Air Canada to enhance mobile tools, operational systems

Air Canada plans to continue overhauling the engines that keep the airline flying — its IT infrastructure. Like other companies, it has a number of projects on the go for the new year.

Things are definitely turning around from the early days in the new millennium, when cutting back on IT projects was the order of the day, says Laurie Orlov, a vice-president and research director at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

According to a research paper Orlov authored, “What’s Important to IT Management in 2006,” leading IT organizations will participate more in business innovation and become catalysts for process transformation.

This is certainly the case for the Canadian airline. One emphasis for 2006 is Web technology, says Lise Fournel, the company’s

Montréal-based chief information officer. It wants to use the Web in continuing to offer customers new ways and opportunities to do self check-in. The airline already has kiosks in many airport terminals and allows customers  in Canada and the U.K. to check-in via the Web. It wants to expand self check-in to more international Web sites.

Air Canada is also looking to capitalize on mobile technology such as BlackBerry devices by giving users a means of checking in and by providing them updates on flights. If a flight is delayed, customers can be pinged and informed, Fournel says.

The company will also continue to overhaul its back-end IT systems. It recently replaced its 20-year-old operational system, which had been patched and repatched, and in 2006 will look to completely redo its reservations system with the object of simplifying it.

“We have to be more efficient and effective,” she says. Air Canada will look to replace the in-house system with one that’s off-the-shelf so that it’s no longer responsible for technology refreshments, she says.

“The cycles don’t last very long for technology. So the supplier has to make the investments to change the technology.”

Once the new system is implemented by 2007, Air Canada will have changed over 70 per cent of its systems, Fournel says.

Like Air Canada, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts is also looking to bring applications to its customers in 2006.

“Our focus (this) year will be more on the customer and guest side,” says Vineet Gupta, the Toronto-based vice-president of technology.

To prepare, Fairmont has spent the last few years on getting its infrastructure built — including hardware, a wide area network and new applications for the front office and sales side.

“So (this) year, we plan on taking advantage of this to build new applications which are guest-centric.”

Many of the hotel chain’s customers are groups, and in 2006 it plans to build a billing application which will give group customers the ability to get a bill online and slice and dice it as they see fit. If two people in a guest room want different bills, for example, they will be able to do so. This is a process that’s very manual today.

“It’s not the sexiest thing around, but it’s very practical for us. It’ll save our customers a lot of cycles.”

While Gupta is excited about Web-based and wireless technologies, there are other technologies he says are still a year or two away from consideration — such as voice over IP. VoIP, he says, is just too expensive now to merit serious consideration.

Like Fairmont, Russell A. Farrow Ltd., a customs broker based in Windsor is also interested in the   potential of Web-based tools.

The company recently finished implementing a Web-based tracking system so customers can check the status of their shipments instantaneously online.

This year, Farrow wants to continue taking advantage of the Web to create a document management system that its director of information technology, Jim Kiss, hopes will transform Farrow into a paperless office.

“The biggest challenge is cultural — moving from a paper-based mentality to an electronic one,” he says.

Kiss is also intrigued by wireless technology. Farrow plans to roll out BlackBerry devices to all of its management team and is also keeping an eye on how other industries are using RFID technologies, though there are no immediate plans to implement it.

For Tourism Vancouver, however, there isn’t much time to wait on IT projects. The agency is preparing for the 2010 Olympics and Paralympic Winter Games and is focusing on getting information to visitors more immediately and seamlessly by taking advantage of the Web.

It’s looking to improve the information and transactional content systems used at its various visitor information centres by allowing  members — tourism businesses — to upload content, products and prices directly online to various point of sale devices, including wireless applications, says chief financial officer Ted Lee.

The company is also planning to review its business continuity readiness. “In light of recent devastating effects of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, there is a renewed awareness of business continuity planning,” Lee says.

While Tourism Vancouver is working hard to ensure uptime, it like many IT organizations will also spend 2006 doing more than keeping the lights on.

According to Forrester’s report, “Leading IT organizations in 2006 will work to foster a culture of innovation and a role with business units that extends beyond the ‘necessary but not sufficient’ process innovation to ideas for new products and services.”

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