You couldnt blame him if Monte Ford seemed a bit shellshocked. Soon after leaving his CIO post at The Associates First Capital Corp. just over two years ago to take on a new position as senior vice president and CIO at American Airlines Inc., Ford was hit first with the companys $742 million acquisition of TWA Airlines LLC and the need to integrate the two carriers systems. Next followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks devastating blow to the airline industry. Now war has made that dire situation even worse, forcing American to slash costs and reportedly consider bankruptcy protection. Through it all, however, the 43-year-old Ford has remained a fierce advocate of IT and its potential to help turn the proud airline around. eWeek Executive Managing Editor Jeff Moad recently caught up with Ford in his Fort Worth, Texas, office to talk over his strategy.
Many organizations are, like American, focused on cutting costs. Is the mission of the IT organization at American changing to simply a cost-cutting vehicle rather than a critical piece of the strategy?
At American, IT has become more strategic in the last two years to the success and reconstruction of this airline. ... We are doing things that lead the industry through the kinds of changes that it needs to go through to reconstruct itself. ... [Customer] self-sufficiency. Self-service kiosks. The ability to walk into an airport, swipe something, get a boarding pass, go through security and get on your plane. We provide that capability. ... The kinds of information that is provided to people behind the counter, at the check-in desk that services our customers, we provide that. Electronic ticketing. The ability to take an electronic ticket and transfer it across carriers. ... American led that. We said a year ago, by the end of March 2003, we were going to have an electronic ticket, and we were going to go ticketless for everything [in the United States]. And, by the end of this year, we want to be ... there for every carrier in the world that we do business with.
Weve also done checking in at home on the Internet on aa.com. Very easy to do. ... We did checking in by phone. You can check in at curbside with wireless kinds of kiosk devices that skycaps have. So being able to smooth out the travel experience while, at the same time, reducing cost is imperative.
How do you see the payback from the customer convenience part of your strategy?
We see it in many ways. The first way we know its paying off is because customers love it. ... The average check-in [at kiosks] is less than 85 seconds. Customers love that. How could you not love checking in in 85 seconds for your flight? The second measure is relative to our internal goals around productivity. ... And there were exceeding our goals ... measured in a number of ways. We dont have a head-count goal. We have a customer-productivity- throughput goal. It follows if you have more productivity, you can do more with the same number of people or fewer people. Unfortunately, because of the economy and all of the things that have followed 9/11, we have had to downsize the airline to a number thats more akin to what we can afford to sustain the airline going forward. The self-service devices have helped us in that regard.