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NATS

The end goal

Aviation fuel is the second biggest cost airlines face. Burning it is also a source of CO2.  So reduce an airline’s fuel-burn, and everybody benefits.

One strategy to reduce fuel-burn is to optimise flight patterns. If aircraft take-off, fly and land in particular ways, fuel consumption is lower.  With this in mind NATS, a leading international provider of air-traffic control services, developed Flight Profile Monitor (FPM).  This tool tracked aircraft performance throughout flight and recommend the most fuel-efficient flight path.

FPM reflected NATS’ commitment to the environment. However, there was also a commercial imperative.  If the FPM service could reduce an airline’s second biggest cost, it surely had commercial value.

To explore the potential for FPM whilst at a conceptual stage and guide the ‘go-to-market’ strategy, NATS engaged Circle Research. Their brief comprised three questions:

  • Should we invest further in developing the concept?
  • If so, who should our target market be – airlines, airports or someone else?
  • And what direction should we take in translating concept to product?

The means to the end

Given that the FPM service was at an early stage of development, an exploratory approach was essential. So we conducted a series of in-depth, hour-long, one-on-one interviews with senior environmental and operational roles (e.g. Environment Director, Operations Director, Head of Climate Change) in airlines and airports.  Interviews spanned Europe and North America.  In parallel we explored competitive solutions so that the concept could be assessed in a wider context.

The interviewing process explored a variety of topics so that a holistic assessment of the concept’s potential could be made. For example, we explored the business needs the concept would address, current solutions used for a similar purpose, disappointments with these solutions, feedback on the concept and likelihood of purchase.

In doing so, we were careful not to fall into four common pitfalls often made in concept testing research:

  • Ask people how they would improve current solutions and, whilst useful, the answer doesn’t typically lead to innovation as boundaries have been placed around thinking. Instead, the trick is not just to ask customers how they would change existing solutions, but to explore the underlying needs and business goals that the solution addresses. The concept can then be evaluated against these requirements
  • To provide accurate feedback on a concept, people need to clearly understand what it is. Great care needs to be taken to ensure that materials explaining the concept, its features and benefits are clear. Neutral language should also be used in any description to remove potential for bias
  • People like lots of things, but that doesn’t mean they’ll pay for them. So it’s important to use techniques which uncover whether the concept is attractive enough to justify the cost as well as the risk and effort of replacing current solutions
  • Assessing a hypothetical concept inevitably leads to hypothetical answers which don’t always reflect what really happens on product launch. So in exploring the concept, care needs to be taken to place the respondent in a ‘real-life mind-set’. Various projective techniques can be used to do so, e.g. “Imagine you’re making a business case for adopting the concept to the Board – what would your argument be, would you feel confident it making it, how would they react, what do you expect the decision would be?” Using past behaviour as a guide to future behaviour is also valuable, e.g. How often do they adopt new solutions? What were the barriers and risks to doing so last time? In hindsight, would they have made the same decision? 

The key findings

The findings were revealing, but not necessarily the news that NATS had hoped to hear. The FPM concept was generally well-received, but it didn’t seem commercially viable:

  • Similar tools were already in place. These weren’t positioned as environmental solutions, but essentially achieved the same goal by reducing fuel consumption. FPM improved these on these solutions in some areas but had weaknesses elsewhere
  • There was debate over who was responsible for CO2 emissions at different flight stages and therefore who should pay for any tool (airlines or airports)
  • It was expected that as the controller of flight paths, NATS, would optimise them as a matter of course

So all-in-all, FPM was felt to be a useful tool but not something which would be paid for. All was not lost though.  Sure, the news was a little bit disappointing but it prevented significant sums being wasted in a commercial launch.  And the research also revealed a new opportunity.  FPM could have a positive impact on relationships – providing it as part of their standard service would position NATS as a true partner and demonstrate its ethos of continual innovation.  And doing so would also endorse NATS’s commitment to the environment. 

The end result

The research led NATS to pursue a different path. Rather than develop FPM as a commercial venture, it would be developed to build closer relationships with the air transport community.  It’s working.  For example, NATS has saved airlines arriving in Ireland from the North Atlantic 1,300 tonnes of fuel per year, worth over £800,000.  That’s not paying lip-service to ‘partnership’, that’s real partnership.  The Airport Operators’ Association recognised FPM’s achievements by awarding NATS with the 2012 Best Environmental Initiative award.