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From build to buy: American Airlines changes modernization course midflight

The airline's still revamping core legacy apps, only in a different way.

January 2, 2013 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - American Airlines was well into a simultaneous revamp of its Passenger Services System (PSS) and Flight Operating System (FOS), its two most mission-critical families of applications, when the airline changed course last January.

The plan still calls for a gradual migration off of an inflexible and outdated mainframe architecture in favor of a modern, distributed computing platform. But while the FOS focus has always been buy rather than build whenever possible, the focus for the PSS project has turned sharply away from rewriting all of the applications that make up the system in house in favor of buying existing software whenever possible and modifying it as needed.

The ramifications of that decision are still playing out.

American mobilizes its forces

In addition to modernizing its back-end infrastructure and applications, American is providing flight crews, airport agents and maintenance staff with access to operational information from a range of new mobile devices. These devices provide new capabilities to different staff functions, including:

Flight attendants have been issued Samsung Galaxy Note tablets to access real-time customer information such as seat assignments, premium class food and beverage options, loyalty program status, connecting gate information, delay information and requests for special services.

Aviation maintenance technicians (AMTs) are using Samsung Galaxy Tab tablets to communicate with tech services, access technical information, receive and close tasks, and check maintenance history and parts availability -- all while working on the aircraft. Previously, AMTs had to return to their desktop computers or refer to manuals.

Airport agents use "Your Assistance Delivered Anywhere" mobile check-in devices to access current flight information, print boarding passes, check bags, print bag tags and perform other tasks. These devices are purpose-built, not off-the-shelf mobile hardware like tablets or smartphones.

Pilots will soon replace their flight bags with an electronic version that runs on an iPad. American estimates that eliminating the 35-lb bags from every cockpit will save the airline $1.2 million of fuel annually.

-- Robert L. Mitchell

For the last 47 years, both PSS and FOS have run on Sabre, a mainframe-based system that now lacks the flexibility and speed to market that the airline needs to compete. American began its modernization initiative with the launch of two projects several years ago.

The Jetstream project will replace the current PSS, which handles reservations and other customer-facing functions, while Horizon has already begun replacing many of the applications that make up the FOS, responsible for flight operations functions such as route planning and crew scheduling.

"Tackling these two important systems gives us the opportunity to rethink the customer experience as well as get away from massive, monolithic systems...that make it more difficult for us today to be responsive to customer needs in the marketplace," says Maya Leibman, American's CIO.

While American says that the projects are about cost savings and faster time to market, more is at stake here, says Henry Harteveldt, an airline and travel analyst with Atmosphere Research Group. "It's about how these new systems can help American generate more money," by creating new revenue-generating opportunities.

For her part, Leibman declined to go into specifics about the revenue-generation aspect.

The new systems interconnect applications using Web services and enterprise service buses (ESBs) that are part of the airline's service-oriented architecture (SOA). This will allow American to do things like share data in real time between applications, whether those run on or off the mainframe. A Horizon application might need to know, for instance, that a specific plane has been delayed, or that weather is threatening one city, or that a particular series of jets needs FAA-ordered maintenance.

You see very few 47-year-old cars on the road these days. But with the airlines, some of their most important decisions are tied back to Mad Men-era technologies.
Henry Harteveldt, analyst, Atmosphere Research Group

One ESB, Flight Hub, can pull data from the FOS on the mainframe, or directly from other applications designed to run in the new, distributed computing environment.

Like other major U.S. airlines, American has found itself falling behind foreign carriers in moving to a modern -- and flexible - architecture for its POS and FOS systems. A modern software and hardware infrastructure will allow American to move much more quickly in a world where a substantial percentage of business comes in through AA.com, the airline's website, as well as from travel partners around the Web.

To adapt, American has over the years bolted new features and functions onto the mainframe through the use of application front ends. But that still limits flexibility when it comes to distributing and bundling new fare offerings or creating different privilege options for customers, such as lower change fees or refundable tickets. Today's airlines need to be nimble, respond quickly to market changes, and be free to sell they way they need to sell. "You see very few 47-year-old cars on the road these days. But with the airlines, some of their most important decisions are tied back to Mad Men-era technologies," says Harteveldt.



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