Technology Developments Impacting the Business Environment

Jeff Joy, Director of IT, PSA Airlines [NASDAQ:AAL]
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Jeff Joy, Director of IT, PSA Airlines [NASDAQ:AAL]

Jeff Joy, Director of IT, PSA Airlines [NASDAQ:AAL]

Mobility and Cloud Delivery is transforming the airline industry. PSA Airlines, a wholly owned subsidiary of American Airlines, employs approximately 2,500 pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics. As these team members are constantly moving throughout the country, mobile technology enables employees to be connected to the airline.

Laying the (mobility) foundation

The airline industry is complex, fast-moving, and mobile—so it is not a surprise that the consumerization of mobility has been a challenge to this century-old business. As consumers continue to push the pace of innovation, many industries struggle to keep up with the changes in technology trends. Airlines have historically focused technology efforts on critical operations and reservation systems which remain in place for many years and provide stability to this complex environment.

Consumer-focused mobility platforms (primarily iOS and Android devices) have become increasingly embedded in airline operations and connected to operational systems. These platforms now provide airlines greater connectivity with crew members and provide operational efficiencies otherwise unachievable.

PSA Airlines recently deployed Apple iPads to pilots for electronic charts and manuals. Gone are the days of pilots carrying 50 lbs. of paper charts and manuals which required constant revisions. American Eagle flight attendants are in the early stages of adopting a cashless cabin with the rollout of Samsung tablets. In addition, a project is currently underway to migrate maintenance and engineering to a web-based system from the legacy Maxi-Merlin which is running on OpenVMS. This new platform will be fully mobile responsive and will lay the foundation for mobile devices in the hangar or at the gate for maintenance of the aircraft. Within 18 months, 85 percent of PSA's employees will be working from a mobile device or utilize a mobile-enabled platform. These early initiatives are the first steps in a multi-year mobility initiative at PSA Airlines.

Leveraging this platform

These initial applications were sufficient to support the business cases to adopt mobile platforms, however, there is lost opportunity by stopping progress here. This situation is the equivalent of providing an office employee a PC and only loading Microsoft Office on it. These mobile and cloud platforms have the potential to provide so much more in terms of accessibility, speed to market, and overall user-experience to the airline's operations, employees, and customers.

 Consumer-focused mobility platforms (primarily iOS and Android devices) have become increasingly embedded in airline operations and connected to operational systems 

Adopting mobile options does not necessarily have to be expensive or complex. PSA recently launched a private Twitter account for crew members to follow the Operations Control Center (OCC). This application allows crew members to follow the latest operational news from the OCC's Dispatch and Crew Scheduling groups from their mobile device while in an airport or boarding an aircraft. This communication tool has proven to be beneficial to hundreds of crew members dispersed throughout the country.

PSA currently uses a legacy crew management system to track crew member schedules and ensure compliancy to Federal Airline Regulations and respective collective bargaining agreements. This system, in place before the first iPhone, has changed little in the past decade but has remained reliable in support of the daily operation. A mobile-friendly platform was not a consideration during legacy system design, thereby preventing PSA from providing crew with vital operational data in an era where it is fully expected. This lack of mobility results in inefficiencies for the operation. For example, when a storm disrupts the operation, crew member schedules must be changed. Therefore, crew schedulers in the OCC would traditionally phone crew members to positively verify a schedule change. During a major weather disruption, this could result in up to 1,000 phone calls with crew.

This issue was identified as one of the top inefficiencies that mobility could solve at PSA. Utilizing cloud technologies, PSA rapidly deployed an application for crew scheduling that tracked schedule changes in a single dashboard. When appropriate for crew scheduling, these changes are easily sent as a text message to a crew member’s mobile device and allows them to accept this change via text. Once the response is received, both the web-based dashboard and legacy system are updated automatically. This simple cloud-based mobility app will drastically reduce the number of phone calls into the OCC (especially during irregular operations) and provide a better experience and quality of life for our crew – a true win/win.

Development for this platform

In order to support this faster-evolving platform, airline IT departments must change the way they develop, deploy, and collaborate. Cloud services, such as IBM Bluemix or Microsoft Azure, offer faster development due to reduced reliance on hardware procurement/management while providing high availability and disaster recovery. The providers of these public cloud offerings are in fierce competition with each other and are constantly innovating and rolling out new service offerings. While this rapid pace challenges our IT staff to keep up, it also provides tremendous opportunity for them to utilize these tools and services in their own work. The ability to leverage pre-built components and not have to build everything themselves should result in faster time to market and greater agility for our team in the future.

Cloud-based tools are also providing team members an economical way to collaborate on new technology projects. This flexibility is especially important in an airline where team members are rarely in the same state, let alone the same building. Basecamp is a great example of how team members at PSA collaborate on projects. This cloud-based project management tool allows everyone to be fully involved in a project whether in the office or at the airport on their iPhone. Basecamp is a simple tool to keep teams organized and in sync as employees expect technology initiatives to be deployed at a faster pace.

Summary

Technology developments and process transformations are impacting the business environment in a big way at PSA Airlines. Of course, this is just a small sampling, development is moving towards a DevOps environment and machine learning is helping solve some of the most complex problems that exist in the airline. Not only does technology not stand still, it moves at a faster pace every day.

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