Inside Advanced Scale Challenges|Monday, November 20, 2017
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Inside JetBlue’s Silo-Busting Customer 360 Initiative 

Who are you when you fly? It may sound like a silly question, but airlines find that it’s remarkably difficult to get a clear answer in real time. It’s also at the center of a new silo-busting Customer 360 system that JetBlue recently implemented to take its customer experience to the next level.

Since it launched in 2000, JetBlue Airways Corp. has done things a little differently than other airlines. For starters, it offers free entertainment on seatback screens and gives customers unlimited free snacks and drinks over the flight. With 32 to 34 inches between rows of seats, JetBlue also offers more legroom than many legacy carriers. Treating customers well is reflected in JetBlue’s motto: “Bringing humanity back to air travel.”

While the in-flight experience has been a positive for JetBlue, the company faced challenges in other areas of its business that had the potential to negatively impact its customer relationships. The source of these challenges, in many cases, were data inconsistencies caused by a general lack of real-time integration across various applications, including the reservation system, flight operations, and loyalty program, among others.

Getting a “single version of the truth” across these various systems was difficult, according to JetBlue’s IT Data Services Director, Andrea Azzolina.

“Because we had silos of data and everything integrated very inconsistently, we had inconsistent data on our travelers,” Azzolina said during a recent interview with Datanami. “So you might see an estimated time of arrival on a screen in an airport differing from the estimated time of arrival on our mobile application.”

JetBlue is by no means unique in this regard. If it were easy to gain a real-time view of hundreds of thousands of passengers, tens of thousands of crew members flying in hundreds of planes to airports located around the globe, then every airline would have implemented it years ago. The goal for the New York City-based airline was to work toward that goal of better situational awareness without breaking the systems they already had.

Data Silos

The systems that JetBlue had in place were fairly typical of any Global 2000 company. “We had that typical spaghetti mess of really inconsistent patterns of integration, lots of point-to-point integration,” Azzolina said. “We’re lucky in that we don’t have 30 to 40 year of legacy like many companies…But ours was messy enough that we said, now is the time to make an investment to rationalize our data and get it in a single repository.”

About four years ago, the airline embarked upon an initiative to integrate its various systems, put an end to the data inconsistencies, and work toward building real-time situational awareness. The core tenet of this Customer 360 initiative, as it was called, was to create a single platform that would hook into all the other relevant systems and maintain a single version of the truth on important metrics, such as traveler identities.

JetBlue looked at several data integration vendors before selecting TIBCO and its Enterprise Message Service (EMS). The first application that JetBlue integrated using TIBCO’s EMS was its flight tracking information. “We went after that data first so we would have a master record of all the data having to do with the flight,” Azzolina said.

The $6.6-billion airline also piped in data from its reservation system, which was hosted by Sabre Airline Solutions. It selected TIBCO’s Master Data Management (MDM) product to establish a single version of the truth for passenger-related data.

Passenger ID

Getting to a master record of customer identity is very important to JetBlue’s operations, but it posed real technical challenges, according to Azzolina.

“It’s critical because as soon as we identify a unique customer, we can go and attach that to their travel history, and any interaction that we have with our customers, whether it’s calling a contact center or interacting with the airport, loyalty data, etc.”

It might sound odd, but getting accurate information on passenger identity is a real challenge for the airline industry. The problem stems from a couple of sources, including the fact that there’s no central repository of passenger names, as well as the underlying construct of the airline ticket.

“I worked in healthcare for many years. That was a much easier problem in healthcare than it is in the airline business,” Azzolina said. Hospitals have the authorization to use powerful identifiers, like Social Security numbers and dates of birth, she said. Plus, they can track individual patients with barcodes and RFID chips on bracelets, an invasive yet effective backstop against misidentifying people.

By contrast, the airline industry suffers under a hodge-podge of data sources from which to infer and establish identities, including reservation systems, loyalty systems, no-fly lists, and TSA Pre-Check lists like Known Traveler Numbers.

“It would seem like you really shouldn’t have that problem, but you do because of the way the airline industry grew up, frankly, with having everything ticket-oriented,” Azzolina said. “So the trick in the airline business is to be able to pull that apart and uniquely identify each person.”

The FAA is starting to take steps to rationalize this data across carriers via its System Wide Information Management (SWIM) program, but for now getting a single consistent view of identities across these sources remains a difficult task for airlines.

Engaging Customers

Once JetBlue had a solid grasp of its passengers’ identities and what they may be experiencing in the air, the company had the main ingredients in place to roll out a new system to address challenges that occur, such as pre-emptively dealing with delays caused by bad weather or missed connections.

JetBlue centralized data as part of its Customer 360 program (Roman Tiraspolsky/Shutterstock)

“One of my favorite use cases is around customers that might miss a connection,” Azzolina said. “In the old world, prior to using TIBCO, we’d have no way to know in real time if a particular passenger traveling from Long Beach to Boston was connecting to a flight in the Middle East, and whether or not a delay on the outbound would jeopardize that connection.

“Now,” she continued, “with having correlated real time flight information, which is letting us know how that flight is tracking and knowing the connecting passengers on board and how much time they have to connect, we have much better insight and visibility into what passengers might have an impact.”

JetBlue employees are now better able to anticipate these situations as they occur, instead of trying to react to them after the fact. “It means that when those passengers get off the plane in Boston or even prior to landing, we have the opportunity to deal with that type of disruption on a personal basis,” Azzolina said. “We know you’re connecting. You get off the aircraft, and we can say, ‘I’m so sorry. I understand you missed your connection. Here are the options we have available for you.'”

This scenario would not have been possible before. It’s now part of JetBlue’s repertoire thanks to various TIBCO products, including the aforementioned MDM and EMS, as well as its ActiveSpaces in-memory database and its Spotfire visualization tool. Microsoft’s SQL Server also plays a big role in this application, which JetBlue runs on servers that are replicated across two data centers.

This Customer 360 system is used extensively by JetBlue’s Customer Experience operations center, which the company built in its Salt Lake City, Utah, office. The CEX Ops Center, as it’s called, has visibility and control across three JetBlue elements, including airport operations, inflight crew members, and the core customer support group. Its job is to address customer problems as they arise.

“They’re really on the front-line, handling any customer considerations or concerns, especially when things don’t go as planned with weather events and you name it,” Azzolina said. “We are very customer-centric at JetBlue. We’re all about delivering the best customer experience that we can. That’s really what JetBlue is known for, so having this data available to our crew members, wherever they happen to be — whether it’s in the airport, onboard, or in our contact center – is important.”

About the author: Alex Woodie

Alex Woodie has written about IT as a technology journalist for more than a decade. He brings extensive experience from the IBM midrange marketplace, including topics such as servers, ERP applications, programming, databases, security, high availability, storage, business intelligence, cloud, and mobile enablement. He resides in the San Diego area.

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