by Todd Datz

Simplify: American Airlines Legacy Systems Won’t Be Around Much Longer

Nov 01, 20023 mins

Ken Wilcox, American Airlines’ vice president of technology services, describes the situation he found himself in after coming over from TWA, where he had served as CIO. “I would say that the prior model was as decentralized as you can possibly imagine. Every business unit had its own relationship with third parties like EDS and Sabre; each had its own IT folks. It was totally lacking an enterprise scope of what the impact was of the decisions people made.”

Wilcox played a key role in the successful integration of his former airline, which began in April 2001 and ended in December 2001 (see “Connecting More than Flights,” Page 66). In the meantime, he began to form the new technology services organization to oversee IT architecture, infrastructure and networks. Wilcox was in Miami with his leadership team for a strategy session last Sept. 11 when he learned of the hijackings. They all made it back to Dallas after a 27-hour bus ride. “I expected a lot of our IT strategy to get fully derailed for a while,” he says, but adds that by mid-October, they were back recruiting for the new group.

Wilcox oversees a complex legacy environment that, he jokes, includes just about every piece of hardware, software and networking gear ever sold. “You’re talking about a $20 billion a year enterprise with an embedded legacy of technology that goes back to the 1960s,” Wilcox says.

That fact makes one of Wilcox’s primary missions, simplifying the IT portfolio, a much greater challenge than it would be at a smaller airline. He rolls out a large technology standards chart, which he equates to the kind of map a city planner would use to plan for future growth. It lays out the architecture today and what it might look like each year for the next three years. It shows lots of systems and products in 2002 but gets simpler (with fewer systems and products) across the page, in 2003 and beyond.

One of his group’s biggest projects is an upgrade of AA’s entire network. Previously, some 600 locations worldwide, such as airport counters and city reservation offices, were running on a proprietary, IBM Token Ring network. In the fourth quarter of 2000, they began replacing that with an IP network. That massive effort, which employed more than 1,000 people, involved the recabling of more than 50,000 hardware devices, 2,500 100MG Ethernet switches and a significant connection of wireless devices (using 802.11b) to the wired network in some 80 airports. As of June, 99.7 percent of the cabling in domestic locations had been completed. Wilcox believes the AA IT group’s work is central to American’s fortunes: “We’re in front of the business; we’re helping them figure out what’s possible and where they can go,” he says.