SharePoint installation helps Continental Airlines track flight delays

A SharePoint installation helps Continental Airlines respond to new regulations designed to shorten tarmac delays.

When new regulations regarding long tarmac delays went into effect recently, Continental Airlines Inc. was ready to react with a Microsoft Office SharePoint installation that puts various aspects of flight operations -- aircraft status, pilots, crews and customer care -- on the same page.

"If they're waiting to take off, operations needs to know how to manage the situation," said Denise Wilson, senior manager of technology in Continental's enterprise engineering group in Houston. "Passengers on that flight need to connect downline with other aircraft. There's a lot of coordination that goes on, and SharePoint is really helping us bring all those disparate pieces together."

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Continental's Airport Services group came to Wilson after the Department of Transportation announced the new delay rules on Dec. 21, 2009, saying it needed to have a tool up quickly. The rules, which went into effect April 29, prevent airlines from holding passengers for more than three hours on an idling plane. A violation carries steep penalties of as much as $27,500 per passenger. "There was not a long time frame to make this [SharePoint installation] happen," Wilson said.

With help from EPC Group Inc., a Houston-based integrator, Wilson's staff created a standardized, user-friendly SharePoint collaboration presence, including an InfoPath form that allowed 135 general managers at Continental's domestic airports to fill out a 16-page online form without any training. The form includes the names and numbers of airport workers, from the airport authority to the person who drives the stairs to planes waiting on the tarmac.

"The general managers needed to specify what they would do with a one-hour delay, a two-hour delay, at two-and-a-half hours," Wilson said. "Questions like, 'Who would bring the pretzels?' and 'Who would deliver the diapers and Handi Wipes?'" she said. "The airline business is very complex."

The InfoPath form was in production well ahead of April 29; and last week, Wilson rolled out a custom SharePoint collaboration portal that features a dashboard for Continental's centralized system operations center. People in the system-ops center can use the dashboard to find information quickly and coordinate with pilots, crews and dispatchers in response to delays from weather or erupting volcanoes.

EPC Group helped Continental develop a framework for the portal to support content management and e-discovery, the legal process of finding documents under subpoena for a court case. This was the fundamental driver for the portal, enabling Continental employees to store and retrieve presentations, images, contracts and so forth, Wilson said. EPC Group helped the airline come up with a standard structure across the organization to narrow searches, reducing the amount of time it takes to find information.

For example, if Wilson were to search the portal for SharePoint documents, she would get 8,448 results. If she limited the search to the "engineering work order" document type, she would get 22 results. "You can find what you need from your department or another department quickly and easily," she said. "It's a huge savings in time. Metrics show that people spend a large part of their day just looking for things."

Collaboration software options

Like most people, Craig Roth doesn't like being trapped in an airplane on a tarmac. "I'm glad they're tracking delays," said Roth, who is vice president and service director for collaboration and content strategies at Burton Group Inc. in Midvale, Utah. "I've often wondered, as I'm stuck on the runway for hours, why they can't collaborate better -- or at least tell us what's going on."

The general managers had to specify what they would do with a one-hour, a two-hour delay, at two-and-a-half hours: 'Who would bring the pretzels?' and 'Who would deliver the diapers and Handi Wipes?'
Denise Wilson
senior manager of technologyContinental Airlines Inc.
Speaking in his professional capacity, Roth said airlines didn't need to wait for the new regulations to implement document management and collaboration software. Lots of packages give businesses a better shot at letting the right hand knowing what the left hand is up to. Oracle Corp.'s WebCenter, for example, overlaps with some of SharePoint's functions, but is more of a native portal with standardization. IBM's Lotus Notes, the granddaddy of collaboration software, is mainly client/server-based, with Web access, whereas SharePoint is a Web-based application. Roth also noted the IBM WebSphere Portal as a possible alternative.

"Then there are whole new categories of social software that would count -- blogs and wikis," Roth said, adding that a wiki would be fine for light posting of delays. "If I was an app-dev person, I'd maybe want to do a mashup with some coding and available options," he said.

Continental's Wilson said she did look at several leading document management products, but found they were not as flexible as SharePoint -- and very expensive, too. Moreover, Continental has internal .Net expertise and partners with Microsoft, so a SharePoint installation was "a cost-effective solution for us," she said. "The ROI is huge. We've done this on a shoestring compared to other Fortune 500 companies in Houston," she added. Without revealing how much the implementation cost, she added that Continental is "pulling numbers to build other applications like we did for system operations on top of the portal -- for groups in operations, as well as marketing and reservations."

Cost-effective document management

Continental's business is built on four cornerstone goals: Fly to Win (have a successful operation); Make Reliability a Reality (get the passengers there on time, with their stuff); Working Together (as a team with dignity and respect); and Fund the Future (save money where you can). The SharePoint implementation is a Working Together and Fund the Future program, according to Wilson.

When she rolled out the portal, "The project sponsor told me there were "oohs and aahs, high-fives," Wilson said. "Airport Services liked it so much that we got a request to extend it internationally." The system is so user-friendly that Continental's senior director of system operations, who manages 200 people, can configure it to his needs.

In the project's next phase, in partnership with EPC and other application development groups within Continental, Wilson plans to configure a connection between legacy flight operations in Continental's mainframe and SharePoint. The system currently is internal, located on Continental's wide area network and intranet. Asked whether the airline would ever take SharePoint into the cloud, Wilson said, "We're just now investigating the possibilities and how that would work for us -- cost and feature comparisons. Historically, we have hosted our systems internally. It would be a significant change."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Laura Smith, Features Writer.

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