When we wanted to move from frictionless travel to touchless travel, biometrics quickly became a tool we could leverage to drive that experience.”

Open architecture and customer focus pay dividends

JetBlue’s open architecture, and its ability to access outside data, that is, data that lies beyond what JetBlue has historically collected, has also come in handy during the crisis. “Our revenue, pricing, and customer analytics have always looked at history to predict the future,” says Sundaram. “But in the world of the pandemic, we need to know which city airports are closing and which are opening. That’s not our data; that’s not history. It’s a dataset that’s available outside. So, having an open architecture that can leverage data that is publicly available has been very valuable.”

JetBlue has always put a premium on customer experience feedback, a capability they have been continuing to develop during the pandemic. “Six months ago, customer questions were about inflight entertainment and kiosks, and today, they are about flight cancellations and how many people will be on the plane,” says Sundaram. “Our work now is to increase our responsiveness to customers and to crewmembers, who also need to know that they are safe.”

COVID silver linings

While, as Sundaram puts it, “Nobody should design a company in the middle of a pandemic,” he does see some silver linings for the airline as a result of the last six months.

JetBlue Technology Ventures is one. “We had never anticipated a zero-demand scenario,” he says, “But we are investing in startups offering ultra violet cleaning products, contact tracing, and contactless travel. JetBlue Technology Ventures is driving some massive innovation in these spaces.”

Sundaram also sees a strong JetBlue culture emerging from the crisis. “On a normal day before COVID, we would run from one meeting to another,” he says. “But this crisis has taught us to listen to one another, and care for our colleagues in a way that I have never seen before.

We have also become more focused. We cannot solve every problem; we have to pick and choose our battles, which is new for a company that does not like to say ‘No.’”

As a leader, Sundaram is facing his own challenges. One is the shift to remote work. “My leadership style is all about being there, giving high fives in person, and connecting with people emotionally,” he says. “It is tough for me to build a relationship from behind a screen.” So, he compensates by being as thoughtful and inclusive as he can be. “None of us have ever gone through anything like this,” he says. “I am amazed every day by how my team has responded to the crisis and is working together to get us through. My responsibility as a leader is to support and inspire them in whatever way I can. That’s my job right now.”