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Knowledge Management & Intranet Solutions - Conference & Exhibition

 Cover story

On a wing and a prayer

by Campbell McCracken

The terrorist attack that took place in the US in September 2001 shows how vulnerable an industry can be to a massive change to its market place. In the case of airlines, it came on top of the changes brought about by the success of the budget market. Together these factors showed how some sectors of the industry were in a good position to survive business downturns virtually unscathed, while others suffered economic ruin.

One of the determining factors was how much knowledge each airline had about its market and how well it managed that knowledge. "It was very easy for people like Ryanair to be able to change the way they worked and marketed, because they knew who their customers were," said Hummingbird's business development manager Charles Race. "BA found it very difficult and consequently started to lose money and customers to those other airlines."

"The ability to react to change means you don't want to be wasting too much time performing tasks that could be automated," said Race. "You want to be spending as much resource as possible doing the actual analysis itself and making decisions, which is the business intelligence side".

  Case Study
BancTec Plexus and high-speed ticket scanning

Plexus is part of BancTec which does high speed document scanning (e.g. for cheque clearing) for several High Street banks. For the past 15 years, it has provided software to manage optical storage systems and workflow systems within a business infrastructure.

"If you can think of an airline ticket," said Plexus UK sales director Chris Bryce, "across the middle of it is a series of code information which gives the actual segments of the flight." One of the significant pieces of information is the price of that ticket, what is called the 'pro-ration'. For example, if you buy a ticket from British Airways and part of the journey uses Saudi Airlines, then Saudi Airlines has to have a way of claiming that fare back from British Airways. The pro-ration information lets each airline know how much money they are owed by the airline who originally sold the ticket.

At the end of each month there's a massive clearing system world-wide where, say, Saudi Airlines bills every other airline for each ticket which has been sold through that airline but which is flown on Saudi. As there are 800 different airlines itís a massive administrative and invoicing task.

Although you can read some features from the ticket, such as the ticket number, generally optical character recognition techniques cannot be used to extract all the pro-ration information because the image quality on the ticket carbons is so poor. This means that the information has to be read by a human and typed into a database. It's a very labour intensive part of the application.

"What we've been doing is to introduce image processing into this so that we can electronically image the tickets, capture the relevant data at the same time," said Bryce. Some airlines transmit the images to, say, India and they have a workshop out there that keys in the information and transmits the data back to the relevant airline.

"Now, of course, there's a lot of queries subsequent to the flight," said Plexus' Bryce. "And when the airline gets the invoice they say, 'Well, I don't particularly like the value of that ticket ­ I want to see that actual ticket please'." So what happens is that all tickets get sent back with the invoice as proof of the price.

Plexus' objective is to digitalise this process. Part of its portfolio is a very high speed scanning transport that in full flight can run at 2,200 per minute. "On airline tickets it can only run at 1,000 because of the structure of an airline ticket," said Chris Bryce. "The paper, the red carbon paper, is too flimsy and the quality as it bleeds through on the fourth or fifth copy is too poor."

The ticketing system Plexus installed at Saudi Airlines processes 100,000 tickets on a slow day up to a peak of around 200,000 tickets. At the time of the hajj when Muslims make their pilgrimage to Mecca, the volume of tickets also rises dramatically. "We've also installed a huge system in American Airlines," said Chris Bryce, "and this is archiving 400,000 ticket images a day."

Transactional Systems
Hummingbird worked with Virgin Atlantic to help it get better information on its frequent flyers, how they were purchasing its products, the age groups and profile of the people, so that it could sell them value added services, such as the limousine service."

The difficulty Virgin had, though, was that the information it needed to access was on its transactional system. With airlines, the reliance on the transactional system is so great (because, for instance, of online bookings ) that the companies cannot afford to use the system to generate reports directly because they cannot afford to compromise its performance.

Virgin uses Hummingbird's ETL (Extract, Translate and Load) tools to pull the information off the transactional system so that the analysis can be done elsewhere. This allows it to focus on its two main areas ­ the budget package holiday line, and the business user oriented flights. "It's the ability to react to change that tools like ours can give them," said Race, "when potentially you can lose a million pounds a day just because you haven't got your planes in the right place."

As well as an organisation being able to react to change, its staff have to be flexible too. That means they need access to just-in-time training. "Following September 11th there was a massive economic argument to say that BA could no longer provide training to their staff in the traditional way," said Nige Howarth, international marketing manager with NETg, a Thomson Learning company. "It just wasn't cost effective. Although they'd had to cut back their workforce significantly, they've had to focus energy on those that are left, and to be seen to be trying to encourage growth."

E-learning is hardly a new concept for BA employees. "BA had always been successful in using simulator-based learning for pilots," observes Howarth, "and online training has also been used well for language training for cabin crew." NETg provides BA with training in a wide range of subject areas. These are primarily soft skills, business and professional-type skills, including running meetings, interviewing and customer service skills followed by Microsoft Office skills.

  Case Study
Enigma: Customer service management at easyJet

UK budget airline easyJet has been running for seven years now. "Two years down the line it became apparent that we were going to grow quite rapidly and we thought it was important that we had a way of monitoring how our service affected our customers," said easyJet's Customer Service Manager Clayre Catlin.

The company wanted to be able to log, for example, what problems were on what flights, or perhaps log if there were any ground handling issues. It also wanted to track customer enquiries, to check how long an enquiry had been open. Then it could carry out analysis to improve the actual customer response processes.

EasyJet approached UK based strategic business consultancy Enigma who supplied it with CARM, an integrated customer relationship management tool. "CARM is set up so that whether you correspond with easyJet via e-mail, by letter or from the website, you'll end up at the same point in customer service," said Enigma's operations director Shailesh Patel. "If you send in any correspondence, it will get scanned in, in line with easyJet's philosophy of a paperless office."

"Since we started using CARM, and it's been so easy for our customers to access us, we're getting in the region of 12,000 to 15,000 e-mails a month compared to even a year ago when it might have just been 3,000," said easyJet's Catlin.

Customer Service
Customer service is a major initiative in the airline industry today in a bid to gain and retain customers. Airlines are increasingly relying on web-based and e-mail-based input and response, and systems to support that. (See Case Study - Enigma: Customer service management at easyJet)

Inxight Software, a leading provider of software applications for understanding and effectively using unstructured data, can filter and tag priority e-mail and other web-based input and determine what the subject topic of a message is very accurately. For example, they can automatically identify a frequent flyer number, a flight segment number or a ticket number from within plain text.

"We can then forward that message, based upon the items that are detailed in the metatext, to a customer service agent, already pre-filtered to the agent that deals with the particular issue that's identified," said Inxight's marketing VP Dave Spenhoff. "Alternatively we can automatically respond to it, if that's appropriate, and within the workflow process of the business."

Airline maintenance
Inxight's tools can also help companies organise, access and retrieve information from most unstructured data sources including e-mail messages, word processing documents and PowerPoint files . "It's the 85 percent of an information base that a company has, that isn't in the database," said Spenhoff. "We handle something like 70 different document file formats, which covers all of the common document formats."

One application of this is in the area of airline maintenance. "The maintenance manual and maintenance records, both for families of aircraft and for specific aircraft, run to millions of pages," said Spenhoff. Being able to rapidly find new updates and specific maintenance information within those millions of pages of documentation, and making sure that they are complying with all of the latest aircraft manufacturing and aviation authority safety regulations, provides a competitive advantage for airline companies.



© 2001 Bizmedia Ltd under licence from Learned Information Europe Ltd

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