Like many other large organisations, Air France is having to adapt quickly to new realities bought about by technological change. There is the rapid rise of mobile devices as the primary platform for customers checking flights, purchasing tickets and receiving updates, and the need to enable new, more open channels of communication with partners and suppliers, as well as dealing with the infrastructure legacy left by the 2004 merger with Dutch carrier KLM.
And as in other organisations, much of the responsibility for setting a course through these changes rests on the IT department, which has been working since the merger on delivering the airline's new proactive approach to digital communications.
But unlike many organisations, any failure ("crash" is probably a taboo word in this context) occurring as a result of migrating away from the legacy booking, departure control and aircraft checking systems could have an immediate, visible and highly disruptive effect on the 200,000 people that use the airline every day.
For decades, Air France has been run largely on middleware developed using C++, Cobol and Java, maintained in house, and running on Unisys mainframes on Solaris, but the proprietary nature of these systems was creating problems when it came to connecting with partners, limiting the pace of application development, and restricting innovation to the IT department.
In 2009 Air France told Computing how it was integrating these legacy systems with new solutions, ‘creating a seamless customer smart boarding interaction to allow passengers to check in and self-board using mobile devices.
Last week we were able to catch up with operations middleware manager Frederic Jacques during a press conference at TUCON 2013, where he explained that most of these and other integration goals have been achieved and how the airline is seeking to further open up its back-office systems.
"A key goal of the project was to become standard. We are building web services, our partners are building web services, US customs is building web services. Our legacy systems were not open to the rest of the world and we could not easily integrate new partners," said Jacques.
"We are looking for less internal development and more off-the-shelf and third-party components because we are not an IT company," he continued.
Ready for departure
One of the first operational systems to be migrated was departures control. In 2010, the airline moved fully to the Altéa customer management solution by specialist travel and tourism solution provider Amadeus.
"It is more open, more customer-oriented," said Jacques. "The challenge was to connect the legacy world to Amadeus."
Air France deployed middleware by Tibco including BuinessWorks, BusinessEvents and Enterprise Messaging Service to integrate the systems and standardise the way it connects to partners.
"We started an SOA programme, and built two components: an event enterprise bus (EEB) and an enterprise software bus (ESB) for all synchronous flows and web service calls," Jacques said. "We then built adapters to connect Amadeus with the legacy systems".
Inevitably, some in the IT team were hesitant to relinquish control over their applications to a third party, and in the business there was a fear that the new system might not be reliable. Jacques explained how a proof-of-concept demonstration of how the new middleware could tie things together was a necessary first step in winning over the doubters. To this end, his team set about standardising the departures information and presenting it via a dashboard to airport managers.
"Some people in Air France were not happy to see the application they'd been working on for 30 years going to Amadeus," said Jacques. "But with the bus we had all the information in the same place at the same at the same time, and we were able to create some activity monitoring processes so the business could see how the passengers were embarking, checking in and so on. All the information was in the bus; we just had to pull it out and present it. The airport managers could see everything was there and [that it was reliable] and they were very happy with this."
From flight bag to iPad
The next challenge, Jacques said, was to route this information to other people and places where it was needed within Air France.