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How Singapore Airlines is flying the digital skies

Top Asian carrier Singapore Airlines has been building a digital foundation to fend off potential disruption, but it is not just the IT team that is leading the charge

Not contented with being the world’s best airline – an accolade conferred by airline consultancy Skytrax – Singapore Airlines (SIA) wants to extend its leadership into the digital space amid stiff competition from rivals nipping at its heels.

But what does being a leading digital airline mean? In the words of SIA’s senior vice-president for IT, George Wang, that means harnessing technology to expand its business, improve customer experience and optimise operations.

In airline operations, for example, SIA’s ground crew and pilots have been armed with tablet devices to access the information they need to do their jobs, while predictive maintenance capabilities have enabled SIA to fix technical issues with its fleet before they occur.

And while onboard an aircraft, passengers can download digital newspapers and magazines before take-off using the SIA mobile app, and link their mobile devices with the inflight entertainment system to play their favourite movies.

In one of its boldest moves yet, SIA launched the world’s first blockchain-based digital wallet app earlier this year that lets customers spend their frequent flyers miles at retail partners. The app rides on a private blockchain open only to merchants and partners.

Hailing the digital wallet as ground-breaking, SIA CEO Goh Choon Phong noted that the blockchain initiative is a “demonstration of the investment we are making to significantly enhance the digital side of our business for the benefit of our customers”.

These digital initiatives would not have been possible without the dogged efforts by Wang and SIA’s management team to build up its digital foundation that comprises several key areas – technical infrastructure, fostering a culture of innovation, capability building, as well as partnerships with startups, universities and technology giants such as Alibaba.

On the infrastructure front, SIA started moving off the mainframe in 2013, choosing to run its applications and website on the cloud instead. The company has re-architected its backend systems so it can provide application programming interfaces (APIs) that its partners can use to deliver new services, and has rolled out software-defined networks at its datacentres.

In encouraging SIA employees to adopt an innovative mindset, Wang said SIA has set up a digital innovation lab to help employees turn their ideas into reality.

Although it has had some successes in getting employees hyped up about innovation, even presenting ideas such as a procurement application that works without an internet connection to SIA’s leadership team, Wang admitted it would take some time for the innovative culture to permeate across the company.

“People need to believe in what they’re doing before they can change their mindset,” he said. “We’ve had some success and we’re still in the process of reaching everyone in the organisation.”

In terms of capability building, SIA hopes to attract the top tech talent in areas such as blockchain, cloud computing and data analytics. “We have interesting problems for people to solve, and we also have a lot of data including machine data and customer service data,” Wang said.

Technology can change, and business initiatives will change based on the market, but it is this digital foundation that will enable us to adapt
George Wang, Singapore Airlines

At the same time, Wang is driving changes in the way applications are delivered, from the traditional waterfall model to agile development where software is delivered faster in an iterative and incremental manner. “We have to deliver things faster in a more progressive manner so that the business can realise the benefits faster,” he added.

Wang believes SIA’s digital foundation is necessary for the company to sustain its transformation journey. “Technology can change, and business initiatives will change based on the market, but it is this digital foundation that will enable us to adapt,” Wang said.

Digital transformation is just as much about business transformation as it is about technology innovation. It is widely accepted that organisations as a whole, and not just IT teams, should adopt new ways of thinking and working.

Take corporate governance, for instance. As IT is traditionally owned and operated on-premise, governance processes are typically aimed at managing in-house systems and supporting traditional software development lifecycles.

Wang said as SIA transitions towards cloud and agile software development, his team works closely with the finance department to work out new budgeting processes that are better suited for agile software delivery.

“We also work with them to change the way we measure ROI [return-on-investment] and approve projects – and that’s important because you can’t run IT in new ways with the governance structure is still stuck in the old ways.”

To keep SIA’s digital transformation initiatives on track, Wang said a voice-of-customer survey is conducted regularly to solicit customer views. “We also look at other metrics such as time saved for employees in the case of operational projects,” he added.

But an airline’s customer experience and operational efficiency are only as good as the airports it operates from – and airline executives such as AirAsia’s Tony Fernandes have gone as far as to say that airports can hold back a carrier’s digital transformation efforts.

To that end, SIA sets service standards for ground services partners around the globe and works with airlines in the Star Alliance group to tap their technology infrastructure at different airports. That said, it still faces limitations with mobile data connectivity that is required for cabin crew to upload and download information for each flight.

“At certain airports, the 3G and 4G connections are more expensive and much slower, even in developed countries,” Wang said. “In such cases, we will have work with airports and local service providers to address the issues.”

On what keeps him up at night, Wang said it is about grappling with unknown unknowns that could disrupt the company. “But I believe that if we build sufficient capabilities, we will be competitive and join the disruption,” he concluded.

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