Aug. 8 2006 05:58 PM

Delayed is not a word that sits well with Joe Beery. Its a touchy word, particularly in his industry, and one that tends to cost money wherever the word is applied. Beery does not want to hear about delayed. His company, America West, is the second-largest, low-fare airline in the United States. Its planes carry not only people but other eagerly awaited cargo. Tons of mail, to be exact, from the United States Postal Service. The Postal Service does not want to hear about delayed, either.


So when Beery, vice president and chief information officer of his company, got word that the Postal Service would start requiring all air carriers to begin tracking mail as a prerequisite to renewed contracts, he knew that America Wests tracking system had to embark on time.


While the Postal Service was abundantly specific about its expectations and the deadline for coming up with a plan for meeting those expectations, the route to compliance would have to be charted by each air carrier. For America West, this was new territory. As dictated by the Postal Service, you have to track the mail in ways never done before, explains Beery. Because it potentially could handle mail on any of its stops, America West had to provide tracking coverage across the continental United States. And it had to do so quickly.


Requirements were strict: The Postal Service demanded that all carriers deploy a mail-tracking system within four months of the previous deadline it had set for carriers to present a tracking plan. Any system had to meet a set of stringent requirements. Mail had to be tracked at each change of custody, for instance, whether the change was between carrier employees or to outside organizations. Data on this chain of custody had to be delivered to the Postal Service within two hours of each possession change.


America West was able to develop and implement a mail-tracking system within 65 days. AT&T is one of our partners that we use in a lot of other areas in the airline, notes Beery. We asked them to help us through this process. As a wireless provider, AT&T works in partnership with Intermec Technologies Corporation. Beery and his team took a look at the Intermec 760 Color mobile computer with integrated scanning and wide-area wireless capabilities, along with the wares of its competition. We took the scanners out into the field, says Beery. We showed them to the people who load the mail, and we did an evaluation based on which scanner the loaders thought they could use most effectively. That was probably the largest deciding factor.


Two other factors swayed Beerys team toward Intermec: the capacity for quick, effective software development and the companys responsiveness. Intermec brought in Wavelink Corporation, one of its Honors Partners. Wavelink offered a rapid-application development product called Studio EDGE. Studio EDGE is for customers looking to write Java-based applications that can be delivered on mobile platforms across a variety of networks. In this case, a wide-area AT&T network, says Eric Hermelee, vice president of Marketing for Wavelink.


Early on, Beery saw the advantages of buying a software platform that his in-house developers could easily manipulate. It was important to us to own the software because we are confident this product will have other applications within our system, says Beery. One example would be to start scanning our freight. If we own the software, we can make changes and modifications much more cost-effectively and we could do it much faster.


America West ordered 170 Intermec mobile computers. With an operating temperature range from 14°F to 140°F (-10°C to 60°C) · and with IP64-compliant dust and rain resistance, the lightweight computers are rugged enough to perform in the seasonal conditions typically found at airports across the country.


Paired with Wavelinks Studio EDGE, the Intermec 760 makes a formidable front-end device that proved quick and easy to deploy. Studio EDGE is tightly integrated with the Intermec 760, comments Hermelee. You dont have to learn the specifics of How do I write code to a 760? because we had abstracted a lot of that. We included wizards and graphical elements to help a user design a customized screen. You dont have to write it all from scratch. It takes a lot of the labor-intensive programming out of the equation.


Hermelee continues, The other thing is that once youve developed the application, deployment is fast. You launch it from a standard J2EE server and most companies already have a Java or Unix server, where the application is hosted then you let the server administer your Studio EDGE application out to the devices. And since the application is controlled from the server rather than on each device, updating all 170 mobile computers is easy.


With a customized application on the mobile computers, America West next had to train its mail loaders across the country to use the new system. The Phoenix hub became the first training ground. Then the rest of the Intermec 760s got flown out nationwide in what Beery called a shotgun start, and the system was officially deployed.


When the Postal Service makes a drop at any of America Wests airport mail stations, an America West mail handler scans the identification tag on each bin with the integrated scanner on the Intermec 760 mobile computer. Identification information is downloaded and sent in batches across AT&Ts wireless network via the 760 mobile computers internal wide-area wireless radio. From there, the information travels to America Wests data center in Phoenix, where it is compiled, formatted and sent directly to the Postal Service through a T1 line. Whenever the mail changes hands, its identification tag is scanned and its status updated.


Wavelinks software development tools allow the application to manage the radio component of the mobile computer so it could be switched on and off, utilizing the handhelds battery to its fullest potential. This modification substantially extended the life expectancy of the battery. Workers could scan tags with the radio off, then either dock the mobile computer or simply turn on the radio to access the wireless network and transmit data. That was a big deal, says Beery. Any time you have a ramp worker who has to stop what hes doing and go get a new battery, youre interrupting the operation. We needed that feature to make the deployment successful.


Because information is mostly sent in batches, the system must prioritize it to ensure that the Postal Service information gets through within the required two-hour timeframe. Studio EDGE takes care of it. On your mobile computer, you can flag a data field as having high priority. When you establish a wireless network connection, the high-priority information automatically gets sent first. The system holds back the less sensitive data so that you dont flood the network, explains Hermelee. This is a function of the system design it can store the data locally or send it back to the server, holding back the lower priority data for later transmission.


Some wide-area networks have issues with lost connectivity. Studio EDGE and Intermec system address that, too. If a mobile computer enters an area with a poor connection, the application holds the scanned information until a good connection is reestablished and the data can be sent according to priority.


Beerys pride shows when he talks about the teamwork that pushed this project through. The fact that weve got two good partners in Intermec and Wavelink is going to give us even more capability as we move forward. In his business, moving forward is what Beery likes to do best. Without delay.


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