Why customers “are only #7 on an airline’s list of priorities”

As the world’s first multi-carrier booking system, Air Black Box is in the business of empowering airlines with the ability to “truly cross-merchandise their products”. Timothy O’Neil Dunne, co-founder and head of product for the pioneering company, spoke to me about the creation of Air Black Box, how it puts customers at the heart of its operations and why he thinks ‘airlines are stupid’!

TD) What was the driving force behind the creation of Air Black Box?

This comes from a long-held belief that airline distribution, in fact distribution in totality – all channels, all products and all customers – is fundamentally broken. We’ve been using old models now for so long that we accept it is just the way things are done. We create very poor experiences for customers, instead of trying to create ways of giving customers a better experience and make the product easy to use.

Airlines create all these artificial barriers; look at how many clicks to purchase there are for a customer.  We continually seem to want to change everything, adding confusion to the customer. We started out with the belief this needed to be fixed. It was a simple as that.

“Airline distribution – in fact distribution in totality – is fundamentally broken”

What does Air Black Box do and how does it work?

It’s called ‘Black Box’ because so much goes on inside black boxes. We are a digital selling platform. We sell products to customers – mostly airlines, but really any travel company – and help vendors, whether they are a direct seller or an intermediary, to sell products in forms that can be consumed at any point of the customer’s or seller’s choosing.

In our conversation leading up to this interview you said that you thought are airlines stupid! Why is that?

ABB’s ‘vision of simplifying the business’

Actually, they’re not stupid all the time but they do some really stupid things. Airlines are good at some things but chronically bad at others. For example, airlines are excellent at the operational efficiencies of their business; flying safe, getting passengers to their destinations and getting them there on time.

Often when running a plane that is more than ten years old. Which [when you look at it] is an amazing aerial ballet with many complex components. But when it comes to the customer, airlines have a default position which says “I really don’t like marketing”, and “I don’t want to have to do this”.

Which, after safety; operational efficiency; appeasing governmental interference; fuel prices; airline employees (who will always be more important than customers); capital to buy and finance aircraft – leaves the customers at number seven in the hierarchy of airline needs. That’s followed by airports, other suppliers and finally travel agents. Perhaps it would be better if I just called them myopic.

“After safety; efficiency; appeasing governmental interference; fuel; employees; capital – the customer comes at number seven in the hierarchy of airline needs”

What are your main areas of business?

We have three lines of business: airlines, airports and we embed our product with the companies who license their technology from us. And, we have multiple customers in each of those categories.

Geographically speaking, we are global in nature. Currently most of our customers are in APAC, China and Southeast and North Asia. Value Alliance (an airline alliance of low-cost carriers) is probably our most prominent customer. Airlines talk about their branding in the same way hotels talk about how wonderful the carpets and drapes are, and I don’t think the customer really cares!

O’Neil-Dunne accepts WITovation Editor’s Choice award from WIT founder Siew Hoon Yeoh


When we are trying to sell Brand A’s products to Brand A’s customers, but via a partner – let’s say Brand B – we must reconstitute Brand B’s products into Brand A’s forms, so the customer can consume it [as they normally do]. This is no small feat and we have to work pretty hard at that.

You have a different name in China, why is that?

We do a lot of business in China, but when my colleagues and I first started approaching people there, they would look at us rather quizzically and ask “Why did you call it Air Black Box, that’s where you put dead people?”!

We asked them what they thought we did – rather than us telling them –  and the reply came “What you do is magic”. I suggested Air Magic Box and their faces lit up!  I think that tells the story of what we do.

Our team has created something that I view as art. It’s not just bits and bytes; we’ve worked with the customer to create things that solve problems, and for our pains we’ve been awarded a patent. So, do we have magic box? I think that we do.

“Don’t let the tech constrain your customer engagement”.

What’s does the future hold for Air Black Box?

We see so many different ways for how the technology can be used because we have taken this ‘clean sheet’ approach to selling. Airlines talk about merchandising, and they bandy that word around, but we don’t see airlines as good retailers. We look to supermarkets, the tobacco industry, fast-moving consumer goods and fashion, when we are thinking these things.

Then we let other people imagine how they would want to sell their own products [in these terms]. We are focused on empowering brands to do what they want to do with their customers; we say “Hey don’t let the tech constrain your brand proposition and customer engagement”.

Well also have a new product coming in a month or so, but it’s under embargo. So, while I could tell you about, I would also have to kill you! So you have have to wait until 16 May 16 for news.

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