MIAMI — While airlines and airports generate tremendous amounts of data, they are limited in how they can use it because they are still tied to legacy technology to access it, said Josh Marks, CEO of masFlight. Bethesda, Maryland-based masFlight is a software company that provides data platforms for airlines and airports.

masFlight was created to help companies around the world with the data problems they have, said Marks. “Big data allows us to take data sets that seem diverse, but they build a mosaic that shows a picture,” he said. “For example, big data allows us to see how how many times we touch a passengers, which is literally trillions of data points that can be collected.”

Data Points Listed by Marks Include:

  • Bookings and transactions: seats sold, prices paid, elasticity, route demand, points of sale and ancillaries;
  • Loyalty programs: customer name, demographics, location, travel history, preferences, offline activities, airport operations and flight operations;
  • Airport operations: facilities used, time on gate checked and carry-on bags and above and below wing; and
  • Flight operations: flight plan, fuel loaded, weight/balance, taxi times, flight path and resources used.

The problem is that critical airline and airport information is trapped in silos, which is crippling big data, said Marks. “Data needs structure, standardization and validation to be useful.”

Marks cited Amazon as an example. “Amazon is a big user of ambient data. It logs a tremendous amount of information on you and your behavior,” he said. “When they aggregate that information connected to purchases, it helps Amazon know what you want.”

Like Amazon, airlines also deal with large volumes of big data, said Marks. “They can look at booking and transaction data sited to visualize what people bought and where they are flying,” he said. “While this information is important for airlines and airports, but it only scratches the surface.”

The problem is that airlines and airports don’t have platforms to leverage those data sets because they are trapped in silos, not common warehouses, said Marks. “They are limited by usable data and computational power,” he said. “They use past transactions and isolated data slices to guess what the future looks like. These transactions reflect when supply matched demand, but they don’t track abandoned purchases.”

The best airlines are achieving is when history repeats itself, said Marks. “A great example of this is what we have in the United States with credit scoring. Every aspect of your purchasing history is catalogued that allows companies to forecast the likelihood of your default.”

This is the future the airlines should be shooting for, said Marks. “Take random data and use it to generate real-time analytics that can observe and compare historical trends, which will allow airlines to automate and improve their decisions,” he said.

When masFlight starts working with carriers on big data projects, it all starts with the adoption of a cloud infrastructure, said Marks. “Our biggest hurdle with airlines is getting them to understand that the cloud is just as safe as terrestrial warehouses,” he said. “The cloud removes constraints, and aggregates and stores data at a reasonable cost.”

Once data moves to the cloud, it’s easier to collect and standardize data points, said Marks. “Ultimately, we want predictive analytics, which is the key to unlocking profitability,” he said. “Airlines need a mentality change where they can embrace predictive analytics to solve big data problems.”

Today companies manage by looking through the rear view mirror and guess where they’re going, said Marks. “It’s a lousy way to run a business when you can look through the windshield.”

The question is how to take billions of web searches, log the information and make it useful for airlines and airports, said Marks. “This is especially important for the airport service development world. You can see where people want to fly and see where you have gaps in service, using consumer demographics.”

Marks pointed out data on average taxi times at Baltimore-Washington, Charlotte, Reagan National, Newark, Washington Dulles and Philadelphia. “You can see that BWI has 10.3 daily departures per gate, while Philadelphia has 7.2,” he said. “When you have this data, you can understand things like passenger flows, operations, vendor locations and gate assignments.” There’s a lot of hidden information that can help airlines and airports improve the passenger experience, he added.

The data flood is coming from commercial, operational and social sources, Marks warned. “With three billion passengers on 35 million flights a year, that adds up to trillions of data points annually. It’s critical to store every aspect of customer interaction,” he said.

With infinite storage, airlines and airports have access to inexpensive cloud options with no bandwidth restrictions and an ecosystem of apps. “This will give companies freedom from legacy IT constraints, allowing them to collect as much data as they can,” said Marks.

There’s no such thing as bad data anymore, said Marks. “You can have data engagement with cell phones, which have GPS, WiFi and beacon technology,” he said. “That data gives airports the ability to track airport customers, which provides them with critical information on the passenger experience.”