The Canadian airline industry is no stranger to complexity. Moving thousands of passengers from A to B in a timely fashion – through various airports, uncertain weather conditions and with rotating sets of pilot crews – isn’t for the faint of heart.
And while the sector has been notoriously difficult for new players to break into, WestJet Airlines has successfully managed to buck that trend. Founded 11 years ago, Calgary-based WestJet today employs more than 6,000 people and operates flights to 26 Canadian and 12 U.S and Caribbean destinations.
During the past 11 years, WestJet focused on cultivating a reputation for low fares and personalized guest service. From the beginning, however, the carrier also realized the value technology could play in building a competitive edge. Thus the stage was set for a close partnership between business and IT – and one that continues today.
“Our technology department is fully integrated and aligned with the WestJet business team. We’re like their silent partner, and we work together on a range of strategic initiatives,” says Gerry Hinds, WestJet’s Vice President Information Technology.
As an example of that type of partnership, Hinds points to the company’s business and system analysts, which are not housed within the IT department.
“We made a decision long ago to decentralize our business and system analyst roles to their specific business groups. Today, they reside fully in the business, which they live and breathe every day. It helps them see first hand the challenges the company faces and puts them in a better position to address them,” Hinds says.
It is this level of collaboration, he adds, which has helped WestJet adopt forward-looking technologies. This in turn has helped the company evolve into a serious contender during a time when the North American airline industry faced some of its most serious challenges – everything from tightening security to soaring fuel costs – which many of its peers would not survive.
WestJet was founded by four Alberta entrepreneurs, and the company still retains an entrepreneurial-style culture, one that’s also seen in the IT department. WestJet prefers to build strategic applications when required – using its own in-house skills and ideas – by following an “adaptable architecture” approach to software development. This is designed to help WestJet’s 50 system development team members quickly develop customized applications to meet the business priorities.
“They’re like a little factory,” says Hinds. “They’re focused only on strategic development – nothing off the shelf. What they build has to offer direct value to the business and enable WestJet to deliver something new or different to our guests.”
To encourage this type of thinking, WestJet hosts quarterly ‘hack day’ sessions where each member of the system development team is invited to pitch a new idea to the company’s business and IT leadership team. Hack day provides the systems development team with an opportunity to use their in-depth knowledge to present new ways in which the company’s systems could service business needs. An example of an idea that was prototyped during hack day is providing the ability to show customers the five-day weather forecast at a particular destination in their Flight Reminders. Another is the inclusion of a map with directions to the airport from the customer’s home on their itinerary. Both these ideas are now on the list of enhancements that the business wants to make to the booking process.
Not all projects are small; there are also the big, in-your-face ideas one would expect to find in a company the size of WestJet. Among them is the ‘Seven Second Check-In’ initiative jointly developed by WestJet and its reservation system vendor, the goal of which is to enable customer service agents at all airports to quickly check-in and obtain a boarding pass, ideally within seven seconds of approaching the check-in counter. To facilitate this, WestJet carefully tracked how long transactions would take, and found ways to streamline the check-in process via the reservation application.
“We also use technology to enhance the customer experience during check-in,” adds Hinds. “For instance, we can notify customers if the security line-up is getting long, and urge them to proceed to the security checkpoint as quickly as possible. We understand that being in an airport can be stressful, so anything we can do to make the experience easier is good for our guests.”
Besides improving the customer experience, the second key mandate for WestJet’s IT department is to simplify internal business process wherever possible and, by extension, reduce operating costs. This focus has become even more important at WestJet in recent years, particularly as airport fees and the price of fuel steadily increase.
One example of a successful cost-cutting operation was the company’s recent revamp of its WestJet airports staff work-scheduling system, a project that saw Hinds’ team take advantage of off-the-shelf business software.
Managing staff schedules is a complex process for WestJet, which must contend with crews working 365 days a year, over many different locations and adhering to inconsistent schedules. But until a few years ago, employee scheduling was done manually, with pen and paper or via spreadsheet software. This process worked well when the company was small, but became increasingly inefficient and inflexible as the staff size mushroomed to several thousand. Workers found it progressively more difficult to swap shifts with each other, or to design customized schedules. Without an easy way to track staff schedules, management also found it difficult to evaluate staff productivity levels and determine future staffing levels, a key element in keeping operating costs low.
WestJet turned to a packaged staff and resource management solution based on Microsoft .NET from airline industry expert Sabre Airline Solutions, which automated the entire airport scheduling process. The total savings resulting from optimized schedules and the reduction in manual processes has totaled more than $5 million annually.
Hinds says the achievement helps WestJet in two ways: first, it offers employees a way to easily customize shifts to suit an employee’s needs, factoring in everything from holiday time to making sure their shift load is fair. Second, it enables WestJet to evaluate many different possible work schedules before committing themselves.
“Besides the efficiencies we gained, it was also nice to offer our people an easier way to manage their schedules and ensure they’re getting a work-life balance, which is key to a successful career in the airline industry. This gave them one less worry, which makes WestJet a more attractive place to work,” says Hinds.
During his six years as WestJet’s vice-president of IT, Hinds has learned a lot about what it takes to make IT and business work hand-in-hand. Foremost among them is the need to closely analyze business processes before attempting to modify them. Companies seeking to automate must first understand the workflow supporting that process in fine detail, says Hinds. “This means getting as detailed as possible. The key to successful automation is often found at the procedural level. Once you know how you want that to flow, everything begins to make more sense,” he adds.
Hinds has also learned to develop clear service-level agreements into every solution his team builds or acquires. “That doesn’t mean we gold plate everything we do,” he says. “We have three tiers that our solutions fall under, with the first – Tier 1 – covering all applications that, if they suddenly became unavailable, would stop the flow of revenue.” The agreements are detailed and cover everything from availability to redundancy. Hinds says setting clear expectations up front about how vital an application is – and how quickly IT will attend to it in the event of a problem – helps make technology more manageable and provides more orderly levels of support.
Looking ahead, Hinds says working with the business to help develop solutions to better manage the guest experience at the airport and in the air will continue to play a big role in shaping the company’s IT strategy. Like its competitors, WestJet is constantly looking for ways to accommodate an increasingly tech-savvy flying public, who want their mobile business and entertainment devices with them at all times, including during flight. “There is a whole host of opportunities out there. The average passenger has a flight time of two and a half hours, and we’re focused on looking for ways to enhance their experience during that time,” says Hinds.
Regardless of how the industry evolves, WestJet has no plans to abandon the IT strategy that has helped it grow to its current level.
“Supporting the business strategy will also be at the core of our vision. We’re building technology, but in the context of providing superior customer service. We’ll continue to look for ways to enhance the travel experience.”
Bill Hetherington is a Toronto-based writer specializing in information technology and IT management.