EasyJet pioneered many of the innovations that shaped the market for low-cost air travel, and IT has been at the heart of those developments. For example, EasyJet was the first UK carrier to sell tickets online, in April 1998. Yet Simon Pritchard, EasyJet's web manager, says launching that first site was relatively straightforward compared to the headaches he faces today when making changes to a live site that handles millions of customers each year.
Pritchard is responsible for the design, development, performance, and usability of all of EasyJet's web systems, principally EasyJet.com and the company intranet. "When we first went live with online ticket sales, the customer base was not really expecting it and we had just two aircraft, so selling three seats in an hour was a rush," he says. "Now, 95% of our sales go through the website and we need to be able to cope with filling three Boeing 737s every minute. The immediate stresses on the business are much greater now when we want to change things than they were when we launched the first site five years ago."
EasyJet has undertaken two major overhauls of its website, which is the company's main interface with the public, in the past 18 months. The first development, in December 2002, involved incorporating the business from rival carrier Go, acquired by EasyJet in August 2002. Pritchard and his team had to incorporate all the functions previously available on Go's site, as well as handle greater levels of site traffic for the combined load.
The main issue in merging the EasyJet and Go websites was one of scale. Between June 2002 and June 2003 EasyJet saw an increase of 83% in passenger numbers - to more than 11 million a year - through a mixture of organic growth and the Go acquisition. However, Pritchard says his team was well placed to tackle the challenge because investment had been made in equipment to simulate high loads after the site had suffered capacity issues in the past. "That means we can check where the system breaks down and do something about it before the public sees it," he explains.
The second overhaul, in July this year, involved a website upgrade to provide customer registration facilities allowing the public to check bookings. The main headache here was to make the site straightforward and simple for customers and to keep the technology as invisible as possible, says Pritchard. That meant not just overcoming some major technical problems, it also tested his management skills to the full, he says.
"When you are grappling with a new technology, it is usually far from invisible in the first prototype," he says. "The developers have often worked very hard and are extremely proud of what they have come up with on that first prototype - but when someone new looks at it, they are horrified. The coders can be crestfallen and a lot of diplomacy is needed to manage that, but you still need to be quite ruthless to achieve your end result.
"We have a chief executive who is very technically savvy and there is nowhere to hide if you have made a mistake or are trying to make excuses about something in the prototype," says Pritchard. "He has a piercing stare and you know you are not going to get away with it. In other environments, you can pull the wool over people's eyes, but not at EasyJet."
For any project so significant, the tension mounts from three days before the scheduled go-live date. "That is the point of no return," says Pritchard. "Any change of plan after that point is admitting defeat."
The switch will usually take place in the middle of the night when customer loads are low. "That means critical tasks are taking place at four o'clock in the morning and everyone is tired because they have found it difficult to sleep and to adjust their body clocks," Pritchard says. "They are tense and wanting to be somewhere else, so it is not an easy atmosphere."
Everyone is also aware that a small problem on going live can quickly escalate to cause a complete seizure of the site. "People have the memory of that happening before and the fear of it happening again - which keeps us awake. Although we are all tired, staying awake is not usually a problem," he says.
Pritchard also admits that when you are tired and stressed it can be difficult to put problems into context. "Someone can come running in from another part of the business yelling and your heart stops," he says. "But what seems a huge issue for them may actually be a small thing to fix from our perspective. And all you can do, anyway, is fix those problems as they come up."
The two recent upgrades passed off relatively smoothly, but contingency plans were created to allow the airline to go back to the previous system if necessary. However, says Pritchard, "There is a reluctance to do that, because of personal pride and the big sense of defeat you would get. And there is definitely a sense of relief when it does go OK. But it is often hard to believe for the first few days that the system is running as smoothly as it was, when you have just made a big change."
Pritchard says the team can develop something of a love-hate relationship with its customers within the business during such a long project. "Much of what we do involves much shorter lifecycles, but these big projects are quite antisocial, with long hours and disrupted sleep," he says.
"Despite these drawbacks, there is a big sense of satisfaction in having done something tangible that a lot of people will see - and to have friends remark on it in the pub." He also feels big projects, involving the team all working together on a development, have helped to meld the three EasyJet staff and their colleague from Go into a unified team.
Now that the upgraded site is live, Pritchard has time to reflect. He says that, although almost everything EasyJet does has an impact on its market, he simply could not think about what an enormous project it was - with tens of thousands of people using the system - while was in the thick of it.
At the same time, he adds, having the chief executive come round regularly to check how long it would be until the upgraded site would be ready made it impossible not to be aware of its significance for both the airline and the European travel industry as a whole.
Returning to "business as usual" after a big project can sometimes feel dull - but Pritchard believes many of the smaller projects the team tackles can prove just as satisfying because they stretch team members' technical knowledge and require them to learn new things.
"For instance, on one release, we moved to XML and we started off with only the broadest knowledge of that technology," he says. "Now we are experts in how to use it - and we are very satisfied to know we have proved that we know what we are doing."