Case Study

AirAsia Flies High With Data Analytics and AI


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How AirAsia leverages a broad suite of data prep, data streaming, data warehouse, data analytics tools, and AI to dramatically improve ease and speed, while lowering cost. In the process is it also better able to refine pricing, increase revenue, and improve customer experience.

AirAsia’s vision is simple: allow everyone to fly. Founded in 2001, the airline and sister company AirAsia X have grown to service 150+ destinations in 25 markets, using 274 aircraft to operate 11,000+ weekly flights from 23 hubs across the region. While the airline is known as a provider of low-cost airfares to locations across Asia, this is only one part of its value proposition. AirAsia also aims to deliver innovative, personalized products and services that meet the needs of each of its passengers.

Technology is key to AirAsia’s success and, with strong support from Group Chief Executive Officer Tony Fernandes, in 2016 the airline began a five-year program to become a data-first business and a digital airline.

“We wanted to better ensure we were using data correctly to become more agile, efficient, and customer oriented,” says Lye Kong Wei, Chief of Data Science, Group Head at AirAsia.

AirAsia needed technologies and services that could capture, process, analyze, and report on data, while delivering value for money and meeting its speed and availability requirements. The airline also wanted to minimize infrastructure management and system administration demands on its technology team.

“We knew data was a big part of making decisions in the future. So we needed a platform that could scale to meet our growing appetite for it. Google Cloud—in particular BigQuery—was ideal for this task.”

Lye Kong Wei, Chief of Data Science, Group Head, AirAsia

Google Cloud the best fit

AirAsia realized only a cloud service could meet its needs and began evaluating the market. The airline then conducted a proof of concept and found Google Cloud was the best fit for its business. It was already familiar with Google Cloud, having deployed G Suite collaboration and productivity applications to its workforce in all countries except China. According to Kong Wei, products such as FormsDocsSheets, and Gmail delivered a considerable improvement in collaboration between various departments, as well as streamlining and automating a range of processes.

The business was particularly excited by the potential of the BigQuery analytics data warehouse to power its digital transformation. “We knew data was a big part of making decisions in the future,” says Kong Wei. “So we needed a platform that could scale to meet our growing appetite for it. Google Cloud—in particular BigQuery—was ideal for this task.”

“With BigQuery, we could process queries and requests much faster than previously and tackle more complex problems.”

Lye Kong Wei, Chief of Data Science, Group Head, AirAsia

The AirAsia technology team was impressed by the ease and flexibility with which it could extract, transform, and load customer data from its systems, websites, and mobile applications into BigQuery for analysis. Data, reports, and dashboards were delivered and visualized through Google Data Studio.

BigQuery also scaled seamlessly to support data growth and, as a managed service, required minimal administration from the airline’s technology team. “In addition, with BigQuery, we could process queries and requests much faster than previously and tackle more complex problems,” says Kong Wei. “As a result, we could be more innovative about realizing opportunities,” he adds, citing the benefits of being able to view and understand historical measures of booking curves—a measure of how long it took customers to book before a flight. This improves the airline’s ability to manage revenues.

A broad ecosystem

BigQuery and Data Studio are just two components of a broad ecosystem—powered largely by Google Cloud services—deployed by AirAsia. Pub/Sub provides a scalable message queue that enables AirAsia developers to integrate systems hosted on Google Cloud or externally. Apache Airflow enables the business to create, schedule, and monitor workflows, while Cloud Composer manages the dependencies of PHP and related libraries. App Engine allows AirAsia personnel to develop and host web applications. “Thanks to App Engine, we’ve easily been able to create new applications, services, and APIs powered by the data we have been collecting,” says Kong Wei.

AirAsia is also running the middleware for its APIs in a managed Google Kubernetes Engine environment for increased scalability, resource optimization, and reliability, while Cloud Storage provides storage for data from a range of systems and sources. Dataflow enables the business to transform and process data in stream and batch modes from its website search page as customers look for flights.

“With a minimal number of people involved, we can very quickly transform an idea or thought process into a deliverable. Prior to Google Cloud, bringing those ideas to fruition would have been impossible.”

Lye Kong Wei, Chief of Data Science, Group Head, AirAsia

Faster deployment and testing

The stability of Google Cloud service means AirAsia has a reliable base from which to launch new products and features. “If we have consistent reliability from our core systems—and Google Cloud incorporates monitoring tools such Cloud Monitoring that enable us to identify issues quickly—developers and product engineers can focus on turning ideas into reality,” says Kong Wei. “With a minimal number of people involved, we can very quickly transform an idea or thought process into a deliverable. Prior to Google Cloud, bringing those ideas to fruition would have been impossible.”

Robust security

AirAsia is also relying on Security Health Analytics, a product that integrates with Security Command Center, to identify misconfigurations and compliance violations in its Google Cloud resources and take action. Security Health Analytics ensures the airline’s budgets go to keeping customers’ travel costs low rather than recovering from security breaches.

The product enables AirAsia to check that resources are configured properly and are compliant with CIS benchmarks as its critical workloads run in Google Kubernetes Engine and App Engine.

“Being able to go to the new Security Health Analytics dashboard eliminates the guesswork of what we have running and if it is secure,” says Muhammad Faeez Bin Azmi, Information Security and Automation Solution Architect. “Now anyone on our team, even non-security professionals, can go to this dashboard and see a list of the misconfigured assets and compliance violations across all of our Google Cloud resources. We can also see the severity of misconfigurations, which helps us prioritize our response.”

“Security Health Analytics has really helped us reduce the amount of time we spend trying to figure out what’s wrong with our resources. It’s allowed us to use our time more effectively to identify and resolve more security issues than we could before.”

A new identity solution

AirAsia had also used a legacy on-premises directory for many years. However, as the company grew and expanded to new markets and regions, it had to manage multiple servers across a number of on-premises data centers and the public cloud, which proved costly and time-consuming.

Its Allstars—the airline’s name for its employees—needed to easily access a number of legacy on-premises apps in addition to a growing number of SaaS apps. As a business, it also needed a more seamless integration between its HR system of record and its identity solution for user provisioning and life cycle management. Solving these challenges with its existing on-premises directory was simply not feasible.

AirAsia brought up its identity concerns with the Google Cloud team, and after a number of conversations, decided to deploy Cloud Identity, Google’s cloud-based Identity and Access Management solution, to help address the identity challenges it was facing.

The airline chose Cloud Identity for a number of reasons—first, it was eager to move to the cloud as quickly as possible. Moving identity management to the cloud was a key enabler of this and the airline’s broader digital transformation. Managing identities from the cloud also enabled the airline to have a single identity and set of credentials for each employee, which they could use to access all the applications they need to be productive, both in the cloud and on-premises.

In addition, deploying Cloud Identity was a key step towards enabling the zero trust security model, which the airline felt was the best approach to strengthen its security posture and fight modern threats. Cloud Identity also integrated seamlessly with its existing technologies, which include not only Google Cloud products like G Suite and Chrome OS but also third-party tools like Citrix, Papercut, and others.

And finally, Cloud Identity offered significant cost and resource savings. With Cloud Identity in place, AirAsia’s IT department could spend less time worrying about managing multiple on-premises directory servers and and could instead focus on delivering value to Allstar employees.

Machine learning employed to increase ancillary revenue

In March 2018, AirAsia established the groundwork to use machine learning to optimize pricing for a range of services and began by using AI Platform to sort and predict demand for ancillary services such as baggage, seats, and meals. “By using AI Platform, we can sort based on data about history to predict the future,” says Kong Wei.

Dialogflow in wide use

With Google Cloud well established within the business, AirAsia is using Dialogflow, a voice and conversational interface development suite (and one of the core components of Contact Center AI) that enables businesses to create engaging AI powered voice- and text-based interfaces such as chatbots and voice apps—to streamline operations and reduce costs

“Tony Fernandes, our Group Chief Executive Officer, motivated us to create a range of metrics that would enable us to respond more quickly and efficiently to customers,” says Yuashini Vellasamy, Product Manager at AirAsia.

This resulted in the initial deployment of Dialogflow in AirAsia’s operational areas, from crew scheduling to internal business tasks.

With Dialogflow, AirAsia is able to provide pilots, crew, catering, and other teams with flight times, capacity and any other relevant information about their assignments. Another bot accepts medical certificates and updates from pilots and crew members unable to make rostered assignments and switches those assignments to other pilots and crews. “This improves our on-time performance and operational efficiency, as we are able to optimize the creation of crew schedules,” says Vellasamy.

AirAsia also uses Dialogflow to power a “safety bot” for airport ground staff. “We tried a lot of tools to encourage staff to advise us when they saw a safety issue—but employee usage was low,” says Vellasamy. “However, when we set up the safety bot, which asks users just four questions about an issue they have observed, we saw an increase in employee interaction, which helps ensure proper safety measures.

Beyond crew optimization and overall safety, AirAsia’s HR department in Asia uses a Dialogflow-powered bot to run a post-orientation engagement program for new employees. The bot follows up with employees about issues from parking to AirAsia’s onboarding buddy program, saving HR employees time from scheduling one-on-one meetings. Dialogflow also powered an employee satisfaction survey of 3,000 team members, resulting in a 30% increase in response rate compared to the previous year.

One of Dialogflow’s benefits is its language coverage, which the airline’s marketing team uses to target customers and prospects across a region with diverse languages and cultures. “For weekly campaigns and promotions, our sales and marketing teams simply update the campaign materials and the changes are reflected automatically in Dialogflow and consequently to users,” says Vellasamy. “This enables us to quickly scale and reach our customers globally.”

An upward trajectory

AirAsia is poised to reap further benefits from Google Cloud as its deployment matures. “On the data side, we’re more advanced, while on the application and programming side we have a long way to go,” says Kong Wei. “We’re on a trajectory upwards—we’re looking at a lot of new ideas and how to embrace and deploy them so we can further our data-first and digital airline agendas.”

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