IT operations at major companies are complicated enough. But overseeing IT for a major airline like JetBlue can take it to another level.
For four years, Eash Sundaram has overseen the Long Island City-based airline's IT in his role as executive vice president and chief information officer (CIO).
In a recent interview with Tnooz, Sundaram explained the animating goal behind the airline's IT decisions.
“The airline customer is more concerned about the holistic airline experience, not just selling tickets. We want to be able to anticipate and support our customers’ needs even before they reach the airport for their flight, or once they land.”
To accomplish this, JetBlue needs internal and external data from different organizations, such as the TSA, airports, and the FAA, said Sundaram. “This includes operational data such as flight schedules, and baggage information and external data such as weather, traffic conditions, and queues at the TSA gates,” he explained. “We also need geo-positioning, to predict things like when customers will reach the airport.”
JetBlue has systems to gather data behind the scenes, said Sundaram. “So how do you access the information from different sources? Employees don’t have time to analyze big screens of data to find what they have to do,” he said.
“The airlines have to be very specific in creating little bits of data and so that employees can make a decision on it. It’s all about making small data have a big impact.”
JetBlue doesn’t have a single system to get its data, said Sundaram. The airline’s back-end technology includes: its base platform, on Microsoft SQL; TIBCO Messaging, on a Linux operating system running on virtualized machines or in the cloud; and an application layer that is Datalex TDP, IBM Self-Service, and a custom mobile platform. Sundaram explained:
“For the past three years, we’ve made various strategic assessments of our IT foundation. Think of it as a connecting tissue that has the data foundation, the messaging freight work and the intelligence. And on top of this, we’re connecting the dots between many systems."
The airline technology industry has organically expanded its services and grown by acquisitions, said Sundaram.
“Much of the software that solves airline problems are point solutions. For example, within the airports, there are separate systems to manage flights, gates, and bags. However, when a customer travels through that airport they need integrated information."
So JetBlue invested in a platform called Foundations, which connects these disparate systems via a common data layer and a messaging infrastructure that’s real-time-events driven, said Sundaram.
“For example, when a flight is delayed due to a mechanical issue, it’s an event. So we can link that to customers in that flight, check their connections, notify them of gate changes and also track their bags -- all in one event.
In the past, the maintenance team had to notify the flight team who then notified most systems and adjusted them manually; now it’s a series of real-time transactions.”
This is a very significant differentiator for JetBlue as an airline, said Sundaram.
“We are creating much more media domains to personalize and commemorate our experience to the applications and different sources of data translation of information, so we can have a list of customers every single point in time....
"Having that differentiation helps us assist the needs of any individual in all parts of travel.”
The biggest challenge in the airline business is dealing with consumers using the same technology in different spaces, Sundaram noted:
"I’ll give you perfect example. Near Field Communication is pretty much available anywhere, but the airlines have been slow to embrace it."
“We are currently working on an NFC boarding pass and an NFC kiosk, with a launch date scheduled for the fourth quarter of this year. We are also actively piloting iBeacon at JFK Airport.”
Information technology is the key to the success of serving customers, said Sundaram. So what would he like to see more of?
“We’d like to see a more personalized experience for both customers and crew members via the cloud, Internet Of Things, AI, and machine learning. We’d also like to see a major shift in custom development, versus out-of-the-box software.”
Before coming to JetBlue, Sundaram held a similar position at Pall Corporation, a filtration manufacturing company. Yet IT at Pall was quite different that at JetBlue, he said.
“Pall was a manufacturing company, and how you translate customer service there is very different from a service industry like JetBlue. The technology landscape between the manufacturing industry and the airline industry is really different.”
In the manufacturing industry everything is about optimizing the shop floor and making sure that every product is in quality condition, said Sundaram. “But in an airline, there’s a lot of complexity in how we interact with our customers directly through technology,” he explained.
“We also have to have the same level of technological ability to support our crew members who are directly involved in interacting with our customers. It’s just very different.”
In the most cases, with manufacturing work, it can take a few days before you hear back from customers, said Sundaram. “But in the world of JetBlue, you hear back from customers immediately.”
What does it take to be an effective CIO at an airline? Sundaram said:
“I always look at technology as a tool kit. I grew up in a generation where everything has been enabled by technology. The CIO job is really about the customer experience and how well you run your organization.”
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