The Star Alliance is rolling out its promised digital services platform (DSP) as the Frank­furt-based global airline alliance aims to channel data to its 28 members.

Star’s DPS initiative will allow customers utilizing member airlines’ smartphone apps to make seat reservations, track baggage and sync customer loyalty programs—among other functions—across the entire network.

In an editorial round-table at ATW’s Washington office, Star Alliance corporate communications director Markus Rue­digar detailed how the alliance polled customers to learn their preferences.

“The options were: Do we build a Star Alliance app that will do all this or do we do something that will allow the airlines to integrate all these functionalities into their own app?” Ruedigar said. “Most customers don’t want another app on their phone, and if you fly with United Airlines 80% of the time and you have your three flights to somewhere in Asia and your three flights to somewhere in Europe, the last thing you want to do is download an All Nippon Airways app, and a Singapore Airlines app, and a Lufthansa app, and maybe a TAP Portugal app for those flights.

“So, the idea is that all the functionalities that you as an airline want to provide to the customer you can now basically get through the Star Alliance digital services platform,” Ruedigar said.

Star CEO Jeffrey Goh originally spoke about the alliance’s DSP plans at the organization’s 20th anniversary events in May 2017. “Like any other business we have to adapt to a changing environment and landscape … We want to be more focused on our customer proposition,” Goh said at the time.

“Most frequent travelers have a ‘home airline’ in our network and would prefer to control their entire travel experience through a single app or website,” Goh said. “We are working to create central capabilities that can be shared for use by our individual members.”

Star said once a service offer is made available from the DSP, member airlines can decide individually if and when they make it available to customers.

On Feb. 2, the DSP’s seat selection feature across alliance member airlines was launched for United Airlines customers. The function allows a United customer to select a seat on a different Star Alliance carrier further along in the itinerary at the time of reservation, either through the United app or website, instead of at check-in. Star said it is going to make the seat selection feature available across the alliance progressively.

Tracking baggage

Additionally, Lufthansa has implemented a baggage-tracking function for its customers on itineraries that include flights on sister Star Alliance carriers. Star’s baggage tracking data is provided by its own baggage data hub launched in late 2016.

“We now have several million baggage messages per day, single messages that we manage to collect through [our] hub … this is every time a bag goes through a bag scan at the airport. There’s an IATA resolution that you have to provide more on that part of the [system], so you have to make sure the airlines comply with that,” Ruedigar said. “It’s the gathering of all the data and then display­ing it in such a form that all carriers that need it can actually see it.” Ruedigar said Star is aiming for an end-of-2018 timeline for its baggage tracking function, and said the program is halfway rolled out at present. An initiative to sync all of Star’s member airlines’ frequent-flyer programs (FFPs) websites for customer accessibility is also forecast for the end of 2018.

Building a network

Star developed the DSP for its IT hub in conjunction with global professional services firm Accenture. The alliance views its DSP foray as an intensive expansion of its offered services.

“We’ve done the network building for the first 20 years [of Star’s existence] and there’s not that much more you can do on the net­work building. Where there are gaps, it could well be that we’ll use the connecting partner model ... If there is a demand from some of the low-costs affiliates or even independent low-costs to want to cooperate somehow on the alliance level we have the technology to do that; we’ve done it with [connecting partner] Juneyao Airlines in China, and if there are others who would like to go that way, then we’re happy to talk and do that,” Ruedigar said. “But I don’t think we’re going to see another huge addition in the membership because that’s not that many more out there, and the larger ones that would add value to the existing members and would also benefit from being in the alliance, they’re all kind of taken.

“So it’s now deepening what is there. If you look at the develop­ment of the airline IT infrastructure over the last ten years, a lot of it was very old systems originally worked on in the 1960s, and with the Amadeus Altéa and the newer systems where that was progress­ing, of course we on the alliance level had to progress with that,” Ruedigar said. “We had to develop the connecting, and also improve what we had in the background. We’d always offered through-check in, but clearly some of the messaging protocols between the airlines didn’t work all that well so bringing it into a central repository where everyone can connect with everyone … that’s the whole idea of having hubs that we build and allow the airlines to use.”

Airport Partnerships

Star is also working with airports to improve customer transfer connections, helping Star member airlines to identify inbound flights experiencing delays, and to prearrange expedited transfers for passengers on incoming flights with tight connections, extending even to re-routing gate placements for connecting flights or having customs officials directly on aircraft boarding ramps. Star recently launched the passenger connection service as a branded product offering at Chicago O’Hare, but the service is also in operation at airports in Houston, Frankfurt and Munich. In North America, Star is looking at expanding its passenger connection service offer­ing to Washington Dulles, San Francisco, Denver and Newark.

“It’s something you need to do together with the airports and the CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection]. It’s no good pulling out the passengers, [saying] ‘Come quickly for your connecting flights but you have to join the immigration line which is going to take you 4 hr. to get through,’” Ruedigar said. “We’re refining it. Where can we help the passenger in case there’s a delay? We’re not saying that we’re going to be able to save every single connection, but it’s being able to look at what connections are there, and what options have we got.”

Terminal Consolidation

Additionally, Star is expanding its ‘move-under-one-roof’ ini­tiative, particularly in Asia, consolidating Star member airlines at single terminals. “Now that Terminal 2 has opened at [Seoul] Incheon, that will give us the opportunity to move together even more in the place that has now been vacated,” Ruedigar said. “We’re talking to Hong Kong [International Airport] because of their renovation expansion and, of course, the big one will be Beijing where we’ve signed a MOU with the airport that will have Star remain at Beijing Capital and not move to the new airport. [We’re talking to] Taipei as well. We always want to speak with the airports early on … if you don’t bring your wishes on at an early stage then they might forget about it.”

Mark Nensel