Airlines spurred to focus on CRM software after attacks

Alaska Airlines went live earlier this month with a full implementation of customer relationship management software that automatically notifies travelers about flight changes.

          Alaska Airlines went live earlier this month with a full implementation of customer relationship management (CRM) software that automatically notifies travelers about flight changes. The rollout came two months later than the original go-live date, but there was a valid reason: the September 11 terrorist attacks.

          Immediately after the attacks, Seattle-based Alaska Airlines decided to quickly install a stripped-down version of the telephone-based notification system to help it deal with the chaos that resulted from numerous flight cancellations and schedule changes.

          Implementers rolled out the basic software within two days through a round-the-clock effort, and the airline estimates that it had reached 100,000 customers with personalized messages by November 6.

          "I don't know if we could have made it through September 11 and all the rescheduling without this [system]," says Karen Wells-Fletcher, manager of network operations at Alaska Airlines. "We just don't have the manpower to call everyone personally."

          Alaska Airlines, which is using software from Seattle-based Par3 Communications, wasn't the only airline that rushed to beef up CRM technology after the terrorist attacks. For example, London-based British Airways PLC rapidly expanded a web-based self-service information response system built around software from RightNow Technologies in Bozeman, Montana.

          British Airways had been running a pilot version of the system with a few large travel agencies in the UK and some US users prior to the attacks. But after the airline saw a 400% surge in queries, it opened up the CRM tool to all UK-based travel agencies to ease the information logjam, says Dave Bevan, general manager of e-service at its e-commerce unit.

          Now, he says, British Airways plans to roll out the CRM software to a wider set of customer groups, including the UK executive club. The software, which AT&T Corp. hosts, will also be part of email marketing campaign efforts, Bevan says.

          Neither British Airways nor Alaska Airlines, which also runs its system in a hosted setup, would comment on the cost of their projects.

          At Alaska Airlines, Wells-Fletcher says, the automated notification system freed up call centre personnel who were already overwhelmed by a flood of information requests from passengers. Previously, customers had to call the airline to inquire about canceled or rescheduled flights, and there was limited outbound phone contact.

          Wells-Fletcher says the expanded version of Alaska Airlines' system can send out thousands of messages in a matter of minutes and lets travelers reschedule flights via phone, without help from airline employees.

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