Alaska Airlines Switches to Linux-based Fare Searching

Stays with Sabre for reservations but decides not to wait for other functions

Alaska Airlines last week said it has completed the migration of its online travel planning and pricing engine to an Intel-based system running Linux.

The move represents a shift of some functions away from the mainframe-based system provided by Southlake, Texas-based Sabre Holdings Corp., said Steve Jarvis, vice president of e-commerce and distribution at Seattle-based Alaska Airlines.

In September 2001, Sabre announced plans to migrate off the aging IBM mainframe system to one based on fault-tolerant servers from Compaq Computer Corp., now part of Hewlett-Packard Co. . Sabre had said it would take at least three years to complete the migration. But that wasn't good enough for Jarvis, who decided to move the itinerary-planning and fare-searching functions to the Linux-based QPX system developed by ITA Software Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

"We couldn't wait on Sabre," he said. "ITA's algorithms are widely regarded as the best in the industry, and we needed to move."

Facing the Competition

Kathryn Hayden, a spokeswoman for Sabre, acknowledged Alaska's move to ITA for Web pricing functionality but said the company recently renewed its contract with Sabre for reservations and departure control.

Sabre has been migrating airlines to its new system since the end of last year, and the effort "has gone very successfully," said Hayden. She said Sabre isn't concerned about airlines moving to ITA; just last week Sabre introduced a component-based offering called SabreSonic that includes modules for reservations, check-in, ticketing, inventory, shopping and pricing, and a Web-based booking tool.

Jarvis said that while Alaska Airlines expects the ITA software to reduce costs compared with Sabre, the real driver for the shift was that ITA's technology will enable the airline to make its Web site more of a revenue generator. "We plan to grow our [online] revenue to $1 billion by 2005," said Jarvis. The airline currently earns 30% of its $600 million in passenger revenue through its Web site.

QPX uses XML technology and a component-based architecture that scales linearly, said Jeremy Wertheimer, ITA's founder and CEO. "It processes and confirms availability for [trip] pricing in less than one-tenth of a second" by running algorithms that more efficiently analyze airfares and routing options, he said.

"This is a huge improvement in the number of itineraries we can process," said Jarvis. When Alaska Airlines was using the mainframe-based Sabre system, it often had to make more than 40 different data requests to produce one screen of itinerary options. "Now we do it all with one trip to the data source," Jarvis said.

Changes that enabled the airline to customize end users' online experience have remained invisible, and that's an important lesson for anybody thinking about a similar project, he said. "Don't try to embed an entirely new user experience with a platform change," Jarvis said, noting that that can confuse users and drive them away.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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