A Conversation With Dave Shirk, President, Sabre Airline Solutions
Our customers are at the center of everything we do.”
To fortify its position at the forefront of the travel and technology industries, Sabre periodically evolves its business strategy to persistently provide innovative technology and enhanced services to its customers. Of course, with evolution comes change in areas such as leadership, workforce, processes, products, services or some combination.
Change drives industries forward and positions companies for growth, both of which have a positive impact on customers, stakeholders and employees alike. During the last year, Sabre has undergone a multitude of transitions that brings value to its airline partners, travelers, investors and workforce.
In June 2017, Sabre named Dave Shirk as president of the Airline Solutions business. In this role, Dave’s objective is to help transform Sabre into the solutions thought leader and technology platform at the center of travel.
Prior to joining Sabre, Dave held executive positions with companies such as Kony, Inc., Computer Services Corp., Hewlett Packard, Siemens, UGS, Vignette, Novell and Oracle. With more than 28 years of high-tech experience, his diverse skill set lends to the application of new business practices, go-to-market strategies and enhanced customer engagement. He has reshaped previous companies and implemented turnaround strategies to ensure continued success and growth. Moreover, deep technical knowledge, coupled with his unwavering passion to drive results, has proven to be critical in moving Sabre Airline Solutions and its customers forward.
In a recent interview with Ascend, Dave discussed several important topics such as why he is ready to lead Airline Solutions into the future and how his years of technology experience will transition to the airline industry. Dave also shared his views on IATA’s New Distribution Capability (NDC) initiative and how Sabre will continue to solve mission-critical problems for airlines and related businesses.
Question: Why was Sabre the next obvious choice in your career path?
Answer: I’ve always been fascinated by the technology behind the travel industry — how all the pieces work, how one of the world’s most complex IT challenges is solved, determining ways to inject new innovation into the models and processes. Additionally, I was looking for an industry in transformation and a challenge that would leverage some of the innovations that I spent the last three years learning and driving. That’s what originally piqued my interest. Geographically, Sabre was in Texas, and it had a need for new leadership, so it made sense.
What excited me most was the opportunity to jump into an industry that offered an extremely complex puzzle to solve. Then there’s the people. When I arrived, I was impressed with the team’s passion for and commitment to our customers. I’m glad to be part of it.
Q: How does your experience as an executive for several high-tech companies equip you to lead the Airline Solutions business and help propel innovation for the global airline industry?
A: A component of our strategy is for Sabre to establish itself as the technology platform at the center of business travel. Coming to the table with my existing technology background really lends itself well to our pursuit. For example, I’ve been involved with a commercial system that includes inventory control and order management mechanisms. Leveraging that exposure and my current technology experiences relative to mobile, machine learning and artificial intelligence will help accelerate our journey.
Additionally, I’ve had the benefit of taking numerous airlines through digital transformation, which has given me a better understanding of the industry and ignited my curiosity even further.
Q: You stated that technology needs to be at the center of the business of travel. What does that mean for Sabre Airline Solutions? What is the significance for its customers?
A: I believe the core of that strategy is to find new ways to do things. Patterns are changing. Buying structures are changing. User experiences are changing. Travelers’ demands around personalization are changing. Distribution, shopping, check-in, retailing and the introduction of NDC … it’s all changing very quickly. Marry that with the industry’s requirement to fulfill these needs and we are right in the middle of a very exciting business evolution. Therefore, we must continue as thought leaders and ensure our innovations are in-line with those constantly evolving areas of the industry.
Q: Digital transformation presents one of the airline industry’s biggest challenges and opportunities. How can Sabre help an airline transition to a truly digital business?
A: It begins with understanding our customers and where they are in the digital space. As you would expect, I had the pleasure of meeting many customers during my first several months with the company. To date, I have yet to meet an airline CEO who hasn’t said, ‘We have to get more mobile. We have to get more digital. Our customers are expecting this and we have to get smarter about digital transformation across all touchpoints and parts of my organization. Can Sabre help us accelerate these objectives?’
While we have numerous solutions and avenues to address those issues, we need to get even better. Much of the innovation that we’re incorporating into the roadmap and have in store for this year is technology that we believe will continue to help our customers accelerate their digital journeys.
For example, we can give them base applications to meet their specific user-experience needs. We can enhance the way in which we make our APIs and our services available. We are leveraging new microservices to meet our customers’ flexibility and integration requirements while allowing other third-party integrations to be incorporated into an airline’s technology. Having that freedom and flexibility is a big part of the change we’re working toward, while simultaneously meeting customer requirements as we go through that process.
Q: Personalized retailing is a critical focus for the airline industry. How is Sabre enabling personalized retailing through technology?
A: Almost every other industry has already gone through the process of personalized retailing. The challenge for airlines is in being able to fulfill the offerings. For instance, if Amazon sold you a good or a service, the fulfillment process and supply chain is structured and understood with multiple options to fulfill. It can sell you a good, put it on the truck and ship it to you.
For airlines, the offer is heavily influenced by the ability to fulfill it. Among other things, carriers face legal and compliance constraints, which dictate how they operate, what they can do and how they can do it. It ties back into the capacity of a seat. A seat is a perishable item that has certain options paired and matched to it based on a point in time. Adding further complexity, these options expire or change at different points in the journey.
Sabre’s unmatched innovation will enable us to assist airlines in fulfilling their offers. That puts us in a strategic position to help expand how an airline can move from the traditional ATPCO model to a more personalized structure. We’re investing heavily and building these types of solutions with a goal of bringing them to market throughout the next 18 months.
Q: How does IATA’s NDC initiative play a role in personalized-retailing efforts? What is Sabre doing in this space?
A: IATA has been very thoughtful in the strategy behind the NDC initiative. NDC alone is important; however, it’s not the uniqueness of it. It’s an enabler. The uniqueness is how an airline takes that protocol, definition and structure and surrounds it with a set of products and applications it can take advantage of.
Having NDC alone does not mean an airline has an extremely robust shopping and ordering environment with robust personalized offers or offer-management capabilities. There is more to the strategy. Sabre is not only focusing on supporting the core protocol and technology piece of NDC, it is also developing and rolling out a variety of applications to drive very unique offer capabilities, revenue-based opportunities and growth for airlines.
Q: Why is it important for airlines to be involved with Sabre’s technology innovations from start to finish?
A: Our customers are at the center of everything we do. We want and require their perspective. The more we involve our customers and partner with them during our product life cycle, the better we can test use cases and the richer the product requirement becomes.
This also helps us define the products we are going to build. Ultimately, these customer relationships make it easier for us to provide the highest level of service and support. Therefore, having them involved in every aspect of the process is critical. Sometimes, certain customers will be pushing the envelope in one area, while others will be pushing it in another. That balance and ensuring we find the best solution across the community for our customers is vital. We want every customer to have a voice at our table.
Q: Airlines continually strive to identify their most valuable customers so they can offer a more personalized end-to-end travel experience. How does Sabre identify its most valuable customers?
A: For Sabre, every customer is important — big or small. But what makes a great partner and an important collaborator for Sabre is the level of activity and participation. Customers give us feedback; tell us what they want and need; and share their plans, strategy, thoughts or ideas. To that end, we are shifting our approach. I am challenging our teams to embrace and action joint working meetings and governance structures with our customers. These in-person forums will create an environment to thoughtfully discuss technology and dive deep into our customers’ strategies. That level of customer participation is of utmost value. It makes for a very rich relationship between our customers and us.
Q: Sabre’s biggest objective is to never let a customer fail. What does this mean specifically? Why is this the biggest goal?
A: Never letting a customer fail means that we see them through their highs and their lows. Equally, they help us because every business has moments of disruption and elation — this is one of the components that brings to bare the ‘customer-never-fails’ theme.
It also means that we must bring unwavering passion, every day to everything we do. It’s not just about the software. It’s about how we interact with and service our customers. How we sell to them and the way in which we negotiate with them. In short, we want our customers to win, and if we act and execute with that in mind, I’m confident our customers equally want us to win and not fail. So, that’s really the quid pro quo that we look for when saying, ‘We never let a customer fail.’
Q: A company’s most vital asset is its people. How do you ensure your employees are happy and motivated so they can produce the best possible innovations and services for your customers?
A: Passion plays a role here as well. It is important that our leaders have passion for the business and wear it on their sleeves loud and proud. It starts with leading by example. If there is one thing I have learned throughout my career, it’s that great people attract great people. This piece really matters. Strong leaders listen to and engage with colleagues to ensure they are part of the conversation. If you do those things right and you trust your employees, good things happen and everyone wins.
I’m a big believer that the best way to work with your people is to focus on how they improve … not in huge increments, but in 1 percent chunks. I was taught early on that 1 percent improvement per day, per week, per month puts you in a completely different stratosphere as you head into the future. I truly believe this is what attracts great people. If you can stick to that 1 percent mantra, you’re going to end up elating customers and consistently over delivering. Ultimately, this means you have that winning formula that attracts desirable talent to your team and the organization.
Q: How will you take Sabre Airline Solutions from good to great?
A: The first step in taking Airline Solutions from good to great is to make customers our primary focus. It’s vital that everything starts with our customers. Second is to ensure that we have the best team. As mentioned, I’m very passionate about that. Third, we must innovate every day … not just in our products, but in everything we do. That includes how we deliver products, how we support our products and all aspects of the product lifecycle. Fourth, we must make sure we provide the highest possible quality in the industry. If we do all the other things and we don’t have quality, all goals will fall short.
Quality is not just in the product, but also in every aspect of what we do. It’s in the transparency and the truthfulness of how we work on our products. It’s sharing with customers the ways in which we know they can improve their businesses. This is a very different way for the business to evolve and grow. If we do this well, Airline Solutions will be viewed as a clear leader in the airline space. I truly look forward to being a part of that, and I’m counting on the team to bring it to fruition. This will take us from good to great.