Enabling air travel innovation via APIs
Alaska Airlines is part of Seattle-based Alaska Air Group, Inc., a holding company that also includes Horizon Air. As the seventh-largest US-based carrier, Alaska Airlines flies to 90 destinations in three countries and also code shares with a wide range of airline partners.
Over the past 79 years, Alaska Airlines has grown from a small regional airline to a national carrier and – along the way – has become a leading recipient of awards from a wide range of consumer publications and industry bodies, including JD Power, Conde Naste and the Freddie Awards.
Alaska Air Group by the Numbers
- $3.8 billion in revenue (2010)
- Seventh-largest US airline
- More than 23 million passengers annually
- More than 90 destinations in North America
- Number one in airline customer satisfaction for the last four years
- More than 12,500 employees
But with Alaska Airlines chasing the big players in the US national airline market – and lacking the marketing budget of a United, Delta or US Air – it needed a way to disproportionately impact the market. To that end, Alaska Airlines has become a leader in electronic innovations, being one of the first airlines to introduce personal, handheld entertainment devices for travelers (digEplayer), as well as being the first to pioneer online check-in, back in 2005.
Alaska Airlines was also one of the first airlines to offer an iPhone application that allowed travelers to check in and access their mobile boarding passes from the convenience of a cell phone. While innovative, the application was limited in functionality and had poor usability, essentially just providing a more cramped version of the “screen-scraped” information found on Alaska Air’s Web site.
To get to the next level, Alaska Airlines kicked off its “Innovation at the Edge” initiative with the goal of exposing its applications and data to internal developers and select external partners via APIs, in order to stimulate the creation of mobile applications that would provide a significant value-add for travelers, employees, cargo customers and other stakeholders. Alaska Airlines has a great deal of experience with service-oriented architecture (SOA) and has been building Web services for the better part of the last decade. But exposing these services to third parties – services that generate revenue for Alaska Airlines on a day-to-day basis – was not a step to be taken lightly. The company needed to ensure its APIs would not be compromised, either by deliberate attack or by inadvertent usage.
Alaska Airlines knew it required some kind of an API proxy that would act as a security and management device to not only gate incoming requests, but also regulate those requests to ensure backend services would not be overwhelmed by third-party calls. After an extensive POC, Alaska Airlines chose Layer 7 Technologies’ Gateways for ease of use and the ability to automate the migration of APIs between development/test, QA and production environments, which was key when working with third-party partners who employed agile development processes. The company was also impressed by the flexibility of the Gateway, purchasing it for a single project but eventually implementing a total of five projects ranging from a Facebook implementation (FlyingSocial with Alaska Airlines) to baggage and cargo tracking applications.
Essentially, the Layer 7 Gateway abstracts Alaska Airlines’ information services (such as flight schedules, reservations, cargo and baggage) and exposes them as APIs to internal and third-party developers who can incorporate the services’ functionality and data within the applications they build for handheld devices, online portals or commercial Web sites. Layer 7 Gateways are deployed in Alaska Airlines’ DMZ, where they perform actions on every API request originating from a third-party developer, such as authentication, rate limiting, quota enforcement and other traffic shaping functions, to ensure backend services remain available. Layer 7 also caches travel data pulled from backend reservation systems in order to minimize access costs.
In August 2011, travelers began downloading the updated Alaska Airlines app for the iPhone from the iTunes App Store (the Android-based application is due later this year). The completely redesigned application takes advantage of the new API-based approach, delivering a Web 2.0 look and feel that streamlines how travelers check in and access their mobile boarding passes, get flight status/details, select/change seats and track their mileage plans.
When a traveler uses the application, they are prompted to log in to their Alaska Airlines account. The Layer 7 Gateway performs authentication and authorization against the local LDAP and routes the request to the appropriate service while recording the hit against the API, so Alaska Airlines can track usage and determine which applications are most popular and which APIs should be invested in going forward. If the request requires flight information, the service employs the Layer 7 Gateway to query internal flight status services and cache the results, so that future requests can minimize response time and decrease costs associated with querying backend systems.
The API-based approach has allowed Alaska Airlines employees and partners to quickly create other innovative applications that work in a similar way to the iPhone application, including:
With the Layer 7 Gateway in place, Alaska Airlines can securely expose its APIs to potentially hundreds or even thousands of third-party developers whose applications are dramatically expanding Alaska Airlines’ market reach. The Gateway tracks API usage by application, facilitating the understanding of where to invest going forward. And by caching results for travelers’ flight information, Alaska Airlines can reduce its backend network costs.
The API-based approach has already proven itself, fostering innovative applications that get to market sooner than traditional approaches, thereby giving Alaska Airlines a leg up on the competition in the US air travel market.