How Gulf Air's IT director tapped social sentiment to turnaround airline fortunes

By Shayan Shakeel 11 June 2017
How Gulf Air's IT director tapped social sentiment to turnaround airline fortunes Jassim Haji was appointed IT Director in 2011

A 10-year old girl wearing leggings, a sobbing mother and child, and a blood soaked doctor violently dragged from his seat and saying, “I need to go home,” sent shock waves through aviation earlier this year. The incidents sparked outrage among travellers at declining passenger experience levels on airlines, particularly in America, and have brought sharp attention to the way businesses are now looking at social media.

In the Middle East, some airlines, including Royal Jordanian and Emirates have been quick to spur their social media teams into action. Blending cultural savvy with tongue in cheek humour they’ve capitalised on the souring online fortunes of their across the Atlantic competitors and highlighted their own offering.

Among that crowd, an airline of yesterday and a forward thinking IT Director have managed to achieve something remarkable.

 

"85% of posts on social media about Gulf Air are in Arabic, from across the region. And understanding Arabic, had become a strength for the team, so we put it to use.”

 

In 2011, Gulf Air was in the throes of a dire financial situation when Dr Jassim Haji was hired. The airline had been losing market share and revenue across the board for years. By the end of December 2012, it saw its CEO resign. 

Around that time, faced with shrinking budgets and an environment that didn’t encourage approaching vendors for solutions, Haji conceived of a programme: to track social media posts, analyse their content for sentiment, and deliver it to stakeholders within the company for strategic decisions including route planning and marketing

It’s a simple idea, especially now after everyone that has watched ‘Moneyball’ understands that even a sports team can glean valuable information from data. Ask SAP: the tech giant’s platform helped the German national team win the FIFA World Cup in 2010. But at the time, Haji, an avid football fan, couldn’t rely on costly vendor solutions to sift through large amounts of data and convert it to information. “It was hard to ask for a budget,” he says. Moreover, in an industry that still often lags its peers, scouring social media posts for clues on where an airline should fly and how it was being perceived seemed like a far-fetched way to deliver any business results, says Haji.

“What we wanted to do with the technology department needed someone to believe in it,” says Haji. “Someone who understood what technology could do. When deputy CEO, now current CEO, Maher Salman al Musallam, tasked me with it was more than responsibility, but confidence in the prospect that he shared.”

Haji’s team began working on the project immediately after he was assigned to report directly to Musallam. However, the promise of a breakthrough didn’t shield Haji’s team from the realities that Gulf Air was operating in.

 

Context: Social media’s business impact

At one point last month, United Airlines, the world’s third biggest by revenues, saw its stock value fall by over a billion dollars when videos first surfaced on social media of an incapacitated and bloody from the mouth passenger being dragged through the aisle by officials.
Before the fall in stock value, United’s CEO Oscar Munoz was adamant, going as far as calling the passenger “belligerent” and “violent” in emails to his employees. Those emails were also leaked online.

Within 48 hours after the incident, the CEO had gone from being defiant, to publicly apologizing three times.

The apologies worked, somewhat; United’s stock value recovered to being under by a considerably better $225 million two days after the incident. But the fact remained; passengers had spoken. And they had done it through social media.

 

Gulf Air had embarked on an aggressive cost cutting and restructuring programme in 2013 to bring losses down from BD 95 million ($248 million) to BD 58 million ($153.8 million) by 2017. A large part of that was to come from a plan to shrink staff by nearly a third.

Maybe Haji wishes it were otherwise; his own team shrank by almost half from 120 to 70 employees when we spoke. But he also admits he’s a hard taskmaster and needed people that could cope and deliver. “We worked after hours, on weekends, and between other projects,” says Haji. “It would have been impossible if it weren’t for the great people in this team.”

What helped Haji’s cause, and a key factor in coming up with the initiative, was the carrier’s pursuit of Bahrainisation of its workforce. Growing numbers of Bahrainis in Haji’s team meant he had an abundance of Arabic speaking talent at his disposal. Gulf Air’s own workforce went from being 50 percent Bahraini to 63 percent in the first six months of 2013. And as the number of Arabic speakers employed across the country grew, Gulf Air’s passenger base also began to transform.

 

"It was hard to ask for a budget...We worked after hours, on weekends, and between other projects. It would have been impossible if it weren’t for the great people in this team.” 


“85 percent of the posts on social media about Gulf Air are in Arabic, from all across the region” says Haji. “That reflects our customer base that has transformed. And understanding Arabic, with all its dialects had become a strength for the team, so we put it to use.”

It took nine painstaking months before Gulf Air’s IT department finally pitched their project. Then, they were able to deliver a sentiment analysis accuracy rate close to 60 percent. A year later, that number had improved to 84 percent. In the same time, Gulf Air managed to reduce its losses by 50 percent. Most of that was achieved through the restructuring programme, which reduced operating costs by 26 percent, according to the Gulf Daily News. But there was also an improvement in yield of six percent; route planning had benefitted from sentiment analysis. By how much is hard to quantify, says Haji. “But it helped decision making at the airline. It’s working, and we’re still doing it” says Haji.

The company’s most recent results in June 2016 saw it narrow losses to BD 24.1 million, an 88 percent improvement in three years that had surpassed original expectations. Meanwhile, Gulf Air’s talent is now 90 percent Bahraini, its Arabic sentiment analysis programme is delivering even better accuracy, and Gulf Air’s IT department has more awards than some airlines can claim as a whole.

Haji’s team has now added tackling ever ambitious projects to its list of goals. As Gulf Air moves to receive a new fleet of aircraft Haji is particularly keen on gleaning even more data from systems currently in use by the airline, especially on its new aircraft expected to start coming in next year. IoT, augmented reality, drones, big data, hybrid cloud are all words and technology he is excited about.

What won’t change is his commitment to trying to achieve everything in-house first, says Haji. “There’s a raging debate around how a chief technology officer will be impacted by a chief information officer in the age of the chief digital officer,” he says, while making light of the notions. “Who says we can’t do it all?”

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