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.
“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.
Britannia chose to deploy Casio EG-800 PDAs running the Pocket PC operating system for cabin crews, and IBM x30 laptops for pilots using Microsoft Corp.s Windows 2000 to improve its workflow and streamline operations.
Previously, cabin crews and pilots relied on an intranet to print out information to carry aboard the plane before a flight. With the new system in place, data is now replicated from the intranet directly to users PDAs via Wi-Fi during mandatory preflight meetings. With such updated information at their disposal, the planes crew can better prepare meal serving times based on things like flight times, turbulence, weather patterns and so on.
Boulton said the Casio EG-800 was chosen for its “ruggedization” and hardened plastic shell. It was no secret that the devices would need to withstand the constant handling throughout the day by a full- and part-time staff, being stowed away into compact areas aboard the plane and being shelved for indefinite periods of time. The Casios will operate only with the addition of a separate data card, used as a secondary backup, in conjunction with the wireless card.
Each PDA features its own Secure ID card and records when a PDA user has read a file or document through to the end, creating a daily audit trail.
“There are a lot of safety-related issues around paper, and were seeing more and more around that across the transportation industry. People are given reams of paper, and they dont read it properly,” said Cavill.
From the captains perspective, the wireless technology puts routine checks and engineering issues and features, as well as required flight manuals, at his fingertips.
Britannia is running iAnywheres UltraLite database technology on its PDAs, and the Adaptive Server Anywhere SQL relational database for its IBM laptops. The airline is using iAnywheres MobiLink to enable synchronization from each database back into enterprise data sources.
Pylon Anywhere tools offer access to corporate e-mail, PIM (personal information manager) custom applications, calendars and personal contact lists. Administration, remote support and management of all Britannias field mobile devices occur through iAnywheres Manage Anywhere Studio. Livelink, a document management system from Open Text Corp., of Waterloo, Ontario, is used to integrate iAnywheres mobile extension at the back office.
LogicaCMG is developing a project to put engineering systems data onto the PDA, minimizing repairs and inventory-order time frames. Additionally, RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology has been examined to simplify inspections rather than the current system of unbolting physical hardware structures. Cavill said 22 other airlines have approached the systems integrator about Britannias PDA and laptop mobile access deployment and operation.
Martyn Mallick, senior product manager for iAnywhere, of Dublin, Calif., credited LogicaCMGs understanding of mobilized applications and the transportation industry with enabling iAnywhere to integrate and run across Britannias IT architecture seamlessly.
“Essentially, when you get started with a project like this, the systems integrator aspect is very important because iAnywhere may not have specific domain expertise for the vertical industries our technologies play in,” said Mallick.
To the surprise of many, the outcome of those efforts resulted in Britannia saving upward of $910,000 simply by removing paper from its system. A total of $795,000 in cost reductions was achieved via streamlined administration tools.