Starting out with a single airliner back in 1945, Saudi Arabian Airlines has grown to one of the world’s leading airlines, with over 30 million guests served by 45,000 employees in 5,000 locations across 100 destinations. And unlike many other airlines, the national carrier operates around the clock.
Codenamed SV2020, the airline has a five-year strategic plan that aims to double the fleet size by 2020, grow the airlines’ market share, re-invent its products and services and increase its margins. The strategy was formulated and introduced by Director General Engineer Saleh bin Naser Al Jasser - who joined the airlines in late 2014- to transform the company in every sense and to further secure its competitive positon regionally and globally as well. Eng. Al Jasser has started a corporate wide transformation program aimed at turning it from a legacy carrier to a competitive travel provider with second to none products and services.
Pivotal to its place on the global stage is the role of information technology. Muhammad Ali Albakri, the company’s CFO and CIO, has been in charge of an enormous overhaul of its IT division, as he explains: “We have undertaken a huge programme called the IT Masterplan for Saudia, which lasted from 2007 until 2013. During that time we spent in excess of $1 billion upgrading our entire network inside the Kingdom and internationally. We’ve put in a complete new infrastructure in terms of telecommunications, connecting all our offices around the world to our upgraded data centre, our partners’ data centers, and created a disaster recovery centre as well on the other side of the country. We have created a modern IT base and implemented a converged network for data, voice and video, serving all the locations, all the offices, all our operations for the airlines and the other sister companies in Saudia Group as well.” And while all this was taking place it was, of course, paramount that Saudia’s customers received the same fantastic service they were used to. Albakri says: “We replaced about 480 different enterprize application systems and while we put in the new platforms, we needed to maintain the old technology, the old network and the old applications, to continue supporting our business. So it was more like changing the wheel or the tyre on a Formula 1 car while it’s still racing!”
It was a particularly complex undertaking never tried on that scale before in the aviation industry as the airline doesn’t have any down time, unlike European and American airlines which have night curfews. “We operate 24/7, which is a unique business model in aviation. Because of the diversity and the size of the Kingdom, and the amount of guests that we carry and the extent of our domestic networks, we have to carry on operating around the clock to be able to meet the demand.”
Time wasn’t the only challenge for Albakri’s team in implementing such an ambitious upgrade. At the same time as integrating all the new platforms, Saudia also decided to restructure the entire IT division. He explains: “We set it up as a shared service provider for Saudia Group, so we reorganised and restructured the entire organisation. We acquired all the niche technical skills and competencies we needed to have this division really perform its activity as a shared service provider based on service-level agreements with the various business units. So by transforming IT, not only from a technology point of view but also the business model, we managed to set the division up to become a commercial provider for the group.” But technology does not sit still, Albakri acknowledges, so the transformation within the IT division is ongoing. “In our business we finish one cycle and then have to start another one,” he laughs. “Technology changes and trends change. And making ends meet in an airline is really very challenging so we can’t afford to have IT be a major cost contributor to the operating costs, so we continuously look for ways to improve our efficiency and improve our costs and deliver better products, and advanced products to enhance our guests experiences, improve our products and services, increase our revenues, optimize our operating costs and add true business values to the airlines.” And employing the right staff is a big part of delivering this, from attracting bright young minds to providing the appropriate training. Albakri says: “First of all, you have to create the ecosystem for it, you have to acquire the young educated minds, inspire them and create the environment so they could really come up with innovative solutions.” This is assisted by partnerships with our strategic technology partners so that Saudia can take the latest and greatest technological breakthroughs (i.e disruptive technologies) and see how could they be applied to the business. “Innovation requires time, investment and patience. You cannot consider it as a project; you’ve got to let these people have their own time. You have to let them think. So we attract the best and the brightest from universities from within and outside the Kingdom and we put them through very generous training programmes, some of them extend to two to three years, and we provide them with the necessarily environment to be able to produce and be contributing members of the Saudi Arabian Airlines Group.” And these opportunities are not restricted to male employees, as Albakri explains: “We made the decision about eight or nine years ago really to introduce more and more women into our workforce in IT. For instance, our SAP Centre of Excellence is half staffed by young Saudi ladies who have been trained and certified to work with SAP technologies, our entire IT helpdesk is now run by women. And we are expanding our team for mobile and tablet development, with a large number of female staff.” The brightest staff – men and women – are recruited and retained by this impressive approach to staff development, says Albakri. “The benefits that we offer, the continuous training, the challenges and exciting types of programmes or projects that they are involved on really makes the job very attractive for them to stay on, and we of course do everything possible in our ability to make the job more like a career choice, to nurture their skills, and satisfies their personal development goals thereby securing a more productive and stable workforce..” A talented and committed workforce means that Saudia is well positioned to achieve its plans for growth. And to kick things off, the airline has acquired 50 additional new aircrafts to strengthen its domestic and regional capabilities and added more wide body aircrafts for the long haul routes (i.e. Boeing 777-300 & Boeing 787-9). Saudia will be taking its first delivery of the Dreamliner in January 2016 at the same time as celebrating its 70th anniversary. Albakri says: “The aviation business is continuously changing and the Dreamliner is a very sophisticated aircraft. We call it a flying data centre actually by itself as it has more technology embedded into that aircraft than any other aircraft made by mankind.” So, naturally, the role of IT has extended to accommodate such an aircraft, in order to take full advantage of it and ensure
proper operation, maintenance and support of the aircraft and its guests. He continues: “The Dreamliner is continuously connected to ground based systems, it’s continuously communicating the status of the engine, the status of the various components of the aircraft, to the ground systems to monitor and advise crews with information to help operate the aircraft more safely and with added conveniences to its guests. And then it is providing additional services that couldn’t be provided before, to guests, such as continuous connectivity to the internet, continuous ability to use their own devices and favourite content. There is a lot of sophisticated technology that this type of fleet is bringing with it, and we have upgraded our capabilities to work with it aiming to enhance our guests’ experiences .” The Dreamliner will be used on Saudia’s long haul routes, to Europe and Canada, and some of the Far East destinations will be supported as well. And it is just one of 110 new aircraft that will be integrated into operations totally by 2020 - 28 of those new aircraft will be received in one year – 2016. Such growth is needed for the airline to reach the 50 million guest goal by 2020. Albakri says: “The region where we exist and we operate is the fastest growing region so far as aviation is concerned, the largest number of ordered aircraft worldwide is coming from the region, the largest percentage growth of airlines in the world is happening in the region, the largest travel hubs exist in the region such as King Khalid International Airport (KKIA) and King Abdulaziz International Airport (KAIA) both of which are going through massive upgrades by adding new terminals to KKIA and totally rebuilding KAIA. So we exist in a very blessed region in terms of the business, in terms of growth, but also it comes with a very heated competition. So we have to continuously renew and advance our products and services and make sure that we stay as close as possible to our guest expectations, to be able to grow and capture our market share.” And none of this would be possible without the right infrastructure, as Albakri concludes: “Nothing would be possible really without having the right intelligence systems to be able to turn the company around very fast and enable it to absorb that many new aircraft and doubling the number of guests in a short period of time. It just would not be possible without the right technology in place.”