Magazine Article | July 21, 2009

Continental's Mobile Computing Advantage

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

With rugged mobile computers and homegrown Web-based applications, Continental Airlines leverages real-time data to optimize baggage and mail handling.

Integrated Solutions, July/August 2009

Mike Preiser, director of airport services technology for Continental Airlines

Has an airline ever lost your luggage? If so, then you understand the frustration, panic, and helplessness one feels when arriving at a destination without basic human essentials such as clothes, toiletries, and prescription medication. In fact, you may have been so traumatized or angered by the experience that you vowed to never again fly the airline responsible.

In reality, lost baggage is a key contributor to customer dissatisfaction and lost business in the airline industry. And, like other business systems, highly manual processes are often to blame for these mistakes. One way to minimize these errors is to implement technology that can automate as much of these manual processes as possible. Continental Airlines saw the impact technology can have on data accuracy and customer satisfaction when it implemented a wireless rugged mobile computing solution for baggage and mail tracking.

In the early 2000s, Continental's IT infrastructure consisted of several stand-alone legacy computer systems. For example, the airline's passenger and baggage tracking database didn't integrate with the company's aircraft load planning solution or other systems. Furthermore, the data contained in any of these systems was not made available to Continental's cargo personnel who worked planeside. These "information silos" contributed to several baggage handling issues.

First, since planeside employees did not have real-time access to passenger data, they sometimes did not know or were late to know when or if a passenger was rerouted on another flight. This resulted in lost or delayed baggage. Furthermore, when a passenger arrived at a destination city without their luggage, there often was no way for claims personnel to know where the bag was because cargo was not scanned or tracked at planeside.

Another baggage-handling headache perpetuated by Continental's legacy infrastructure was complying with TSA (Transportation Security Administration) international baggage mandates. Following 9/11, the TSA required airlines to match all bags to passengers on international flights and remove any bags for passengers who did not board the plane. Without real-time passenger boarding information at their fingertips, Continental's cargo personnel were forced to verbally communicate (via two-way radio or in person) with employees at the gate podium to obtain this data. Furthermore, since bags weren't scanned or tracked before being loaded into the plane, there was no way to know where on the plane (i.e. what container, cart, bin, etc.) a bag was located if it needed to be removed from the aircraft. This required cargo personnel to manually search through all the bags onboard until they found the bag in question. Because this activity was performed just prior to takeoff, it often resulted in flight delays.

As if these baggage-tracking problems weren't enough, in 2003 the United States Postal Service (USPS) reissued its contract with Continental. As part of this new contract, Continental would be required to scan and track all mail (much like FedEx) the airline transported for the USPS. "If we wanted to keep our sizeable contract with the USPS, we needed to invest in the technology to scan mail at designated points in the transit process and make this information available to our other IT systems," says Mike Preiser, director of airport services technology for Continental Airlines. "This technology infrastructure overhaul would also create an environment for us to address the baggage handling issues we were facing."

The first step in Continental's infrastructure overhaul was to upgrade its stand-alone legacy systems with server-based technology. Continental currently runs its systems on a combination of Microsoft and Sun servers.

The next step was to wirelessly connect these servers and systems. This process was more straightforward in its mail processing centers than it was for baggage tracking. For example, since Continental owned and operated the airport hubs designated to processing mail, it could decide when, where, and how to implement wireless routers and access points in these areas. On the other hand, creating a wireless network to track baggage requires Continental's network engineering team to work with each individual airport authority to secure the appropriate approvals to deploy the necessary wireless hardware and connect the networks. As a result, Continental has wirelessly networked all (nearly 100) of its mail processing facilities. On the other hand, the company is still in the process of deploying wireless networks in airports around the globe — with networks in more than 25 locations to date.

The next step in the process was to provide Continental's mail processing and cargo personnel with a hardware device that would not only allow them to scan and track luggage and mail, but also allow them to access system information real time. After a thorough vendor assessment, Continental selected the Psion Teklogix 7525 Workabout Pro handheld computer for its mail processing and baggage claim personnel and the Psion Teklogix 7535 rugged handheld computer for its planeside personnel (see sidebar below). "We needed a more rugged device for cargo personnel because it needed to be able to withstand the rain, snow, 100-degree temperatures, and drops it was likely to be exposed to on the ramp," says Preiser.

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Finally, Continental needed to deploy software on the handheld computers that would allow them to track bags and mail and integrate with the appropriate airline systems. Rather than invest in existing software applications on the market, Continental decided to develop its own — COBRA (Continental Baggage Reconciliation Application) and MTS (Mail Tracking System).

"We decided to deploy homegrown applications on the handhelds because we felt they would better serve our business needs and we could control the architecture," says Preiser. "In the past, the usual way to deploy an application on a handheld computer was to make it resident on the device itself and connect it to other systems using the network. Our homegrown applications are Web-based. In other words, the handhelds access Web servers, and the applications are actually resident on application servers, which are fed by database systems and feed other systems on our network."

This Web-based architecture means Continental employees never have to cradle their devices to upload or download data. Instead, information is exchanged in real time, keeping employees more productive and allowing them to make better decisions more quickly.

The results of Continental's technology upgrade have been considerable. First, since bag tags are now scanned at planeside, airline personnel companywide have better visibility and more accurate data on where luggage is located at any given point in time. Therefore, if a passenger arrives at a destination without their bag, a claims representative can now quickly log on to the system, determine where the bag was last scanned, and expedite the bag's return to the customer. Moreover, with up-to-date passenger information available on the Psion Teklogix 7535, cargo employees can be immediately alerted when a passenger is rerouted and redirect that passenger's bag accordingly. With the help of this real-time information system, Continental is now ranked as one of the DOT's (Department Of Transportation's) top performers when it comes to baggage handling accuracy.

Continental's new solution also helped the airline comply with TSA international baggage requirements. Now, instead of verbally communicating with gate employees and searching aimlessly for bags to remove from the hold, cargo employees are immediately alerted via the handheld as to which passengers have not boarded a plane and what bags need to be pulled. Furthermore, since the bags were scanned upon loading, there is a running record of the order in which bags were scanned and which container, cart, or bin specific bags are located inside the plane. This data expedites the luggage retrieval and extraction process and has significantly reduced the number of flight delays that occur as a result of this process.

Finally, wireless scanning and tracking capabilities not only allowed Continental to keep its contract with the USPS, but have also enabled the airline to deliver 96% of mail as scheduled. With these results, Continental is consistently ranked as one of the top two USPS transportation performers.

Moving forward, Continental will continue to work with additional airports to get its baggage solution deployed. Furthermore, the airline is in the process of developing a new software application for the baggage solution that will allow cargo personnel to access Continental's load planning database via the handheld device. This will allow correct load weights and balances to be calculated automatically by the handheld rather than manually calculated by cargo personnel.

If errors and oversights are having a negative impact on your customer satisfaction levels, you may want to take a closer look at how manual processes contributed to the mistake. If you're anything like Continental Airlines, technology may just be the key to automating steps in the process, eliminating human error, and improving overall data accuracy — all of which leads to a happy customer.