Easing airport wait

Southwest computer system cutting keystrokes as it moves into the 21st century

July 26, 2008|By The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS - Remember that scene from Meet the Parents where actor Ben Stiller waits as an airline agent types in about a million keystrokes to find out if he can get an earlier flight?

Pat Stock, a customer service agent for Southwest Airlines at Dallas' Love Field, lives it every day.

"I've had people say, 'Why does it take all that? I'm just going to Houston,' and I just say, 'Because Mickey Mouse made it,'" she said, her fingers furiously clacking away to help a customer who had a paper ticket. "I'm just glad my mom made me take typing in high school."

Soon, checking in Southwest customers should be a matter of using a mouse to point and click.

The carrier, whch has more than half the flights at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, has been testing a new customer service system called CS2 that ties information together under a single platform and uses intuitive icons and drop-down menus instead of thousands of cryptic commands.

The result? Agents can see the most important passenger information on one screen instead of having to jump back and forth among as many as five programs.

For Southwest - a carrier that strives to land, empty its passengers, reload and take off again in 20 to 25 minutes - it's the latest effort to shave seconds off its operations and handle growth without adding staff, said Teresa Laraba, Southwest's vice president of operations.

And with fast-rising fuel prices, "minutes and seconds count," she said.

More important, the new system provides the foundation for several other key technology projects that Southwest plans to roll out to bolster its competitive position in 2009, including a revamping of its frequent-flier program.

Southwest has been testing CS2 at airports in Amarillo and Midland, Texas, and Tulsa, Okla. It will be rolled out at Love Field at the end of the month and expanded to the rest of Southwest's system by mid-November.

The seeds for the new system were planted more than a decade ago, but the overhaul was derailed as other projects - such as the technology scramble leading up to Y2K and new security procedures required after the Sept. 11 attacks - took priority.

Earnest work on CS2 began in 2005, and the project has involved more than 300 Southwest employees. Laraba declined to give a specific figure but said Southwest was spending "tens of millions of dollars" on the new system.

The new system automates many functions previously done with pen and paper, including standby passenger lists.

Today, as seats become available, agents call passengers separately to change their boarding pass and collect any necessary fees, something that could take two minutes per person.

"Between Dallas and Houston, that [the standby list] can be 50 people," Laraba said. "Now I can push a button and get 10 boarding passes at a time."

While Southwest leads the industry with 75 percent of its seats sold through its own Web site and has an award-winning blog, it has lagged behind on other technology. Until 2002, the airline used plastic placards instead of boarding passes.

CS2 will also allow Southwest to launch a new system for rebooking passengers and to handle international itineraries, such as the ones that the carrier may offer through a pact announced this month with Canada-based WestJet Airlines Ltd.

Southwest's current computer system was installed in 1991. For each new requirement for information since - whether it was electronic tickets, automated bag tags or the federal security watch list - a new program of functions was created. With the system built in separate silos, Southwest agents had to memorize thousands of complex codes to navigate among five programs for each customer.

"It's like having to find something in a 30-page document by paging up and down to see the information," Laraba said.

Sandra Travis, who has worked as a customer service agent in Amarillo for 27 years and has been testing the new system since March, said CS2 has made finding passenger information easier.

"You were just flipping back and forth all the time [on the old system]," she said. "The new system has safeguards to keep you from making a mistake."

The old system could require a fishing expedition as she and fellow agents tried to remember thousands of codes by stuffing cheat sheets under their keyboards or in the plastic sleeves that held their badges.

"You'd be going like this, 'Just a minute, I've got it right here,'" she said, lifting up her keyboard to look underneath or around her counter area. "We had notes everywhere."

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