Airlines are on the brink of major breakthroughs in how they look after their customers and manage their backroom operations, thanks to fast emerging digital technologies.

That is the view of Brad Closson of United Airlines, one of the key speakers at the inaugural FlightGlobal Airline Digital Transformation conference, in Miami on 10 September.

Only by embracing and connecting a suite of digital enablers – from artificial intelligence to big data – can airlines cope with the pressures of growth, while at the same time improving their working practices and relationship with passengers, believes Closson, who is managing director, digital technology for the Chicago-based US major.

For Closson, digital technologies are potentially more transformative than the wave of automation that went before. Yet, he reckons, many airlines may still be too focused on making individual processes more efficient with IT rather than thinking how these processes can be integrated, or even done away with, using digital intelligence.

He points to the example of the maintenance department, where the introduction of IT meant electronic job cards replaced paper. However, these documents still had to be signed off and stored in a repository. Now, digital technology turns all the information on these job cards into “live data”, says Closson. “That can be fed into machine learning. We have a living set of digital data feeding back into the business process.”

Similar leaps can be made in the way an airline interacts with passengers, he says. Automation made life simpler for customer-service staff, but it meant they still spent most of their time behind desks tapping into computer terminals. However, the digital revolution “empowers” these employees by allowing them to “focus on meeting the customer needs and not the technology, improving the whole experience for the passenger”.

He envisages a time when a combination of digital technologies can take all the stress out of a traveller’s airport journey by providing constant real time updates. Airlines will communicate with the passenger’s smart phone, for instance, as soon as a he or she arrives at the terminal with information on how long it will take to get to the gate, and why a flight is delayed and exactly when it will take-off.

He points to the example of United’s ConnectionSaver scheme, introduced in June – a tool that identifies which departing flights can be held for connecting customers without inconveniencing other passengers. ConnectionSaver sends personalised texts to connecting customers who have opted to receive notifications, with clear directions to their gate for their connecting flight and how long the walk will take.

“It’s all about embedding back office analytics to benefit the customer,” he says.

Much as Closson is looking forward to hearing the formal presentations at FlightGlobal Airline Digital Transformation, he says much of the reward from attending events such as these comes from the opportunity to “engage with my peers”. He adds: “It’s through networking like this that we are able to keep moving forward as an industry.”