Monday, October 25, 2010

Continental Airlines Turns to SharePoint to Avoid Flight Delays

Written by Errin O'Connor
Published in the September/October 2010 issue of Intranets: Enterprise Strategies & Solutions Newsletter

In April 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation put new regulations into effect regarding long tarmac delays. The Airline Passenger Bill of Rights says that delays of any type that go on for more than 3 hours can result in extensive fines per passenger. It lays out specific processes that must be handled at each hour of a long delay, such as access to food and water or even returning an aircraft to the gate and allowing passengers to deplane.

For Continental Airlines, transforming this regulation into a workable reality means ensuring that dozens of internal departments and individuals can quickly and easily communicate with any of a number of outside vendors at any given point. If a plane sits for too long without getting the appropriate food and beverage service, or if a delay lasts too long and the crew have to offer an option to return a plane to the gate, operations personnel on the ground need to know who to call in catering or at the airport to make arrangements.

Previously, such communications were handled by telephone and email. If a plane were delayed in Boston, for example, an operations agent at Logan International Airport would call someone at Continental’s operations center to relay information. The operations center in Houston would then create regular lists from this ad hoc information to keep the team updated. Meanwhile, if the plane needed something, such as a shift change or a return to the gate, it was up to the people on the ground to figure out what needed to be done and who to call, often using hard copy information stored in files around the local offices.

With the passage of the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, Continental automated the process so people on the ground could get the information they need, and the central operations center remained updated on the status of any plane at any moment anywhere at 135 domestic airports.

Denise Wilson, senior manager of technology in Continental’s enterprise engineering group in Houston, was tasked with building a single system that incorporated an intranet containing all the necessary documents and information with a front-end dashboard to keep the operations center completely up to date. “For example, the flight operations department needed to know at which hour of a delay to call the catering vendor at the airport, or when and how to send out a service crew. With so many different departments working together, we need to be able to quickly find all information and also archive our response to the delay for legal purposes,” says Wilson. In short, her department needed to organize an enormous amount of electronic clutter in a short amount of time and on a budget.

“Previously, all the information was in emails or phone calls, so the operations people needed to sift through email to find the information and data they needed,” says Wilson. “We still use email for alerting, but instead of sending information there, we send a link back to the information, such as weather, diversions, or aircraft substitutions.”

Wilson chose to build the system on SharePoint because, based on her experience, she believed that once properly implemented, anyone, technically savvy or not, could easily populate and use the application. “Prior to undertaking this project, we had been rolling out SharePoint for our overall enterprise content management efforts,” Wilson says. “The senior director of the System Operations Coordination Center (SOCC) and executives in Continental Technology immediately saw the potential for using this as part of our flight delay response program, mostly because it’s user-friendly and operations directors wouldn’t need much training to configure an internal site for their own needs.”

Wilson chose to work with EPC Group to help Continental Airlines establish its initial enterprise content management (ECM) efforts, including building the platform and laying out the governance regulations. By creating a standardized and manageable site, the operations team within Continental was able to then create the intranet sites they needed in order to succeed.

The overall goal for its flight-delay dashboard was to create an easy-to-use, flexible system that would be used by the people who needed it most. The dashboard itself is a series of lists that provide useful, updated information, so the value lies in the information behind that which resides in the core data repository.

“Before we built the SharePoint application, EPC Group coached us on how to determine what would work best for our needs. They provided us with the most important questions to ask our would-be users and worked with our business units to understand how we use our data,” says Wilson. “We started with a full audit of the information within the Continental Airlines group. That included documents in every department, from food services to corporate finance to HR to purchasing. In all, we analyzed several terabytes of information in millions of files.”

It’s not enough to simply build a SharePoint application. In order to keep it running smoothly and efficiently, governing rules must apply. The success of an implementation such as this one depends on how the users take to the technology and whether it actually makes their life easier or becomes a nuisance.

Thus, EPC Group counseled Continental to take a more user-centric approach to its SharePoint implementation. While some consider a SharePoint installation a technical process that falls under the domain of the
IT department, the most successful deployments occur when all stakeholders and users are considered in the process.

Continental’s governance process can be broken into just a few key points:
• Encouraging usage at the corporate level
• Structuring the overall organizational SharePoint growth
• Structuring search and navigation to increase accessibility
• Encouraging user accountability and upkeep
• Maintaining content and site standards

Putting the rules in place is one thing; getting people to actually follow those rules and use the tool is quite another. In all, Continental had an initial goal of attracting 3,000 users to SharePoint. To achieve this, Continental focused on identifying 50 core power-users who would be key to getting the SharePoint implementation up and running. These people were trained on how to use the software; they were also those who would become internal evangelists to help get others on board.

Once the overall SharePoint implementation was up and running, Continental was able to use the platform to create a variety of portal types. In the case of the long tarmac delay program, the process started with an employee in the IT department creating a 16-page Microsoft InfoPath form that was then distributed to 135 airport general managers within the Continental universe. The process from inception to distribution took about 2 weeks, a time that included multiple iterations and a small group of beta testers. It took just another 3 days for the managers to fill the information and get it into the system.

To meet its objectives of unifying access to a large amount of information, Continental needed more than organized information storage. As Wilson notes, “Content management is extremely important, especially in time-sensitive situations. However, it’s not enough to simply store data, but it must be easily accessible.” To that end, Continental needed a structured search functionality across the organization to narrow searches and reduce the amount of time it takes to locate information. With a few technical back-end solutions combined with minimal user training, employees can quickly narrow down searches from thousands of responses to just a few.

Today, Continental relies on the native SharePoint search, but also created a system in which people tag the appropriate data on its way into the system. Some metadata is pre-populated automatically, such as the three-letter site code as well as the division and default retention policy. Each time a user creates a new document, they’re asked to select what type of document, such as contract or presentation, and that additional metadata gets added to the pre-populated information. These few actions in the creation or revision of a document lets employees know when a document can be safely deleted—freeing up storage space and also keeping the legal department happy.

The primary benefit of the system is regular access to real-time information. So while a plane is sitting on the ground in Boston, a person can look out the window, enter information into the system, and actions can happen in Houston and around the country. This ensures that customers are taken care of no matter the flight situation. While Continental can control its planes, it can’t control the weather and can’t control what happens at the airport level. Fast access to information can make all of customer service work better.

As an additional benefit, people have shaved several hours of work off of their day. Where they previously sifted through email to create lists of flight delays and information, all that is now handled automatically, leaving them time to get into action plans rather than just becoming list makers. In addition to helping the company avoid costly fines, Wilson says, “We believe that we’ve gained enough productivity from not having to create reports manually that the system has already paid for itself.”