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Jack Blightman, data science business partner, British Airways

Jack Blightman, data science business partner, British Airways

How is your organisation using data and analytics to support the corporate vision and purpose?

 

Data and analytics have long been important to British Airways and this focus is increasing. We support decision-making and initiatives across the airline, from which aircraft to buy and pricing flight tickets to ensuring that our aircraft depart on time.

 

We work very closely with stakeholders at all levels to ensure that decisions are insight driven. In the past year, the company has appointed its first chief information and digital officer whose mission is to ensure that insight not only supports the vision, but is integral to setting it as well.

 

2020 was a year like no other - how did it impact on your planned activities and what unplanned ones did you have to introduce?


The Covid-19 pandemic had a massive and sudden impact on the aviation industry. This meant the airline had to rapidly adapt to the new environment we found ourselves in, often halting or postponing work on current and planned initiatives. This was certainly the case for data and analytics as we reacted to the need to support and guide the business.

 

We initially focused on helping the business understand what was happening in terms of the spread of the virus, international travel restrictions and customer behaviour. This information was crucial to the airline’s response to the virus, ensuring everyone was working with accurate, timely data.

 

Subsequently, we moved to predicting the passenger volumes on each route. To do this, we built a sophisticated data science model incorporating many new external data sources that were identified in the anticipation of aiding predictive accuracy. The model was able to accurately predict when countries would open for international travel, something that proved invaluable for the business. These forecasts were crucial in informing the key commercial and operational decisions that British Airways faced.

 

Looking forward to 2021, what are your expectations for data and analytics within your organisation?


We already know that the airline will be operating in an immensely challenging environment, but I believe data and analytics will make a major contribution towards the industry’s recovery. In fact, the insight we provide is likely to be more valuable than ever.

 

Within data and analytics, we will continue to develop our capability and ways of working. Under the guidance of our new CIDO we have been making the transition to an agile project management approach.

 

Is data for good part of your personal or business agenda for 2021? If so, what form will it take?

 

In 2020, I provided analytical consultancy to a small business on a pro-bono basis by optimising their online advertising campaigns. I found it energising to support local business in this way and intend to carry on in 2021.

 

Despite the Covid crisis, I expect one of our major priorities will be to provide analytical expertise to make progress towards British Airways’ target of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. We will support short, medium, and long-term initiatives, from offsetting and operating more fuel-efficient aircraft to investing in the development of sustainable aviation fuel and exploring hydrogen powered aircraft.

 

What has been your path to power?

 

I joined British Airways as an analytics consultant after completing an MSc in Operational Research at the University of Warwick.

 

Initially, my work focused on helping improve the efficiency of Terminal 5, our hub at Heathrow Airport, for our customers. This involved building simulation models of customers flowing through the terminals to identify how to relieve congestion at certain points of the journey. I then worked on the system used by the airline to dynamically price tickets. British Airways’ system for this is very sophisticated, so working in that area was a great intellectual challenge.

 

After a spell away from British Airways, when I worked for a consultancy developing a system used to optimise the pricing for bullet train journeys in Japan, I returned to the airline to lead a team of analysts assigned to building and enhancing ticket pricing models. This was a great springboard into management for me, resulting in promotion to lead the analytics team that supports the strategy department.

 

I have been privileged to have a very strong team during this time, meaning we have made major contributions to key decisions for the airline around our aircraft, where we fly and who we should partner with.

 

What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?

 

I would have to say leading the Covid-19 passenger forecasting project this year. Providing the business with the information it needed to navigate the crisis was incredibly challenging, and I am very proud that we managed to produce high quality insight at tremendous speed. The insight had a huge impact across British Airways and I regularly conversed with directors about our forecasts.

 

This achievement was only possible because of the skilled and dedicated team working on the project. Not only were they technically excellent, but we managed to adapt our approach incredibly quickly and pivot as the environment changed.

 

Tell us about a career goal or a purpose for your organisation that you are pursuing?

 

I am constantly looking for ways to increase the speed and efficiency of the team’s project work. In 2020, we deployed a Python automation that evaluates what British Airways can expect to achieve from a commercial partnership with another airline. This extracts the data required, runs relevant models, manipulates the output, and even populates PowerPoint slides. This has enabled us to undertake these projects in minutes when previously they took analysts several days.

 

I’m convinced there are more opportunities to use technology to develop and deploy data science models at speed and this is a focus for me in 2021.

 

How closely aligned to the business are data and analytics both within your own organisation and at an industry level? What helps to bring the two closer together?

 

Ensuring that data and analytics work extremely closely with the business has long been a focus at British Airways. Each director is allocated a business partner from our group to ensure that they have a direct line in to us and that we really understand their issues and priorities. This collaboration with the business extends to having our business partners at senior level management meetings in order to spark ideas about how we can help solve issues they are experiencing.

 

Another way that this crucial link is maintained is through job promotions and department moves. There is a healthy flow of talent between our group and the rest of the business and vice-versa. Having someone with hands-on line experience within data and analytics is incredibly useful.

 

When we recruit externally, we seek out data scientists that aren’t just great technically but can also demonstrate that they have strong business acumen as well.

 

Across the industry business alignment has strengthened over the course of my career. From attending conferences, it is apparent that aviation related analysis majors on tackling business critical issues now rather than interesting academic exercises.

 

What is your view on how to develop a data culture in an organisation, building out data literacy and creating a data-first mindset?

 

It’s vital that everyone in the organisation understands the value of a data culture. It’s important to gain director level buy-in early on to ensure the benefits of data analytics are championed from top down and understood by everyone in the department.

 

As an insight function, the onus is on us to ensure we understand the needs of the business well enough to develop the insight to further drive the thirst for data. Of course, success means more requests and the expectation of quick delivery, so it’s important to think how you can manage a greater workload and scale up.

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