In July of this year, JetBlue Technology Ventures launched an International Partnership Program to establish a consortium of global travel providers embracing and applying innovative and emerging technologies within their companies. It’s an exciting part of our mission to improve the future of travel. Our launch partner was Air New Zealand — an airline already known for being forward-thinking — and I sat down with Mike Oulsnam, Manager of Digital Ventures at Air New Zealand, who recently relocated to Silicon Valley for two years as part of the partnership to chat about his experience so far.
Could you talk a little bit about the potential impact Air New Zealand saw from this program? What were the airlines’ goals?
This partnership is a way for us to better connect Air New Zealand with the Silicon Valley startup scene and complement our own innovation sourcing. Air New Zealand is New Zealand’s flagship carrier providing services across the Asia Pacific as well as long haul flights up to North America and the United Kingdom. Given our geographic location, we are not close to technology innovation hubs in the Northern hemisphere — so we wanted to leverage this partnership to better identify relevant startups and emerging technologies. Having this physical and local presence in a place like Silicon Valley really strengthens our sourcing pool and capabilities.
Why do you think there’s a need for a partnership program like this in our industry?
As this is a group of non-competing airlines — and soon travel providers — with different networks, routes, aircrafts, hotels, airports, and so forth, they each have different problems and views on how to solve for them. An international program like this facilitates productive information sharing and broadens sourcing teams, bringing more voices to the table to discuss potential solutions and startups to seek out. It’s really powerful to have different perspectives in an innovation process and be able to connect more companies and startups together to collaborate.
We’ve previously acknowledged how companies can talk about being innovative but fail to act on that desire. Do you feel there’s a unique way in which Air New Zealand is set up and structured that allows for this type of innovation programming?
There’s a New Zealand culture described as a “Number 8 Wire Mentality,” which came from sheep farmers who had a lot of number 8 wire lying around and took advantage of it to creatively mend or build things. In other words, there’s a deep self-starter and problem-solving culture throughout New Zealand — and that’s emulated throughout our airline. That said, we know how valuable it is to learn from our peers, so we constantly look at what other airlines and companies in other industries are doing and “steal with pride.” This partnership program is a great way to move the airline industry forward, together.
As a part of its digital strategy, Air New Zealand is on a digital transformation journey and has established an architecture to integrate startups much better than in the past. We’re driving a lot of improvements on our APIs to enable outside connections with innovative companies and help complement our internal innovation efforts.
What you been focused on accomplishing so far in Silicon Valley?
My initial priority has been to filter the portfolio of JetBlue Technology Ventures to a short list of startups that might meet a need for Air New Zealand, and then determine which we can work with over the next six months. We’re in trial with one company already and it’s going well so we’ll look to scale the pilot program throughout our airline’s network.
By being present here in Silicon Valley though, I’m also able to look at and meet with a number of other relevant startups that I’ve learned about at events or that the JTV team has introduced me to.
What are some of your reflections and observations from your first two months being in Silicon Valley and drinking from a firehose?
There’s knowledge on tap here that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. There are so many learning opportunities and events happening on any given day and I’ve been grateful to attend and take advantage of those whenever I can. It’s been brilliant to meet people that I wouldn’t have otherwise. There was an autonomous vehicle symposium that really blew me away and helped me understand the depth of the Silicon Valley ecosystem in terms of the tiers and number of companies involved in one industry. There is a wealth of people focused on one topic and while a lot of collaboration is digital these days, business is very much still a person to person affair and relationships are built on trust. It’s been critical for Air New Zealand to meet and spend time with startups and entrepreneurs in person.
What area of aviation or travel do you think is going to be most impacted by innovation?
It’s great to see real use cases of machine learning or AI combined with sensors and edge computing significantly impact commercial operations like revenue management or aircraft operations.
Although harder to work through given certification requirements, I’m also really excited about improving the onboard experience of aircraft and think there’s a lot of opportunity in that space. I’m keen to see how the use of customer data and overall aircraft connectivity can impact customer wellness and experience.
What other industries do you think aviation could learn from?
I’ve been closely and carefully monitoring what’s happening in the auto industry, with particular regard to passenger experience and digital interactions in and with vehicles. We’re clearly seeing autonomous cars come to life earlier than autonomous aircraft and there’s a lot of best practices and shared learning opportunities to be had.