United aims to make 'friendly skies' friendlier

United Air Lines Inc. this week launched a far-reaching initiative to bridge the gap between its fleet management, operations, flight planning, reservations and frequent-flier systems and to offer personalization services to passengers as a result of that improved data flow.

The world's largest air carrier began piloting the multimillion-dollar project to integrate these five departmental systems this summer in order to beef up data sharing among its numerous but isolated functional departments, said Denny Lyons, manager of architecture and technology at United.

The project should also eliminate duplicate data sets and improve customer service, he said.

"In the old days, you could get two versions of the truth, depending upon what system you used," said Lyons. "We decided, let's have one version of the truth. We want to make sure that everyone has the right information."

For the project, United will use San Jose-based BEA Systems Inc.'s Tuxedo transaction server and WebLogic application server. One part of the project involves creating Enterprise JavaBeans for executing the business logic among the various systems.

The $19 billion subsidiary of Chicago-based UAL Corp. chose BEA's technology for the project because many of its transaction systems were built with Tuxedo back in 1995, Lyons said. At that time, Tuxedo was developed by Novell Inc. BEA acquired the product from Novell in January 1996.

The other half of the project involves BEA's WebLogic personalization server. Using WebLogic, United plans to develop Java Server pages that will enable users to get Web-based access to the data in many of those newly integrated systems.

For example, a customer will be able to log into United's Web site and, in addition to selecting flights, indicate personal preference options such as type of meal and seat assignment. Those options are only available today through customer service representatives at United's call centers, he said.

Lyons wouldn't disclose the specific costs of the project or how long it will take to complete. He said the project will integrate United's enterprise resource planning system, mainframe databases, Tuxedo-based transaction systems and Web-based applications built with IBM's WebSphere.

Albert Pang, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass., said the project could take more than a year to complete because of the extensive amount of integration work required. He called it an important step forward in terms of customer service.

"A lot of companies are just beginning to redefine the Web experience for their customers," Pang said. "None of the major airlines (has) done an adequate job of providing information to customers."

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