Airmiles joins the Net-set

The UK flight rewards company had to overcome some serious integration hurdles to create a Web-enabled database

The arrival of the Internet may have made travel slightly easier than it used to be but until recently the only way for AirMiles' six million customers to collect or redeem points was through a telephone customer service line.

The system worked fine, but many consumers simply called to check their account balances. And as the company grew, it became apparent that these routine enquiries could be handled more efficiently -- and more cheaply -- through a Web-based system, explains the UK flight reward company's IT director Matthew Young. "The main benefit for us is that we can cope with an increase in business without a commensurate increase in cost," he says. "Using the Web to access information costs us less than if a customer uses the call centre. A computer works for nothing and it doesn't need tea breaks."

AirMiles, a wholly owned subsidiary of British Airways, wanted to build a Web site with a full account management and booking facility, with the aim of servicing 10 percent of customer enquiries online within a year. But delivering these services meant integrating all of AirMiles' own back-office systems and providing links into the booking systems of dozens of partner companies, including airlines, car hire firms and hotel chains.

Incompatible systems
This was an enormous challenge as the travel industry has traditionally relied on a series of proprietary, incompatible IT systems, Young explains. "We recognised the fact that the travel business is quite fragmented and there are very few unifying technologies," he says. "We didn't want to be stuck with a closed system and so we need something that could access our own data but also hook into all the different systems being used by everyone else."

The first stage of the project was to decide on a common integration platform. The priority for AirMiles was to find something that could integrate their own internal systems and which would hook into any number of partner organisations in the future. Young opted for the J2EE platform as he felt it offered the greatest flexibility and chose BEA Weblogic as the central integration platform. "Our preference was for technology that was based on open standards, and J2EE was by far the most appropriate," he says.

The next stage for AirMiles was to create Java front ends for its core business applications. Internally, AirMiles runs an in-house customer database that Young likens to a conventional banking application running on an Oracle database. By integrating this application into the Web site, AirMiles hoped to capture real-time data on customers' purchases, improving the performance of personalised marketing tools such as newsletters and email offers.

Fortunately, the internal database already had a Java and C++ front end, so integrating it into a central platform proved relatively straightforward. Developers also created a Java front end for the Amadeus travel booking and search system that AirMiles uses when redeeming miles on behalf of customers. The internal Amadeus flight database was linked to the front-end Web site to enable users to search for appropriate offers. It was also connected internally to the in-house ISS booking system to present accurate data on what bookings had been made.

Complex compromise
The ISS booking system was the most complicated part of the infrastructure to complete. This system was built with a Computer Associates Cool:Gen interface, and this was extremely difficult to integrate into a J2EE platform. Eventually, Syzergy consultants worked with developers from Computer Associates to create a Java proxy wrapper which sits in front of the Cool:Gen code. "It's a compromise but the proxy just hides all the Cool:Gen oddities and it was by the far the simplest way to address the problem," says Young.

The three applications use J2EE to hook into the Weblogic platform, which provides the illusion of a single, Web-based application. Integration is carried out at three levels: presentation (all content-related features), business (business process management) and integration (access to all back-office systems). Additional software from Broadvision is used to provide Web-based content management, personalisation and marketing tools.

The entire project took over ten months to complete, with a soft launch of the new Web site in April 2003. During that time, the biggest challenge for AirMiles was the steep learning curve involved in using such new technologies. "There were things we could have done more quickly and more cheaply, but we wanted to build a real platform we could build new services on in the future," says Young. "That meant coming to grips with a lot of new products and making sure we weren't just integrating, we were integrating in a way we could work with going forward."

There are no short cuts to this type of project, says Young: "There's just a lot of really hard graft." But AirMiles did get the support of vendors, whom Young believes are keen to gain experience themselves in enterprise integration. "We couldn't have done it without the help of Logica, Broadvision, Computer Associates and everyone else," he says. "They were great at coming in and each providing us with a little bit of expertise to solve a problem."

Steering commitee keeps project on course
The second major challenge was simply keeping track of all the people involved in the project. From the outset, Young insisted on rigorous project management and created a steering committee with representatives from all parties. The role of the committee was to set the scope of the project, and to ensure it remained on time and on budget.

The site went fully live on July 1, 2003 and has exceeded AirMiles' predictions, says Young. The company had hoped to process 10 percent of its business online within a year, but was handling 25 percent of transactions online within just four months. "Clearly this is something the customers are completely up for, we should have done it a long time ago," says Young.