by Giles Nelson

The move to more responsive air travel

Nov 15, 2010
IT Strategy

I last wrote about airlines earlier this year, particularly with respect to Lufthansa‘s use of innovative location based social networking technology to bring a new level of responsiveness to customer relations. Here, I’m going to revisit airlines again, motivated by an airline customer who recently talking about their IT vision.

At a recent Progress Software event in the UK, Gordon Penfold, Chief Technology Officer of British Airways (BA), spoke about BA’s recent evolution of their IT infrastructure. This is an ambitious and far-reaching programme, eventually replacing IT systems that date back to the introduction of the Boeing 747 40 years ago. The result will be a single real-time infrastructure linking a total of 600 systems spanning retail, customer, operational and corporate data and processes.

The airline industry globally is still in a very difficult place. In 2009 it experienced losses of nearly $10 billion with a fall in revenues from 2008 of around 15 per cent. Therefore the squeezing out of operational efficiencies and the raising and differentiating of customer service is key to an airline’s survival.

More often that not, systems within airlines are siloed – operations, ground, crew, customer, reservations and revenue. Technical integration between these systems is the exception rather than the rule. This leads to issues in having the right visibility into the end-to-end processes that the airline performs. When an airline experiences “irregular operations” – for example a delay caused by weather, or a baggage handling problem or a passenger failing to board – the problem in not having this visibility is exposed. Late departure from a gate may result in an additional delay as the take-off slot is missed. Late arrival at the destination airport means that ground crew may be in the wrong place. Crew members may exceed the legally permitted flying hours therefore requiring a change in crew before the aircraft takes off again. Without proper integration between these systems corrections to an irregular operation may be haphazard and occur too late to stop problems cascading that affect more flights. Delayed flights mean a loss of efficiency and crew and aircraft not being where they should be, which in turn leads to higher costs, lower revenues and a loss in customer satisfaction.

The technical integration of these systems is the first step. This allows messages, or events, of interest to be communicated in real-time and reliably between them. In BA’s case, this is now in production. With the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner coming into service, having an event driven messaging system in place creates new possibilities. These aircraft are full of electronic telemetry systems and these can communicate back to ground based systems as a plane is flying. As BA has described, an aircraft could, during a flight, signal that a repair to a particular system is required. This information can be fed directly into an SAP maintenance and repair system. Therefore, by the time the aircraft lands, the parts and engineers could already be in place to effect the repair so ensuring the aircraft is returned to service as quickly as possible.

Technical integration is a necessary first step. Beyond this, value can be really enhanced by providing more seamless business level views of what’s going on.

Here’s one scenario, as described to me by a BA executive. Imagine a number of aircraft from the same airline, stacked-up, waiting to come into land at one of the airline’s main hubs (imagine Heathrow in the case of BA). Stacking usually means that airport capacity has been exceeded which in turn means that there are going to be delays, not only in arrivals but also in connections and subsequent flights of those planes being held. What airlines would like to do is to dynamically prioritise stacked flights so the one with the highest “value” or the flight that will create the greatest downstream benefit lands first. Consider a flight with a large proportion of passengers from a long-standing and valuable corporate customer. Let’s say that those passengers are on a short-haul flight due to connect to a long-haul. Furthermore, let’s say a gate is scheduled to become available which is nearby the departure gate for the long-haul flight. When taken together, these might result in the airline requesting to air traffic control that this flight lands first. If control accedes to the request the benefits of this are many – customer service is enhanced because passengers from a valuable corporate client have a better chance of making their flight and less disruption occurs to both the airline and the airport – with passengers and luggage being physically nearer the ongoing flight, the large number of connections can be achieved more efficiently.

Airlines seriously envisage that such a scenario will become a reality. Operational, ground, customer and revenue functions need to work together and need to do this in real-time. They need to be responsive to what’s happening around them. And not only to be able to react to the events as they happen but to involve people at the right time in the decision making process. This is a great example of the whole concept behind responsive process management that combines event processing and business process management to create reactive but person oriented processes that are typically executed using many existing systems. In other words, it provides a platform for dynamic application development, where, instead of applications being monolithic and static, they remain fluid and so can evolve as processes, the business and the market evolves.

It will be interesting to see how these developments with airlines continue. They’ve had a hard year, what with ash clouds, employee strikes and even the latest terrorist threats. But, it’s clear even looking at just the BA case that they’re still striving to be the best at what they do and deliver an optimum service to their customers and be responsive to their needs.