ITS prepares for PSS cutover: An interview with VP and CIO Charu Jain

On April 25, Virgin America will merge into Alaska’s passenger service system (PSS), which is a huge feat of ITS engineering. VP and CIO Charu Jain has led two other airline mergers, and is now leading the team responsible for the software development needed to connect our Airbus and Boeing operational systems and to deliver a great customer experience for our guests. We sat down with Charu to learn more about what it’s like integrating these two operational systems into one reservations system.


Q. How is the Alaska-Virgin America merger different from other mergers?

CJ: The integration of Alaska and Virgin America stands apart because we’ve decided to adopt Alaska systems instead of tackling data migration, or the moving of reservations from one airline’s PSS to another. This has allowed us to focus our energies instead on reducing risk at cutover through employee training, reducing our schedule by 20%, and improving existing systems, such as airport displays and printer capability. We’ll also have ITS personnel at all 29 airports who are ready to assist at PSS cutover.


Q. From an ITS perspective, what is the biggest PSS challenge and how are we addressing it?

CJ: The biggest challenge has been accommodating the large number of systems that are impacted by PSS. We’ve upgraded and integrated more than 40 systems impacting operations, jumpseat booking, crew member systems, airport information displays, check in processes, reservation management and more.


We also want to take great care of our employees and guests. Deploying new systems and enhancements was started as early as August 2017, which allows employees to practice and get comfortable using them before cutover. We know if employees are confident during cutover, our guests will be happy flying with us.


Q. How is ITS working to reduce risks at PSS cutover? 

CJ: Our motto is, “expect the unexpected.” We want to prepare for any possible issue that could come up.


A systems-readiness project, a program that evaluated all systems used for PSS and their associated users, ensured all Virgin America and Alaska employees would be able to access the necessary systems at cutover by verifying user groups and access requirements.


We implemented a station co-location solution called “Red on Blue” in advance of cutover, which ensures Virgin America applications run on the Alaska network and can seamlessly switch to an all-Alaska network at cutover. Our promise to the frontline is that there will be no major computer or equipment swaps at cutover. 


A change freeze schedule was implemented, allowing us to focus solely on releases that support PSS cutover. We worked with our vendors and partners that support PSS to adhere to the same schedule.


Finally, the mock flight drill on March 6 was an impactful de-risking activity. We successfully validated an Alaska Airbus aircraft using systems and processes we plan to use for PSS cutover and beyond.  


Q. What systems are we testing and why?
CJ: This is the largest ITS testing effort Alaska has undertaken to date. We’ve performed extensive testing on Alaska and Virgin America systems to ensure that what worked previously still works at cutover. The teams executing functional testing on applications changes, are running over 350 end-to-end (E2E) scenarios with our business partners and business users have verified their applications can handle real-life scenarios. E2E testing identifies system dependencies, making sure the right data is passed across systems such as customer reservation systems, airport displays, kiosks, flight ops systems and more.


Q. What have we learned from ITS preparations for PSS?
CJ: The greatest lesson we’ve learned so far is to confirm working solutions early. When we move to production early in the process, our employees can get comfortable using the new tools and continue providing a remarkable experience for our guests — a strategy that sets us all up for greater agility and success. 

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