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CIO interview: Why IATA is banking on cloud to help the airline industry weather the Covid-19 crisis

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has forced the International Air Transport Association to re-evaluate its IT investment priorities as the aviation industry shifts its focus away from business growth to business survival

Following the issuance of travel bans and stay-at-home orders by governments across the world, it is fair to say the airline industry has emerged as one of the hardest hit by the onset of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Trade body the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts the global airline industry is on course to incur losses of $118bn by the end of 2020 as a result, with forecasts suggesting passenger numbers will be down 60.5% year-on-year overall.

With Covid-19 tests becoming more widespread and reliable, coupled with vaccines for the virus being rolled out, there is some hope on the horizon that a rebound in passenger numbers and revenue will follow in due course.

Even so, IATA CIO Pascal Buchner says the aviation industry is unlikely to see a return to pre-Covid levels of operational activity before at least 2025, and this has prompted the association to re-evaluate its digital priorities for the years ahead.

Pre-pandemic, the association was focused on using technology to help the 290 airlines that make up its membership double the volume of passengers that use their services, while balancing the need to help the industry cut its carbon emissions.

Working towards improving the aviation industry’s track record on sustainability matters remains a core objective for the association, but its focus on growth has since been replaced by a push to safeguard the survival of the airlines it represents.

“The strategy now is to restart our industry, and to get back to where we were before the crisis, while realising that part of our business has been lost forever,” he tells Computer Weekly, via a Zoom call.

“The big conferences where people fly from everywhere in the world into a city for three days for a conference, I believe that part of this business is gone already. What you and I are doing now [via video call] is the new way of doing business.”

He adds: “This crisis will give us the opportunity to do things differently, and if there is something good that can come from a crisis, it is the fact it forces people to change. We also see this with Covid-19 because it is creating an urgency to change that was not there in the past.”

This urgency is focused on finding ways for the industry to become more efficient and cost-effective in the way it works to help mitigate some of the financial fallout from the pandemic by reducing the reliance of airlines on legacy technologies and processes, continues Buchner.

“Airlines cannot afford to carry on all the legacy systems that they had in the past. When they were making money, they could stay with their old, antiquated, expensive systems, but they cannot do that anymore, so we need to transform the industry”

Pascal Buchner, International Air Transport Association

“Airlines cannot afford to carry on all the legacy systems that they had in the past. When [airlines] were making money, they could stay with their old, antiquated, expensive systems – whether it is a reservation system or whatever – but they cannot do that anymore, so we need to transform the industry,” he says.

And given the precarious financial position a lot of airlines are in because of Covid-19, that means taking steps to move more of the workloads, applications and processes the industry relies on to function to the cloud.

“We have to transform this industry with no capital expenditure because [airlines] don’t have the money to invest, so using cloud, and having access to all the technical stack and tools that exist, is a way to get rid of legacy systems,” he says.

“The airlines that will survive will probably be the ones that are able to embrace this new modernisation. The airlines that cannot modernise, I am afraid, will be the ones that will not be able to carry on.”

An urgent need to modernise

This thinking is what prompted the IATA to embark on an architectural review of its own IT environments with the help of managed cloud services provider Rackspace Technology to help pinpoint problematic areas within its infrastructure that could hinder its cloud-focused modernisation plans.

The collaboration kicked off in earnest in June 2020, recalls Buchner, and the implementation of the ideas emanating from it is due to be finalised over the coming weeks and will see the IATA revamp its approach to using cloud through the use of automation and self-service capabilities.

“The Covid-19 crisis is impacting the way we are responding and means we have to adjust our resources to what we can afford at the moment,” he says. “Our team understands that we need to change the way we are working to avoid wasting time and resources.”

By his own admission, running an airline in 2020 is a very different business to what it was in 2019, and this, in turn, has created an additional need for new, artificial intelligence-based predictive models that factor in the impact of the pandemic.

“Now our airlines are asking us [if we can] use the data for the last month to tell us what will happen in the next three months, and that means we have to build new predictive models,” he says.

“We have to use technology like artificial intelligence, we have to use a lot of innovation and we need an environment that will allow us to do that.”

It is worth noting that when this body of work began, around 60% of the organisation’s IT footprint was already in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud, but there was definite room for improvement with regard to how that environment was being managed and used, says Buchner.

“The way we were using AWS in the past is different from the way that we want to use it today. Previously, we had only one account, and when you were connecting to AWS you were connecting actually to the IATA network, and it was not very flexible.”

He adds: “The [review’s] objective is to make sure we are using the cloud and all the resources available to us in the right way and that we have something that is scalable,” he says, with more of a focus now on making better use of the resources the organisation already has at its disposal.

To this end, IATA is now consuming AWS cloud resources in the form of Rackspace Service Blocks, which will enable the organisation to scale up or down the amount it uses month-to-month based on need and only pay for the cloud services it uses.

Introducing much-needed flexibility

This, in turn, has paved the way for IATA to adopt what Buchner terms a “unified infrastructure” approach, where there is effectively the same, common cloud infrastructure platform underpinning each IT project the organisation works on for cost-reduction reasons.

“Now we have a roadmap where we will re-use the infrastructure below the project, and we will only spend the marginal cost to deliver [a] project. So it’s a big change in the way of working,” he says.

“The objective [of the IT infrastructure review] is to make sure we are using the cloud and all the resources available to us in the right way and that we have something that is scalable”
Pascal Buchner, IATA

“It means we have to manage the common part of the project altogether, but align [with a] complex schedule for each project to deliver when it is supposed to deliver.”

Each project the IATA works on will have bespoke elements, with the organisation working with Rackspace to design the setup for each one, while leaning into the principles of analyst house Gartner’s “composable business” vision.

According to Gartner, a composable business is one whose IT systems are built on the idea of interchangeable, modular building blocks that can be “rearranged and reorientated” so they can readily adapt to changes in consumer behaviour or world events, such as the sudden onset of a pandemic.

The idea being that embracing this concept will bring a degree of much-needed flexibility to the IATA’s IT setup, while enabling it to diversify the range of suppliers it works with if it so wishes.

“In line with this concept we would like to be able to compose our future line of projects with different business players, and make something that could work for one specific type of project, and then to move to another composition for another line of projects,” sets out Buchner.

There is also flexibility built into this way of working to allow the IATA to pick and choose which IT projects it decides to manage in-house and which ones it can delegate the operation of to a third party, he adds.

“In the past, we had one solution that we thought would fit all our requirements, but now we are moving to a hybrid environment where everything will be in AWS, but we will have different collaboration models with different partners,” Buchner continues, with Rackspace greasing the wheels of the setup through the provision of managed services.

“We are bringing diversity [into our IT setup], but it’s more in the operational collaboration between the different vendors we are using, which is the new way we want to work because we have to be flexible.”

Adding a self-service element to coding

Working with Rackspace Technology, the IATA has also been able to incorporate elements of DevOps and no-code development into its processes in the interests of cutting down on the amount of custom-designed software being produced in response to the needs of the business.

“Instead of developing code ourselves we would prefer to spend time on [a] self-service platform that will allow the user to deliver the product by themselves so we are,” says Buchner.

“Today, in the old world, a business user will come to me with a business requirement document and then we will convert this business requirement document into code, and then the business user has to test that the product is matching its requirements,” he says.

“In the new world, we are going to give the business user access to a no-code platform that they can configure and implement themselves according to their business requirement, so we are not in the middle anymore between the business and the solution. The business will build the solution itself. It’s a different way of working where we will allow the user to develop [their own code],” he adds.

These “self-service” freedoms will come with some restrictions though, and business users will need to demonstrate that they can be trusted to use these tools responsibly, adds Buchner.

“We know business users will welcome the freedom to develop the solutions themselves, but we need to make sure they will accept the discipline that comes with this adoption because if they want freedom, they will have to become what we call a trusted business partner and follow all the processes that we’re trying to implement in the DevOps tool,” he says.

“So we are having this discussion with the business, saying, ‘If you want freedom, fine, but you have to earn your freedom and you have to show us that we can trust you, and that you’re not going to create a problem that is bigger than the one you are trying to solve’.”

Aside from enabling the association (and its members) to modernise their ways of working, the over-arching aim of all this work is that it will support the IATA in its goal to become the “data broker” of the aviation industry. But this is a position its competitors, which include other aviation industry trade bodies and regulatory bodies, are also vying for.

“There is competition, [but] we have access to more data [than our competitors] and we have to show that we are capable of enriching this data to create a value proposition,” he says. “It’s a question of survival for the organisation, and this is clearly one of our priorities.”

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