The art of the turnaround

The cabin safety officer for Virgin Atlantic Airlines Ltd. opens with a video. Flight attendants in red stilettos march toward the plane, dwarfing passengers milling about their six-inch heels. Attendants soar through the sky among planes. Passengers pole-dance on giant steel forks. An attendant tuck a passenger in to a bed of clouds, putting her finger to her lip for silence. The video is laden with sensuous imagery, the most abiding the repeated image of the red stiletto.


“This is what our marketers would like to project,” says Jonathan Jasper. “And it’s true,” he deadpans.


Of course, it’s not.


“Have you ever tried running away from a plane in red stiletto shoes?” he asks. The flight crew are forbidden to wear them; Virgin would be responsible for any ensuing injury.


Another video shows the reality of the work at Virgin. It’s a time-lapse video of a two-and-a-half hour turnaround at Gatwick Airport, near London: Deplane passengers and shuttle them to the terminal, unload baggage, clean and inspect the cabin, do mechanical checks, board the plane, load luggage, refuel. When the screen reads “Credit for this two-and-a-half hour turnaround goes to,” hundreds of names scroll by at blinding speed.


“On-time performance is a great big pressure,” Jasper – who prefers to go by JJ – said in the opening keynote of Intelex Technologies Inc.’s 2011 user conference at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto on Wednesday. When a plane arrives behind schedule, that two-and-a-half-hour window narrows. And things happen.


A jetway collapses and shears the door off a plane. Bird strikes damage the wing. Air traffic control directs a flight down a runway closed for repairs, stranding passengers in a ditch for 12 hours. A truck lowering wheelchair-bound passengers take the door off a plane, leaving a passeneger stuck inside for two hours.


“It costs us a lot of money,” Jasper said. And all of these incidents, as well as many, many more minor incidents – slips and falls, turbulence, disruptive passengers, even passenger headaches – have to be documented thoroughly by the airline.


(Perhaps not surprisingly, 13 per cent of disruptive passenger reports come from a single route: The Gatwick-Las Vegas flight.)


Virgin Atlantic’s corporate safety and security division includes cabin safety, security and resillience, quality assurance, flight safety, engineering safety and ground safety components. All run on Virgin’s Intelex-based IRMA (incident reporting, management and analysis) platform.


Virgin Atlantic had been managing incident reporting on Microsoft Corp.’s Excel spreadsheet and Access database programs. In October 2009, the airline began rolling out Intelex, beginning with the cabin crews (a mistake, said Jasper, as it was the largest employee group involved).


Crew members still fill out paper reports. These are scanned by a third party,, and the scans sent to Virgin Atlantic’s data input operation in Mumbai. The cycle time for report input is about three to five days.


The airline runs only a few standard Intelex modules, prefering to develop its own customized iForms. “It becomes addictive. It becomes a bit of a hobby,” Jasper said. The airline has developed about 30 such modules. Now, “anyone with a shared spreadsheet” wants an iForm, Jasper said.


“We’re pushing some away,” he said. “It’s not imoportant to know how many beef meals were served on a flight in the safety database.”


Virgin Atlantic uses 22 configurable security groups so those using the platform only see the data required for their job role. One-click buttons validate employee and flight information on reports. And all the forms are developed by business users, Jasper said.


Virgin Atlantic’s Intelex operations are hosted at Intelex’s London data centre. In fact, the data centre was built to accommodate Virgin’s demands, said Intelex CEO Mark Jaine. It’s now a hosting option for customers outside the U.S. concerned about the security and privacy implications of the Patriot Act.


Jaine said about 90 per cent of new customers wanting the sofftware-as-a-service version on Intelex, as opposed to an on-premise installation. “IT doesn’t like to lose control,” but the department is beginning to realize that SaaS isn’t a threat. “They’re less fearful,” he said. “It’s much easier for us to do the install and the updates.”


Intelex once charged more for the hosted version of the serviced, which is licensed by named seats (for office users like Jasper) and concurrent seats (covering crew in Virgin Atlantic’s case). Licensing costs are now the same for hosted and on-premise, though Intelex has found “it’ss much more expensive for us on-premise,” Jaine said.


Future features for Intelex will include HTML5 development, which will make the software more compatible with a range of browsers, Jaine said. Currently, Internet Explorer is recommended.


The three-day user conference is hosting about 150 delegates this year, up from 110 last year.



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Dave Webb
Dave Webb
Dave Webb is a freelance editor and writer. A veteran journalist of more than 20 years' experience (15 of them in technology), he has held senior editorial positions with a number of technology publications. He was honoured with an Andersen Consulting Award for Excellence in Business Journalism in 2000, and several Canadian Online Publishing Awards as part of the ComputerWorld Canada team.

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