Why Delta gave 19,000 Windows Phones to its flight attendants

A Delta flight attendant uses one of the Nokia Lumia 820 smartphones to sell food items to a passenger on a recent flight. Credit: Delta Air Lines

For years, Delta Air Lines flight attendants carried small point-of-sale devices that read credit card information so that passengers could buy a snack, a cocktail, or a beer in flight. For many airlines, those old-fashioned credit card readers were seen as high-tech systems in the skies.

That was then. Now Delta has radically modernized its in-cabin capabilities, giving each of its 19,000 flight attendants new Nokia Lumia 820 smartphones running Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 platform. That's a lot of smartphones, and it was all made possible because the airline had previously installed in-cabin Wi-Fi services for passenger use.

"The idea was that with the existing Wi-Fi already on the planes, why not use that technology to give better customer service on the flight and afterward?" said Dan O'Hara, the vice president of mobility for Avanade, which helped Delta dive into the project using Microsoft products and services. "It was a matter of taking advantage of the resources they had." The airline's Wi-Fi services are provided by Gogo

The concept was first discussed by Delta's on-board IT services group and Avanade representatives during a visit to a Microsoft innovation workshop in January 2012, O'Hara told CITEworld. As those talks progressed, it became clear that by using full-featured smartphones inside the company's aircraft that flight attendants could still sell snack packs and beverages, but also bolster other services by using the mobile devices to access critical information for passengers, said O'Hara. "They could assist with things like helping passengers to find ground transportation and their gates, as well as helping flight attendants to check their own work schedules and get information on weather delays."

The idea caught fire, and in June 2012 Delta and Avanade conducted a pilot with the Nokia smartphones and Avanade's Connected Retail software, which works with Microsoft products. The Avanade application includes a back-end ERP suite and point-of-sale applications that allowed flight attendants to sell items and provide in-flight services to passengers using the phones, said O'Hara. Flight attendants can also use them to offer seating upgrades to passengers and report problems inside aircraft cabins, such as broken seats or defective audio entertainment systems.

By the following August, Delta made the decision to expand the devices and their included applications to each of the airline's 19,000 flight attendants. The rollout was completed in three weeks. Each phone runs ground-based cellular services and data plans from AT&T and includes a plug-in credit card reader and a Delta-branded ruggedized case. 

All of the phones are the same to make them more familiar for airline employees in case they have to borrow a phone from a fellow employee if their own device loses its charge or is misplaced, said O'Hara. "The end decision was that they wanted a consistent experience for all flight attendants," he said.

Delta chose the Nokia phones running Windows Phone 8 over competing devices running iOS or Android for cost reasons, according to O'Hara. "The iPhone devices would have been more expensive" to buy, he explains. Of course, Avanade is also a joint venture of Microsoft and Accenture, so that was also part of the decision. Avanade provided most of the apps used by the Delta flight attendants on the Lumia smartphones, said O'Hara. 

So far, the Lumia smartphone rollout to flight attendants is going very well, according to O'Hara. "What was amazing to me is that 19,000 flight attendants got a new device in a three-week period. That went very quickly."

The problems that have come up so far include minor issues, such as flight attendants who forget to charge their devices before flying. Some users are also still getting used to the new devices and features, including the new ability to send an email transaction receipt to a passenger who has made a purchase, he said.

Delta has been getting positive feedback from many users and the company is already looking at additional in-flight capabilities and features that could be added to upcoming versions of the software, including additional customer service requests and features for frequent fliers, according to O'Hara. "They had a long wish list that didn't make it into Phase One, so we will look at those in the future."

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