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From build to buy: American Airlines changes modernization course midflight

January 2, 2013 06:00 AM ET

But those functions are all still tied back to the PSS on the mainframe. Plugging those applications into Jetstream's new core transaction engine will offer greater back-end flexibility, the airline's IT executives hope.

Maya Leibman's focus

CIO Maya Leibman says the goal of American's IT modernization effort is to streamline the customer experience from beginning to end in an effort to increase customer loyalty and revenue. In leading the charge, Leibman says she is personally focused on three areas:

  • "Collaboration across my technology organization, with our internal business partners and with our external partners and vendors."
  • Transformation. "We are looking at everything we're doing and determining if there's a better, smarter way to be doing it."
  • Speed to market. "We need to be more responsive, nimble and fast in order to meet all of the challenges we have."

-- Robert L. Mitchell

Now the question is which off-the-shelf software to choose. American is in the process of determining which product might be best, says Henry. Options include a new offering from Sabre (a former American Airlines division long since spun off); Amadeus, which makes software used by many European carriers; and ITA Software by Google.

For now, the PSS continues to run on the mainframe. American has put more modern user interface "wrappers" around its green-screen applications, but those applications are, for now, still locked into the Sabre system. "We need to get deeper into the stack and change the core engine and decouple the rules so we can change them rapidly," by leveraging American's SOA, Henry says. "We want to open up the flood of information that's locked into that system."

Ultimately, Jetstream will help American bring in new revenue through by enabling the airline to offer a mix-and-match menu of different options -- Leibman's main focus -- but it will also deliver cost savings by allowing passengers to do more things for themselves, thereby reducing the need for agent staffing at airports, says Harteveldt.

Horizon: Flight operations get a makeover

Horizon, the airline's name for its revamped FOS, is, if possible, even more complex than the PSS, says Tracy Hassell, managing director for the Horizon program and another direct report to Leibman. "The FOS let us run the airline, but every time we wanted new functionality it would take several months and a lot of money to go do it. We needed to do something differently and mitigate that," she says.

The FOS covers four broad functional areas: flights, crew management, cargo and maintenance, and engineering. The current mainframe runs an older version of IBM's Transaction Processing Facility software. "It is all one big database and it's not relational. That created constraints for us," she says.

American Airlines airplane maintenance
The legacy-systems revamp will allow American to react quickly if, say, a particular series of jets needs FAA-ordered maintenance.

The flat-file database makes tight integration between applications and the file system challenging, because there's no SQL interface to abstract the application layer from the database layer, as SQL-compliant databases do, she says. So rather than being able to define new SQL interfaces to the database, American has always had to create a custom application layer. "This has made the integration of new applications with the legacy FOS very complex and expensive," she says.

American began the initiative in 2007 with the development of an enterprise service bus (ESB) it dubbed Flight Hub. The ESB uses IBM products -- including WebSphere, Message Broker, MQSeries messaging and Application Server -- as its core components. It also uses IBM's Data Power for service management.

American built the system on instances of Red Hat Linux Enterprise running within VMware virtual machines hosted on x86-based blade servers, and has a few machines running Windows Server for off-the-shelf applications that require it.

   Tracy Hassell
Tracy Hassell is heading up the revamped Horizon flight operating system project for American. She says the overall goal of her group is to be able to add new functionality with a minimum of development time and effort.

At some point, Jetstream too will have its own ESB, Customer Hub, a new cargo system will have Cargo Hub, and so on. These ESBs serve as transport mechanisms that connect to all related applications and enable real-time data sharing between applications as well with other ESBs and with the mainframe.

Flight Hub is highly available, highly recoverable and runs simultaneously in more than one place -- unlike the mainframe, which offered redundancy within a single data center but had no backup site. "The program objective was to enable true disaster recovery," Hassell says.

The Flight Hub ESB consists of three main components. Applications can access data on demand, receive information on a regular schedule and send and receive data through topic-based publish/subscribe messaging. In the latter case, applications can subscribe to or publish information to update current flight times or let staff know when a crew can no longer legally continue to fly because they must rest, for instance. "The Horizon architecture uses standard distributed [computing] patterns using message queues and service calls between components," Hassell says.

"Flight Hub is a hybrid. It provides ESB capabilities and provides services to other applications," and passes data to and from the mainframe, Hassell says. In this way, it can pass data to and from any application and keep all data in synch.

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