Just like many organisations, Australian airline Qantas is grappling with the challenge of how to be innovative while managing risk. But according to its new CTO Rob James, the flying kangaroo is fast evolving into a digital business.
Having joined Qantas in August from a four-year tenure as CIO at online betting player William Hill, James said the contrast between an all-online company to one that delivers tangible services to customers is what attracted him to the role.
He touted Qantas as an organisation that is performing well financially, but one that has a strong desire to look at technology to help it keep the numbers up.
"Coming across to Qantas, what has been interesting is that Qantas as an organisation has really started to embrace technology as a differentiator in the business," James told the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo on the Gold Coast this week.
"We've got some very aggressive strategies around customer and operations, and they're all backed by technology. In fact, we've changed a lot of our processes where the IT function now operates differently, and I think when that originally happened, there was a fear that the tech team was going to lose their budgets, but in fact they've tripled because the desire to implement technology across the business has grown.
"The IT guys at the table have a pretty serious voice."
James said that like any other organisation, Qantas manages risk when heading down the technology path. But given that the company is a listed entity in Australia, the CTO told ZDNet it is probably a little bit more risk averse.
"We are looking at technology in different parts of the airline, but in different ways," he said. "We might take more risks with how we approach technology with our customers for example, but if it's something to do with safety -- engineering functions, or maintenance -- we're going to take a slower and less risky approach to that."
"Qantas is a 97-year-old company and it has a lot of maturity and understanding of measuring risk and managing risk, so that framework is essentially applied to the technology decisions."
He said Qantas is fast evolving into a digital business.
"If you think about it from a customer's perspective, their touch points with Qantas as a brand is through digital channels; it's only once you finally get to the airport that you experience a lounge or you're finally on the aircraft, you experience a physical touchpoint," he added.
"For most, they're not even walking in to a travel agent to book a ticket, they're doing it online and you're preparing a lot of things online or through mobile -- we are very fast becoming a digital business."
While tight-lipped on where exactly Qantas is in its automation journey, James explained the state of the industry, in particular from an automation and artificial intelligence (AI) lens.
"Autopilots have been around for many, many years; autopilots are flying very predictable and known paths," he began.
"The new age of autopilots, they become self-learning and trained more, and in fact, some of the technology being developed right now is where highly experienced pilots are actually teaching autopilots."
He said pilots are taking their AI through a machine learning-type course, treating the autopilots like apprentices in that they are showing them how to deal with situations multiple times so they can learn from experience and then simulate the experience thousands of times over again.
"That's a really interesting innovation in the industry as a whole," he said.
James detailed other opportunities Qantas is eyeing when it comes to automation, or being more efficient in parts of the organisation through technology.
"An organisation like Qantas is quite diverse; we cover everything from the service side of the business right through to the engineering, maintenance, freight, etc," he explained.
"There are big opportunities for aviation to embrace automation and we're certainly looking at opportunities and innovation where we can.
"The backbone to automation is the data that you capture and I think every organisation is at the same place at the moment where our growth capture is becoming exponential; we're capturing a lot more video content so what can we do with that content through machine learning and automation -- we're exploring quite a bit there."
Qantas has invested in predictive maintenance, which is essentially being able to determine when there might be a fault with an aircraft ahead of time.
As a grounded aircraft can cost upwards of AU$10,000 an hour, James said if the company knows there's going to be a fault with an aircraft, the downtime can be drastically minimised.
"That's quite a well-known use case but it's something that's very important to us that we've been doing a lot with," the CTO said.
Disclosure: Asha Barbaschow travelled to Gartner Symposium/ITxpo as a guest of Gartner.
Qantas has marked an acceleration in its program to bring free Wi-Fi to all domestic passengers as of next month, when it completes trials of ViaSat's new technology and gains regulatory approval for the service.