Etihad Airways ready for The Big Switch

The airline is set to fly into a cyberspace black hole for 24 hours as it carries out one of the biggest ever technology upgrades in the region.

Etihad Airways’ new computer system will enable passengers to complete more of the boarding process before they arrive at the departure gate. Delores Johnson / The National
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Next Friday, Etihad Airways is going offline.

Its passengers will continue to be checked in, its flights will take off and land, its guests will still move safely and in comfort across the globe. But for about 24 hours, the airline's presence in cyberspace will blink out.

Internally they are calling it The Big Switch, and it is the culmination of one of the biggest ever technology upgrades in the region, and the biggest in Etihad's 10 years in business.

In a 10-year deal worth more than US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn), the airline is switching from its existing Amadeus passenger services system to a new IT platform provided by Sabre.

For the flying public, the change in systems will mean a day of moving slowly. Between 11pm on February 22 and 10pm February 23 no-one will be able to book, check-in or upgrade online, or review flight times, pre-reserve seats or the numerous other things Etihad's passengers are used to doing on its website.

Etihad is also advising customers travelling between February 22 and 25 to arrive at the airport at least four hours before departure and to bring a printed copy of their booking confirmation.

Once the airline emerges from its internet black hole, the 10 million people who fly with it every year will be welcomed to a travel experience that will be faster and seamless, the airline promises.

For Etihad, it means bringing its entire passenger services and information technology systems on to one platform. All reservations will be on the same system, which also plans scheduling, slot planning, route optimisation and ensures passengers meet connecting flights across the complex network.

Effecting the changeover will require Etihad to transfer more than 530,000 bookings on the night, to re-wire 30,000 separate connections in the airline's IT network, and carry out more than 10,000 test procedures. In the lead up almost 7,000 staff have had to be trained on the new system and 170 have been assigned to executing the swap-over. Training began last September, and at the end of each course staff have been examined on how well they have picked up the new system. The first-time pass rate is above 98 per cent, the airline says.

The global process will be carried out in six waves, beginning at Etihad's hub at Abu Dhabi airport and lasting until the end of March when all the airports in the airline's network will be on the system.

Both staff and passengers will see immediate changes, said Gordon Penfold, Etihad's vice president for IT, who is in charge of "The Big Switch".

"Everything will change," said Mr Penfold. "Take the current check-in screen; it is green and speaks to its operators in jargon, requiring rank upon rank of specific commands … finding individual guests in the system takes time. Sabre, however, is a modern interface. You just type in the guest's name, and away you go. Our check-in agents in the past spent more time in electronic conversation with the machine, than with the guest. From February 23, all that changes."

The decision to upgrade Etihad's passenger services system was taken at the end of a five-year period of intensive growth, said Mr Penfold. The airline had also reached a contract-break point with Amadeus, the provider of their existing system.

"Changing your passenger services system is not something an airline does lightly, or overnight. But our chief executive said this was a one-off moment to effect a change in system before the next major growth phase. He told me: 'I also want the best deal the market has ever seen'," said Mr Penfold.

Under the new system, sales and check-in desks, call centres and travel agents' screens will have access to the same seat map, allowing guests to upgrade at check-in instead of being redirected to a sales desk, because check-in staff can for the first time accept your credit card to pay.

The system will also allow passengers to complete more of the boarding process before they arrive at the departure gate, upgrading mobile applications so that you can check in anywhere - from home to during the ride to the airport.

"Our goal is to stimulate off-airport check-in," said Mr Penfold. "We're putting passengers more in control when it comes to navigating their way from ticket purchase to boarding the plane."

For Etihad, the efficiencies delivered will have an immediate effect on the bottom line, according to Darren Rickey, the Sabre Airline Solutions vice president, commercial planning.

"In early benchmark studies we found that the network-management software typically generated profitability improvements of between 1 per cent and 2.5 per cent," he said. "But the broader relationship, and Sabre's role as Etihad Airways' single technology provider means that we will be continuing to work with our colleagues in the airline to ensure that our software is improving efficiency and creating the widest possible profit margins."

The savings will permeate every aspect of the airline's operations, say executives.

Preparations for "The Big Switch" will be well under way by 9pm on the evening of the 22nd.

"I will sit down with all the chief officers of the company and issue a formal statement of readiness," said Mr Penfold. "And the green light will then be given to go. A technical change like this puts stress on to any system no matter how long you prepare, but we have invested so much in this. On the day our handling times will be longer, we won't have a fully functioning check-in system and will physically have to verify every ticket. If people don't pre-print its not that we will not be able to find them, its just that it will take longer.

"But at 15.30pm we will give the 'go' for Sabre to go live [and] at 22.00pm our website will be back online … An hour later the first flight dispatched by the SabreSonic customer services system will depart," said Mr Penfold.

"A journey starts when someone starts to shop for a ticket that fits the time they want to travel," he added.

"This system ensures we have the best offer for their criteria. It lets us follow that guest from the purchase of the ticket, to arriving at the airport, checking in, boarding the flight, getting there and leaving with such a good experience that they want to come back."