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.
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.