From build to buy: American Airlines changes modernization course midflight

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

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The plan still calls for a gradual migration off of an inflexible and outdated mainframe architecture in favor of a modern, distributed computing platform.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.

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.

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, 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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