CIO50 2020 #7: Jennifer Sepull, Air New Zealand
The chief digital officer role at Air New Zealand presents significant and broad ranging opportunity and responsibility for Jennifer Sepull.
“As a member of the executive team, I am business partner, digital advisor and inspirational leader at all levels of the company,” says Sepull.
“I come to the table with valuable information and facts, hold myself accountable for my and my team’s actions, while at the same time keeping my digital and technical skills current and fostering collaboration throughout my team and the broader business units we interact with.”
As an example of her team using their skills and competencies to bring about change and better business performance, Sepull points to her team’s contribution to a recent company-wide programme to bring about improvements to the airline’s On Time Performance (OTP) metrics.
OTP, she explains, is a key performance metric for airlines, providing a measure of the frequency that a flight arrives within 15 minutes of its scheduled arrival time.
External factors can impact OTP including weather and airport and airspace congestion, however the airline is constantly working to improve those aspects it does have control over and therefore limit disruption the schedule and improve customer experience.
Air New Zealand’s cross-functional programme to improve OTP began in following some Roll Royce Engine-related issues in 2017. The initiative involved operations, airports, crew, engineering, network planning and rostering with digital playing a key role.
“We responded to the challenge by using data and analytics to glean insights and drive decision-making, developing products and features for customers and staff to speed-up or automate processes to support OTP,” says Sepull.
The development of Single View of Turn (SVOT) was a key digital innovation within this programme, she says. It aggregates and automates data feeds from multiple disparate sources into a single view of all the on-the-ground activity that happens between flights (known as a ‘turn’).
SVOT acted as a key foundation enabling the airline for a range of data-related tasks, such as using data to understand the key drivers of delays, and surfacing disparate data sources that employees can use.
The insights from SVOT also led to a raft of innovations, one of these being a Turn Dashboard, to provide ground operations teams with access to real-time information, such as gate and allocated turn time.
When there is a possible OTP impact, the dashboard notifies staff which flights are eligible for a ‘quick turn’ – where ground teams swarm together to turn the aircraft quickly to be ready for the next flight. Between October 2018 to Oct 2019, 929 quick turns resulted in 4,588 minutes being recovered.
New features in the Crew mobile app give cabin crew real-time information to help them with flight briefings, planning and pre-departure activities. This includes integrating seat maps and passenger manifests into the app, enabling crew to efficiently plan service, and replaces manual processes and paper printouts.
Using data modelling, the team analysed ‘block times’ (the allotted time between a plane leaving the blocks and arriving on blocks at its destination) and recommended a number of schedule changes. This resulted in a 9.9 per cent increase in OTP on the 21 rescheduled regional routes.
Sepull says the digital team also worked with other business units on several proof of concepts (POC) to experiment with solutions to support OTP. Through the airline’s partnership with JetBlue Technology Ventures (JTV), which incubates, invests in and partners with startups, the airline ran a trial with Assaia Apron AI. This AI solution uses computer vision to identify activities happening on the ramp as part of an aircraft turn. Cameras capture real-time events (such as air bridge connected, fuel truck arrives etc). The system learns the events and logs them into a timeline, to indicate whether the aircraft turn is on track.
The digital team also trialled a Staff Digital PA, known as Employee Bot (EB), using SVOT and reusing components of their AI-backed customer-facing chatbot Oscar.
During the trial, ground staff could ask EB a question about turn activity and EB provided answers using SVOT data displayed through a Microsoft Teams interface.
Sepull says this provides a further example of how her team found new ways to surface data to staff in a digestible, real-time, mobile format to enable faster decision making.
Another experiment used ‘solver’ software which consumes the whole network schedule and any rules in place for flights, aircraft, crew or maintenance.
In the event of a disruption, at a press of a button, the software can present options to an Ops Controller to restore the schedule, with minimal disruption.
“These POCs have enabled digital and the business to understand and measure the value of technology solutions before making significant investments and ensure alignment and shared understanding from the start,” says Sepull.
Overall, she says, the highly collaborative, cross-functional initiative has been very successful.
“Having a single shared goal to reach our OTP score up to our goal of 85 per cent has enabled teams to effectively prioritise work, use data to understand impact and experiment with innovations to continue driving OTP improvement and efficiency.”
The cultural climate
Digital is an enabler of the airline, Sepull says therefore it is essential to keep pathways open and productive at all levels, right from board level, and her executive peers through to the wider business.
“I work consistently to create an open forum for the sharing of ideas, to create opportunities to disagree and to ask questions.”
Sepull says she also employs this approach in her additional role as technical advisory board member to the London Stock Exchange, Venture Capital Groups, and other tech firms across the globe.
As CDO, she takes responsibility for creating a culture of success by empowering the teams, removing roadblocks, recognising hard work, creating processes that speed up performance and encouraging innovative thinking.
For example, her team recently developed the Digital 2025 strategy and made changes to their operating model to deliver on this strategy and set the bar for digital excellence.
“Through this change, we used a high-touch approach. Once the operating model was more clearly designed, we ran 30-plus workshops over a two-week period to explain it, hear feedback and answer questions.”
“This helped teams understand the vision for the transformation and was positively received. It’s something we will continue to build on as we embed the new model.”
She says the 2025 strategy aims to empower teams by having the right KPIs and measures in place to support collaboration, create exceptional experiences, and drive value for shareholders.
Sepull is an active member in the Women in Digital network, and supports programmes encouraging youth into digital careers.
This year, the digital function hired 11 interns for the summer internship programme across software engineering and data, and continues to support organisations such as ShadowTech.
A CIO’s worst nightmare
Sepull says sometimes a catastrophic event provides opportunity for a CIO and IT team to showcase their leadership skills, bond as a team, appreciate the individual expertise of team members and, also, to experience personal growth.
Sepull recalls how she and her team handled an event that tested their mettle on all fronts.
She was the CIO for a global firm when a tsunami hit Japan, destroying the company’s research and development building and Tier 3 datacentre.
With telecommunication companies out of service, communication with teams was lost.
“While I think we would all agree that this is a CIO’s worst nightmare, it was a true leadership moment for myself and my team,” says Sepull.
During the crisis, Sepull says she harnessed her leadership skills to help the company recover their data, technology and connectivity, safely without incident.
“Naturally, initially there was some fear and the team questioned its ability to recover,” she says.
But she brought the team together, reminded them that they were prepared for such a crisis, and that this was their chance to demonstrate that their preparation, planning, and expertise.
“I challenged them to be confident and show leadership for their teams and our company.”
Sepull says the team immediately stepped up and took on the challenge professionally and swiftly.
Over the next 24 hours, she worked with their business continuity planning and human resource executive to provide regular digital and personnel status to the executive teams, board and business community.
In the end, we recovered all data, replaced and recovered technology and returned to normal operations without issue, she says.
“We completely relied on global integration architecture diagrams, global technology tracking and strong data governance models to help us understand and assess the global impact of the damage.”
“My leadership and my team were tested in every way,” she says. “The key leadership skills we relied on were compassion, strength, communication and decisive decision making.”
It was an event Sepull will never forget.
“It made me a stronger CIO and I have taken many lessons with me on my career journey. It provided a clear reminder of the central role leadership skills play and the importance of having current robust business continuity and disaster recovery plans and testing,” she says.
“It is easy to lose sight of keeping these processes current when we are busy with competing day-to-day priorities, but they are vital.”