Southwest CIO Kathleen Wayton says the old system was “very vanilla.” Shane Kislack

Business

The Woman Who Keeps Southwest Current

How CIO Kathleen Wayton brought the Dallas airline’s outdated reservation system into the 21st century.

Until just last year, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines relied on a 30-year-old reservation system.

To put that in perspective, the old platform, SAAS, evolved from one used by Braniff Airways Inc.—and if that name doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because Braniff ceased operations back in 1982. The old system was outdated, and, as Chief Information Officer Kathleen Wayton says, “very vanilla.” But worse: It hindered business in a big way.

Wayton led the $500 million system migration, a massive effort that brought Southwest out of the past and onto Amadeus’s Altéa, a platform used by more than 100 other airlines, including Lufthansa and British Airways. The switch, finalized in May of last year, happened in increments spread over five years and involved more than 1,500 employees from different departments. The company expects the update to generate an additional $500 million in annual profit by 2020.

“It took a lot of effort across business and technology to develop the project,” Wayton says. “We had teams across the company working together to ensure that not only was the technology ready to be delivered, but our front-line employees were ready to use the new system.”

 Wayton has a deliberate demeanor and the ability to quickly translate indecipherable tech-talk into lay terms. From her bright, tidy office in the Southwest Airlines headquarters near Dallas Love Field airport, Wayton explains that with the system upgrade came a host of new capabilities, many of which Southwest’s competitors have long been able to perform. With the new system, Southwest gained the ability to code-share with other carriers, book red-eye flights, and modify prices and scheduling. Under the old system, Southwest flew on a fixed schedule; now, the company can arrange its flights according to profitability. 

Dallas-based Southwest flies to 100 destinations.

“We couldn’t fly international on our old system, either,” Wayton says. “We grew domestically for the last 30 years, and now we can fly to Caribbean cities, Mexico, and Central America. It’s a big change to how we can operate and what we can deliver to our customers.”

Growing up, Wayton’s family vacations usually involved road trips, not flights, and Wayton dreamed of traveling to faraway places. She was raised in Odessa in West Texas and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of North Texas. Shortly after college, Wayton left her job at a Dallas graphic design firm to take a gig with American Airlines. That, she thought, would be the perfect way to add some stamps to her passport.

“I told my boss that I was going to work in reservations for one year, travel around the world a little bit, and then go back to my career,” she says.

“We had teams working together  to ensure that not only was the technology ready to be delivered, but that our front-line employees were ready to use the new system,” Wayton says.

She flew to Europe, visiting iconic spots like London and Paris. She traveled to Africa and, because she loves the beach, spent plenty of time in the Caribbean and Mexico. A year passed. “I ended up staying and traveling,” she says. “Once it gets in your blood, it’s hard to leave.”

Wayton worked for American Airlines and Sabre for nearly 18 years. Aside from a brief stint at Capital One Auto Finance, she’s spent her entire career in the travel industry. She came to Southwest Airlines as a director of technology in 2004, leading the implementation of the All New Rapid Rewards Program and overseeing Southwest.com. In 2007, she transferred to the business side, serving as senior director of strategic planning and implementation.

“That helped me understand more about the business and how Southwest operates,” she says. “It helped me understand how to work with technology better—and how to make sure that both technology and business understand what we need to deliver.”

In 2012, she began serving as vice president, corporate delivery-operations and reservations, and, in 2017, was promoted to her current role. As CIO, Wayton oversees all technology services and products.

Southwest Airlines employs about 56,000 people, flies to 100 destinations, and, in 2017, recorded $21.2 billion in revenue. That’s a lot to keep running smoothly, so it’s not surprising that some of Wayton’s focus is on making Southwest reliable and resilient. Reliable, so the company doesn’t face another catastrophe like the 2016 technical outage that resulted in 2,300 cancelled fights; and resilient, so that if the worst should happen, business can quickly resume.

Other focus areas include improving the Southwest digital experience for both customers and employees via self-service opportunities and simplified tools. Wayton also is working to modernize the company’s portfolios and build out its architectures, so that when new business capabilities arise, they can be implemented quickly.

Even after more than 30 years in the industry, she’s still excited by new destinations, especially ones with beaches. Wayton predicts that, by the end of 2018, Southwest will begin running flights to Hawaii—just another thing that wouldn’t have been possible without the new reservation system.

 “If you look at technology as a whole, it’s done a lot of great things to help with revenue and revenue opportunities,” she says. “And one of the biggest is our new reservation system, which we’ll be able to leverage for years to come.”   

Comments