Britannia Flies High With Wi-Fi

The airline equipped its planes with in-flight wireless connectivity via an iAnywhere database.

Speeding about the globe at 35,000 feet, airline passengers expect to be well taken care of en route to their destinations. So for airlines, updating on-board passenger-facing processes can be a boon for business.

Thats why in 2003 Britannia Airways Ltd. viewed an on-board POS (point-of-sale) system as an opportunity to overhaul the entire system.

"We had very old technology on the aircraft for managing the retail solution selling duty-frees and products on the planes," said Neil Boulton, head of IS for Britannia, in Luton, England. "We needed to replace that, and that was the primary way to move from old technology."

From the humble beginnings of a POS upgrade, a major collaborative effort took off among the airline, its IT services company LogicaCMG and Sybase Inc. subsidiary iAnywhere Solutions. Together they created a wireless-based system that let the carriers work force streamline a host of operations.

But that wasnt all. During development, the goal was expanded not only to offer improved in-flight customer service but also to give 1,800 cabin crew members and 450 pilots automated access to a variety of information such as personal e-mail, daily rosters, flight patterns, health and safety data, point-of-duty sales, and a digitized flight manual.

"We [initially] looked for reliability and ease of integration with our current systems for [personnel] to pick up crew briefs—they get a briefing on the fly to where theyre going, safety and security, and all of the details of the passengers," Boulton said. "But we just rolled more and more [functionality] into it."

It was decided that the best way to accomplish the expanded goal was to have a small iAnywhere database running on a PDA. That would relieve the need for wireless connectivity on board the craft while in flight and enable users to make any type of data change at their fingertips.

By having the data and applications reside locally on the handheld device, large amounts of data could be accessed very quickly without constantly having to download data over wireless networks. Device battery life was also a consideration.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to see how Boeing Connexion plans to provide in-flight Wi-Fi service to passengers.

"We needed to have basically end-to-end control and data synchronization; we wanted relational databases at each end; and we needed a system that would give us no single point of failure and duplicate everything through," said Simon Cavill, practice leader for Mobile Wireless Technology at London-based LogicaCMG. "Nothing else we found could do everything in a single package. ... We would have [had] to bolt two or three different products together, which doesnt give us a comfortable feeling because of the complexity."

Ultimately, Britannia and LogicaCMG constructed a system capable of manipulating data from one set of database tables to another using a three-box model. This consisted of a relational database within a mobile device inside the PDA server and a back-end database behind the workflow document management system.

"Britannia has said to us they could never imagine how many back-end systems they would use to take mobile [applications] to people. They were just scratching the surface at the beginning," said Cavill.

Next page: Streamlining operations.