When Avi Golan got a call from Air New Zealand boss Christopher Luxon about a job, he was puzzled but curious.

The former Google guy was forging a big career in Silicon Valley and wondered why an airline in New Zealand would be after him.

Through connections, Luxon had tracked him.

"One of my main questions was why would you come to Silicon Valley and ask for the technology?"

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Golan, then working at accounting software firm Intuit, initially thought it wasn't a good time to move to another part of the world, and had doubts about the creative environment in New Zealand's tech sector.

But his wife, Osnat, thought it was a good time for a change, with two of their three sons having left home. And at Intuit, Golan was impressed with the fight being put up by a comparatively small Kiwi company - Xero.

Luxon had a compelling proposition for him.

"He gave the full story as to why they wanted to bring me to New Zealand. He explained what his vision was for Air New Zealand - to become a world leader as a technology company."

For an airline such as Air New Zealand, with an international reputation for product innovation, that is the next step. Carriers' planes are increasingly ubiquitous, on-board products similar and service, to some degree, is easily imitated. That means the next frontier is in the digital space.

This is about making passengers' journeys easier, which is ultimately good for an airline's bottom line if they get it right and their rivals don't.

Golan, 54, says those ambitions gave him the opportunity to leverage his skills as a technology creative with training in software development.

"After a few conversations I thought it would be an amazing experience for me."

He's been in the chief digital role for more than a year, and sits among the airline's top executives. He's kept his head down, learnt a new, complex business and until now, has stayed out of the media spotlight.

Changing the airline model

Golan says most airlines are transactional - taking money for tickets and getting passengers from A to B - and even as he moved here, he had some doubts about the 11,000-strong workforce.

"The big concerns I had was do we have the team, have the speed and have the culture to convert to be a technology company?"

He was pleasantly surprised.

"From the executive to board, to the senior leadership team, to the individuals in this organisation, everybody was thirsty for this," he says.

The transactional business model has worked for decades, especially in big markets such as the United States where there is a guaranteed customer base.

The big concerns I had was do we have the team, have the speed and have the culture to convert to be a technology company?

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Smaller airlines such as Air New Zealand, with a more remote base, have to work differently, he says.

"Airlines are dealing with the dilemma of being transactional organisations and operators or starting to innovate and create more."

This is where digital innovation comes in. It's mainly software development, although Golan says there is still work to do at the airline to beef up back-end systems to power it.

15 stages of flight

The airline estimates there are an average of 15 steps in a flight - from the planning stage to when passengers arrive back home.

"For each one of them we look at how we can automate it, how can we make it better as you go one part of the journey to another."

Golan fell in love with tech as a young child growing up in Tel Aviv and he's enthusiastic talking about its potential to create "wow" moments for travellers. Permanent internet connection and tracking technology can do this.

"For example, why would you take your bag at the airport - can we deliver it to your destination? Through inflight entertainment you can book a meal to pick up when you land," he says.

Air New Zealand wants to smooth the journey using digital technology. Photo / Supplied
Air New Zealand wants to smooth the journey using digital technology. Photo / Supplied

"We can create an environment where the cabin crew know more about you - where you are going - and they can make some recommendations to you about places to go when you land at a destination."

At the airport, passengers could be directed to check-in kiosks where lines were shorter.

Just how much passengers share with the airline about themselves is up to them and data security is key .

"You don't need to log in. You can book a ticket, print it and go the gate and you're good. Nobody knows much about you."

He says the proportion of travellers not logging in and sharing more about themselves is falling.

"If you think about geographical location, the US is little more advanced. It's more about our age - our kids are more used to sharing private information."

A chatbot named Oscar

This month Golan and the airline launched Oscar, a chatbot that deals with routine inquiries in what is its first foray into artificial intelligence.

Through the airline's website, customers get near-instant replies to typed questions submitted. At this stage, speech works only on mobile devices.

The early stage, or beta, creation is learning as it goes. Golan says that is part of the Google approach. The technology may not work perfectly, but is part of an experimental culture, the hallmark of the best Silicon Valley companies.

Oscar uses off the shelf language programs and has a limited orbit of expertise right now (he's stumped by anything too tangential, such as "Who is Air New Zealand's chief executive?"), But Golan has big plans for his creation. He wants his chatbots to know how you feel.

"The vision is for the bots to move from gathering information to activities - changing flights and seats."

What Oscar promises to do.
What Oscar promises to do.

Two-way video communication with a chatbot will also transform the experience and the airline last week met a Kiwi start-up company about creating an avatar presence for Oscar.

"We're looking at technologies where we understand your voice and if we have video we will be able to sense that you're frustrated and be able to transfer you to a live agent," he says.

Asked whether the bots are there to replace people, he says agents will be doing more sophisticated work referred to them by Oscar and his crew.

"AI [artificial intelligence] is the ability to understand customers better - it helps customers interact with the airline in a better way."

We will be able to sense that you're frustrated and be able to transfer you to a live agent.

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The E tu union covers Air New Zealand call centre workers, who have had to reapply for new roles.

One woman who contacted the Herald said this had upset workers. But E tu's head of aviation, Kelvin Ellis, says while the introduction of new technology headlined by Oscar has unsettled some individuals, there were no job losses, many staff have moved to new revenue generating roles and the airline has worked closely with the union throughout the process.

He says in other sectors where technology displaced staff, his union was often brought in too late to pick up pieces.

Tour of duty

For Golan, when he finished school the next step was compulsory service in the Israeli Army, and he then went into the country's Air Force for about four years, a period of his life he's reluctant to discuss in detail.

"I was in different divisions in the Air Force - I can't say too much about it but it was a very interesting period of time. I have a lot of experience with aircraft and systems," he says.

As a boy he was fascinated with electronics and taking machines apart. Following the Air Force, he went to Technion Israel Institute of Technology, the country's biggest science and engineering university.

I was in different divisions in the Air Force - I can't say too much about it but it was a very interesting period of time.

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"I moved to the computer science side when I went to university, rather than hardware engineering. I was fascinated with how much you could do by just writing code. It was a little bit nerdy but it was a real joy because you can create things so fast."

Israelis don't typically leave the country as soon as they finish university (the rush by graduates to leave New Zealand quickly surprises him) and he followed the typical path of working for tech firms, including a robotics start-up for about five years, before shifting to the United States. He worked with several Israeli start-ups in Silicon Valley before moving to Google, working on advertising technology for six years.

"I invented quite a few nice products in the advertising space."

Avi Golan worked at Google for six years developing advertising technolgy. Photo / AP
Avi Golan worked at Google for six years developing advertising technolgy. Photo / AP

Golan then moved to Intuit, where he created more customer platforms.

While there are some incredibly innovative companies in Silicon Valley, he says some of the older firms - which he won't name - would lag New Zealand tech firms in the way they run their technology. He's impressed by the energy and expertise in the New Zealand tech scene, but says it suffers from underinvestment. In Israel, about 300 big firms and the Government plough huge sums of money into start-ups, often high risk.

Golan also says New Zealand tech entrepreneurs who take their business to the world should celebrate and use their Kiwi roots as a selling point, rather than hiding them.

Golan's youngest son is going to school in this country while his other sons are in Tel Aviv and San Francisco. He's been able to travel the country extensively and as a fitness fanatic who has done Iron Man events and triathlons, the outdoor lifestyle suit him and wife Osnat (a fitness instructor) just fine.

Avi Golan

• Chief digital officer at Air New Zealand
• Age: 54
• Married to Osnat, with three sons
• Last book he read: One of the Hunger Games trilogy
• Last movie: Bridget Jones's Baby
• A serious athlete who has competed in triathlons and Iron Man events