case study ( information system) : Comair
Sample Research Proposal Instructions
ASSIGNMENT CASE STUDY: Comair’s Crew Scheduling System Breaks Down
Comair is a regional airline carrier based in the US. The airline employs nearly 7,000 airline professionals who, together, oversee and operate more than 1,100 daily flights carrying 30,000 passengers. Comair flies to 113 cities in the United States, Canada and the Bahamas. It started as an independent carrier but is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta Airlines. Its routes include major hubs and markets, such as Atlanta, Cincinnati, Orlando, New York, Washington D.C., and Boston. In 2004, 12 million passengers travelled on at least one of Comair’s 179 Bombardier regional jets.
Throughout its history, Comair has been an award-winning leader in the regional carrier industry. The FAA and various trade magazines have recognised Comair many times for its profitability, management, time-keeping, cancellation and lost luggage statistics. History, however, could do little to help the airline over the winter holiday season in December 2004, when a critical legacy system failed and Comair suffered a public relations nightmare, not to mention a major financial hit.
On December 25, 2004, a glitch in Comair’s flight crew scheduling software forced the airline to cease all operations, grounding its full schedule of 1,100 flights. The action altered or ruined the holiday plans of 30,000 travellers. Comair and Delta lost $20 million. Although the catalyst for the disaster was an unfortunate run of bad weather, Comair opened itself up to criticism by making the weather the focus of its explanation of the failure. Terry Tripler, an industry expert from Minneapolis, labelled the performance of Comair “inexcusable” and likened it to Wal-Mart having all of its cash registers crash on the day after Thanksgiving.
The timeline of events that leads up to December 2004 clearly demonstrates that a company can grow steadily even when some of it critical processes are flawed. Comair began its operation with three propeller planes in Cincinnati in 1977. Delta first partnered with the small commuter airline in 1984. As a result of the partnership, Comair became one of the original members of the Delta Connection program.
In 1984, when Comair’s fleet consisted of 25 prop planes, the company managed its flight crews using pen and paper. Two years later, union and federal regulations forced Comair to meet higher standards in its management procedures. To comply with the regulations, Comair leased software from SBS International to track its flight crews, which flights the crews were assigned to, and how many hours they were flying. The system performed its duties admirably and during the next several years; the company continued its march toward the top of its industry. In 1992, Comair became the first of its competitors to purchase a Bombardier regional jet. However, the advantage gained from that transaction lasted only a few years. By 1996, other regional airlines had added jets to their rosters of planes. Comair then looked for new ways to gain a competitive edge.
One area that Comair looked to improve was its information systems. The company’s systems ran an assortment of applications for crew scheduling, aircraft maintenance, and passenger booking, that were not interrelated and were becoming outdated. In 1997, the IT department discussed replacing the SBS legacy system that the company was using for flight crew management. The application was then 11 years old and was written in Fortran, a programming language dating back to the 1950s, in which there was no in-house expertise. It was also the only application that still used the company’s old IBM AIX version of the UNIX operating system rather than running on HP UNIX. As a result of the discussion, SBS visited Comair to pitch its latest flight crew management software, named Maestro. However, one of the crew supervisors attending the presentation was familiar with the product from a previous job and gave the software an unfavourable review. As a result of this evaluation, Comair decided not to use Maestro in favour of looking for a better solution. In the meantime the company’s end users worked efficiently enough with the legacy system and would not have to be retrained on a costly system of questionable value.
In 1998, Jim Dublikar, who was then director of risk management and information technology for Comair, organised a consultation with SABRE Airline Solutions. The Texas based company provides both airline software and consulting services. The purpose of the consultation was to outline a long-term IT strategy for handling Comair’s legacy systems and IT infrastructure. Five months of meetings produced a five-year plan for evaluating the viability of existing systems and retiring, replacing, or adding to them as necessary. One of the key components that was designated for retirement and replacement was the flight crew management system. Dublikar viewed this decision as an easy one to make. Keeping the old system in use was risky and new tech¬nologies promised to bring financial benefits through increased productivity and tighter control of expenses. However, the implementation of this part of the plan was hampered by a number of circumstances.
In the years leading up to 2000, Comair’s information systems department devoted the lion’s share of its time to preparing for the Year 2000 (Y2K) problem, which required programming older legacy systems to recognize century changes in dates. The Y2K issue was part of the five-year plan, as were rolling out an e-ticketing system and a revenue management application, upgrading the corporate network, and changing the maintenance and engineering system. All of these initiatives were in progress or completed by 1999. Replacing the flight crew management system was next in line. Movement in this area was slow because the company had grown so accustomed to the SBS system, and many of Comair’s crew management business processes and business rules (such as the definition of a pilot’s workday) were related to the 15-year-old software. The selection of a new flight crew management system was finally sched-uled for 2000. However, before that time arrived, Comair went through a period of upheaval. First, Dublikar left the organization. Then, Delta acquired Comair, adding new voices to the dеcisiоn-making process.
Delta viewed Comair as an easy acquisition. Its former partner consistently turned a profit, fared well on the stock market, and was a leader in statistical performance. Based on that view, Delta saw little reason to tinker with Comair’s operations. Instead of focusing on IT, Delta focused mainly on marketing. In fact, Delta installed its own marketing department at Comair shortly after taking over.
Dublikar was not replaced until the beginning of 2000, leaving the IT department with a leadership void. According to former Comair IT worker Eric Ваrdеs, mеm¬bers of the IT department tried not to make too many waves in the wake of the Delta takeover and the leader¬ship void. The IT staff was content to wait for the busi¬ness side of the company to encourage their projects. Meanwhile, the business side was expecting the IT department to be the proactive force. Thus, the remain¬ing projects in the five-year plan, including replacing the flight crew management system, remained incomplete.
In 2001, another event distracted Comair from its IT initiatives. A pilots’ strike lasting 89 days crippled both the airline and the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, where Comair runs 90 percent of the flights. With 800 daily flights grounded, Delta lost $200 million for the quarter. When the strike was set¬tled in June, the Comair flight operations group could not simply flip a switch to resume operations. The effort involved in scheduling flights and crews prohib¬ited the airline from entertaining thoughts of replacing the crew scheduling system.
The instability caused by the pilots’ strike was dwarfed only a few months later by the impact of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Delta incurred losses totalling nearly $9 billion in the four years after the attacks. Comair’s IT department invited SABRE, SBS, and other vendors to demonstrate crew management systems in late 2002. But the airline did not commit to a new solu¬tion at that time because of cost concerns. In June 2004, Delta finally approved the replacement of the legacy crew management system. Comair agreed to terms with SАВRЕ for its AirCrews Operations Manager and scheduled the rollout for 2005. Of course, 2005 did not arrive quickly enough.
In late December 2004, a harsh winter storm descended on the Ohio Valley. The snow and ice took such a toll on planes, runways, and operations that Comair had to cancel or delay more than 90 percent of its flights between December 22nd and December 24th. The weather and the cancellations would be only part of a much larger problem. On the 25th, the nearly two-decade-old flight crew management software crashed. No one at Comair knew that the software logged schedule changes with an antiquated counter that could not han¬dle more than 32,768 changes in a month. The weather of the previous days had necessitated so many schedule changes that the software reached its threshold and then simply shut down. The crash wiped out the entire slate of flights on December 25th and 90 percent of those on the 26th. Comair had no backup system and the software vendor required a full day to reverse the fail¬ure. Comair finally returned to full service on December 29th, but the damage was done. Delta lost nearly the entire profit produced by Comair in the previous quarter in a matter of a few days.
Comair maintains that the centrepiece of the problem was the run of bad weather, not the limitations of the aged software. As of March 2005, the airline had not yet implemented the new SАВRЕ software package. Comair was still using the SBS legacy system, now divided into two modules so that pilot schedule changes and flight attendant schedule changes each have a monthly limit of 32,000. Comair is also monitoring the volume of transac¬tions more carefully.
(Source: Laudon, K.C. and Laudon J.P., 2007, Essentials of Business Information Systems, 7th ed., N.J., Pearson Prentice Hall)
This Assignment relates to the case study:
Comair’s Crew Scheduling System Breaks Down
TASK The case study gives an overview of Comair’s Crew Scheduling System.
a) Discuss Comair’s information systems and information technology strategy and whether it supports their business strategy. 35%
b) From your own knowledge of systems theory and systems development practice, explain how Comair should develop its new system. 35%
c) What people, organization, and technology issues does Comair have to consider if it chooses to build a new system? 25%
d) Your answer should be set out as a formal report and written in good business English. Presentation should be neat and should include appropriate tables and diagrams, a bibliography and word count. Any appendices should be minimal. 5%
The assignment should not exceed 3,000 words and excess words will be penalised in accordance with regulations in the Student Handbook.
Assessment will reflect the following:
a) Evidence of analysis of the issues set out in the case study. A purely descriptive approach will not attract high marks.
b) Evidence of understanding of the nature of information systems development, the range of methods available and their usefulness in different situations.
c) Awareness of the people, organisation and technology issues involved when building new systems.
d) A clear and well-organised answer, set out in good business English. The document should be word-processed and presentation should be appropriate.