Cape Air’s Reservation System Transition to ITA Was So Good, You Didn’t Know It Even Happened

Cape Air, Technology

All the talk this week has been about United’s massive reservation system transition, but that wasn’t the only move of this type in the last couple weeks. Cape Air made the switch recently to a brand new airline reservation system made by none other than Google’s ITA Software. While United’s transition was bigger in scale, Cape Air’s transition is potentially the most important of the two.

Cape Air ITA Reservation System

For those who don’t know Cape Air, you might think it’s just a rinky-dink airline. A reservation system couldn’t have been that difficult, right? Not so fast. Cape Air has all the complexity of most major airlines. Believe it or not, Cape Air flies more than 60 airplanes; mostly 9-seat turboprops. The origin of its network is in New England and that remains a big piece of the business today. It also has a sizeable Caribbean operation out of San Juan, a growing number of small city service out of St Louis (and scattered elsewhere), and it operates as United Express in Micronesia.

This means that the airline needs international capability (for its Caribbean flights). It has a strong interline agreement with JetBlue which requires systems to talk, and it has a codeshare with United and American that adds complexity as well. Cape Air also sells through the GDSes so that’s another layer of communication. These may be on a smaller scale than at many larger airlines, but the level of complexity is still quite significant. As Jeremy Wertheimer, ITA Software founder and now VP of Travel for Google since his company’s acquisition, said to me, it’s easy to build a system that stands on its own, but then you have to make it so it can talk in some pretty archaic languages to ancient systems. In this case, it all worked, and that’s why this reservation system transition matters a great deal.

The one thing that Cape Air does have that makes this easier is that it sells its tickets in just a couple of time zones. (The Micronesia flying is United Express so you can’t buy via Cape Air directly.) That meant that Cape Air could shut down the old system at night, put the new system live, and then be ready to go by the time people woke up in the morning. I spoke with Trish Lorino, Director of Marketing at Cape Air, explained that the call center and website were offline at the same time for a brief period of time. The website was offline by itself longer, but everything was up in a matter of hours.

Once it came up, it appears that the transition was flawless. The data ported over and there were no customer issues. (If any of you flew or booked with them in the last couple weeks, let me know down in the comments how it’s been.) In fact, there wasn’t even a big customer notification effort – it all just worked right away. Not too shabby.

What’s so great about this new system besides the fact that it’s new? Jeremy explained that the system was built from modern architecture, instead of adapting over the years as has been the case elsewhere. That means there is no patchwork of multiple systems and databases. It all works together easily and provides a unified solution for an airline to use.

The example he gave of why this matters was a good one. Let’s say you make a reservation with one airline and use a new phone number. That won’t be updated in your frequent flier account or in a marketing database because those are all separate from each other. With this new system from ITA, everything resides in one place so it’s easy to make changes across the airline. It’s also easier for the airlines to analyze their data and make good use of it.

Possibly most importantly for some airlines, it makes training incredibly easy. Agents were trained up in 2 to 3 days and haven’t had any trouble using it. Something tells me the pre-merger United agents wish they had an easy system to learn right about now.

ITA built this system to be scalable and flexible. That sounds like marketing speak, but what it means is this. Since the system doesn’t run on mainframes, it’s easy to add more computing power as you grow or vary it depending upon the airline that’s signed up for it. And since everything was built with modern protocols, it’s very easy to just add on new functionality or change it as you go.

I asked Jeremy for some examples of what ITA can do that others can’t, but he didn’t want to let any of that out yet. The initial goal was to just replace the functionality of the existing system at Cape Air, and they’ve done that. Now they can start building on new pieces continuously. We can expect to see more functionality roll out over time as it becomes available. It’s not very difficult to make changes, it seems, so we should see more frequent changes than you would expect to see elsewhere.

If this system can do what it seems like it can, then it may end up being a viable competitor to the big guys. Jeremy said that ITA continues to talk to multiple airlines but there is nothing to announce just yet. I imagine it may take some time, but we will see ITA’s solution at other airlines soon. That can only be good for the airline industry and it’s only going to be good for travelers. The easier it is to make changes, the better chance we’ll see more customer friendly options coming from airlines.

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22 comments on “Cape Air’s Reservation System Transition to ITA Was So Good, You Didn’t Know It Even Happened

    1. People get so angry for things that are so completely irrelevant. Yes, as Rohit makes clear, most are not turboprops but rather are pistons. My mistake. But this has zero relevance when it comes to the success of the new system. Brian, if you’d like to join in a civil conversation explaining why I’m wrong, then that would be far more interesting than unrelated sniping.

  1. It is nice to see at least one reservation system moving off the archaic languages and systems. Flexibility and scalability is a big deal, but it can be a big pain as well. The company I work for says the same thing about their software, but I can tell you it is never as easy as they make it sound. Additionally, some of those “archaic” languages are actually just as powerful as the new stuff. We code in everything from Small Talk and Delphi to C# and Python, but in the end it is the implementation of those languages that create the system.

  2. Cape Air sounds like it was a good match for a new system. A lot of flying in some small local areas, international service, small amount of codeshares, in standard GDS systems. It’s a nice little ‘test’ for Google and since it’s new, they must have helped cover the cost for Cape Air to switch and Cape Air gets a new system. Sounds like win/win for both now.

  3. What system was CapeAir using before this switch? Something “homegrown” that had turned into an unsupportable mess?

    Would love to hear more about the ITA offering in the future. Is it in use at another airline yet, or is this the first “big” implementation? Does it run on premise at Cape Air, or does Google host it “in the cloud” on their servers?

    1. It’s not at another airline yet. Air Canada was the original customer but it backed out a couple years back. I would assume that we’ll see more sign up if it continues to perform as advertised. As for where it’s being hosted – good question. I would assume that there are at least a couple of data centers with redundancy to make sure that it never goes down. I would assume that it’s an ITA location but I could be wrong on that.

  4. Hi Brett, I enjoy the blog and the coverage of otherwise “offbeat” topics. I’ve wondered occasionally, as I have with this article, as to whether or not your topic selection was an external one. Are these kinds of articles ever sponsored?

    1. I have yet to write a sponsored post, but I would certainly entertain the option. If I did, however, it would be marked as sponsored in the title and before the post even started. I would never bury that fact.

      I don’t really see this as offbeat. ITA, now owned by Google, creating a brand new reservation system for airlines is pretty big stuff. Doesn’t matter who the first airline to implement was – it just matters than an airline did implement it.

    1. Maybe in 2025 . . . . I have no idea what’s going to happen with their long term res system plans. For now, they’re going to keep their current system going with Sabre but one of these days that’ll probably change.

      1. I thought WN was currently on some sort of Braniff Cowboy res system.

        I agree with Bill (as usual :) in that reservation systems are archaic and need to update to today’s technology. Hopefully this ITA system will lead to a better experience from a consumer point of view (I’m thinking ancillaries and targeted offers).

  5. How about the crap Singapore Airlines pulled on me. They actually delete your frequent flyer account if you don’t earn miles into it. In addition to miles the account contains a whole bunch of stuff you really don’t want to re-enter each time you buy a ticket (eg passport numbers, immigration status and about 20 other fields). The kicker was that I was flying frequently and making bookings – it was just that the miles went to my United account as they are also Star Alliance and that it is pointless for US residents to accumulate miles in Krisflyer. Then they won’t let you sign up for a new account using the same email address as before.

    This does go to show how important it is to tie bookings, frequent flyer, passenger information etc together and not be idiotic about it.

  6. interesting article, thanks brett! looks like a nice scalable system.

    it’s a shame that US-based companies, who are slavishly forced to making quarterly financial numbers, have little or no incentive to invest in new systems for the future rather than duct-taping ancient legacy systems together. ultimately, new systems can have a net cost savings over the years but require large capital outlays up front whereas “maintenance” expenses for dinosaur systems are usually already included in the budgets (as opposed to new capex projects) and are fairly consistent and predictable quarter by quarter.

    it’s telling that even an airline like WN continues to keep an ancient system on life support rather than incurring the expense to move forward. people in general (especially corporate executives) generally act in accordance with their incentivization and nowhere is that more apparent than public companies and wall street. nearly everything in american business, including executive comp, is tied to the almighty quarterly reports, which makes 10 year long range planning and investment difficult bordering on impossible.

  7. I worked the Cape Air side of this project for several monthes before deployment, catering it to our unique “9 at a time operation” and I can say this system is amazing.

    It completely blows these archaic, systems out of the water. The new GUIs designed by the legacy GDS systems like AOL in 1995. This is a long overdue product that fits the new era of internet technology.

    The best analogy I can think of is the dawning of the “Jet Age” to the major carriers. Its a drastic leap forward in technology that leaves all the competetion looking like relics of a bygone era.

  8. Does Cape Air have a lot of complicated fare rules? Migrating those from a legacy system could be a nightmare.

    1. Not sure how complicated they are, but I pulled up Boston – Marthas Vineyard just for kicks. There are 12 different fares in the market right now. They don’t look particularly complex but they have all the fare rule components you need. Not sure what you’d be looking for to judge something as being complex.

  9. I just stumbled across this dialogue and am surprised to see so much praise for a system that, as a very frequent Cape Air flyer, I consider to be a step back from the original.
    Ignoring the fact that when the site first comes up there is a message to the effect that ?404 Page not found?, it is most annoying to have to search for flights based on whether you are using a commuter book or cash, and that it shuts down after 10min. Since I am usually working Cape Air reservations at the same time as connecting flights out of Boston this just makes the juggling all that more difficult.
    Other than that I enjoy working with their local people and am most grateful that they are providing service to the smaller towns in New England. Unfortunately they have become so popular during the summer that seat availability has become a major problem.

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