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AirAsia on becoming a data-first business by taking flight in Google Cloud

AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes on how Google cloud is underpinning its efforts to become a digital-first business where collaboration is king

Low-cost airline AirAsia is in the midst of a Google Cloud-powered digital reinvention, as it works towards its goal of making air travel a more personal and less friction-filled experience for air passengers.

Speaking at the Google Cloud Next ‘18 conference in London, AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes set out his vision of what the future of air travel could look like, with technology enabling airports to streamline the check-in, bag drop and security processes for passengers.

“The buzzword in AirAsia is frictionless [and we’re] using data to create a frictionless travel experience for our customers, our staff and our partners. Frictionless is the overall ambition,” he said.

As examples of the work AirAsia is doing on this front, Fernandes said the company is using internet of things (IoT) sensors on all its planes to carry out predictive maintenance, and determine where best to site its planes at airports to reduce the risk of passengers missing connecting flights.

A paperless travel experience

While many airlines now offer passengers the option to download their boarding passes to their mobile devices, Fernandes said there is also potential for technology to eradicate the need for single-use paper luggage tags.

“We want to avoid printing out baggage tags,” he said. “It should be very simple. At the end of the day, we know where you’re flying, and the tag on your bag should automatically change to where you are flying to.”

Meanwhile, advances in image recognition tools mean passengers could one day enter countries without the need for manual passport checks.

“You should be able to walk into a country with your face, and pre-clear [security] and these are all concepts coming to Asia and South-East Asia,” he added.

As far as regulators allow, he said AirAsia is committed to removing paper from as much of the passenger experience as possible, and is constantly looking for ways to use customer data to offer a more personalised experience to customers as well.

“Whether it’s food, the seat [on the plane] or the destination, the airport experience is one we think could be a much better experience through personalisation,” he said.

The personalisation piece forms part of wider push by AirAsia to become a “data-first” organisation and reposition itself into, what Fernandes terms, a “digital travel company” that offers its passengers more than access to low-cost flights.

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As such, he hopes to capitalise on the 50 million unique users a month that visit the company’s website to check out its flights by offering up other travel-related products for sale too.

“We are a volume-driven company, so we want ticket prices to remain low and we’re trying to find other ways to save costs, so whether its selling hotel rooms or deals when you arrive in London, we will try to do our best to drive business, but not through driving fares up,” he said.

During the pursuit of its digital strategy, the company has overhauled its IT infrastructure, doing away with its on-premise setup and paving the way for the company to move to the Google Cloud Platform.

Fernandes said the company was courted “aggressively” by Amazon Web Services and Microsoft when weighing up which public cloud provider to hand over its infrastructure to, before opting to go to Google based on what he calls a “gut feeling”.

Business intelligence

In terms of what Google cloud technologies AirAsia is using, key pieces include its BigQuery data-warehousing service and its business intelligence offering, Google Data Studio.

It is also a keen user of the firm’s G-Suite online productivity tools, which Fernandes credits with helping the company maintain its long-standing tradition of operating in a transparent and collaborative way.

“Airlines are so compartmentalised,” he said. “Pilots don’t talk to cabin crew, engineers are in another building, and the commercial [team] are in a downtown office,  so we wanted to create an airline that was one airline and collaborative, because we saw so much wastage of cost [because] of people not talking together.”

“And I was so maniacal about it: I put everyone in one building with no doors. And now we have moved to the second phase, where Google has enabled us to collaborate so much more than we ever could before when we just had 200 people and now we have 22,000 staff.”

This commitment to openness and transparency also brings other benefits, including helping to keep staff morale up, said Fernandes.

“Collaboration is very important for an airline like ours,” he said. “We have 22,000 staff and we don’t have a single union. It’s very flat structured, it’s very transparent.”

“Anyone who has a problem can come to us directly,” said Fernandes. “Everyone can see everything. If you have all these invisible walls, and a pilot, for example, feels like there is no point talking to me, than they’re not going to.”

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