CASE STUDY: The Digital Transformation of Frontier Airlines’ end-to-end Document Management
Author: Joshua Lee, Technical Standards Pilot, Frontier AirlinesSubscribe
Joshua Lee, Technical Standards Pilot at Frontier Airlines shares the experience and benefits of implementing Document Management System, and how the transition was achieved in a seamless and speedy manner, during the turbulent pandemic period.
There are two things that I want to cover in this case study. Not only the challenge of implementing a new system in the middle of a pandemic when, fortunately, technology was able to bridge the gap and close the distances between people. There was also the challenge of moving to a new document management system but with only four days to manage the transition and to get it trained. It certainly concentrated the mind.
That said, it’s good to have a complete, end-to-end digital document management system that addresses all of the key functions, which is one of the things we’re going to focus on with Vistair in this case study. One thing I have learned in many years of involvement with implementations in this sector is that everything has to be written with simplicity in mind. That’s sometimes a challenge for people involved with technology who often don’t know about people who are more technophobic and who, having used paper for so long, might not easily accept doing things on a digital system. The sector employs people from a range of different generations. Some older people didn’t come up always having had technology in their hands and even people in Gen X weren’t born with technology but did experience it at a young age.
So, when it was decided that Frontier’s new document management system should be implemented in four days across a whole airline that has been used to one way of doing things for years, the change was difficult for some people.
FRONTIER’S STRATEGIC FOCUS
We wanted speedy and seamless implementation, simplicity of use and widespread adoption across Flight Operations.When you get handed something and told, ‘make everybody use this’, the first thought has to be that implementation and adoption are going to be key if you’re to successfully change a large strategic system. In this case, Frontier Airlines went away from a system with which everybody had been comfortable for years, and moved to a system that not only looked completely different but also operated differently. Some, the more technophile people, got on with the new system really well so that when we started using it and building the training, they found it easy to use, a very simple process. However, even at that early stage, we had to think about how to introduce it to the pilots who might be a little less tech savvy, and help them to understand how to use the new program. Now that we’re using this new system for all of Frontier’s documentation management, not only for headquarters communications but also for usable tactical information on the flightdecks, we needed to make sure that everybody was comfortable with how to use it.
Simplicity to Drive User Uptake
In that context, one of the great things about Vistair is that it’s very simple to use even though iPads can be complex. One of the reasons, I think, that we all use the iPad now is that it can be used as a user with very simple needs but then, another person using the same device can use all of the capabilities it has but which a regular user doesn’t care about. In the case of a pilot, they just want to get their information and to fly. There’s a wide spectrum of users in Frontier which is really important and Vistair’s App gave us the capability to work with users across that spectrum. We needed to make training user-focused.
Starting very easy, by going back to a process, digital paper, that was simple, we worked from there. We had to think about how to build binders of information, which is a terminology we used because many people would not have understood the term ‘Cloud’. Once they were comfortable with the new system, we simply dropped the term ‘binder’. Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) mentality always works because complexity is the enemy of efficiency. The less complex something can be at a user level, the better, especially when, during COVID, we were only flying to about forty percent of capacity. There were a lot of people who were new to the company and those newer people are, generally speaking, the more tech savvy users, while a lot of the senior people in the business were the ones who would be flying so we had to figure out how to get them to use this and be effective with a brand-new system. That was how Frontier Airlines developed our training: it should be simple to use and it should be efficient to pull in data.
Change management, for us, is a key factor and one of the complexities that make things inefficient. We have to think that there is something that needs to be changed; how can that be done from a tech standard, or from a Flight Ops standard and at what level in the business should that be done? What was great about how Vistair presented this program to us is that the back end is really simple and seamless. So, we can start at a base level and send out a new change for FOM’s (Flight Operations Manuals). During COVID, we changed a lot of things very rapidly with many temporary revisions because the entire structure of how we were flying was changed. We could do that with the click of a button to update changes and it would do so automatically; not only that, we could see a lot of our linking and bookmarking which would carry along with that when people did it correctly. Then we could make sure that all of our development was tailored the way that Frontier Airlines needs it.
INNOVATE AND DRIVE EFFICIENCIES
One of the good things that we do as an ULCC (Ultra Low-Cost Carrier) is that we’re always looking for ways to innovate, to make things cheaper. We’re always looking for fuel savings, Frontier is the greenest airline in the United States, and that’s all of a piece with finding ways to reduce weight, to reduce fuel cost and burn, and to be more efficient in the things we do, not just from a technology standpoint but also being efficient as workers. For everything that we want to do, there’s an opportunity cost, and we want to make sure that, if pilots can be very efficient, those efficiencies flow down the line and we don’t have to worry about those things like delays, especially when there are changes.
FRONTIER VALUES PARTNERSHIP CENTRIC APPROACH WITH VISTAIR
DocuNet is ultra flexible and fits very well into Frontier Airlines’ current ecosystem. We established at an early stage, as we developed these new technology platforms, that we wanted our partners to be able to work with other partners; we wanted to request changes and have done so in the last year when Vistair has been very responsive DocuNet is an open product which is great because it can integrate with other applications within our Flight Ops technology ecosystem. For Frontier it’s important that not only is the product open but also that the team is open and we feel part of a team not just a business buying a product.
We want to be sure that not only is a technology partner working for us but that it continues to work on the basis that we could suggest a change or addition and that it’s super responsive with that exchange of ideas. At Frontier, the integration with AvioBook was a major consideration, to be able to do deep linking back and forth. With Vistair, it doesn’t stop with being able to integrate back into AvioBook, we also use it for training.
The idea is to take all of this into the next generation and how we develop these applications so that we’re using the full capabilities of what our iPad devices can do. One of the great things about working with Vistair is that, as well as how we’ve developed the back-end systems to roll-over into our current systems, what we’re doing on the next steps is taking this from simply a PDF reader to something that acts like an application. It’s not just uploading a PDF and that’s it but we’re making this into an application that has widget capability, deep linking out to websites, and BI (Business Intelligence) tracking; all of that can be done through the system which has not only made it easier for us but it’s also made it easy for our regulators.
With Vistair, the tech stack can be scaled which is really great. We talk a lot about DocuNet but there are other things they have available that we’re also looking at, they have structured data, XML tagging. Taking, as an example, the three FOM volumes that Frontier has, they all do different things but we wondered why there have to be three documents. Why not just one single document that can be edited at one time and that goes from FOM 1 (our policy manual) to FOM 2 (the systematic process of how we do what we do) to FOM 3 (the systems manual)? With some of the structured data in the work that we’re doing with Vistair, we’re able to move from button to button without having to leave the one ecosystem in order to get all that information at our fingertips. The term ‘knowledge management’ is understanding how to take all of that knowledge and package it in a way that’s consumable by all users. Tom Davenport described that in 1994 as, “The process of capturing, distributing and effectively using knowledge.” At Frontier, we’re not trying to build knowledgeable pilots, we’re trying to build wise pilots. We want them to be able to take the knowledge and apply it with their experience and come up with a solution. That’s the huge difference between a good pilot and a great pilot in our case. It’s the same thing for a good leader and a great leader: knowledge versus wisdom. We want to take all of the knowledge that we have available at our fingertips; and we want to make it quick, accessible and efficient so that we can use it and add it to our experience.
Flexibility is key for Frontier; we currently have growth plans to have 380 to 400 aircraft by the end of the decade and we’re expecting some big things next year. We just opened another base to take the airline to nine bases in the USA plus we are hiring pilots. All those pilots are getting this new infrastructure from day one which is great. The flexibility to be able to add structured data authoring and engineering, to be able to tie this in with other divisions within Frontier. We have leadership at Frontier but contract out some of the work so we have to consider how we unify that across the entire business. We use Vistair and, while I get a lot of admin materials sent to me, the pilots just get the Flight Ops function, Flight Attendants just get the Flight Attendants’ function and it can all be managed on a distribution system that is really easy to use in the back-end.
WE DO NOT WANT DIGITAL PAPER
The ‘Forms’ function in Vistair is, for us, a game changer. One ULCC characteristic that makes it more difficult is that we’re always trying to find ways to be lean and that often turns out to be to our own detriment. We have two thousand pilots; Casey Meeks and I run all of them with many different hats. We had people doing flight training scheduling, all of the check airmen scheduling, all of the scheduling for any new pilots to go onto the line to get their line operating experience and also, they were the people taking medical certificates, updating passports… all of these extra steps. So, one of the things that we thought early on, after the initial implementation, was how to take that and use the technology to our advantage; more than just a PDF reader, to make their jobs easier. Our reasoning was to database that stuff, take all of those forms (about 473 different paper forms) and bring them up to date using the capabilities of the new system. We spent about a month and a half doing an initial push on the digitization of all of our forms.
Nestable Forms for a Superior User Experience
What’s really useful about Vistair’s DocuNet platform and the way that Frontier uses the Forms function is that they’re fully nestable. We can use any type of deep linking so that, if a form needs to reference something else, we can use that without having to remove ourselves from the form, and can use HTML links, tags. This has been really beneficial for us plus we can do conditional formatting. For instance, we had four different forms for the annual check-ride based on how the pilot did during their check-ride; hopefully, only one would be needed but sometimes the pilots would need retraining or there would be something else to do. With conditional formatting inside of the forms, not only can we have one space for all of that data which made our end of check-rides more efficient, but we can also keep all of that data stored in the same place so could always quickly reference back to all of that conditional formatting.
Then there is also quick access to results with notifications. With all of our forms we can set up custom notifications so that, with any form, if somebody wants to complain about the EFB program, say, that form comes directly to me to consider or note and I can quickly reference the form, but not just that form. It’s possible to use two different versions from the EFB and submit that directly to our ticketing system as well. All of that can be achieved inside the App with connectivity.
A RESPONSIVE, HIGH VALUED PARTNERSHIP ENSURES SUCCESS
At Frontier Airlines, we value the relationships and partnerships that we have and we tend to be direct because we want a value return on what we’re getting. In that spirit, the ongoing relationship between us and Vistair has been excellent with, not least, the ability for us to request changes and their willingness and ability to respond. They’re quick to come out and visit us or to set up on-line meetings – most of the initial phases took place during the pandemic – even taking account of the time differences. They are responsive to all parts of our business: Flight Ops, Tech Ops, Headquarters. We also appreciate being kept up-to-date with Vistair’s regular roadmap telling us what is coming out and when, including any changes that we might have requested. They even go further. We use GFDM to monitor and access all of our iPads in the back-end and, if you’ve used any Apple devices or GFMDM the Apple Business Manager doesn’t tell you what version of a solution you’re on which means you don’t know until it’s with the pilots. Vistair has worked with us to devise a test version that we can try before distributing anything new to pilots so that we’re never surprised by an update that comes out. They have data experts there that not only support Airbus data for us but they also understand and they’re teaching our leadership, who really need to be the sales point, on how the structured data works, XML tagging and what they’re going to have to do to change a little bit of the things that they do to move to the next generation.
All in all, we can honestly say that Vistair has not only supplied Frontier with the most comprehensive, end-to-end digital document management system, excellent as that is. They have also unlocked all sorts of possibilities and efficiencies that will serve us well now and as our fleet and business expand in the years ahead. We feel that we have more than just a software supplier; in Vistair we have a valuable and highly engaged partner.
Josh has been at Frontier for over three years, as the Technical Standards Pilot. He was a pilot in the United States Army and, over 21 years, developed and led the Army’s EFB program and. He founded Eagle Training Solutions and specializes in how users interact with technologies and consults with developers in the aerospace industry to refine the process of removing complexities in the consumption of information on digital platforms.
Frontier Airlines operates 120 A320 family aircraft and has the largest A320neo family fleet in the U.S. The use of these aircraft, Frontier’s seating configuration, weight-saving tactics and baggage process have all contributed to Frontier’s continued ability to be the most fuel-efficient of all major U.S. carriers when measured by available seat miles (ASMs) per fuel gallon consumed. With more than 230 new Airbus planes on order, Frontier will continue to grow.
Vistair delivers document and safety management solutions for aviation operations, supporting more than 40 customers worldwide to improve operational efficiency, safety, and compliance. DocuNet is a leading end-to end document management solution, providing a coherent, single point of control for editing, publishing, distributing, and viewing all operational documentation. It provides the flexibility to access documents via the web and mobile devices and can also manage documents in all formats.