I’m doing a bit of consulting work in the airline transport industry around cloud and API enablement and, as part of my research, I spent some time talking with Mark McCaughan, CEO of New Zealand based company Merlot. Merlot is a vendor that has created an application designed to optimize aircraft and crew utilization by applying end-to-end airline management across the entire airline operation. Basically it powers the nuts and bolts aircraft and personnel allocation that keeps things running (hopefully) like clockwork.

This isn’t McCaughan’s first time doing this sort of stuff, in a previous role he built and sold a similar product to Accenture – there’s an understanding and pedigree in the space that can be put to good use for new projects. He’s taken that industry knowledge and applied it alongside new approaches to development – leveraging a distributed workforce, cloud infrastructure and more nimble approaches to produce a product more in line with customer needs and more flexible.

That approach seems to be paying dividends, as Merlot has just announced that AirAsia, the largest low cost carrier in the Asian region, has signed a seven figure deal with merlot to implement what is the first cloud-based airline operational management tool. Management tools are obviously very important for airlines as they are used along the operational lifecycle – from pre planning and loading prediction through to real-time analysis and problem reaction and on to measuring and reporting. The aim for airlines is to eek out the maximum efficiency while still meeting compliance requirements in terms of crewing and service schedules.

The airline however has a tendency to be pretty conservative when it comes to adopting new technology (hell, last time I looked the inflight entertainment system on Air New Zealand was running Windows CE!). As a reaction to this conservatism, Merlot decided to both meet today’s requirements but also future-proof by giving customers the ability to run Merlot as a private cloud solution, but also via the public cloud – in this case via Azure. This approach, and the fact that Merlot has been built with a web-services viewpoint, open up some interesting opportunities for third party developers wanting to do some interesting integrations and mash ups – of course this relies on air transport organizations moving from a very siloed mentality to one which recognizes the value of open – that’s something I’m trying hard to progress.

Part of the rationale for a vendor like Merlot to have this open approach is that by enabling third party intgerations, they enable compostie solutions which are far stickier than just a standalone application. Merlot gave some examples where these application extensions could show value for airlines.

  • AirAsia have engaged a 3rd party to write an executive ‘all of airline’ dashboard – they will use Merlot API’s to get relevant data in real time – for example delay and on time performance information, crew sickness etc
  • Merlot could potentially create a mashup whereby travel brokers can provide booking services to crew that are having to move around on other airlines. This would enable highly targeted offers to be made to these flight staff
  • Merlot could create a social network that allos flight crew to communicate between themselves and with the airline as a whole – this would enable things like roster changes in real time based on actual flight plans
  • Larger industry organizations could use the Merlot system via specific parts of the application to fill specific niches they have

All of these ideas are exciting and would both greatly increase the efficiency or airline operations, but also provide new and exciting opportunities. All of them are also enabled by some converging trends – the rise of cloud, the increasing open API approach and the ubiquity of mobile internet access. The world is changing and companies like Merlot are enabling traditional organizations to leverage that change.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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