Airlines spurred to focus on CRM software after attacks

Alaska Airlines Inc. went live earlier this month with a full implementation of customer relationship management (CRM) software that automatically notifies travellers about flight changes. The rollout came two months later than the original go-live date, but there was a valid reason: the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Immediately after the attacks, Seattle-based Alaska Airlines decided to quickly install a stripped-down version of the telephone-based notification system to help it deal with the chaos that resulted from numerous flight cancellations and schedule changes.

Implementers rolled out the basic software within two days through a round-the-clock effort, and the airline estimates that it had reached 100,000 customers with personalized messages by Nov. 6.

“I don’t know if we could have made it through Sept. 11 and all the rescheduling without this [system],” said Karen Wells-Fletcher, manager of network operations at Alaska Airlines. “We just don’t have the manpower to call everyone personally.”

Alaska Airlines, which is using software from Seattle-based Par3 Communications Inc., wasn’t the only airline that rushed to beef up CRM technology after the terrorist attacks. For example, London-based British Airways PLC rapidly expanded a Web-based self-service information response system built around software from RightNow Technologies Inc. in Bozeman, Mont.

British Airways had been running a pilot version of the system with a few large travel agencies in the U.K. and some U.S. users prior to the attacks. But after the airline saw a 400 per cent surge in queries, it opened up the CRM tool to all U.K.-based travel agencies to ease the information logjam, said Dave Bevan, general manager of e-service at its e-commerce unit.

Now, he said, British Airways plans to roll out the CRM software to a wider set of customer groups, including the U.K. executive club. The software, which AT&T Corp. hosts, will also be part of e-mail marketing campaign efforts, Bevan said.

Neither British Airways nor Alaska Airlines, which also runs its system in a hosted set-up, would comment on the cost of their projects.

At Alaska Airlines, Wells-Fletcher said, the automated notification system freed up call centre personnel who were already overwhelmed by a flood of information requests from passengers. Previously, customers had to call the airline to inquire about cancelled or rescheduled flights, and there was limited outbound phone contact.

Wells-Fletcher said the expanded version of Alaska Airlines’ system can send out thousands of messages in a matter of minutes and lets travellers reschedule flights via phone, without help from airline employees.