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Delivering a premium travel experience

Etihad Airways is the national airline of the United Arab Emirates. Established in 2003 and wholly owned by the government of Abu Dhabi, the carrier uses a young and environmentally friendly fleet of more than 120 aircraft to serve more than 110 passenger and cargo destinations across six continents. The Abu Dhabi-based airline embarked on an ambitious digitisation project with IBM to make airport check-ins fast and easy. Frank Meyer, Chief Digital Officer, Etihad Airways, tells Intelligent CIO Middle East why the implementation has enhanced and helped the airline deliver a premium travel experience.

Passenger air travel is a highly competitive industry with low margins and price-sensitive consumers. While budget airlines can cut costs – and service levels – to the bone, premium carriers must create memorable travel experiences that people will want to repeat. For Etihad Airways, the challenge is to stand out from other premium carriers operating the same routes.

With its Customer Intelligence and Choose Well programmes, Etihad aims to personalise each customer’s preferences – for meals, in-flight services, transportation, and so on – such that passenger expectations are met, exceeded and evolved through relevant choice-based ancillary services. In terms of technology, this requires the airline to bring together all customer services – and rich data on passenger preferences – into a single view of the customer.

Frank Meyer, Chief Digital Officer, Etihad Airways, said: “Etihad’s digital strategy focuses on enhancing the customer journey, operational efficiencies and now, the Etihad Wellness proposition. Ensuring wellness as part of the redefined customer journey has become an integral part of our business. Our priorities have not changed since we embarked on the digital strategy. We continue to explore innovative solutions and trial technologies that promote touchless experiences, offer greater data security and optimise business operations. As a result, we are a part of the Digital Transformation of the aviation industry which is evolving the customer journey to be a more safe, secure and seamless travel experience.”

One of the key building blocks of Etihad Airways digital strategy is to really understand its guests’ preferences and the experiences they want. When the airline understands that, it can provide a more customised and frictionless travel experience for its guests and offer additional services at the right time to enhance their customer journey.

Etihad Airways was using an off-the-shelf check-in application that had reached the end of its useful life and no longer offered a sufficiently smooth or reliable service to customers. The airline had launched a parallel mobile app using newer, API-driven backend technology and it was clear that passengers preferred this channel. Knowing that its plans for ancillary personalised services would work better on the web channel, Etihad Airways wanted to modernise the web check-in system to provide a similar or better check-in experience.

“Check-in business processes had become so complex that our application could no longer cater for the personalisation we were trying to achieve,” said Kavita Iyer, Technology and Innovation Digital Portfolio Manager. “As we launched our next-generation airport in Abu Dhabi, we wanted to improve the digital experience and to provide more ancillary services.”

Choosing IBM Cloud

To simplify the customer experience while providing more choice, Etihad Airways planned to create a new platform for all digital services. By adopting a microservices architecture on an open, highly scalable hybrid cloud platform, the airline could assemble reusable components to accelerate the delivery of new applications – the first of which would be a new web check-in solution.

Using IBM Cloud and the NextGen Common Travel Services (CTS) solution also cut the anticipated delivery time for the web check-in application from nine months to just 15 weeks. “Executives don’t want to go on a three-year journey unless you can deliver value along the way,” said Iyer. “Using agile practices on IBM Cloud, we moved at a speed never before seen in this company.”

Comprehensive IBM Services

To smooth its Digital Transformation journey, beginning with an IBM Garage workshop in New York, Etihad Airways focused its business challenges and worked with IBM Global Business Services, the services and consultancy arm of IBM, on potential technology solutions. As part of a benchmarking exercise on best practices across the entire travel industry, IBM design strategists and interactive experts helped a cross-functional Etihad Airways team reimagine its own check-in process. This enabled the company to create an experience-led customer journey using IBM Enterprise Design Thinking processes.

IBM and Etihad Airways set up a joint development team in a shared space in IBM offices. Etihad Airways created a best-practice DevOps team to work closely with IBM developers and set up a lightweight DevOps toolchain on IBM Cloud within which to co-ordinate development work. Additional IBM Garage workshops helped to refine the customer experience objectives and determine the mix of platform technologies needed.

A key component of the new platform at Etihad Airways is the CTS asset, which provides a set of common services, configurable business rules and prebuilt adaptors for the airline industry. Etihad Airways challenged IBM to modernise this asset into a portable, containerised platform on IBM Kubernetes, so that the airline could deploy in different cloud environments as required for compliance with local data-protection regulations. To help Etihad Airways enable this multi-cloud strategy, IBM successfully moved the back-end application to Kubernetes to create the next-generation CTS (CTSng) solution and deployed it on the IBM Cloud Kubernetes Service.

Full integration

Following a rapid proof of concept to show that the new web check-in solution would be able to communicate with Sabre reservation services, the team created the new solution on IBM Cloud in just 15 weeks. Key components of the solution include Liberty for Java, a runtime for Java apps; Log Analysis, which helps DevOps teams by aggregating and analysing logs; Cloud databases on IBM Cloud, which provides open source data storage for apps; Jenkins, for continuous integration and continuous delivery; Gitlab, for code repositories; JFrog Artifactory, a repository manager; and Subversion, for app version control. The solution uses the IBM API Connect solution on IBM Cloud to integrate the new web check-in functionality with existing back-end systems.

The IBM CTSng platform provided prebuilt and pre-integrated APIs which could be easily consumed by the front-end channels to develop the check-in application. “One of the reasons we brought in prebuilt APIs is that we needed to connect to 12 major systems for check-in and cater to more than 270 unique processes,” said Iyer. “We also needed to connect to 18 existing integration systems on the backend. For example, we are one of the few airlines that provides US Immigration pre-clearance. Using prebuilt APIs from IBM put us on the fast track towards meeting our objective.”

World-class expertise

Using the backend for frontend application development pattern expedited development of the new web check-in user experience and helped ensure quality during the process. This pattern helps development teams iterate features faster and maintain control over the back-ends for mobile apps without affecting the experience for parallel web apps.

Using microservice patterns helped Etihad Airways from an operability point of view. Without that kind of expertise behind the airline, adopting public cloud services could have been risky. IBM Global Business Services, IBM Garage team and IBM Cloud platform meant access to truly world-class expertise, platform and best practices, backed by IBM’s aviation experience – all of which Etihad Airways was able to integrate into its Digital Transformation.

Proving the value of cloud

Etihad Airways successfully harnessed IBM Cloud and microservices platforms to meet its highly ambitious 15-week delivery target, all while adopting new delivery and support methodologies. Today, Etihad Airways runs three IBM Cloud environments across two regions, in active – hot-standby mode to support resilience. The power of this hybrid cloud approach was shown during user-acceptance testing, when the airline was able to optimise response times by moving workloads between IBM Cloud centres to reduce latency with the back-end systems.

Traditionally, a move like that would take weeks. With IBM Cloud, the airline was able to do it within hours and that’s a really powerful thing to achieve.

Fast and easy check-ins

The new web check-in solution empowers guests of Etihad Airways to manage their own travel online, including the check-in process itself, the selection of seats, the printing of boarding cards and a number of ancillary services. The solution is currently generating 1,700 WhatsApp boarding passes and 4,000 email boarding passes daily and it has already been rolled out in several different languages.

Etihad Airways wanted to make the check-in experience as easy as possible and didn’t want long lines of people in the airport. According to Etihad Airways, the next phase is all about choice and one of the things it would like to do is personalisation around destinations. The company believes AI and cognitive services on IBM Cloud are going to play a key role in that.

“Designing the right user experience was a major challenge, IBM iX quickly understood what we wanted to achieve in our industry,” added Iyer. “The 15-week deadline – for backend, frontend, reporting – was only achievable because each IBM team, including iX, completely understood the business problem.”

Enhanced personalisation

When Etihad Airways finishes decommissioning its legacy check-in software, IT maintenance costs will fall, with even larger financial benefits coming from the reduced cost-to-serve at check-in. However, the most significant benefits will be in improved passenger experiences and better understanding of customer needs – not least because check-in is the airline’s first point of contact with many of its guests.

Variations within the region mean that Etihad Airways doesn’t always get to know the customer until quite late on in the journey. And the check-in process is one of those really critical stages where Etihad Airways gets to know the customer.

The new web check-in solution also gives Etihad Airways better control over business rules and process controls, enabling it to personalise the passenger experience much more rapidly than before. Combined with new DevOps practices, this should allow the airline to bring new features and offers to market faster.

The airline set IBM a major challenge to accelerate its Digital Transformation. The success of this project shows the power of having a very large organisation in your corner – IBM ties together the cloud platform, the industry expertise and the services to make it all happen.

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