American Airlines CIO Talks Consumerization

By Pat Brans — May 04, 2014

For American Airlines the “consumerization of IT” was a choice. The company moved from limited devices with limited functionality and large expense, to today’s top tablets in order to mobilizes a large portion of its workforce. CIO Maya Leibman talks about this transition.

ML Maya Leibman:
At American, by definition, our customers and our employees are mobile—constantly going from one place to another. So it has never been a stretch to imagine how we might equip them to do their jobs while moving. But the solutions we envisioned were always expensive.

Then this big revolution occurred where suddenly we had access to generic devices that we could develop applications on at a price point that was really reasonable. Before that, you would get customized devices from the only vendor that made them, so the price was always exorbitant. What’s more, the handsets only did one thing—help sell food and beverages in flight.

But suddenly, the world changed. Now you can go to Best Buy and get something like the Samsung Note, and it’s so inexpensive, you can get them for nearly 20,000 flight attendants. Not only can you build the applications they need for point of sale, but you can also equip the handheld with a ton of other applications that help attendants do their job. For example, you can give them software for them to access information about each passenger, or software that helps them report an issue with the flight more quickly. You can also put their manual on the device in electronic form, so you don’t have to carry around this hefty manual in its physical form.

ME  Where do you use mobile now and what kinds of devices do you use?

We use a variety of devices, mostly Samsung and Apple, and we use them for lots of different work groups. This includes flight attendants, maintenance people, engineers, airport agents, and premium service agents. We provide mobile devices to every major work group to help them do their jobs.

For each of the work groups we tested a number of devices. We had a Beta group of about 50 flight attendants try a number of different form factors and different operating systems. In the end, the flight attendants selected the Samsung Note running Android.

We were sitting in headquarters thinking everybody was going to want an iPad—and this was before the iPad Mini came out—but what they wanted was a device they could hold in the palms of their hands and that could fit into their aprons. This is a good example of how futile it is to try to preselect handhelds for users. You have to let them try a lot of different devices so they can make the choice.

ME It is important to support offline use of mobile devices?

We build for both. In flight, you have Wi-Fi that devices can use, but we don’t count on it always being there, so we make sure that before getting on board, the flight attendants download all the information they’ll need. Then during the flight, they can store all the credit card transactions, which they can upload when they get back in Wi-Fi range.

ME Did going mobile require a cultural change?

Absolutely. Some work groups took to it more quickly. For others, it was their first time using this kind of technology. Overall, the transition required a lot of change management. Part of our change management efforts involved working very closely with the business groups. They recognized some of the challenges we were going to face. One of the things that helped for the flight attendants was that we set up something similar to “Genius Bars” in the operations room. That gave them a place to ask questions and get more familiar with the device.

ME  What are the some of the tangible benefits?

In each different work group there are different tangible benefits. For example, the people who load the aircraft now have a handheld device and can scan the bag tag when it’s going in. Previously, they would count the bags as they went in. Now they scan them, so if a bag that needs to go to LA gets on a flight to New York, the device vibrates and flashes and makes a beeping sound. So it’s hard to ignore the mistake. As a result, we have reduced the misload rate by 65% from 2010 to 2013.

ME What about intangible benefits?

We have a lot of those too. We gave every single one of our pilots an iPad. Not only was it cool, and helped them do their jobs, but it also replaced this giant suitcase that contained manuals, charts, and other information they need. They can now get all that on a one-and-a-half pound iPad, which sure beats having to carry around this forty-pound bag. They love it.

ME What about the risks?

You have to be conscious of security, because many of these devices have customer information on them. You have to be especially careful about ensuring data privacy through encryption. Also some of the handhelds have credit card information, so we have to adhere to payment card industry standards.

Beyond security, there are risks around user acceptance. Technology is no good if people aren’t willing to use it.

Another risk is around how quickly devices become obsolete. For example, the Samsung Note model we used was out of production probably two months after we finished the entire roll out. If we want to upgrade to the Note 3, which is out now, we have some issues to overcome. The audio jack is in a different location, so the casing we used for the Note 1 would no longer be usable.

We don’t need to be on the bleeding edge. There’s a real cost associated with that, and not a lot of benefit—at least in our industry. But if you look at what we’re doing in the mobile space, there really aren’t a lot of airlines who are doing what we’re doing.


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