Tech entrepreneur Stephan Uhrenbacher: In 10 years, AI will significantly shorten capacity and route planning cycles in air travel
Stephan Uhrenbacher can look back on a long history of success as an entrepreneur. He founded Qype, which he built into Europe’s largest local review website, and also the short-term rental platform 9flats.com and Germany’s leading eco-marketplace avocadostore.de. One of his last companies was the airport-app Flio, which has recently closed down and sold its assets to SOS Travel SPA.
We took the opportunity to ask Stephan how digitalization has shaped the airline industry over the last years and which major challenges startups face when implementing a business idea in the airport environment.
Travel & Mobility Tech Radar: How has technology changed the way you travel over the last five years?
Stephan Uhrenbacher: There have been large video conferencing systems on the market for umpteen years. But only since free video chat solutions for everyone emerged, such as Facetime and Google Hangouts, was I able to really extend the time between business trips.
Travel & Mobility Tech Radar: In your opinion, which areas in the travel process should remain “analog” in the future?
Stephan Uhrenbacher: Travel in itself has not been digitized. I am physically transported along a route. I like healthy food, a comfortable and quiet seat, a view out the window. I would hope that all interfaces with my physical existence were digitized as little as possible: so no artificial imagery instead of windows, hopefully, a friendly cabin crew, low noise level.
Everything else — from planning flight operations to booking trips, selecting services, identity checks at the airport — can be digitized to such a degree that I no longer notice it.
Travel & Mobility Tech Radar: Is there any aspect of the travel chain that still needs to be solved technologically and is thus long overdue?
Stephan Uhrenbacher: In general, the information given to passengers about any flight delays is still a major pain point. The frustration of standing at the gate waiting for the plane to land… There is still lots to address.
Travel & Mobility Tech Radar: Looking at other industries — is there anything in particular that the aviation industry urgently needs to learn or even imitate?
Stephan Uhrenbacher: I still find the capacity planning and the reaction speed in air traffic to be slow. Why are there eight different seasons in the fashion industry, but in air transportation, there’s still only a summer and winter flight schedule? Why can I book a flight for August in January cheaper than in July?
“In 10 years we will have significantly shorter cycles in capacity and route planning”
Volkswagen can manufacture a car for me within four weeks. At Amazon, I can rent my webserver by the second. I can imagine that in 10 years from now, we will have significantly shorter cycles in capacity and route planning also in air travel, which will be planned as needed using Artificial Intelligence.
Travel & Mobility Tech Radar: Stephan, you recently announced that FLIO, the world’s most-used airport app, has closed down and sold its assets to SOS Travel SPA. For you as a serial entrepreneur and founder of FLIO, this is the first business in your career where you lost money. Can you sum up the major challenges startups face when implementing a business idea in the airport environment?
Stephan Uhrenbacher: You have to think about an airport as two separate businesses. The operations business is concerned with the logistics of getting people in and out of planes and the planes leaving on time. The commercial side is about making money by selling parking, duty-free, food and other services. Flio focused on the latter by building a unified digital interface for airport passengers that consolidates all offers and services available at the airport. Therefore, we had to deal with challenges related to the special characteristics of airports and the various stakeholders that have skin in the game. Airports are local monopolies. Many are owned by cities, so you have a political component. And although they perform the same function, each airport does things differently.
Moreover, airports are infrastructure providers and their planning horizons are often +30 years. As a consequence, the large airports are often super slow and way too protective of their perceived data monopolies, with some notable exceptions such as Amsterdam Schiphol.
“Brands are eager to try anything new at the airport, while retailers are slow”
Furthermore, on the commercial side: airports collaborate with an oligopoly of large retailers and internationally known travel brands (from L’Oreal to Heineken). Simplified: brands pay to get exposure, and airports, due to their local monopoly, get most of the profits.
We learned that brands and their agencies are eager to try anything new, while retailers are slow and as they are large and global, they want to invent their respective wheels by themselves.
Travel & Mobility Tech Radar: In your opinion, where is the greatest potential for digital innovation at the airport? Do you have an example of a promising company in mind addressing this opportunity?
Stephan Uhrenbacher: Operations and IT are two of the more innovative fields. Airports are full of beacons which nobody uses and some even have camera technology to monitor passenger flow.
“The most promising route is to work on the operations side”
In retrospect, I think the most promising route would have been to work on the operations side. Anything that helps airports and airlines with the turnaround of planes or with saving costs. The best example for this is AI company Assaia, just watch their video. AI that speeds up security control is great, too, if you manage to deal with the government bodies who run security — a challenge in itself.
Thank you, Stephan!
Stephan Uhrenbacher is a Serial Entrepreneur and invests in North-American AI startups via Density Ventures. Furthermore, he advises entrepreneurs as an Associate of the Creative Destruction Lab Toronto.
Also, Stephan serves as an Advisory Board member for the Lufthansa Innovation Hub since October 2018.
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