It has been possible to phone, check e-mails and surf the Internet while on a plane since 2007, thanks to the OnAir solutions offered by some airline companies. Behind this technological step forward is an information system built by Bull, using Microsoft components and specialist billing software, Highdeal Transactive.
Established in Geneva in 2005, OnAir is the fruit of a joint venture between the European aircraft manufacturer Airbus and SITA (International Airline Telecommunications Co.), itself created in 1949 by 11 airline companies with the object of developing communication technologies for the world of air travel (e.g. airports, planes, etc). Today, in addition to its historical specialisation, SITA designs and markets applications and IT infrastructures, and is the world leader in these technologies in its sector.
Given its pedigree, it was not surprising that OnAir should also focus on in-flight telecommunications. But where SITA mainly addresses airlines and airports, OnAir’s services are more passenger-oriented. Its mission is to provide in-flight GSM and GPRS voice, data, e-mail and Internet access services, as well as WiFi. As Stephan Egli, Chief Commercial Officer, explains: “We have been pioneering in-flight connectivity technology. By ‘connectivity’, what we mean is that it enables passengers to use their mobile phone, laptop or PDA in exactly the same way as they would on the ground.”
Highly specific requirements
The main technical difficulty to be overcome was to eliminate radio interference with on-board equipment. So OnAir engineers developed a system that reduces mobile telephone transmissions to 10% of what they are on the ground. As a result, with the OnAir system, airline passengers are less exposed to radio waves than they would be on the street! Twelve airline operators are already equipped with the OnAir system, and the company is aiming for 250 aircraft two years from now – a realistic objective when you know that there are over 18,000 commercial aircraft and 15,000 private jets currently flying.
Like any new company, OnAir naturally wanted an IT infrastructure capable of supporting its business activities. It soon became clear that a BSS (Business Support System) would be needed, as numerous partners and providers are now involved in OnAir’s activities, some of them even fulfilling two roles simultaneously. “We did not just need a dedicated telecoms system,” adds Jean-Damien Beaud, OnAir’s Information Systems Director. “The system had to be able to merge data from the aeronautical world with the telecoms billing information. So this was an extra difficulty, but it was of vital importance to us.”
In effect, OnAir operates at the crossroads between two highly regulated industries – the airline and mobile telephone industries – and the information system had to be able, for example, to facilitate the calculation of each partner’s share of communications revenue. No mean feat, when you consider that these calculations vary according to the contractual model chosen by the airline and the roaming agreements signed with operators in each country!
Following a six-month tendering process, systems integrator Bull’s proposal was finally chosen. As a worldwide expert in telecommunications, Bull recommended a system built around Transactive, the evaluation and pricing suite published by Highdeal (a French software publisher that originated in France Telecom’s R&D labs and is now part of SAP), whose billing, reconciliation and commission management features won over OnAir.
Once this initial choice had been approved, which was not only essential but pivotal, Bull built the entire OnAir information system using Microsoft Windows Server, Windows Vista – currently being migrated to Windows 7 – and Office 2007 and 2010 for client workstations. In addition, Bull implemented SQL Server 2008, whose reporting and business intelligence functions proved decisive for OnAir’s business; Microsoft BizTalk Server, which enabled the integration of Highdeal Transactive and Microsoft applications; and Microsoft SharePoint Server, for the implementation of the company’s intranet/extranet portal.
A system that’s ready for the future
The role of a Business Process Management server such as BizTalk is fundamental in this type of organization, where different types of applications have to work together. In practice, while the various Microsoft applications know how to exchange essential information with each other naturally, Transactive is the product of a different publisher. So Bull designed the necessary BizTalk adaptors that allow Transactive to communicate with SQL Server, which made it easier to integrate and automate business processes.
Bull’s Polish subsidiary, born out of the acquisition of AMG.net in 2006, installed the Microsoft and non-Microsoft components. It also carried out extensive development work, to adapt Highdeal Transactive and SQL Server to OnAir’s complex business processes. So commission rules are defined within dedicated pricing plans that allow partners to receive commission for each connection, at set percentages, with variations in volume and according to time of day.
This has been a long and intense project, but Bull has shown itself to be responsive and innovative. “We approached the project in three stages,” says Marek Juda, CEO of Bull Poland. “In the first one, we concentrated on the fundamental building blocks of the system – the infrastructure and the key software components – as well as the central rating and billing elements of the system. Then we focused on the CRM, which is really quite specialized, requiring a great deal of tailored, custom development to work with OnAir’s highly specific business processes. And we finished with the more sophisticated rating functions and features and, most importantly, reporting.”
It took three years to complete these three phases, but OnAir’s information system is now fully operational and already it’s time to report back on it. And the account is an enthusiastic one: “We are completely happy with the solution,” confirms Jean-Damien Beaud. “Thanks to Bull’s expertise and the Microsoft software, we now have an extremely intuitive and flexible solution – our users can access their critical data from pretty much anywhere in the world. It is also fit for the future, ready to support the company’s continued growth.”