Inside Air New Zealand’s Big Bet On Digital

Air New Zealand has had to face up to being little more than a domestic airline for the time being. Amid the downturn in travel demand, the airline has taken the opportunity to dive into a new digital strategy, ready to scale up when restrictions allow. Air New Zealand’s Chief Digital Officer, Jennifer Sepull, explained how putting digital front and center will enable the airline to thrive in the post-COVID environment.

Air New Zealand Dreamliner 787-9
Air New Zealand has a five-year digital-focussed plan. Photo: Getty Images

Survive, revive, thrive

While the COVID pandemic has been a huge weight on the shoulders of airlines everywhere, for some, it was also an opportunity to reset. Never one to waste a good crisis, Air New Zealand took it upon themselves to chart a course back to profitability, launching a five-year digital transformation plan it calls ‘survive, revive, thrive.’

Jennifer Sepull, Air New Zealand’s Chief Digital Officer, talked us through the plan at this week’s World Aviation Festival. She said,

“We’re taking this opportunity to really invest in ourselves. We have a five year plan. It’s called survive revive and thrive, and it is a roadmap that is looking at every part of our business and aligning every part of our digital strategy to make sure that we have a plan to take our company into the future.

“It really is about a big bet on digital and making sure that we’re showing up in a way that is optimised, and that we’re connecting with our customers in really meaningful ways.”

Air New Zealand has always been at the forefront of digital innovation, bringing us things like using smartphone cameras for check-in services to adopting Oscar the chatbot and embracing cloud technology. However, through this five year digitally focussed plan, the airline wants to become a “digital company that monetizes through aviation and tourism in a very sustainable manner.”

Inside Air New Zealand’s Big Bet On Digital
The airline has always liked to do things a bit differently. Photo: Air New Zealand

What’s being done so far?

Air New Zealand has had a tough six months. With borders closed, it has had to embrace becoming something of a domestic airline, shelving its long-haul fleet, and enduring deep cuts to staffing levels in a bid to trim costs. Nevertheless, Sepull notes that this has given it the time and space to implement changes that will see it come back a better and stronger airline.

“What we’re doing right now is going through all of our processes and systems, making sure that they’re optimised. We’re removing our tech debt, and we’re ready for a more competitive marketplace as we go forward.

“We’re world renowned for customer service, and we want that to show up to our customers through touchless, digital ways. Inflight, we want to make connections with them through technology. All of that work is going on right now, so that when we do come out of this difficult time and we are flying internationally, we can scale.”

Air New Zealand, Boeing 777, Storage
The COVID-19 pandemic means that Air New Zealand’s 777s won’t fly passengers for at least a year. Photo: Getty Images

The airline is facing a future as a much smaller carrier, which has meant it has had to right-size itself with this in mind. However, the opportunity to test out new technology and embrace new and innovative ways of doing things has not been lost.

When will international flying restart?

Before anyone outside of New Zealand can experience any of this digital transformation for themselves, borders must reopen. Air New Zealand is planning for a recovery period of around two years, but when will those international routes restart? Sepull explained that it’s all about the science,

“We were hopeful that a trans-Tasman bubble or Pacific Island bubble would present itself. But that seems to be delayed. What we do know is that the New Zealand government follows science. And so, when we look for predictions of what we think will happen. We know that if we follow the science that will probably be our answer.

“Right now, we think that’s going to take a little while until the borders start opening up and there’s the ability to travel outside the country.”