Bringing A Pilot's Perspective To IT

Lance Tucker flies commercial jets for Continental one day a week. The rest of the time he works as an IT ombudsman. How's <I>that</i> for a career combination?

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

November 14, 2001

3 Min Read

Most companies staff their IT departments with people who have some education or formal experience in information technology. But at Continental Airlines Inc., other factors are equally as important.

Lance Tucker, a first officer at Continental with two master's degrees, holds a unique position for any airline. One day a week, he flies commercial MD-80 jets. The other four days, he oversees IT projects and serves as an IT ombudsman for the airline's flight crew. A Navy pilot for 20 years, Tucker's degrees have nothing to do with IT. One is in Soviet studies, the other in international relations.

So how did he land in information technology?

In the summer of 1998, Tucker joined the Y2K team because it needed a pilot to review aircraft systems. Three promotions later, he was acting senior director of the airline's Y2K project, responsible for airways, routes, aircraft systems, and embedded systems. After the Y2K conversion went off without incident, CIO and senior VP Janet Wejman and Continental's senior management team determined that the flight crew needed an ombudsman who could help the IT department provide technology that would better serve their needs. "As work processes become more complex, information is power," Tucker says. "For our employee group to have the latest information on schedules, vacations, absences, and benefits, technology is critical. That's my role."

Now, he's overseeing the development of an application that will work with Continental's Employee Training Record tool to help automate staffing and training. The proprietary software will use optimization algorithms to make flight operations more efficient, he says.

Tucker makes sure he wears both his IT and his pilot hats at all times. "I'm out and about with the pilot base in Houston, hanging out with the buddies," he says. "I talk to people and go through training with my colleagues. People come to me with their problems."

The problems can be as simple as one pilot's concern that his wife and children always wound up on different flights when his family took advantage of Continental's free or discounted flight benefits for employees. It turned out his pilot level in the system was incorrect, so Tucker fixed it and the pilot can now fly with his family. "It was a small thing, but it was important to him," Tucker says.

Tucker always asks other pilots what they like about IT, and most mention their reliance on the Crew Communications System, a Web-based interface that lets 4,500 pilots and 8,775 flight attendants access various applications. For instance, the crew relies on the system to give them more flexible schedules. They can post a flight that they can't take and trade with others who can.

The crew also gives Tucker ideas for more functionality. For example, if a pilot has training set for the same month as her wedding, currently she must call a scheduling office and ask to be rescheduled. In the future, pilots will be able to make such requests electronically and get a real-time response. Such functionality is easy to put in place when one of the IT guys understands the challenges pilots face.

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