Sally is a 49-year-old mother of two, lives in an upper middle-class neighborhood and holds an advanced degree. Companies have been marketing to Sally and those like her for decades, but there’s a small problem: Sally doesn’t exist. She’s a sketch of a broad demographic – a mythological mom whose likes and dislikes are an amalgamation of data culled by market researchers and, all too often, pulled out of an executive’s….intuition. There is nothing personal about Sally – and nothing personal about the service that companies provide based on the limited insights her amalgamated profile provides.

The airline industry can learn from leading service companies that have adopted a data-driven, personalized approach to market, sell and service their customers. Access to historical and real-time customer data and the tools to leverage it mean that today’s business and marketing models must evolve past broad customer profiles and top executives’ business instincts. Delivering elite and personalized service – the kind that breeds customer loyalty – requires a 360-degree view of each customer’s past behaviors, preferences, interests, tendencies and purchasing decisions.

Perhaps the most visible example of a company on the leading edge of the personalization revolution is Disney. The Magic Kingdom is now using integrated data to deliver world-class customer service while increasing revenue. New Magic Bands gather customer data in real-time and use it to deliver actionable intelligence to the parks’ employees. Customers can use the band - wristbands - to access their rooms and to make purchases at the Disney parks, hotels and shops. It gathers data every time it’s used. But Disney isn’t the only one to harness customer data – all kinds of service industries from banking to hospitality and restaurants are riding the data-driven wave of delivering a tailored customer experience.

Compared to advancements in other service industries, the Airline industry is playing catch-up on the personalization paradigm shift. And customers notice the disconnect. A joint study by the Economist and Sabre shows that in 2014, 81% of airline executives believed their airline’s customer experience had improved, but 66% of customers said their experiences have stayed the same or gotten worse.

The opportunity for airlines to increase revenue while also improving the customer experience and driving loyalty is substantial. Improving the customer experience is rooted in data. Airlines can gather information from each “touch point” throughout the travel sequence, beginning with the customer’s first visit to a carrier’s website and continuing through check-in, inflight purchases, baggage claim, and post-trip social media activity. Intelligent, data-driven customer profiles enable airlines to anticipate and respond to a customer’s preferences before he or she even thinks to ask. Window or aisle? One checked bag or two? Seat upgrade? Vegetarian option? Vodka martini at cruising altitude?

Data-driven, personalized customer service is the key to a true competitive advantage in today’s commoditized air travel industry. Most travelers will search for the lowest fare to their desired destination and online travel sites have made price comparison easy. Carriers that offer competitive, low-priced fares and can make up revenue by offering personalized add-ons to passengers based on the ancillaries that actually interest those passengers. At the same, the passenger gets the benefit of feeling like an individual whose preferences are understood and responded to.

Benefits for airlines go beyond winning price wars and generating additional revenue. Airline companies have used reward or loyalty programs for years in an attempt to solidify customer retention. However, flyers end up being more loyal to the rewards program itself than they are to the airline brand. This kind of loyalty only lasts as the passenger believes they have the best rewards program. As soon as a shiny new rewards program or credit card affiliated program with a different carrier comes along, the passenger makes a switch. True allegiance comes from building long-lasting customer relationships. Personalized service based on really knowing your customers is the lynchpin of that relationship.

California-based airline Virgin America gets it. The company has developed a reputation for superb customer service and innovative amenities as a part of its goal to create an “experience unlike any other in the skies.” As part of its commitment to exceptional customer service, Virgin America recently invested in three new, powerful data-driven, personalization tools.

Virgin America president David Cush said, “We wanted technology that would help us better understand our guests’ needs, focus on their individual priorities, and create an experience they can’t get with any other airline. These new solutions give us invaluable insights into our guests to create tailored experiences that drive loyalty, and support our mission to make flying good again.”

So what does data-driven personalized service actually look like? With its highest-value customers identified, airlines can target those customers with offers based on their previous purchases and interactions with the airline. For example:

  • Frequent flyer Paul is scheduled to travel from Los Angeles to New York JFK, with a layover at Dallas-Fort Worth. When his flight out of LAX gets delayed two hours due to an electrical issue with the aircraft, the carrier’s system proactively sends Paul an email letting him know that he has been compensated with travel points to make up for the inconvenience.
  • Since his first flight is running late and Paul is going to miss his connecting flight at DFW, the system proactively rebooks Paul on the next connecting flight and sends him an email to let him know of the rescheduling and that he has been booked in a window seat, as is his preference.  
  • Once Paul touches down in Dallas, the gate agent identifies him as a high-value traveler at de-boarding and escorts him to his connecting flight at a different gate. The connecting flight that Paul is now on has been held a few minutes to allow Paul the time to make it on the aircraft. This is a personalized customer experience that Paul is likely to remember.

Providing customer-focused, revenue-boosting insight is made possible by technology that exists today. Such tools enable carriers to gather and analyze rich data throughout a customer’s travel journey. When everything — from comparison-shopping and reservations, to check-in, baggage claim and social sharing — becomes an opportunity for real-time analysis and customer-centric action — both the customer and the bottom line win. Personalized service is the wave of the future. Don’t get stuck on the tarmac.

­­­­­­­­­­­­ Vinit Doshi is Sr. VP customer sales & service solution for SabreSonic, part of Sabre Airline Solutions.

The views expressed here are the author’s own.