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The passenger in the third row of the airplane speaks only Swahili and has a broken video screen.
But fortunately, hours earlier, an Emirates Airlines purser reviewed a flight plan on a tablet computer. The plan informed that a flight attendant on board happens to know a smattering of Swahili. After helping the passenger, the purser notes on her tablet that the seat screen needs repair. When the plane lands, everyone who needs to know -- from repairmen to a vice president -- receives an update about the faulty equipment.
While still hypothetical at this point, this is the kind of story that Emirates Airlines hopes will stem from a new initiative designed to strengthen customer relations by improving in-flight communication and putting more information at employees' fingertips. The airline has created its own Windows 8-based CRM application and plans to deploy it on HP ElitePad 900 tablet computers. The company will begin rolling out the tablets on planes next year, but airline executives already can't keep their feet on the ground as they consider the tablet's potential.
For several years, the Dubai-based airline has run a CRM app it developed for laptops, but by making the program accessible on a tablet, flight crews will have an easier time concentrating on customer experience, according to Patrick Brannelly, an Emirates vice president of communications.
"By making this so much easier, we'll get so much more information on what we do right," Brannelly said.
Until 2004, an Emirates purser, or chief crew officer, had recorded flight notes with pen and paper. Then, Emirates created its own business application, Knowledge-driven Inflight Service (KIS), which allowed pursers to use laptops to take stock of what transpired on a flight and how to better serve passengers.
KIS captures all sorts of information, anything from positive customer feedback to complaints about food to a report that a seat has a pen mark.
Once the plane lands, emails go out to as many as 26 departments, including Brannelly's, that list the good and bad things that transpired during the flight.
"If someone had trouble using a mobile phone or there was a customer entertainment system showing a movie with bad subtitles, I get an email within minutes of landing telling me about the issue," he said. "This gives management a real feel of what's happening."
Emirates believes it's not getting the full picture now on customer feedback because of the way the crew records flight incidents. The airline estimates passengers offer feedback directly to crew members only about 40% of the time when they experience bad service or encounter something broken. To complicate things, the crew records only about 50% of that feedback, Brannelly said.
A big reason why flight crews don't record everything is their laptops, according to Brannelly. They have to wait for a laptop to fire up, and it's bulkier than a tablet, he said. An easy-to-handle tablet should improve the crew's abilities to communicate and ultimately bolster the customer experience, he said.
Emirates will be the first global business customer of HP ElitePad 900, the airline said. The tablet will be available in January, when Emirates will give 100 of their customized devices to pursers. By year's end, every Emirates purser will have an HP tablet, and in the future, every flight attendant could also have one.
Windows 8 CRM takes life on an HP tablet
The airline said in a statement that it chose ElitePad 900, instead of Apple's iPad or other tablets, because it is "light, attractive and has a long battery life, ideal for nonstop flights."
The HP tablet will also withstand the rigors of flight, and the fact that it supports Windows 8 will help users of the newly revamped KIS application, because the Windows 8 tiles application interface is easy to use, said Kevin Griffiths, the senior vice president of Emirates' cabin crew division. Emirates tested the tablet on several flights and had no problems, he said.
Emirates employees who redesigned the KIS application went to pursers and asked what worked and didn't work with the original program, Griffiths said. The pursers mostly asked for a device that would be easier to handle than a laptop, Brannelly said.
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"The technology you provide to your crew helps differentiate them [from other airline crews] and it engages customers," Griffiths said.
Emirates has more than 2,500 flights per week to 126 cities. To maintain nonstop, overnight flights, the airline employs 16,000 crew members.
With that many employees in the air, crew members often know little about one another. But under the new program, a purser will be able to establish a crew plan before a flight and figure out who's who.
The Windows 8 CRM application will provide an overview of the flight crew, with photos, information on experience and work strengths and tidbits such as languages spoken.
The app will also display information about passengers: the number of children, who eats vegetarian meals, who prefers a stiff drink and who needs help because of a health issue.
With tablet in hand, the purser will before takeoff update the crew on how to address passenger preferences, and, in a pinch, change people's seats.
As touchdown nears, the purser will enter any last bit of customer feedback and technical problems into the tablet, and the information routes to Emirates headquarters upon landing. Emirates then works to replicate on the ground the CRM applied in the air, Griffiths said.