CIO interview: Jean-Christophe Lalanne, CIO, Air France-KLM, on why WANs win business

Operating at locations around the world, the WAN is key to business success for airline Air France-KLM, says its global CIO, Jean-Christophe Lalanne

Jean-Christophe Lalanne has long experience of IT in the airline industry. Before he managed the merger of KLM and Air France in 2004, he worked as a consultant at Atos and a senior partner at Ernst & Young.

With Air France in his consultancy portfolio, Lalanne eventually decided to cross over from consulting to customer-side and became deputy CIO of the airline.

In 2012, Lalanne took over from Edouard Odier as executive vice-president for information systems at Air France and Air France-KLM. In this, his current position, he serves on the airline’s group executive committee.

“I am interested in business relations as far as technology goes,” he says.

According to Lalanne, business leaders in airline transport recognise IT as critical to their organisation’s success. “There is no hesitation and a real feeling that there is a need for IT capabilities around the world,” he says.

For instance, staff who work in Rio, São Paulo or Africa are the airline’s ambassadors in rapidly emerging markets. Passengers do not like to wait, and a slow network and poor IT are more visible to passengers. In emerging markets like the Middle East and Africa, if an airline terminal takes too long to update, it is not a good customer experience.

“To win business today, the [global] network lacks sufficient bandwidth and is simply is not good enough,” says Lalanne.

But the heads of business understand the importance of infrastructure to deliver good customer service, he says. With the right network in place, airlines can be ready for the huge growth in passenger numbers that is set to take place in emerging markets.

Eight of the world’s 10 fastest-growing airline markets are in Africa. And by 2034, 1.3 billion passengers will touch China – up from 850 million at present – while India is set to see an additional 260 million passengers.

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“We have decided to revisit our wide area network [WAN],” says Lalanne. “The company has decided to move off the Sita network, which is widely used in the airline.

“Its new WAN provider is Tata Communications, which provides the network for the Mercedes Formula 1 team and a low-latency network for financial institutes in the City of London.

The multi-year contract will see Tata roll out a superfast intelligent network that will power Air France-KLM’s mission-critical systems, including passenger check-in, flight operations and departure control applications, as well as corporate programmes in the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific.

Air France-KLM, which carried 87.4 million passengers in 2014, is the first major European airline group to move away from Sita as its WAN.

Airlines tend to run IT centralised, and Lalanne says the Tata WAN will connect its core backbone and Paris datacentres to locations around the world where it operates.

“The current network was relatively old-fashioned and bandwidth too low,” he says. “We now have double, triple or even five times as much bandwidth, all for the same price.”

“We now have double, triple or even five times as much bandwidth, all for the same price”

Jean-Christophe Lalanne, Air France-KLM

Whereas some organisations can reply on secure internet connectivity to link remote locations, airlines are regulated and require a high level of security, says Lalanne.

“All systems are physical and interface directly with other systems,” he says. “Security is obsessional.”

But the airline recognises that it needs to change, says Lalanne. “The DNA of people is to concentrate and close systems. People are extremely concerned about decentralising on the internet. But the cloud is progress and you can also distribute certain things on the internet.”

Lalanne says the WAN will be used only when absolutely necessary to connect to the datacentre systems. Air France-KLM will also route some network traffic locally over the internet, although secure traffic will be managed by a central firewall in France.

Flying above the cloud

While it is possible for airlines to develop applications that use cloud computing, Air France-KLM has decided to focus on private clouds. “We want to know how to make a private cloud work,” says Lalanne.

The airline’s private cloud enables it to practise DevOps, and it is able to provision an environment for developers within seconds, says Lalanne.

Air France-KLM is also in the process of assessing cloud native applications. Lalanne says that given the cost of WAN communications, cloud applications that are bandwidth-heavy would require the airline to invest in additional network links.

From an IT architectural perspective, he says the airline does not want to have customer data hosted in cloud. Hosting such information in a public cloud involves phase commit or complex synchronisation to ensure the customer record is not corrupted part-way through a transaction.

Having begun in private cloud four years ago, Lalanne is confident Air France-KLM can provide a service internally that is competitive with alternatives from commercial cloud providers.

“Since I don’t need to make a margin, I am convinced that one day the unit cost of our private cloud will be lower than what we can find on the market,” he says.

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