Operational Reporting Takes Off At Continental - InformationWeek

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Operational Reporting Takes Off At Continental

The airline is using business intelligence to upgrade operational reporting processes. The results have been first class.

When a passenger books a flight with Continental Airlines, business intelligence kicks in immediately. And BI has allowed the carrier to make operational improvements--particularly with agent commissions and inter-airline transactions--that otherwise wouldn't have been possible.

Back in 2003, Continental was trying to encourage company-wide adoption of its enterprise data warehouse. With over 1,500 users, the task was not a simple one. The airline needed to complement the warehouse with a BI tool that was both user-friendly and sophisticated enough to meet complex reporting demands.

After trying out several tools, the airline found what it was looking for in Hyperion's Performance Suite, an analytics reporting application originally developed by Brio, which Hyperion purchased in 2003. The program can access relational databases, multidimensional cubes, and spreadsheet files, and leverage all that data into a single report. With more than 100 reports being run daily, Continental needed that kind of BI muscle.

The first order of business was to load all the data into a backend warehouse--in this case a Teradata system from NCR. Next the airline bulked up with both Oracle databases and Microsoft SQL Servers from which to run reports, and the system was deployed to users worldwide. As with any major rollout, there was a hitch or two. Employees in South America, for example, were still running on Windows 95 with dial-up, so software compatibility presented problems in some cases.

The airline wanted a more accurate way to assign commissions for U.S. reservation ticket agents. Before Performance Suite, the agents' data was stored on a mainframe, and reports were run only twice a month. Often the detail reports did not match summary reports. "We wanted to decrease the wait time between question and action," says Karen Nugent, a manager in Continental's Data Warehouse Group. Now reports can be run daily to track how many bookings agents make. This way agents receive their commission checks more quickly, and the best-performing agents can be selected to train underperformers. In addition, reports can be run ahead of time to determine who the top-selling agents will be on a quarterly basis. The top 20 percent receive performance-based incentives.

Inter-airline transactions composed another area in need of overhaul. An inter-airline transaction happens when an airline can't get a customer on a specific flight. If a second airline can take that customer on a similar flight, it will produce a facsimile of a ticket, which is considered a legal copy of a ticket. After the flight takes off, the replacement carrier bills the first airline for the cost of the fare.

In the past, facsimiles for such transactions were available only after a flight was completed, and there were often discrepancies in the information exchanged. Now Continental can run facsimiles directly off its ticketing database. A facsimile is created as soon as a ticket is issued, and as flights take off the information is sent to a revenue database. Users can perform research from their desktops through Java scripting, and upload the data and pull it into servers. According to Nugent, the reports are so researchable and readable that other airlines can't dispute the information.

As it stands, the Hyperion facsimile is the standard ticket copy for all inter-airline transactions at Continental. Improvements in reporting have allowed the airline to reduce its ticket documentation staff from 11 to three. Initial ticket data entry and the closing of monthly books occurs three to seven days faster than before the facsimile was introduced.

For many big companies, Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are essential for gauging performance against expectations. At Continental, Elite Upgrades--part of the airline's frequent flier program--is a KPI the company has managed to meet consistently since the latest BI deployment. The airline provides unlimited upgrades for elite customers on domestic flights. The goal is to make sure that all flights go out full in first class. Reports are run on every flight, and Continental gives incentives to airports that fill up flights.

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