CIO50 2018 #23: Mark Allen, Qantas
The aviation industry is very complex and susceptible to many uncontrollable external influences such as oil prices, currency fluctuations, the tyranny of distance, the high cost of labour coupled with a highly unionised workforce in Australia, says Mark Allen, the former head of customer experience and operations technology at Qantas.
“However, all these challenges fuels incredible enthusiasm for change and innovation in the aviation industry and provides a tremendous opportunity for information technology to drive the sector forward through simplification, optimisation and automation,” he says.
“IT teams must introduce the right technology at the right time to simplify the customer journey providing them more “me time”, and make operations more efficient, improve safety outcomes and automate manual processes.”
Allen based his CIO50 nomination on his recent role of head of customer experience and operations technology at Qantas, where he led a team of more than 40 permanent staff and over 80 contractors. Allen is currently executive manager architecture and strategy at Western Sydney Airport.
Over the past two years, Allen and his team ran around 40 programs of work totalling around $40 million per annum. The first innovation is a flight planning system – created in conjunction with Sydney University’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR). The system builds the most efficient 4D plan for aircraft to fly, saving the airline tens of millions of dollars by reducing fuel costs and by protecting Qantas’ fuel policy that would otherwise be lost.
“The flight planning program came about through a $10 million research grant to Sydney University’s ACFR unit to build an algorithm that no-one else had done before. This partnership was an industry first and is now being sought by other airlines to accelerate technology advancement,” he says.
The second innovation is a schedule recovery project. Qantas engaged Amadeus to help build a world-first operations and slot management system, which has saved the organisation many millions of dollars per annum and ensuring Qantas flights are the most on time of any airline, especially when there are disruptions, says Allen.
Allen and his team also rolled out ‘prepare to fly’, a five-year program to build the best airport experience for Qantas customers. Under the $20 million program, they removed a number of steps to remove the check in process and reduce the stress of travelling to and through the airport and boarding the aircraft.
“There have been numerous press releases talking about the biometrics trials at Sydney Airport – this is the ‘prepare to fly’ program at work, which my team started over three years ago.”
Finally, they deployed a digital ‘ground transformation program’, to take lifelong paper, radio and fax processes and replace them with iPads given to more than 500 staff, many of which had never used the devices. The program increased safety metrics and reduced the amount of mishandled bags while improving the on-time performance of aircraft.
There were significant cultural changes as a result of the ground operation transformation program – more than 40 per cent of the team of around 90 taken out of the business, says Allen.
“We also introduced 500 iPads to an area of the business where a lot of workers had English as a second language and were very long term employees of the airline. This significant change required us to spend extra effort and resources and time on training and change management and getting that right.”
Cutting costs, reducing complexity
These innovations were driven from a desire to save cost, provide the best customer experience of any airline and reduce the amount of complexity and technology debt in the environment, says Allen.
“The projects are unique in that two were world firsts, and the other two provided significant operational and customer improvements for the organisation. In particular, the schedule recovery project was so successful that Qantas’ main domestic competitor was regularly complaining to the regulator as a result of the success of our technology and winning the slot change process every day,” he says.
Allen’s four word mantra
Listen, deliver, educate and inspire: these four words are Allen’s mantra.
“Working with senior executives is about building trust and I have always strongly believed that you build trust by listening to what they have to say and getting to the heart of what they are saying,” he says.
“It doesn’t always mean just doing what they want, so showing resilience helps also. But the key is to deliver change successfully – this is where the trust get cemented in a relationship.
“When an executive leader and their leadership team can see that you are acutely aware of what the business needs to be successful and go about and support that through quality technology deliveries. If technology changes are delivered successfully, nobody will ever remember or care why or how a project started or even how much it cost, they will just remember and focus on the outcome delivered to the business. So deliver.”
“Educate and inspire your teams, as none of this can be achieved without great people that want to learn and be their very best. I have always said that if my teams jump out of bed and can’t wait to get to work each day, most of my job is done. As building an environment where a team that is engaged, focused and having fun at work, is the most important ingredient to success. It doesn’t happen overnight so I have always been willing to invest the time, support and develop their skills."
Role to remove technology
It might sound odd but the role of IT professionals in the aviation sector should be focused on removing technology not putting more of it in the way of customers and staff, says Allen.
“Automation of tasks that don’t add value and repetitive processes that customers are faced with can all be removed through the use of biometrics, machine learning, real-time data exploitation and artificial intelligence,” he says.
“In the future, we will have drones delivering people to Western Sydney Airport to catch a flight non-stop to London, but I am imagining a world that while the human drone pilot is sitting down having a lunch break, the autonomous capability within the drone is scanning the runway for issues, ensuring the perimeter of the airport is secure, helping with traffic management and using its laser beams to cut the grass around the airfield.”