Running out of cash, loss-making, in disarray.
In fact, during his first few weeks and months at the helm, he says, he was forced to pilot the airline through some pretty hair-raising turbulence:
We had in that summer around six days, at one point, of free cash left. And then in January 2014, that had gone down to three days of free cash flow.
Following painful cuts to Flybe’s routes and workforce, implemented in order to rescue the business, the onward journey now looks a little brighter for Flybe. This week, the airline, which uses a fleet of mostly turboprop planes to fly between 37 UK airports, has announced six new routes from three of its UK bases, as well as Amsterdam, and flights within mainland Europe could also soon be on the cards.
The effort to turn Flybe around hasn’t been limited to the boardroom, however. The airline’s IT team has also been heavily involved, according to Mark Smith, head of development, digital and BI, who was brought into Flybe late last year, on a contract basis. One of his big projects has been the ‘Back to Basics’ programme, which aims to accelerate system-to-system sharing of data. He says:
One aspect of the bad times at Flybe was the inability to spend on IT. So what they had was a very disengaged set of systems, quite old, involving a lot of manual processes and manual interventions. Back to Basics has been about looking at the heart of our back office, replacing core modules that Flybe had and enhancing its overall ERP capability.
But instead of implementing an end-to-end ERP package, Flybe decided to go down a ‘best of breed’ route, by choosing a number of different systems that could be integrated with each other. These have included Sage X3 for finance; MidlandHR for human resources; Wax Digital for procurement; Airpas for cost management; and planning and reporting tools from IBM Cognos.
But when I say they ‘could’ be integrated, there was no integration platform in place for them to communicate through. What Flybe had was five ‘circles’ and no lines joining them together.
What was needed, it was decided, was an enterprise integration platform. The company embarked on a thorough review, before selecting Talend, on the basis that, as well as offering a platform to integrate those five systems, as well as existing in-house ones, it could also offer master data management, data cleansing and data quality capabilities. As Smith explains:
Back to Basics is just one of a number of large programmes currently in flight at Flybe and we had to have a solution that could cope with any kind of data, moving from any source, to any target system, and back again.
From there began the task of working out which systems needed to connect to which through Talend and how those interfaces should be prioritised, Smith continues:
It was really a question of defining the necessary interfaces between the systems, in terms of their criticality: which interfaces do we need to implement, and in what order, to give us maximum business benefit? Which processes need to be automated as soon as possible and which can be handled manually, for now, until we get to the lower priorities? So it was a matter of going through, step by step, and defining our primary interfaces, which we think number about 60 in total. We’re still learning, so that figure will go up, I’m sure, as we drill down further into processes.
The primary driver in this effort, he says, was finance: Flybe had set itself the goal of getting Sage X3 in place for the start of the new financial year in April 2016. But since most of the airline’s biggest costs - fuel, for example, or new aircraft - come from Airpas, links needed to be built between those two systems.
Data feeds into Airpas, meanwhile, originate in in-house systems, so they had to come first. Now that many of those interfaces have been built, most of the upfront heavy-lifting is out of the way.
Looking forward, Flybe will be able to plug and unplug systems over time, without needing to rebuild interfaces to stay a step ahead of any modifications to business process design and data flow, and with minimal disruption to the business.
That said, there are still many tasks left on Smith’s ‘to do’ list. There are programmes around e-commerce and the airline’s commercial platform, for example, as well as around engineering and maintenance. These too, will all require data integration, as will interfaces to third parties such as inflight catering providers, fuel companies, frequent flyer programmes and more.
And as Flybe works on improving its customer experience, there’ll be still more work to do, Smith says:
This will be around the whole passenger experience and how customers interact with us. We want to know about you as a passenger, what your habits are, your flying preferences, your preferred airports - the whole journey from home to destination, and from the destination back home again. But wherever two systems connect at Flybe, it will be via Talend.