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Air Malta CIO Alan Talbot is using digital technology to set the national airline on a new course of data-led business transformation that aims for improved decision-making and better customer service.
Talbot joined Air Malta in December 2014. After running applications and becoming deputy CIO at the airline, he moved into the CIO role in October 2016. He had previously worked in consultancy roles and has worked in Malta’s finance industry for both Volksbank Malta and Bank of Valetta.
“This role at Air Malta is something very different,” says Talbot, speaking with Computer Weekly at the recent MuleSoft London Summit. “The airline sector brings different challenges – it’s a fast-moving, dynamic industry. It gives you a very different perspective on elements of IT, such as capacity planning, resiliency and agility.”
Although balancing priorities across those broad issues requires a significant amount of effort, Talbot says he is really enjoying his role. “It’s stressful, but the reward is so sweet,” he says. “IT is now more core to airline operations than ever before, so there’s weight and dependency on the systems you provide.”
Talbot, who reports to the airline’s CEO, says he is still required to manage some legacy systems across infrastructure and applications. He recognises that these create an area of risk that must be resolved in the long term. However, the short-term reward comes from empowering the business to make operational decisions, he says.
As part of the senior management team, Talbot helps executives across the organisation make broader business decisions in key areas such as commerce and operations. As CIO, he is responsible for leading the airline’s digital transformation programme, and the business process re-engineering that takes place as part of that initiative.
“If you’re not in a position to pre-empt and react, then you’re fighting a losing battle”
Alan Talbot, Air Malta
“I am also responsible for suggesting new technologies and services that are already being used in the airline sector and which could be brought in from other industries,” he says. “I am always looking for ways that technology can bring added value or competitive advantage to the wider organisation.”
Talbot says he keeps a keen eye on costs, too. His aim, over the next few years, is to turn the IT department from a cost centre into a profit centre. “We already have some plans with regard to how we might do that, so that’s also on my radar and something I need to plan for,” he says.
Changing IT for the better
Since becoming CIO of Air Malta in late 2016, Talbot says one of his key achievements has been the complete overhaul of the company’s IT infrastructure. Previously, these systems were outsourced and the assets were not owned by the airline.
Technology management was brought back in-house and the company has also invested in two datacentres. “We’ve transferred everything to high-availability servers linked across two sites,” he says. “That platform gives us a lot of resiliency and redundancy.”
Talbot says the next step in this transformation process will be the introduction of a hybrid integration platform, which will allow the airline to balance its resources between its internal datacentres and external cloud services. This stage will support the introduction of application programming interfaces (APIs) and a continuous pipeline of software development.
Alongside these technical modifications, Talbot says he has led a radical change in culture within his IT team. The technology organisation now relies much more heavily on an agile development approach. “That transition is helping to support the quantity and quality of our output as an IT department,” he says.
Integrating systems and services
Talbot says he has also dedicated time and resources to other significant technology projects, including the overhaul of flight operation systems with the introduction of best-of-breed technology from Lufthansa. Talbot also points to an integration project with Ryanair, whereby Air Malta now sells flights from the ryanair.com website.
“That project helped break the barrier when it came to proving the benefits of integration within our business,” he says. “Even the most tech-sceptical could see you can really change operations for the better. There’s a lot of pain and effort behind the scenes, of course, but the organisation is already seeing the benefits of transformation.”
Air Malta currently offers an additional 150 destinations through code-share agreements with a number of airlines. About 80% of all passengers are incoming to Malta, with most arriving for holidays.
The airline carries a sizeable amount of cargo each year, including valuables, perishable consignments, pharmaceuticals and microelectronics, and handles special cargo consignments. The company is also responsible for the carriage of mail to and from Malta, and offers courier services, including warehousing facilities.
It is a wide remit and data integration remains a key objective for Talbot and his team. They have implemented MuleSoft technology to help create closer integration between the firm’s reservation system and its Salesforce platform. The link-up enables sales staff to view customer bookings and make modifications to flight arrangements far more easily.
“That project was completed in a very short timeframe,” says Talbot. “It started as a proof of concept, and one of the advantages of working with MuleSoft is that you can plug in these proof of concepts, and try them out, without affecting your day-to-day operations. That’s a luxury and it means that when you see something works, you can help it to grow.”
Delivering great results
Talbot says distribution is key for the business as it moves forward. As the airline consolidates its position, the aim is to create sustainable growth, without swings between profit and loss. Increased sales will be crucial to this strategy – and Talbot says digital channels will help Air Malta reach new customers at home and abroad.
“We will be rethinking how we use the Air Malta website next year, with the aim of creating a fully integrated, omni-channel platform, with Salesforce at the core of this sales effort,” he says. External-facing APIs, such as the one established with Ryanair, will be crucial to helping Talbot and his team reshape their online services.
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“We want to launch a platform to help anyone who wants to do business with us,” he says. “We will keep to the same standards as much as possible and stay true to the concept of reusability. We want to expose the data securely on our inventory, our services and our products to any company that wants to work with us.”
Talbot says APIs are being used inside Air Malta to help distribute information more effectively. This data – covering commercial relations and flight operations – is being given to business stakeholders to help them boost operational efficiency and effectiveness. “The empowerment of our end-users, and getting the right content to them at the right time, is a key objective for us,” he says.
“The fragmentation of information across the company means it can take weeks or even a month just to get the data collated. In an industry like ours, that’s prehistoric – you need to work by the hour, if not the minute. If you’re launching a marketing campaign, you need to see its progression and its success at least every 15 minutes by channel, product and country. And this is what we’re trying to do.”
Taking advantage of innovation
Talbot expects emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, to help with profiling efforts around personalisation and customer experience. Other innovations are also in the offing.
“We are looking at some interesting projects around blockchain and loyalty,” he says. “We want to think about how we can create integration. We believe blockchain could help us create the ecosystem around our loyalty schemes. We are discussing a number of interesting propositions with companies in that area.”
Talbot says these developments help demonstrate how Air Malta is far from scared of emerging technologies. Although the airline industry is sometimes risk-averse, his approach is to embrace digital opportunity in all its disparate forms – and Talbot believes the tech foundations he has already built help to support this proactive stance.
“With MuleSoft already implemented, we can innovate without affecting operations,” he says. “We can create a sandbox for creative work, and still channel pertinent processing information to it, without disrupting our core operations. This split means we can assess any potential innovation objectively.”
Government support for the development of emerging technology on Malta provides further scope for digital transformation, he adds.
“The airline industry is ultra-conservative, but there’s a technology influx taking place on the island. When you see some of these developments, you have to be tempted. If you work in technology, you have to be interested in innovation – and we are not afraid of change. The fact that we can play with technology means we can do so without harming operations. Why not capitalise on the opportunity?”
Flight into the future
Talbot has clear aims when it comes to business plans for the next two years. He wants to use technology to help support sustainable, double-digit growth in both revenues and customer numbers. “I’m confident that we’re providing the people within the business with the means to help them hit those targets,” he says.
That support will be bolstered by the use of emerging technology, says Talbot. He also hopes to have removed all legacy applications from the organisation, including specific finance and engineering systems. “We need to pick those out and we need to have full integration across the board,” he adds.
“If you’re not in a position to pre-empt and react, then you’re fighting a losing battle. The information you generate carries a lot of weight when it comes to trying to understand your customers. We want to give the information to our workers to allow them to help our customers and improve their experiences.”