Alaska Air Uses iPhones, iPads For Rapid Mobile Transformation

For every minute an airplane is on the ground when it should be transporting passengers from one place to another, it’s losing money. Not just a few dollars, either, but millions and millions of dollars in lost operational costs on an annual basis.

So when an airline acquires another to create a network of nearly 1,200 daily flights to 118 cities in five countries, precision and efficiency sit atop the daily priority list. And what’s the best way to go about accomplishing this?

An extensive mobile transformation, of course.

That’s where Derek Chan and his team come into play. Chan, Manager of Alaska Airlines Mobile and User Experience, has overseen a recent mobile boom for the company, which less than a year ago acquired Virgin America.

The story begins a little more than six years ago, when Alaska Airlines deployed Apple’s iPads, but only to pilots.

“When you begin pushing out mobile devices, it’s usually slow going,” Chan told Enterprise Mobility Exchange. “The last two years, though, have been explosive.”

Alaska Airlines now has more than 12,000 devices – smart phones and tablets – rolled out to employees across various business units, from the pilot crew to flight attendants, customer service reps, mechanics and luggage handlers. In addition to the hardware, our mobile teams have deployed some 50 apps to those different channels, he said. The pilots alone have a dozen apps they’re able to work with. Of the total, Alaska Airlines has created 15 of them in-house.

Thanks to a CIO who is pushing the mobile and cloud-first mindset at the airline, Chan says his team has become mobile mature.

“Our customer is the end user – the front line teammates, like flight attendant and the customer service agent,” said Chan. “They’re used to having the ability to use apps quickly and in real-time on the consumer side, so we need to operate in that fashion. We’re able to update apps in two weeks rather than once a year, twice a year. We have a quick release cycle, and I think this is really changing the IT game.”

Most recently, when Apple released its iOS 11 beta timetable, Chan and his team followed each push and deployment so that when the operating system upgrade went live, all employees utilizing iPhone or iPad devices were fully on board with the new version and the airline saw no lag time.

The reason behind the mobility push is the current infrastructure setup, Chan said. Airlines own planes, but don’t have control over the airports or terminals in which they operate.

“Many airlines are using the same terminals and machines as other airlines,” he said. “You may have an app for your airline on that shared machine, but you don’t have control over the device itself. It creates a lot of challenges.”

Deploying tens of thousands of mobile devices, creating and pushing apps, and ultimately managing all of it comes with a cost. So where is Alaska Airlines seeing a return on investment to justify its mobile transformation?

Airlines lose money for every minute one of its planes is off schedule. This is a make or break situation in the turnaround time of the aircraft between flights. The flight manifest, which logs everything from cleaning and catering to the new flight crew coming on board, has always been done manually – on paper, printed out, and handed off in person.

Now, Chan says, with the swipe of a finger or tap of an app, each step is being signed off in real-time, as soon as it’s complete. The customer service agent no longer needs to walk down the jet way to the flight attendant with paperwork, after waiting for the information to be printed from a machine in a different location.

“It comes down to time savings, which has equated to millions of dollars,” Chan said. “Time savings leads to money; if we save one minute, it leads to ‘x’ amount of dollars – that’s where we see our return on investment.”

The push for this “airport in a box” concept – controlling everything from a connected mobile platform – is only fitting, Chan says.

“Airline employees are truly the most mobile workers out there,” he concluded. “It’s only natural they be equipped with the proper devices to help them do that job successfully.”