The move to more responsive air travel

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.

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