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CIO interview: Jassim Haji, director of IT, Gulf Air

IT boss at Bahraini national carrier views mobility as a way to keep costs down and improve customer experience

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW Middle East: CW Middle East – April to June 2016

Gulf Air, the national carrier of Bahrain, is betting big on the notion that mobility can solve the problems associated with its manual business processes – and cut costs.

The airline’s IT department is headed by Jassim Haji, who was made IT director in 2011. Since then, Haji has helped Gulf Air build up a sophisticated hybrid cloud infrastructure, which he now plans to use to power his mobility projects.

“Complex and manual business processes are transformed through mobile devices and tablets,” Haji told Computer Weekly.

One mobility initiative was completed in the first quarter of 2015. The Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) project saw the airline roll out iPads to its pilots, who loaded the devices with essential flight documents such as aircraft manuals, flight plans and navigational charts.

The EFBs have replaced the heavy, paper-based bags of documents normally used by airline pilots, and have helped engineers when making aircraft inspections, says Haji.

A second project, announced last September, will see Bahraini telecoms operator Batelco supply Gulf Air with 4G iPads for use by cabin crew. The devices will give air stewards up-to-date information about passenger services, as well as data about the flight they are on. Batelco will supply 4G connectivity as part of the deal.

Haji says his mobility projects will not only help Gulf Air’s employees to do their jobs better, but will also drive efficiencies and cost savings across the organisation – particularly when they are paired with other projects on the horizon.

“We are continuing to empower our internal users with the use of tablets as a part of automating and digitising the business processes at a corporate level,” he says. “We have embarked on the internet of things [IoT] on our aircraft to optimise flight operations, and are looking into aircraft connectivity while in the air, which will enhance flight control, operations and safety.”

Buy-in from the board

Few CIOs in the Middle East are free to pursue so many IT projects at once. In his time at Gulf Air, Haji has received significant support from his C-suite colleagues, and he puts that down to the fact that he can quantify the business benefits of his projects.

“Although it does not come easy, the trust has been established and the support is received from the top management,” he says. “It becomes easy when the value of the IT unit is quantified in monetary value and productivity.”

In fact, Haji’s success in the C-suite has resulted in a situation where the rest of the business has become wholly dependent on IT to drive their initiatives and objectives through IT tools.

Haji says his job is now more about formulating and proposing business initiatives, and to explain to the C-suite how these plans can be seen out using technology.

“It is essential that I partake in establishing the organisation’s strategy and translating its directives into actuality through proper technology development, automation, digitisation and integration”

Jassim Haji, Gulf Air

“As IT has become an integral part of the organisation, it is essential that I partake in establishing the organisation’s strategy and translating its directives into actuality through proper technology development, automation, digitisation and integration,” he says.

Any airline would be happy to have such a business-minded CIO, given the effects that market fluctuations can have on the industry. Haji says his aim is to create an agile IT department that can react quickly to changing market conditions.

He says “keeping up with the pace” can be quite challenging, and that he has to assess the potential benefits of new trends without wasting time or effort on those that will not benefit the airline. Understanding the main challenges to overcome can help to create a roadmap, he adds.

“As a CIO, I need to know that aspect of the business to be able to bring ideas and initiatives on how IT can help in increasing ticket sales and reaching a wider audience through direct channels and through mobiles,” he says. “There’s also how to optimise flight operations and reduce fuel burn with flight plans – the opportunities are endless.”  

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Despite his assertion that CIOs in his industry should take a business-minded approach, Haji says airlines in the Middle East have different challenges to overcome than those faced by their competitors in Europe.

For example, he points out that US and European airlines tend to be quite innovative when it comes to allowing passengers to bypass travel agencies. They focus on direct sales through the web and mobile, and tend to offer packages that passengers can create based on their needs, he says.

But Middle East airlines have different priorities. “In the Middle East region, the focus has been on providing full luxury services to passengers with reliance on travel agencies,” says Haji.

Evidence of this is found in the fact that Etihad Airways and Emirates, two UAE-based competitors of Gulf Air, have signed up high-profile celebrities as brand ambassadors to tout their first-class offerings. Although Gulf Air has not pursued similar tactics, the airline does view the high end of the market as highly important.

And with a business strategy that focuses on luxury, Gulf Air’s IT department must provide the tools to make flying more enjoyable for its elite customers. For Haji, this means staying innovative – a task he says the region’s airlines are more than capable of fulfilling.

“The region has become very technologically mature,” he says. “Some countries have also transformed into leading hubs of technology, while others are embracing and setting technological trends.” 

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