Amadeus and Sabre each claim to have taken major steps in the development of technology they hope will replace legacy distribution platforms and usher in a new era of customer service features. For Amadeus, the milestone has come with Qantas Airways cutting over the final element - departure control - of its Altea Customer Management Solution, while Sabre Airline Solutions has unveiled its plan for this field with the launch of its SabreSonic Customer Sales and Service solution.
SabreSonic is designed to offer carriers a transition path to a new customer service platform without them having the pain of a "big bang" move from a legacy platform to a next generation one. According to Tom Klein, president, Sabre Travel Network and Airline Solutions: "This is not the big rip and replace you get with Amadeus. We don't see real business value coming out of that transition."
"Our customers told us they wanted something to push them on generating revenue and on using customer information much better," says Jim Barlow, senior vice-president passenger solutions at Sabre. "We wanted to be able to put forward a solution that exists when the carrier signs the deal. We are very careful to explain what comes now and what comes later."
Sabre has been evaluating its move in this critical technology area for some time. Every quarter it will roll out a new part of SabreSonic CSS. According to Barlow, in about three years' time it will have modernised the entire Sabre system platform, spending "hundreds of millions of dollars" in the process. "We've evolved the system we have. That way it gets re-risked," says Klein. "This is building services that meet the needs of our customers and our parent but rolls out in much smaller segments."
For instance, carriers like Midwest Airlines are able to implement parts of SabreSonic on their way to upgrading their entire customer services system. Midwest has just brought in a SabreSonic solution that enables it to up sell economy passengers to its greater legroom seats in all of its distribution channels: online, offline, direct, and travel agency.
Amadeus is convinced Sabre is late to the market and that most of the world's leading carriers have already chosen their platform for the coming 10-20 years, says Frédéric Spagnou, vice-president airline business group at Amadeus. The European firm, which has invested over €400 million ($500 million) in Altea so far, estimates Sabre is 4-6 years behind. It began developing Altea in 2000 and was arguably the first major supplier, along with Unisys, that made a commitment to develop new generation systems.
Spagnou points to carriers like British Airways, Air France-KLM, Qantas, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines all selecting Altea, with American Airlines soon to chose between Amadeus and EDS. "What are the remaining big animals to be taken?" he asks.
Sabre's Klein points to a win at Saudi Arabian Airlines as proof that there are still major carriers in the market for these major projects. "There are some mega carriers that haven't made a decision on a new passenger services system. It's a lot of pain and a lot of money and with the Amadeus solution there may not be a lot of benefit. We think they've built a new legacy system."
Spagnou refutes this, saying that Altea is built using the industry standard Unix operating system which is easier to upgrade and amend compared to legacy platforms.
"It improves efficiency and gives customers a modern, consistent service approach"
chief information officer, Qantas Airways
Jamila Gordon, chief information officer at Qantas, is confident its backing of Altea is not giving it a legacy solution and says that its transition to Altea is already bringing benefits. "We have improved our operational efficiency. We see improved on-time departures and we see that training time has gone down. There is a single source of customer data, simpler work flows and it gives customers a modern, consistent service approach."
Qantas began working on Altea in 2000 and has now cut over to Altea to manage its entire sales, reservations, inventory and departure control functions. This allows Qantas, its passengers and check-in agents to benefit from a single view of all passenger details at every touchpoint, says Amadeus. "Exceptional customer service is a key competitive weapon and you can only deliver this by understanding the needs of individuals, which is what the integrated Altéa system provides," says Gordon.
Since May, when Qantas began using the Departure Control check-in and flight boarding system it has brought it into service at 80 airport terminals, boarded over 5.6 million passengers and handled over 49,000 depatures, says Gordon.
Competitors have criticised Amadeus for the time taken to go live with the full Altea solution. According to Sabre's Klein: "We have 85 customers on our departure control system at a cost point nobody seems able to touch. Is it based on a legacy platform - yes - but it does everything anyone wants it to do."
The switch from British Airways to Qantas as the launch customer three years ago is part of the reason for the lengthy implemention, says Spagnou. BA's move to the new Terminal 5 at London Heathrow caused the carrier to freeze its plans for the Altea transfer. "Overnight we had to change priorities," he says.
But since then the project has not been "significantly delayed" and Amadeus and Qantas have undertaken a cautious migration for what is a complex project, says Spagnou.
In terms of return on investment, Amadeus says it has developed a sophisticated tool called that calculates what a carrier can expect to make from Altea, says Spagnou, with most seeing a benefit of three to four times the cost.
Sabre joins SITA in announcing an evolutionary pathway to a next generation system with other suppliers expected to unveil their plans in this area over the coming 6-12 months. The next carrier to cut over to the full Altea suite is Finnair in early 2009, says Spagnou, with Lufthansa following them and plenty of carriers queuing up to be next.