We’re hearing the church bells ringing, the waves of the Mediterranean Sea crashing into one of Europe’s most ancient forts, the smell of pasta is in the air, and the sky has not even one cloud. In case you haven’t guessed it by now, we’re in Malta, one of the smallest countries in the world, with a history that goes back thousands of years, and where new history is being made.
Exploring the island’s roads we’re taken back in time by seeing megaliths older than pyramids or the knights of Malta. But in a country full of ancient history, something really innovative is happening.
Like so many travels in the history of the Mediterranean Sea, embarking on the digital journey can be quite a challenge for many companies, and if we add a pandemic in the process it might seem like an impossible mission. Well, that was not the case for Air Malta. The determination this team has shown to make this digital dream come true was an example of how companies should face the many challenges that come in the way.
We had the pleasure to meet two of the members of this airline, Antoine Vella, Head of Digital Commerce at Air Malta, and Stephen Gauci, Head of Corporate Communications at Air Malta. Both ready to be part of the change coming to the travel industry.
Can you tell us what this Air Malta project in terms of digital transformation entails?
We come from a legacy background where we were extremely tight down in our technology. We decided to reinvent the way we do digital, with a new website and a new e-commerce platform. We felt we needed to really move forward with our digital and leave the traditional legacy behind. The new way we’re doing things now gives us the flexibility we want from our technology to move quickly and grow faster and reduce our costs of distribution.
What is so special and innovative about the solution you implemented?
It’s modular so we can choose exactly what we want to take, for example just the website or just the e-commerce platform, or the mobile app. Apart from that, there’s also the personalization aspect which is very important. When you have data on your customers you can focus on creating products just for them. The engine will help us to provide the right product at the right time of the customer journey. It’s flexible, so it gives the airline people to change things as they want without having to wait for the traditional release cycle. All these aspects will help Air Malta to grow quickly and since the designs were very clear, UI was very good, it helped us in terms of conversion rate.
That’s amazing. Are you saying that before the digital team from the airline couldn’t just change something as part of the booking process themselves?
It was very limited. They could change some things like text or translations, but they couldn’t change big items because the previous platform was shared among airlines so it couldn’t be customized to a specific airline as much as we wanted to. So, if we wanted to introduce a new product it could take months because we had to follow a release plan and wait to see if that product would also make sense for the other airlines attached to this platform.
What does it mean for Air Malta’s customers? What’s different for them now?
The products are now clearly displayed, the way the customer flows from one page to another page is more user-friendly, so they see their flights first then they can move to select extras. These things are not constantly showing to customers so everything is well displayed. That improves conversion because there is no opportunity for the customer to get lost in the product offer. Everything is clearer.
You said you saw the results in conversion quite fast.
Yes, after two weeks. We went live in August and each month the results were better. We have more sales, better conversion rates, and more revenue.
I assume you compared it with the pre-covid time, so it was not just the peak season.
Yes, it was not just because of the peak season. The results were visible immediately after we launched the platform.
How long did it take to launch the platform?
We started working with the technology, in January 2021, and we went live in August. We’re talking about seven or eight months to implement a new website and a new booking engine. In my opinion, that’s extremely fast.
Yes, it’s fast. Particularly, if we consider that Air Malta faces all the complexity of connecting flights or interlining.
And we’re not just selling Air Malta-operated flights. We have to consider ancillaries like bags, seats, sports equipment, fast track. All of these were incorporated in the booking engine. We have the website operating in seven different languages so it’s quite complex. Being able to do this in just eight months is quite an achievement.
There must have been some problems as well. What were the problems and did you manage to solve them.
Problems were mainly related to APIs and getting the right information based on our PSS APIs. We had some issues, but with the Brachspace team, we were able to fix them quickly. Seeing the two teams working together was really important to see the results and get things working.
Air Malta has a big team in digital, it requires people with the right know-how and experience, right?
Definitely. In terms of the number of resources in Air Malta I would say we were a small team, but everyone was super immersed in building this project, and we had good support from the developing team and of course the Branchspace team.
So, collaboration is key.
Yes, collaboration was key. There was never a team trying to take over the other one so to have a clear synergy between teams is really important. The whole project was handled like a big family project so that’s nice.
This was more like a partnership than just a supplier-vendor deal.
It was much more. It was a big team.
That’s what makes this even more amazing. I understand you started this project amid covid so the team couldn’t really meet personally.
Yes, all the preparation was done online.
And now it was the first time that the Branchspace team could come to Malta and meet everyone personally.
To think about a project of this size, you’d think we need to meet personally, but we managed to do it successfully without any physical meeting.
And there must have been a lot of trust in the process.
Trust was very important. It was a very transparent project and everyone stuck to their timelines. That’s how we managed to deliver it on time.
Is there anything you would do differently if you had to start again?
Maybe invest in more resources for Air Malta. I think that would have allowed us to do more. And maybe the physical aspect of being able to meet would also have helped.
There are innovative things still coming up, some game-changing areas, what is happening?
One of the things is our mobile app. It will be the very first mobile app for the airline so it’s important for us. This will help not just with sales, but also so customers can have all the necessary information in their hands. Another thing is the loyalty program. For the first time, customers will be able to redeem points online. This can grow to other areas outside Air Malta and build a community in the country. That’s our vision.
That’s quite unique and that’s what customers are looking for.
We want customers to earn points not just by special travel dates or classes, we want to move away from the old manual process.
So this program will be applied in a much wider area, not just flying.
Exactly. We’re talking about restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, supermarkets maybe even car rentals. The more options the customer has to spend these points the better it will be for the airline.
It’s a lot of good customer-centric initiatives.
We’re trying to become more customer-focused in our approach. And through every channel not just digitally. Our focus should be the customer because, ultimately, we’re here to serve the customer. We need to provide a good service and the technology to serve that purpose.
It can make a difference to your competition. It must be great for you Stephen to be able to communicate about the project. It is a journey so over time there are so many new things happening.
Definitely. We’re having positive news and news that benefits the customers. The website has been having a great impact on the customers which ultimately will benefit the airline with loyalty and repeat visitors.
How did the cooperation in other areas work? There are elements linked to this project like loyalty, distribution, strategy…
It was very important from day one that there was internal alignment between all departments. Everyone knew what the end result was, so all were working in the same direction. Even though it was difficult with covid, the project brought the employees together, so it wasn’t just a digital department success, it was an Air Malta success.
I’ve been in contact with the chairman, David Curmi, and he said this is the beginning of your digital transformation journey. So, it’s a very important element.
It’s one of the most important parts for the airline in terms of how it should grow and how quickly. Digital is really important.
Looking back to January 2021 and now May 2022, in one word, what comes to your mind about the project?
Exciting. It had so many new things and it was happening so fast that sometimes we don’t even have time to process it all. So, that was very exciting.