March 2010


Earlier this week I mentioned the Datalex cache and how everyone is now pushing the relative merits of their own caching technology. I know that EB2 used to tout the strength of their cache (now owned by Sabre I assume they still do) and then yesterday I read some interesting stuff from ITA on caches.

In December 2008 ITA filed a patent application with the title Method and apparatus for providing availability of airline seats. The abstract appears below:

A computer program product, method and system for producing seat availability information for a mode of travel such as airline travel produce a prediction of availability of a seat in accordance with an availability query. The prediction is used in place of making an actual query to an airline or other travel mode availability system.

That patent had the names Carl Demarcken and Gregory Galperin on it,  but then in September 2009 it appears they refiled the patent with the same title, but a new inventor added (David Baggett), and a rewritten abstract.

An availability system used for a travel planning system includes a cache having entries of availability information of seats for a mode of transportation. The system includes a cache manager that manages entry information in the cache so that information in the cache is correct, current, complete or otherwise as useful as possible. The cache manager determines when a stored answer is stale and, if a stored answer is stale, sends an availability query to a source of availability information

One of the perils of writing here is that occasionally I am really pushing the limits of my expertise – clearly patent law is something that is not my forte, but it is an interesting area nonetheless. Probably the most interesting piece of corporate promotional fluff that I am mailed regularly is the newsletter I receive from law firm Griffith Hack who specialize in intellectual property; unfortunately reading this once a quarter hardly makes me an expert!

ITA cache patent application US2009234682 (A1)

ITA cache patent application US2009234682 (A1)

I’ve lifted a few interesting slabs of text from the patent application, but it really was a very long document and I only had time to skim read it.

[0043] Set forth below are several cache management strategies. In practice multiple strategies can be mixed together and executed simultaneously to meet multiple goals at once. The availability system uses data sources which asynchronously notify a travel planning system 10 of schedule changes or updates; the cache manager 150 can track these notifications and use the information contained therein to further guide cache insertion and deletion. For instance if the cache manager 150 receives a schedule change notification that a flight has been canceled, it can remove all entries relating to that flight from its cache. Similarly, if it receives notification that a flight has been added, it can create entries related to that flight and place them on lists to be added or modified in the cache. Finally, there are data sources such as so-called “AVS messages” which asynchronously notify the system of availability data of certain flights; the cache manager 150 can treat those just as it would responses directly from the availability data sources, and enter that data into the appropriate entries in the cache if appropriate, add entries to the cache, or simply ignore the messages

and then

[0057] Another version of this system replaces the process of gathering access counts in real time with a predictor of that value. One way of making such a predictor is to model one from historical data as follows: the above system is run to gather a database of lists of entries and access counts: instead of deleting the lists as prescribed above, the list is collected in a database for later processing. When the database is large enough, corresponding entries (e.g., “all US Air flights out of BOS before 11:00 am” or “US6309 11DEC BOS-LGA 10:00”) are averaged to get one mean predicted value for each entry in the list. A list of these averages is then used rather than constructed lists described above. While entries referring to specific absolute dates are unlikely to generalize and should largely be omitted from the compiled list, entries making reference to relative dates (such as “one week from now”) are likely to be very useful.

They really are trying to cover a lot of bases with this application, but why not give it a try. I mentioned in the earlier piece on Datalex the challenge for airline buyers to compare one caching technology over another, but an even more difficult challenge may be enforcing a patent on caching technology given that almost by definition a cache is a mysterious black box that only the creators can see inside of. Maybe the patent application is more of a marketing exercize to solve the first problem of differentiation in the eyes of buyers. I’m not exactly sure how one cache creator would know how another cache was working just by looking at the output, but just as I’m not an expert on patents, neither have I ever actually tried to build a cache, so this is just one man’s hypothesizing.

Whilst reading up on caches I came across another very interesting and curious patent application that is also airline related. Nothing to do with direct channels, but it definitely ticks the innovation box for creative and radical ideas. It was called System and Method of Control of the Terrestrial Climate and its Protection against Warming and Climatic Catastrophes Caused by Warming such as Hurricanes and I’ll leave you with the opening line of the abstract to ponder over the Easter break:

This system of the control and protection of the terrestrial climate relies mainly on civilian airlines burning (preferably price-subsidized) sun-shading (sun-blocking/sun-reflective) fuels in the high levels of the atmosphere in order to reduce the intensity of the solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface.

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After last’s week story called Virgin America’s social networking nightmare, I thought it was time to balance things with a more positive story. You’ve read how Martinair are using Twitter in an intelligent way, so now it is time to give Virgin America a run. If you are interested, just click on the quote to read the full story.

Bowen Payson, was from the airline Virgin America that has been using Twitter to outreach to their customers. Bowen began his session by speaking about the differences in their airline from a physical experience. From the black leather Recaro seats, to the mood lighting. Their on-demand in flight entertainment is just as high tech as their communication strategy. The Twitter story began without a strategy and unfolded and matured into more than 60,000 followers as I write this. Their main social contact, Nick Schwartz is the voice of the airline and loves social networking, partially because of his age. They try to keep a consumer centric voice and mind set, and work to make the experience better incrementally.

 On a totally different topic, I saw this news from AA this morning:

American Airlines announced today it is now providing customers in Canada the option to use PayPal when booking tickets on the airline’s Web site, AA.com. American, which began accepting PayPal for AA.com bookings in the United States in 2008, is the first and only airline in the United States to accept PayPal as a form of payment internationally.

At first I thought surely AA is not the only US airline accepting PayPal, and then I saw the last word – internationally. There is now no question that AA has the best international websites, but I didn’t realize that other US airlines were only offering PayPal domestically. PayPal have really made a concerted effort to crack the airline payments markets, but the feedback I’ve received from various airlines is that they are interested in low cost options to credit cards and PayPal are not perceived to be competitive in that area. PayPal apparently push other benefits, but outside of the US, it is clear that with a few obvious exceptions, that message is having a hard time cutting through.

The Irish internet booking engine company Datalex reported their 2009 results last week, but safer for me given my own employment just to quote the summary from elsewhere:

EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation) fell from $2m in 2008 to just $100,000 and total annual revenue fell by 18% to $27.1m. The company attributed the fall in revenue to a reduction in demand for its e-business and consulting services and “a dearth of new business opportunities”

Earlier in March they announced that they were putting Panamanian carrier  Copa Airlines into production, but I did pick up one interesting quote in the Tnooz article at the time:

Jim Nation, regional sales director for Datalex USA, says the common platform “imports each airlines’ fares and rules to support shopping requests without the need to hit the host system and Datalex applies the appropriate fare family/fare branding attributes as defined by each airline, customizable per route.”

I try to be as fair and balanced as possible on this blog, as you can see from previous positive things I’ve written on Datalex, but on occasion I’ve mentioned the bad news as well.  

But it was the above quote that was most interesting. Storing all the fares and their application rules is no big deal, but the real challenge is matching the inventory with the fares to find the applicable fares over a given period of time. From the two articles I’ve linked to, it is not totally clear everything that Datalex stores, as they talk about fares and rules but also about not hitting the host system. Caches are definintely flavour of the month, especially with the new search paradigm the industry will move towards,  and I assume Datalex feed a cache based on their production traffic, but it may be that they have a regular feed from airlines and their partners. In one of the articles they claim that they can also return in their searches interline and codeshare, which would mean that they potentially cache as well any interline partners. Not hitting the host system potentially raises the issue of keeping inventory up to date and of showing correct availability, but especially on the latter point, this is where any cache really proves its value – all caches are not created equal, but this must be a challenge for buyers to understand when comparing systems.

Seeing as this blog is primarily aimed at people running airline websites, there is one thing you MUST do today if you do not already know the answer to this question.

Whose responsibility it is to renew your domain name, and on what date is this due?

South African Airways found out the hard way recently, and just the other day Foursquare suffered the same fate. The lost revenue and the egg you will have all over your face if this happens to you is just not worth overlooking this simple task. So please go and find out the answer now!

The Twitter crowd can be a tough one to please – just ask Umair Haque. But this week I spent a few minutes doing something I’ve never done before, and that is actually following some tweets live from a couple of conferences whilst being cocooned far away in Madrid. But before I get into a bit of mild criticism of the whole social media industry, let me pick out a couple of people for some praise – balanced criticism is very difficult in 140 characters, but the blog lets me be much more contructive.  

The first person is social business consultant and Headshift UK founder, Lee Bryant. A comment like the one below might put him in Bishop Shelby Spong class of heresy amongst his peers (ie. asking reasonable questions, but stepping on the toes of too many vested interests), but this is what makes it all the more impressive.

An issue to consider here is that practitioners are in danger of getting too far ahead of clients in their thinking around social business. If it takes, as I suspect it might, 3-5 years to really have an impact on the way large businesses are structured from a social business perspective, then people who simply write about this field are in danger of racing ahead of practice and becoming disconnected with business realities.

The other person, and I’ll be clear that I don’t know either one of them from a bar of soap, is Tim Burrowes. His post was titled:

Why I’m over live blogging (and I’m not sure about live tweeting either)

His thoughtful piece started with: I’m falling out of love with live blogging, and indeed live tweeting, from events. Too often, you end up being little more than a snarky dictaphone.

Tim’s article is highly recommended reading for all the people who were this week at a conference and who spent more time engaging with their smart phone than anything or anyone else! Not very smart in my opinion.

The two social media events I was keeping an eye on were the Eye For Travel event in San Francisco (a few of my work colleagues in attendance), and the Social Business Summit held in Sydney on Thursday (a couple of people I hold in high regard in attendance). Search Twitter for #swtravel or  #sbs2010 to see more, but in short, I’m a little concerned that on Twitter there is too much navel gazing amongst the “in” crowd who “get it” and occasionally a condescending attitude to many of the people they actually want to work with as clients.

John Lonergan as head of online sales at Qantas was presenting in Sydney. Here is a guy who is probably in the top three airline employed eCommerce experts in the world, especially if peer opinion is any measure, but someone who would have been an unknown to most of the crowd in Sydney. A couple of the tweats I picked up on his presentation follow (and no names, as I’m not into starting a flame war – besides, the tweets are more relevant here than whoever was making them):

Person 1: Qantas social media leaves a lot to be desired. Their FB stuff is a torrent of ads, @qantas doesn’t exist.

Person 2: David Lonergan from Qantas: “I am not a Social Media Expert” … amen. #sbs2010

Person 3: Qantas social media =”teen sx stage”- fumbling,groping in the dark, we’re very keen but not there yet. #sbs2010

Person 3 wasn’t actually being critical – I gather it was a joke John made, but the other two just shooting off quick comments via twitter gives no context or justification, other than implying that either a little dose of humility or not having an @qantas Twitter account means you don’t have a clue and shouldn’t be speaking on such a hallowed topic as social business. I think Person 2 is actually setting up his own metasearch site, so maybe that partly explains his apparent antagonism toward Qantas. But not quite sure how to explain his calling John by another name – maybe I’m missing an “in”  joke!

Regular readers of this site will know that I push the social angle more than most in the airline IT industry. If you are not a regular reader, here are a few links. Where do I start? Can airlines learn anything from Foursquare?, Guest Post: Martinair on Twitter, Living Social?, The recession has been great for social marketing, Moment of truth – Did any of my 2009 predictions come true?, What constitutes an airline “not getting social media” is extremely subjectiveQuestioning an Airline Social Media StrategyPossible clues from Gist on the future of social networking or maybe So much money still sitting on the table in travel social networking. OK, some might seem a bit dated, but this space is moving so fast that occassionally last weeks post becomes todays fish wrapper. I’m hoping that my public record in this area at least entitles me to ask the same question as Lee Bryant posed at the top of this piece without being labelled as someone who “doesn’t get it.”    

The Eye For Travel event  tweet stream had a much higher level of incestuous navel gazing  – SBS in Sydney didn’t have a hope of competing. No need to lift individual tweets, but when you get the converted preaching to the converted and telling each other how the end of the world (ie. businesses that don’t do exactly as they say) is coming and it is they (ie. people who tweet a minimum of 10 times a day, each and every day) who will inherit all, you get this seemingly self fulfilling prophecy where anyone who raises the slightest question faces being burnt at the stake of social insanity.  

I’m sure a lot of very interesting stuff was being presented, but also I suspect that a lot of it was lost on those in the crowd who were more interested in blurting out inane tweets at a rate of knots. If you disagree with me, and didn’t read Tim’s article above, then please go back and read it before leaving a comment here that tries to burn me on that same stake. I am totally convinced that social is big, and will only get much bigger, but let’s not lose our objectivity in our quest to bring the broader population on board – it is OK to not slavishly follow every single hyped up trend and still squeeze the word “social” into your job title. 

To wrap it up on a lighter note, the tweet coming out of the Eye for Travel conference that almost made me fall of my chair with laughter is the one below – what more can I possible say! 

Person 4: Wait. Where is everyone? Is this thing over? I am still sitting here tweeting. Why didn’t anyone tell me!? #smtravel

I saw this news from Alaska Airlines last week and was pondering how I could make use of it in a blog post.

Joe Sprague, a 10-year veteran at Alaska Airlines, has been named vice president of marketing. Sprague will be responsible for the carrier’s overall marketing strategy as he oversees marketing communications, sales, reservations, food and beverage, customer care, the Mileage Plan frequent flier program and Board Rooms. Sprague will also retain responsibility for Alaska Air Cargo, a division he has led for the past two years.

Steve Jarvis, formerly Alaska’s vice president of marketing, sales and customer experience, will assume the new role of vice president of customer innovation and alaskaair.com. In this position, Jarvis will oversee the airline’s Web site and efforts across the company to continue developing customer-facing technology, such as online and mobile phone applications.

And then it came to me. In the most best-practice most efficient airline (horrible phrase I know), who should the eCommerce manager report to? Even more importantly, how are the best airlines in the world structured for maximizing the opportunities in direct sales? And finally, should mobile and/or social media sit together with eCommerce?

Jet Airways (India) Ltd, the country’s largest airline by passengers, says it has 5,000 Facebook and 1,300 Twitter fans. The airline set up a separate social media division to manage its presence on these platforms.Jet Airways (India) Ltd, the country’s largest airline by passengers, says it has 5,000 Facebook and 1,300 Twitter fans. The airline set up a separate social media division to manage its presence on these platforms.

I’m not exactly sure how separate this separate division at Jet actually is, but for a more detailed discussion with one view on where social fits in the the organization, click here. Today I’m much more interested in website first, call centre second, mobile third and social a distant fourth. 

In my mind, the best airlines in the world have the website and the call centre reporting into the same person. I’m not going to name names in this piece, but I don’t have to think too hard before coming up with some extremely efficient airlines and some horribly inefficient airlines when it comes to direct sales. In every case I’ve seen, the structure of the inefficient ones is obviously a big part of the problem. I know of cases where website and call centre actually compete with each other, do not co-operate at all, and have built parallel and therefore wasteful and overlapping infrastructures – quite frankly I’m amazed that senior management tolerates such a duplication. There is so much cost to be cut out of the back office of virtually any airline direct channel operation, but if website and call centre are not working hand in glove, then these savings will never be realized.

Onto reporting lines, and on this I am a little more flexible. Reporting into Sales probably makes most sense, but in some airlines Marketing has a strong commercial focus, and because the website is such a large part of most airlines direct sales operations, then reporting to Marketing can also have strong merit. Reporting into Loyalty is less common, but I’ve seen frustration in airlines where commercial online and redemption online don’t work well together, so maybe Loyalty also has some merit, especially as the loyalty program can be a powerful tool in warding off the threat from OLTA’s. Reporting into IT is more questionable, but depending on who is the CIO and what other responsabilities this person has, maybe it could also be justified – especially if bleeding edge innovation is a desire of the airline and the CIO is more a techie than a bean counter. Finally you’ve got some eCommerce departments reporting into Revenue Management, or Schedules or other totally unrelated and non-synergystic areas. Once again, I’ll never say a definitive “no” as the quality of the individual heading that role can make hard and fast rules redundant, but it ceratainly raises a lot of questions around whether the airline is set up in an optimal manner.

Mobile is also something that I am more open minded on. Whilst building a web app and a mobile app in isolation of each other will only cause problems down the road, in this early stage of rapid mobile innovation and fluid business models, having a rapid team working in mobile with only a steering committee or very senior executive in common with the website could be justified. The days are numbered on this structure, and maybe in a lot of airlines that time has already passed and the two need to be headed by the same person, but it needs to be looked at on a case by case basis after understanding the objectives of the airline in mobile. Is mobile just for servicing, is it customer acquisition, is it merchandizing / upsell, is it loyalty, is it destination content related, or is it something completey different. The answer to this question will largely determine to whom mobile should report.

And whilst on the topic of airline appointments that I started with, here is a recent one.

In a surprise development, Tiger Airways has announced a new boss to head its Australian operations to replace its local managing director, Shelley Roberts, who helped set up the discount airline and has steered its rapid growth. ”Shelley has established Tiger Airways Australia as a major national airline, and led it from infancy to profitability,” Tiger Airways Holdings Group chief executive Tony Davis has announced.”She intends to take a well deserved break. We would like to thank her and wish her continued success in her future endeavours,” he said. Replacing Ms Roberts is Crawford Rix, the managing director of no-frills UK airline ”bmibaby”.

Crawford Rix worked with bmi regional before he was head of bmibaby. Definitely not one to pick the easy jobs. For some reason I do not understand, I get a disproportionate amount of search engine traffic for a post I wrote once on Tiger Airways, so maybe the mention above will drive traffic to this post! 

And then just today I saw:

EasyJet today confirmed that its new chief executive is Carolyn McCall, the head of the Guardian Media Group. Ms McCall has no experience of the cut-throat airline industry and is leaving one company in turmoil for another beset by management rows and departures.

Finally, if you like the sound of living in Las Vegas, then Allegiant are looking for someone to fill the role of Pricing, Ancillary, Revenue Management Analyst.

If you don’t already know Tnooz, but do follow travel technology, then you’ve almost certainly been living under a rock in recent months. Kevin May and Dennis Schaal both asked me to join when they started the site, but it was only in the last few weeks that I decided to give it a go after being spurred along by Timothy O’Neil Dunne over some wine and tapas. My first post is now up on the site, and it is a much longer piece than I usually write here – my daughter must have slept for longer on Sunday afternoon than I was expecting. The Tnooz article is titled:

Why mobile itinerary planning and sharing is starting to get very interesting

I’ll probably only write for Tnooz once a month, but when I do the idea is to do a much more in-depth piece. Shearwater Blog will remain my main outlet, with the intention of posting short pieces here 3-4 times a week.

Apart from working with an editor who tweaks my copy (No complaints yet Kevin!), the one interesting challenge I face on Tnooz is that to many of the readers I will be an unknown. Where this becomes most challenging is in how to deal with the fact that I am employed by Amadeus. I’ve taken a very strict line in the Tnooz piece by not even discussing the benefits of the Amadeus checkmytrip mobile app, even though I’ve discussed a number of competitors. On this blog I am getting much more comfortable occassionally talking about Amadeus products, as my belief is that readers here already attach some level of impartiality to what I write. For example, see my post on the future of travel search where I talk at length about search by attributes and specifically mention Amadeus Affinity Shopper numerous times. Hopefully no-one thinks that post reads like a press release.

Also, I’ll use this opportunity to give some praise to a couple of Amadeus staff, especially as the American Airlines international websites were ranked the best in a side by side comparison against international websites from eight other airlines. Robert Alpert in Waltham MA, together with some co-ordination from Jean Claude Leleu in Nice France, as well as the guys from American’s international division based in London all deserve a big pat on the back for coming out in front in that analysis.

Now that is something you would never ever see me writing on Tnooz!

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