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Why Delta Decided To Fly High with Windows 8

Last September, Microsoft announced that Delta Airlines would be equpping its cockpits with Surface tablet PCs running Windows RT 8.1 and a Windows Store app called FlightDeck Pro, designed to replace bulky and oft-dated flight manuals and allowing for real-time updates. I met Darrell Haskin, IT director for Delta's crew department at an event in New York a few months ago held by Microsoft. The event showcased a few dozen customers using Windows 8x and Windows Phone devices. Some were giants like Delta, Siemens and Boeing and others using Windows 8x were small- and mid-sized business including a real estate firm and a medical clinic. This month's Redmond magazine cover story highlights six IT pros using Windows 8 devices and OS in their enterprises.

I spent time talking with Haskin and several others on his IT team and I later caught up with him at last month's National Retail Federation convention where he talked up Delta's deployment in a session at Microsoft's booth. It didn't surprise me that Delta was pushing forward with a progressive app like FlightDeck Pro. The airline has a long history of investing in IT. Back in 2001, I met with Delta's IT people at the airline's Atlanta headquarters where they spent an entire day guiding me through their IT operations and talking up their migration from legacy mainframe systems to meet the needs of the new Web-enabled world.

Haskin said he hopes this latest initiative makes customers feel better about flying Delta. Here's an excerpt from our conversation:

What led to your decision to put Surface PCs in the cockpit and give flight attendants Windows Phones?
Haskin: It wasn't that long ago. We started the project about two years ago but we didn't select Windows until a year ago. [Regarding the decision to give flight attendants Windows Phones] we were setting out to find an electronic replacement for our onboard point-of-sale device. That was a proprietary system, an onboard device that just stayed with the airplane. Rather than have 2,000 devices on the aircraft, every flight attendant has their own device they can keep with them. We don't have to keep anything on the airplane any more, we don't have to have people come up and change them because we'd have to keep them charged. We'd have to dock them periodically to download all the information. Now we just do everything wirelessly into the new system.

Before Windows 8, what were you considering?
Haskin: We did an RFP [request for proposal] to seven different vendors. In most cases they were multiple groups of vendors. So when Microsoft actually bid on it, it was actually Microsoft, Avanade and AT&T. We had groups of other vendors that came in with their solutions. We looked at a lot of different options.

Presumably you there was a bid that included iPads and other non-Windows tablets?
Haskin: You bet.

So what led you to device on Surfaces rather than iPads?
Haskin: We really liked the fact that we're a big Windows shop already at Delta Air Lines. We have Active Directory, so we know a flight attendant versus a pilot. We know what type of aircraft he flies, that's all in Active Directory. Plus we use Exchange for e-mail so it just fit into the corporate architecture better for us.

Were you concerned that Windows 8 might not take off, so to speak? Pardon the pun.
Haskin: Yes, of course we had some concern about that but Microsoft is one of our strategic partners. So we sat down with them and conveyed our concerns with them. They were very supportive and said 'we feel this is going to take off'  and now we believe that it will. They were able to allay our concerns about that.

According to Forrester, Windows may only account for 30 percent of all devices by 2017. If that forecast plays out, is that a concern?
Haskin: I think 30 percent is a pretty good number. I think the fact that Delta has chosen to do this in our operation will naturally have some influence on other companies around the globe.

Why did you go with Surface 2s with Windows RT versus Surface Pros running the full version of Windows 8?
Haskin
: Because pilots only use our in-house applications. There really wasn't a need for us to have all of the additional functionality that comes with the Surface Pro for this particular application in the flight deck. And the battery lasts longer, which is very important to the pilots in our flight deck who might be on a 15-hour flight.

Will you be rolling out Windows 8 for the ground force or other parts of Delta?
Haskin
: We're actually still on Windows XP. We're moving to Windows 7.

Why Windows 7 and not Windows 8?
Haskin: We're just not ready to do that yet.

Will some of those go to Windows 8?
Haskin
: Nope, they're all going to Windows 7. That's primarily the back-office desktop users.

What about executives who might want a touch-based interface?
Haskin
: Our executives all have Surface Pros already.

All of them do?
Haskin: Vice presidents and above all have Surface Pros. That's about 200 executives or so. They love the ability to be able to write notes on things and send them out. Our executives are on the move -- I mean, we're an airline. They're flying all over the world meeting with our strategic partners around the world. It's a great school for them. They've given us really positive feedback for Surface Pros.

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 02/14/2014 at 3:58 PM


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