Azim Barodawala

Prototyping Contact Tracing Technologies to Restore Air Travel in the Post-COVID Era

Azim Barodawala, a former project leader, offers insights on his company’s efforts to help resume air travel in a safe way, and the BCG learnings and memories he cherishes to this day.

In your journey during and after BCG you gained extensive experience in the travel industry. What led you to co-found Volantio?

Volantio was initially founded by my co-founder and I trying to solve a vexing problem I always seemed to face with airline email marketing being generic and lacking fare options. So, we decided to leverage one of the most critical skills that I picked up while at BCG: being able to listen to your clients and potential clients. After hearing their pain points, we soon realized there was a bigger opportunity we could address in helping airlines transform their approach to revenue management (RM) and the ability to drive incremental profits from customers even after they booked their flights.

This field of "post-booking RM" was new, and the idea to tackle the challenge was not originally ours. It was given to us by the Vice President of RM from Virgin America, with whom I was having breakfast one morning in San Francisco. He encouraged me to solve the problem and stated that the industry needed such a solution. Therefore, we pivoted the company, built the platform, and today this individual, who is now at Alaska Airlines, is one of our cornerstone partners.

If we had kept pushing what we originally thought clients needed, and failed to actually listen to their pain points, we would never have achieved success.

The global transportation and aviation industries have been heavily impacted by COVID-19. What are your thoughts on solutions that could help create safer conditions to resume travel in the post-COVID era, and how do you think the latest technology could support in this direction?

One of the biggest areas that the global aviation industry must address is adequate contact tracing. Load factors (meaning the percentage of seats filled in an aircraft) will not return to profitable levels until passengers feel that their safety will not be endangered by flying. Contact tracing is critical to this cause.

Volantio has been sketching out a prototype solution that might be able to help. Our platform, at its core, enables airlines to communicate valuable and actionable messages to customers in a real-time manner. We hook into an airline's core passenger service system (PSS), which contains the manifest (who's on the flight and where they are seated) and passenger contact details.

Our focus today is on revenue optimization, but we are exploring how this same platform could be leveraged to communicate time-sensitive health information if someone who tests positive for the coronavirus was sitting in a six-seat radius of you on the flight.

The key to making it all work, though, is coordination and participation from both the airlines and from the organizations who collect information on confirmed COVID cases. Today, that's where we have been running into the most challenges. The point is, though, that contact tracing for air travel is not just possible, it is critical to the restoration of confidence in the system from the flying public. We are keen to make this happen.

How has your BCG experience benefitted your career, and what do you find yourself utilizing from your BCG skill set in your current role the most?

At BCG you learn that you can only ever have three core points, so in that spirit, I will provide my top three skill sets developed that are most critical to me today:

  1. Being able to ask good questions and listen. Discussed above, but this skill is critical to anyone who leads an organization, both from the standpoint of being a good leader to your team, as well as being able to understand your customers' challenges and develop a product that is relevant and appealing.
  2. Being able to communicate effectively. A core lesson I learned at BCG was that people have a very short attention span. It is important to communicate in a structured manner—clearly, efficiently, and effectively. One of my all-time favorite BCG principals, Scott Davis, hammered this lesson into my head one day by taking a jumbled presentation I had put together and drawing three simple boxes on a page, each with a core message distilled from my long and meandering deck. "This is what you need to do to structure your deck," he explained.

    I never forgot that moment, and the skills have served me well, both in terms of communicating with my board of directors and my investors, as well as with my team and clients. Being efficient and structured always results in better outcomes.

  3. Taking the time to be a good teacher. At BCG, I really learned the importance of being surrounded by others who were great teachers, and ultimately, the importance of trying to be a good teacher yourself. These days, I try to do my best to continue the process of teaching within my team, and I really view it as the best investment I can make in our future success.

What is your favorite BCG memory?

I have so many wonderful memories from BCG! I loved the opportunity to work in multiple countries around the world, serve clients in the travel and transportation space, and most of all, to work with and learn from an inspiring group of colleagues. However, my favorite BCG memory ironically occurred before I had joined the firm, and in fact, before I was even applying to join the firm. It was roughly 15 years ago, Spring 2005, and I was about to start my first year at Wharton. I knew I really wanted to work in the Travel and Tourism (T&T) space but wasn't sure exactly in what capacity. I did a bit of research online and learned that BCG, McKinsey, and Bain all did a fair amount of consulting work in this sector.

Being the plucky person that I was, I decided to write e-mails to the lead partners at each of the three firms to see if they had any advice for someone who was passionate about the space and wanted to pursue a role in T&T consulting. I believe I received generic responses from McKinsey and Bain: polite, but not very detailed.

But not BCG. Mike Deimler, who led the T&T practice then, took the time to write me a brief message of encouragement, ending by saying that he'd be happy to meet me in person if I was ever in Atlanta.

About a month later, I made the trip down and came by the old BCG office at 600 Peachtree Street. I remember it as though it were yesterday. I was so nervous to be there, and given Mike's busy schedule, I ended up having to wait a bit. However, what I remember most is that once Mike and I sat down, he gave me a full, solid hour of his time. He was so refreshingly candid about his job—what he liked and what was challenging. Mike did not have to do that. I was not on a recruiting weekend. I was not being interviewed. I was just a student who was looking to someone who had "been there before" for some advice, and Mike was happy to help. That memory sticks with me today, and I only hope I can do half as good a job as Mike in my interactions with others who now look to me for advice.

About eight months later, in January 2006, I had received offers from multiple consulting firms to join for the summer, but for me, it was a no-brainer. There was nowhere else I wanted to be other than BCG.