Six months after joining Virgin Atlantic as chief information officer, David Bulman is leading a transformation at the airline with mobile technology at its heart.
The executive was hired following a period of underinvestment in IT and a realisation that the airline needed to catch up with the latest technologies under a proper strategic roadmap with a “massive” budget boost.
Bulman joined the company from a totally different sector – he was previously CIO of Reed Business Publishing – but he is already fully up to speed with the realities of the airline sector and has just completed a review of his department.
“The first thing I’ve done after joining was making sure that I understood the breadth of the ongoing projects, their stage of development and if they were delivering,” Bulman told Computer Weekly in an exclusive interview.
“Initial work also included having a look at the state of the organisation, if the team was fit for purpose and finally, if we were operating our infrastructure appropriately,” he says.
“It has been really about carrying out some due diligence and then coming up with what are the next steps to start turning things around. It has been an interesting ride, but the key finding was that we were in a pretty good shape.”
The core area of focus for Bulman is the development of a good mobile strategy to enable Virgin Atlantic to offer a better service to its customers.
“We don’t have much of a mobile offering at the moment and that has really got to change fast,” says Bulman.
We are still heavily dependant on our own infrastructure and I do want to start making some more targeted use of the cloud but this is a long-term vision and we’ll get there
According to the executive, his team will be engaged on “a whole host of new mobile development” over the next six months to provide “a totally different experience” to travellers.
“I am spending a lot of time developing a very good mobile strategy. People are used to having e-tickets on their phones ready to be scanned and we are not quite there yet,” the CIO admits.
“Our main focus is around how do we get that sort of interaction into the palm of our flying customers’ hands. There is quite a bit we can do and quite quickly, so there will be a lot going on in terms of the public facing technology."
The IT chief says that he is still working on his mobile plan and seeing suppliers to support his strategy, which will include more on-board apps focused on customer knowledge, so cabin crews can understand what customers need and want and the airport experience can be improved.
The carrier is also planning to make heavy use of tablets, particularly for cabin crew and sales staff. “It will be tablets all over the place,” Bulman says. “[Tablets are] a core part of our delivery of making everything available on a mobile fashion. "
Bulman says that mobile ticketing – something that has been offered by some of Virgin’s competitors such as British Airways for years – will “hopefully” be available to travellers this year. But this is not a move towards the full automation seen at other airlines such as Ryanair and SAS.
“We can make it easier for customers to check-in online, get to the gates faster, but we will never remove the ability for the customer to talk to somebody,” says Bulman.
“A lot of airlines have done that, but we don’t believe that is the right answer. You can come with the most perfect mobile app, but it is not going to be used by every customer.”
Bulman has a lot of ideas around client-facing technology, but he also stressed that airlines cannot implement all the improvements needed by themselves.
“We want to allow other services such as self bag-drop but there are some things we can’t do on our own - we need airport cooperation to do that,” he says.
The CIO mentions that he has worked closely with BAA CIO Philip Langsdale and a number of CIOs of major airlines flying out of Heathrow - British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Emirates, BMI and KLM – around the airport’s strategy. BAA also meets the companies periodically to go through projects, budgets and discuss ways to deliver technology improvements collaboratively.
“I think that [Langsdale] has done some great things, [but] there is a lot more we can do in airports like Heathrow to move things along,” says Bulman.
“It is all well and good for Heathrow to come up with a strategy, but that plan has to interact with other airports. We need airports to cooperate equally with each other in terms of strategy and electronic delivery."
To illustrate the current situation in relation to how airport authorities and airlines can work together, Bulman mentions his interest in offering a better mobile application for travellers to find their way around airports.
“One of my key deliverables is a geo-referenced electronic version of the airport itself, and you can’t get that today. We almost have to build it ourselves for the airports we operate into,” Bulman says.
“The technology is all there – if we work together as an industry, we can solve that problem tomorrow. But what you have at the moment is Heathrow developing its own app, and Gatwick doing the same. What you should have is a cooperative mapping approach that we could use to help passengers find their way around in airports as that can be a nightmare.”
Another core pillar of the CIO’s plans to take Virgin Atlantic to a higher level is staff self-service. The aim is to automate a lot of manual processes, in areas such as crew management.
“It is all very physical, but we want to make changes and get to a situation where our crew are in much more control of their rosters and how they interface with [these processes],” says Bulman.
Cloud computing is a key element in delivering this vision and the CIO is now developing a strategy for it, which is part of the overall architectural plan. The company’s datacentre operation is outsourced to CSC and runs on a highly virtualised environment.
“I am looking at some quite targeted cloud applications where it feels appropriate to do so. For example, if we do upgrade our Oracle [Financials], do we put that on the cloud as an individual piece? That is something that we are looking at,” Bulman says.
“We are still heavily dependant on our own infrastructure and I do want to start making some more targeted use of the cloud but this is a long-term vision and we’ll get there, but we are in a good place right now,” he adds.
“We have a very robust computer centre operation and not much goes wrong - everything is running, we don’t have systems crashing, we are able to sell tickets and everything to keep the business running is working, which was quite pleasant to find as that is not always the case.”
For office applications, the IT chief has ruled out Google Apps, but as the architecture vision develops, Bulman sees this functionality as an element the airline could potentially put in the cloud, however not this year as office-based software is “a piece of infrastructure that currently works.”
All users at Virgin Atlantic have physical PCs or laptops, but the carrier is moving to a situation where about 80% of its applications can be delivered through a thin-client set-up.
“We have relatively small offices in our destinations, so we are moving towards being able to operate in a thin-client manner and that is a trend that I will continue,” says Bulman.
“There is definitely a theme to our strategy which is moving towards a very self- service environment where we can deliver applications anywhere, and we are actually pretty close to that,” he adds.
“It is a matter of ensuring that I can handle the volumes and do a bit of work in some of the infrastructure to deliver outside of our network universe.”
Bulman finished a review of the skills in his department in March and is now in the middle of a departmental organisation which is about refocusing the team and aligning it more with the overall strategy. This also means the company will be busy recruiting some key IT skills it does not have at the moment.
According to the CIO, the areas of expertise he will be looking to boost his full-time staff of 120 people are in data architecture and governance, but mainly security.
“There is a recognition that the airline industry is in a position of new threats starting to hit. Planes are big flying computers so the implications around how you manage those devices, remote connectivity and so on are much higher,” Bulman says.
“We are not in a bad place regarding security and have some good people, but we need to bring some additional specialist skills in that arena as we have to make sure that we protect our assets in a rock-solid manner. Security is one of our crown jewels, so that has to be in-house as opposed to outsourced.”
One of the main findings in Bulman’s initial investigations was that Virgin Atlantic has a highly complex and organically-built information architecture and systems with point-to-point interconnectivity. So one of the main concerns is around consistency and data quality issues – and the skills to manage that.
“I may hire or train [staff] internally to really focus on how we can get the best out of our data assets and use it appropriately,” the CIO says.
Moving to the airline sector from the publishing world was a lifestyle change of sorts, according to Bulman.
“Virgin is a very interesting place to work. It is kind of a lifestyle company, you’ve got to want to work here, you have to be the right sort of personality,” he says.
“This is my fifth industry and although I also bring a lot of value to the company, it is a great learning environment as well."
Bulman’s main concern, just like many of his peers, is managing to “do it all at once.”
“I have to reorganise my team, recruit new skills, deliver strategic projects across most pillars of the business, enable and self-service everything that isn’t that way at the moment and bring mobile technologies to bear. It is a hugely complex piece of work,” he says.
What is different in Bulman’s situation is despite the fact Virgin has underinvested in IT, he doesn’t worry about having to repair the department’s reputation with other business areas.
“I don’t think that the image of IT was damaged, but it was in a back-office sort of function as opposed to a business enabler. What I am trying to do is to show the difference between just delivering a service and doing that and also making the business a better place,” Bulman says.
Does the CIO feel under pressure to deliver a successful IT-led transformation that compares to what leading lights in the UK aviation industry have done over the years?
“There are some great things that other airlines have done [with technology] but we are not in a bad place in comparison to our competitors. Are we learning from others? Absolutely.”
Read more on IT for transport and travel industry
Efficiency to empathy: Customer experience in cost-of living crisis
Direct Line hires former Virgin Atlantic IT chief as CIO
Virgin Atlantic expands 17-year relationship with TCS as it begins Covid-19 crisis recovery
How Virgin Atlantic used Workplace from Facebook to great advantage during the pandemic