Cobus McQuirk, South African Airways’ HoD IT Strategy & Architecture, discusses digital transformation as a part of the airline’s IT strategy.

What does digital transformation mean for your airline?

It means not just looking at the technology side to see what can be done better, but also at the bigger picture for South African Airways (SAA). I believe that’s crucial when approaching the concept of digitally transforming an organization.

Cobus McquirkFrom an organizational viewpoint, this must take into account the commercial structure, as well as the organization’s size and reach. From a societal perspective, it must take into account the development status of the country in which the organization operates.

For SAA, we operate in a country that’s in-between developed and developing. Our commercial structure is made up of an integrated airline group (SAA flagship, Mango and SA Airlink), and a full flagship loyalty entity (SAA Voyager).

It includes an MRO capability that services and maintains aircraft both in South Africa and across Africa, a cargo entity, and a beverage and meal entity (Airchefs). Our fleet across the group consists of approximately 90 aircraft, carrying between 50-360 passengers, with vast global, regional and local network coverage.

So this is a sophisticated group, with diverse entities. Our digital journey – which we’ve just started – recognizes this and for our airline this has plenty of potential to make us stronger and more innovative than ever before.

What is its objective?

The objective of our journey is to do what we do every day – but to do it smarter and in conjunction with technology for our customers. Our digital transformation strategy has therefore been developed to achieve this objective. However, there are many aspects we need to constantly address to ensure that this transformation stays for good and doesn’t just fizzle out.

These are all part of the bigger digital transformation picture – from full integration of applications for passengers, air and ground crew, to cloud adoption, the need for an ‘always-on’ mobile workforce, and our move towards business intelligence and predictive data analytics.

Without connectivity quote

One of the most important aspects that all of this relies upon is connectivity. Without connectivity, any efforts to implement a digital strategy within an organization are doomed to failure. But we’re making great headway and we’re on-track for a fully digitally transformed SAA by the end of 2018.

What steps are you taking?

To answer this, I’ll use two case studies – one about EFB (electronic flight bag) and the other called ‘Network Aware’.

We live in an age where paper-based administration is less and less the norm. It’s being replaced with electronic alternatives. Not only does this trend safeguard against human error, it also enables the display of real-time information that’s always up-to-date.

Put that trend into an airline context and the savings of both time and money are massive. This is the main element of our EFB initiative – taking a paper-based process and converting it into a digital one. But there’s even more to it than that. To ensure its success requires that the EFB is properly integrated with all necessary backend operational systems.

On a similar line of thought, many airline operations have been paper-based or desk and PC bound for years. But as time goes on, this is quickly becoming a digital and mobile process.

Our Network Aware initiative is an application that enables an airline to identify, process, and comprehend all critical elements involved in airline operations at any given time – from fleet performance to passenger connections, as well as landing sequences for departure and arrival.

Put simply, it enables airlines to know exactly what’s going on in regards to their flights at any given time.

So without going into detail, it’s clear from the outset the benefits that these two initiatives would have for airlines. Implementing them not only entails complying with regulatory requirements. It also means that those executing it must have a well-defined skillset to know what to do, and how to handle the technology as well as set up excellent support services.

Any challenges encountered?

With any change, there will always be challenges. For us, our main one was connectivity.

With technological infrastructure not being as developed in Africa as it is in many other parts of the world, some offices are currently served by 64K lines – a bit of a struggle when it comes to wanting to digitize aspects – but one that we have learnt to work around.

The implementation of EFB and Network Aware also brought with them some of their own specific challenges, and several lessons have been learned.

For EFB, these were in the form of hesitancy to adopt this technology by the air and ground crew who would be using it, a slight lack in the seamless integration with the numerous service providers that made EFB possible, and the need to improve the skillset of our staff.

For Network Aware, there was also resistance from those who’d be using it on a daily basis, as well a slightly separate relationship between the business as a whole and its IT function, which we have resolved.

What would you advise to others on this journey?

First, the one thing to keep in mind at all times is that it’s not all about technology. Technology is one of the enablers but there are many other enablers that all add to the proper implementation and overall success.

For instance, properly trained staff is a priority. You can have all the technology in the world but without the skillsets required to work with this technology, you’d be wasting both time and money. Also, training staff will help them more easily accept this new technology rather than expecting them to learn along the way.

Second, as I’ve mentioned, the relationship between business and IT in an organization is exceptionally key. This is because being digitally wired means needing 24/7/365 support. We’re heading into a time where being ‘always-on’ is becoming an expectation and this cannot be achieved without having this support.

Third, getting buy-in from the top of an organization is imperative and your efforts will be in vain if this is not achieved beforehand.

The fourth factor, is that with any digital roadmap varying skills are needed, so when embarking on a digital journey don’t expect everything to stay the same or only change slightly. From experience, I can tell you that this is not the case and you need to be prepared for change. With new skills come new processes ─ both work hand-in-hand.

And finally, we have connectivity. As I’ve said, connectivity plays a vital role in the proper and successful implementation of any digital transformation strategy. Without it, it’s just not possible.

We need to be open to the potential that the digital future holds for us. Whether we’re prepared for it or not, it’s already changing the way we live and go about our normal day-to-day lives. As airlines, our digital roadmaps need to effectively address this inevitable evolution.

A bright future

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