ITA Software's Wertheimer shops for 'brave few early adopters'NewsBy Dennis Schaal | October 20, 2009Share This article was originally published on What's next for ITA Software?The Cambridge, Mass., travel technology firm has a thriving airfare pricing and shopping business, as evidenced by its recent QPX deals with Southwest Airlines and Air Canada.But with half of ITA's employees working on its fledgling airline reservations and departure control system, one technology consultant, who closely follows the company, terms ITA's loss of the Air Canada reservations system project "a debacle" and says it is an open question whether ITA, now without any customers for this product, has a place in the airline res system market at all.After all, ITA was not a finalist when American Airlines recently selected HP and its still-to-be built Jetstream passenger services system over the Amadeus Altea platform as a replacement for longtime host Sabre.ITA co-founder and CEO Jeremy Wertheimer says the company's airline res system isn't in production, but "is working," runs at full scale and "is pretty close to done," adding that the departure control system needs "more work.""We're talking to all people who want a system and we're looking to a brave few who want to be early adopters," Wertheimer says.Wertheimer contrasts the status of ITA's res system with competitors' "usually broad pronouncements [when] not much has happened."In addition to Jetstream, perhaps he is referring to a 2005 United Airlines-Amadeus declaration that the airline would scrap Travelport's Apollo res system for Altea. That transition remains on hiatus.Wertheimer says ITA had a busy summer talking to potential airline customers, which sometimes use 50-year-old legacy systems, about deploying ITA's full-blown res system, components of the system, or apps."It's not the sort of thing where you show up on a Monday and you have a sale by Friday," Wertheimer says. "We are working hard to get other customers in the pipeline."Wertheimer declines to say whether ITA is profitable, and it would be hard to imagine it is, given all of the resources it is pouring into its res system business.Still, with ITA's QPX business humming along, and considering the $100 millon in funding it attracted three years ago, it would be surprising -- despite the Air Canada setback -- if ITA were facing a cash crunch.Speaking of what he calls that "pile of money," which came from venture capitalists, Wertheimer claims, "we really haven't used it."So, as ITA woos res system customers, it is continuing to build out its QPX business, with new solutions for airline merchandising efforts in the works.Asked how significant the merchandising business might be for ITA, Wertheimer says, "I don't think anyone knows the precise shape of it."Pursuing the merchandising angle puts ITA into competition with numerous entities, including the airline solutions units of the GDSs, as well as companies like iSeatz, which offers merchandising solutions for Delta and Air France-KLM.Companies like iSeatz and Viator provide destination activity options to airlines or online travel agencies, and ITA is getting into that arena, as well, as it refines its airfare shopping business as evidenced here.One of the newest wrinkles is the "Needle," an internal name for a platform that facilitates the collection of data about destination activities from myriad sources ranging from the Web to company spreadsheets.Here's an example of a prototype Needle activities solution from ITA which may appear on some airline websites one of these days:When you click on one of the above events near an airport destination, you get event details and the name of source websites such as Stubhub.com.ITA spokeswoman Cara Kretz says the Needle "uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques to extract data not only from discrete fields or tables, but from within fields, across fields, and from regularly formatted text of all kinds. It then automatically restructures the extracted data to match the schema of your target database. Once learned by the system, a data source can be routinely re-acquired without manual intervention."Despite my, ahem, needling, Kretz declines to divulge details on the product's commercial name, pricing or business model.For ITA, the Needle and its still-unproven airline-res system business are all part of the company's evolution.Now, it's time to see whether ITA management is as adept at business as it is at technology solutions.