The spread of COVID-19 has posed serious challenges to airlines and the aviation industry on the whole. However, this also has paved new growth opportunities where airlines are embracing digital transformation as their business continuity plans to sustain the current pandemic. AirAsia India is leveraging technology, to improve customer experience and also drive business efficiency in response to the pandemic. In an exclusive conversation with CXOToday, Sajid Sayed, Chief Information Officer (CIO) at AirAsia India discusses how the airline is soaring high on a new digital journey.
CXOToday: The COVID-19 pandemic has created a host of new challenges for the airlines industry. What role is technology playing at AirAsia to ensure business continuity during the pandemic?
Sajid Sayed: Once COVID-19 started gaining momentum and impacting businesses and travel across the world, we immediately had our Business Continuity Plans in place. Restrictions that came with the pandemic have not stalled our plans. We have a series of IT transformation projects lined up as part of our IT Strategy and a significant amount of work has already been done despite the constraints due to the current scenario. We have project teams spread across continents and time zones, with almost all the team members working from home and yet, that hasn’t stopped us from executing our projects.
AVA, AirAsia’s advanced ChatBot has been of tremendous support to guests since its launch in December 2018. AVA offers a high standard of customer service powered by artificial intelligence and handles millions of cases annually across other platforms such as Facebook, airasia.com, the AirAsia mobile app and WhatsApp across 11 languages.
When airline operations were shut for two months from 25 March, 90% of our staff which works at the front end were working out from home. So, we started using digital platforms to upgrade both digital and soft skills of our employees, so that they can navigate through an increasingly new business landscape especially in a post-COVID-19 environment. We equipped over 3200 Allstars (our employees) through video, audio and e-learning modules. We used WorkDay tools to track performance management and conduct regular employee engagement sessions to be in touch with our people.
We also set up a culture of continuous learning by training some of our front liners from the cabin crew, guest services and security departments to deliver refresher workshops titled ‘Certified AirAsia Trainers’. We have been agile in using technology in promoting learning across the organization and invested a total of 408154 hours in April and May in online learning and development. Aside from regular work, online yoga sessions, grooming workshops, virtual coffee with the CEO, engagement with leadership, and book reading sessions were planned using platforms such as Workplace, to go through this tough season together.
CXOToday: What technology backed initiatives have you undertaken to manage fuel costs efficiently?
Sajid Sayed: As you may be aware, fuel constitutes a major part of an airline’s operating cost. Efficient fuel management brings about direct cost benefits. As part of our sustainability processes and carbon offsetting strategy, AirAsia monitors and reports carbon emissions in an accurate manner. We use an innovative flight optimization solution combining machine learning performance models for each tail number and the issuance to the flight crew of customized flight optimization recommendations for each flight, for the climb phase. We have seen quantifiable results in terms of fuel savings. Looking at the positive results in managing fuel efficiency with the help of this technology solution, we have extended this solution to our entire fleet.
CXOToday: Crew planning and scheduling is one of the most challenging and compute intensive tasks for an airline. How do you ensure that new technologies are absorbed into the process to optimize crew utilization?
Sajid Sayed: Currently we use established software called AIMS that manages all the Regulatory requirements before rostering the crew for flights. We however believe that optimization of the process is a continuously evolving exercise – based on variables like crew number available, number of planes, routes, layovers and so on – and we are working with Jeppesen and NITIE to look at optimizing software solutions.
CXOToday: How is AirAsia India differentiating itself from competition in the area of customer experience?
Sajid Sayed: ‘Be Guest-Obsessed’ is one of the core values of AirAsia India. Technology plays a crucial role in enhancing customer experience and contributes to the overall efficiency of the business. Recently, we joined hands with Bengaluru Airport to introduce DigiYatra, a biometric contactless facial recognition system that allows a safe check-in process for our guests, wherein guests are automatically processed based on facial biometric systems at checkpoints like Airport Entry Point, Security check and Boarding gates at the terminal.
In July, AirAsia India, along with TCS, launched an aviation app, ‘RedSmart’ that helps improve the operational efficiency of the airline. With the launch of RedSmart, AirAsia India’s Operational Control Center (OCC) has real-time situational awareness that helps drive improvements in aircraft utilization and leads to improve On-Time Performance.
Another step we have taken to enhance contactless procedures is to send out SMS to the guests with details of bags they have checked in instead of issuing a bag tag counterfoil to the guests.
Since operations resumed in May, the industry has witnessed a significant change in demographics of fliers. AirAsia India has strengthened efforts to promote online check-in through a slew of measures including QR codes in passenger interface areas at airports, deployed additional staff to educate and assist first time travelers. A combination of these efforts have enabled AirAsia India to record a 98% web check-in for passengers and achieve the record 98.1% OTP in July.
We are also the first airline in India to attain (DGCA Directorate General of Civil Aviation) approval to conduct Regulatory Training for Pilots through “Distance Learning Training Program”. Earlier, these flight crew trainings were conducted by contact classroom sessions. Distance learning has the benefit of ensuring social distancing, meeting regulatory requirements and cost savings.
CXOToday: As a CIO, how do you ensure that your digital assets are secure and business is always ‘on’?
Sajid Sayed: Business Continuity is the core requirement in an airline. 100% of our revenues are generated through our online booking engine – be it through direct or indirect channels. Every single passenger is checked in to his or her flight over an online departure control system. We at AirAsia India have adopted a 100% cloud strategy. We use a mix of SaaS and hybrid cloud for hosting our business applications. This gives us benefits like scalability, upgradeability, availability, manageability and security, all while keeping our costs optimized. Just like in the case of an aircraft that has redundancy built in for all its critical systems and components, we have ensured building disaster recovery setup with geographical redundancy for all our business applications, network connectivity and overall IT infrastructure. This helps us ensure business continuity at all times with zero to minimum outages.
CXOToday: What are the key challenges you faced during lockdown and the crisis time and how technology helped in solving those problem?
Sajid Sayed: Even during the lockdown, we continued with the IT transformation projects we had undertaken at AirAsia India. This meant staff having to attend meetings, workshops, training sessions, and other project related activities while working from home. There were activities related to requirements gathering, system development, system integration, testing, and deployment. It wasn’t easy at all to carry out these activities remotely. Many of the staff actually traveled back to their hometowns with limited internet connectivity. However, with the help of various audio-video tools, chat services, text and emailing solutions, we managed to stay connected and keep the show going on. Also, that we have always been on cloud and mobile first technologies has helped us transition quickly. The lockdown has taught us some unimagined lessons about the future and has drastically changed our worldview.
CXOToday: What are some of your plans to soar to the next level?
Sajid Sayed: Right now, we are in the middle of a digital transformation journey at AirAsia India. We are assessing our overall IT landscape to optimize and leverage our people, processes and technology. Cloud adoption is part of our going forward strategy. Innovation is next on the agenda. We have recognized the need and benefits of collaboration and you will soon hear about our initiative in this direction. The best part is that technology has the best potential of taking an organization to the next level. Your ability to adopt technological advancements and innovations at an early stage can transform the organization from being followers in business to being leaders in technology.
CXOToday: Given the current situation, what technology trends do you foresee for the airlines sector in the next 2-3 years?
Sajid Sayed: Technology will play an indispensable role in the new normal in flying. Contactless transactions are an area that will witness tremendous change in the next few months to make customer experience safer and seamless. Enabling digital payments on-ground and in-flight, making transactions cashless make processes quicker and contactless. These processes also provide valuable data insights and provide the opportunity to do away with paper forms, enabling sustainable operations. Going forward, customers also need assistance with knowing about various travel advisories issued by the destination authorities. The check-in process will therefore be enhanced allowing customers to submit health related self-declaration which is a regulatory requirement, as well as to provide information about prevailing travel advisories.