- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2003

Tomorrow’s centennial of the first powered airplane flight might lead those of us who travel to reflect on what air transportation is like today.

The Wright brothers had it easier: no lengthy airport check-ins, no security screenings and no delays in taking off or landing.

But many things have changed since that 17-second flight a century ago. Planes are far more sophisticated, and with that comes a need for technology to lend a hand. American Airlines is undergoing a major tech overhaul to improve the “customer experience” on the ground and in the air, according to Monte Ford, American’s chief information officer.

“For all the technologies that ‘touch’ the customer,” Mr. Ford said, “we ought to be leading the world.”

That’s not an inconceivable goal for American, given that the company essentially invented the key technologies used by most of the airline industry today, starting with the now-spun-off Sabre global travel-distribution system. Sabre is the backbone of many airline reservation systems and the Travelocity Web site. American has the largest frequent-flyer database on the planet, Mr. Ford says, although the system behind it is showing its age.

At the front line will be ways for American — with your permission, Mr. Ford notes — to more easily identify you when you call in, log on or check something with your Blackberry or cell phone. Knowing that you are you will make it easier for the airline’s computers to give information about delays, connections and special needs.

American has about 800 self-service check-in kiosks at airports, and it hopes to install more. It’s also possible to check in from home via the firm’s redesigned Web site.

The goal, Mr. Ford says, is to remove as many of the hassles of modern-day travel as possible. Fewer hassles mean greater satisfaction in a highly emotional business.

“People have all sorts of emotions” when they fly, he says. “There’s a million stories on our planes every day. We need to get them in on time and get them there safely.”

At the same time, Mr. Ford has had his own journey to negotiate since coming to American in December 2000 from Associates First Capital, a financial-services firm.

The next month, American announced its purchase of Trans World Airlines, setting up one of the largest data-integration projects in aviation history. Then Sabre sold its unit that serves American to Electronic Data Systems. After that, the entire travel industry was affected by the September 11 attacks.

As Mr. Ford tells it, “It was a succession of bad news until two or three months ago. We went through a near bankruptcy. It has been painful and difficult. Now we’re seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.”

That light is allowing the firm to explore ways of better interacting with customers.

American’s new systems will “allow us to work with our customers on terms that they deem relevant: PC to PC, Palm Pilot, company server, telephone — it has to be on the terms our customers like it to be on.”

It will be interesting to watch American Airlines’ progress, as many of us seem to have a need to remain connected wherever we are. Knowing that one can find flight information more easily, and perhaps skip a check-in line, is a good start.

E-mail [email protected] or visit www.kellner.us.

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