The groans that follow a canceled flight announcement aren't just recognition of instant inconvenience but also anticipation of frustrations to come: waiting in line, watching ticket agents hammer keyboards, wondering why getting on the next flight has to be so difficult.
Don't aim your ire at the poor ticket agent. The problem, says ITA Software CEO Jeremy Wertheimer, is the system. If you were able to see things from the other side of the desk without causing a security incident, you'd understand that ticket agents are trying to pull answers from antiquated green-screen airline systems that can require weeks and weeks of training and black-belt levels of keyboard dexterity. "The airline IT platform was developed in the 1950s," says Wertheimer. "Almost all these programs are still running on mainframes."
Enter ITA, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, company that is set to introduce a new system that could revolutionize the business of flying you from point A to point B and make life easier not just for you but also for ticket agents and airline execs. This summer, after five years of development and testing, Air Canada is set to implement the first phase of the program, tentatively dubbed the Passenger Services System (PSS).
Chances are, you already use ITA's technology. Founded by Wertheimer and fellow MIT alums Dave Baggett and Carl de Marcken in the mid-1990s, the firm had its first hit in 2001, when it became the search backbone for Orbitz. Its software now powers two-thirds of all online flight sales in the United States and provides pricing info for leading travel sites including Kayak and Hotwire. "ITA uses really smart tech and algorithms to bring back fast and accurate data," says Krista Pappas, head of business development for travel at Microsoft's Bing, another data partner. "It has a unique ability to put together results in a fast, efficient, and accurate way."
That's what the company has been trying to do for airlines with the new PSS. The key, says Wertheimer, is simply exploiting five decades of advances in computer science. Software is at the system's heart. The agents' Sputnik-era screens are replaced by a Weblike experience, and passengers arriving at departure gates to find their flight canceled need only to check their BlackBerry or iPhone for a message from their airline with flight alternatives and even credits added to their online frequent-flier account for the inconvenience.
The PSS automates potentially complex tasks — such as rebooking and rerouting passengers — that were previously left to agents. That frees staff to focus on an increasingly important part of the airline business: selling customers ancillaries such as extra legroom, access to electrical outlets, and onboard food-and-drink credits — pitches that can now be personalized based on detailed online profiles the system builds. "Other industries have been successful in understanding their customers," says Erin Daly, director of product development at ITA. "We're building a platform that allows airlines to do just that."
The building process has been long, even for the wonks at a company that revels in challenges — ITA famously advertises itself on Boston's trains with programming puzzles that job seekers must solve even to have a chance at an interview. According to Wertheimer, the single biggest hurdle was making the system modular. ITA wanted airlines to be able to implement their reservation system one piece at a time, or mix and match different parts (say, just the shopping-related functions and the flight rebooking piece), which meant the company had to build separate components that would work both individually and in unison. Even the testing required heavy lifting: In order to run trials on the PSS, ITA had to build simulators of all the other systems it would interface with, because there's no expectation that all of the world's 5,000-plus airlines will soon implement it.
But ITA certainly hopes that at least a handful of them will buy soon. Longtime customer Air Canada is the only one that has signed on so far, but ITA says that deals with other airlines are in the works. While the privately held company is doing fine financially — it has barely touched the $100 million in venture funding it raised in 2006 — it has also had to devote half of its workforce to building the PSS over the past five years. "Only occasionally do you get the opportunity to do something so crazy big," says Wertheimer. "It's one of those projects where it's a millennium of work." Now he has to hope for an equivalent return on that investment.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.