FRAMINGHAM (07/27/2000) - After it's three-year, billion-dollar project to develop next-generation applications, Delta Air Lines Inc. is finally following through on its promise to send its information technology dinosaurs to the tar pits.
Terminals in Atlanta have already seen the first wave of changes: new information boards that post up-to-date flight information and details on passenger standbys and seat upgrades. Overhauls of systems at Boston's Logan International Airport, Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and New York's LaGuardia Airport will follow this fall, with most of Delta's other 22 major destinations slated for next year.
"Delta's the first I've heard posting the standby lists," said Henry Harteveldt, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta-based airline also plans to launch a smart-card check-in system early next year and has started installing Windows NT servers that will let boarding agents better track passengers.
Delta CIO Bob DeRhodes will oversee the transition; his predecessor, Charles Feld, left the airline earlier this month. Feld, the founder of IT management firm Feld Group, was hired by Delta in 1997 to lead the overhaul of the airline's operations.
In January, DeRhodes was named CIO, but Feld stayed on as the company's "e-leader" to help smooth the transition. DeRhodes said it will take three years to fully implement all the planned improvements.
Delta will play the role of guinea pig for IT overhauls in the airline industry, Harteveldt said. "It's all great if they can make it happen and if they can make it happen consistently," he said. "Otherwise, customers aren't going to notice much of a change."
Established airlines have long depended on proprietary, decades-old legacy systems. Prior to the overhaul, Delta had dozens of databases, many of which couldn't communicate with one another or effectively distribute information to employees. Delta removed all of its OS/2 systems and now houses its core Deltamatic reservations warehouse on Unix boxes.
It also replaced its Common Object Request Broker Architecture with Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tibco Software Inc.'s Rendezvous messaging middleware.
Delta IT managers said the new back end will function as a single structure and open up a whole new world of applications for the company.
Ahead of the Pack
Peachtree City, Ga.-based airline analyst Jeffrey Osborn said no other major airline has been able to streamline its back-end systems to this extent or has as much ready-to-deploy technology.
For instance, Northwest Airlines Inc. struck a $5 million deal with San Jose-based BEA Systems Inc. in May to integrate that airline's disparate systems and eventually weed out its dumb terminals. But Northwest said it expects the work to take well over a year.
Delta plans to ship 11,000 Windows NT servers to its terminal agents by the end of the year, eliminating the green-screen dumb terminals that have been a staple in the airline business. Twenty-six airports already have the new servers. New screens at the terminals will allow Delta agents to identify passengers who have missed a connection so they can be rebooked for another flight before their plane lands.
Perhaps the biggest innovation for Delta passengers will be the new smart-card system, which will allow frequent fliers to swipe cards at a kiosk to get boarding passes.
The airline also plans to have new call-in reservation systems up and running in Dallas by year's end, with upgrades at 12 additional domestic centers in eight other cities to follow next year. New flight operations, cargo-handling and baggage-delivery systems are scheduled for introduction this fall.