It was a jaded technology executive's dream: escaping IT for a life of travel. After 25 years in the telecom industry, Geri Carolan wanted a change. She had risen from a long-distance operator to a software developer to a senior IT director at Quest Communications. Then, in 2004, when the industry became roiled by overcapacity and accounting scandals and Quest began laying off employees, Carolan saw an ad: A budget carrier called Frontier Airlines was recruiting flight attendants.
"I said, 'It's time to get out of this business,'" Carolan recalls. "I had always wanted to get into the travel industry." And even though 900 people showed up for the call, Carolan was hired. For the next year, Carolan worked as a flight attendant, learning a new industry from the inside out.
Then a former Quest colleague passed Carolan's résumé to Bob Rapp, who had recently become the airline's first IT executive. He offered Carolan a job as director of IT. "Do I really want to get back into this?" Carolan recalls thinking. "IT is a hard industry. You work a lot of hours. But as a flight attendant, I saw a lot of weakness and thought I could really add some quick value."
Since then, Rapp and Carolan have been revamping an IT department that had been flying on autopilot. The company recently moved its decrepit in-house data center to a collocated facility, retooled its website to serve as its primary sales channel (saving a bundle in commissions), and started replacing its vital Maintenance, Repair and Operating (MRO) system with a new vendor whose software better fits the business.
"We've had some throwaway investments," Rapp admits. "Historically IT was one of those things that we didn't have to do well. Now it's a do-well; a strength, not a weakness."
Under Rapp, the airline's IT budget grew 60% his first year and 275% the next year. And the IT shop is scheduled to grow to 95 people this year from its current 62 -- although Carolan has had to temporarily stop hiring because the IT department ran out of space. "Those increases signal there's huge support in the business for IT," Rapp says. "The No. 1 priority was making sure we had alignment with business. The second was infrastructure remediation."
Getting the money for all this during a period when record fuel prices forced the airline into the red required making a sound business case for every investment. But Henry Harteveldt, who covers the travel industry for Forrester Research Inc., says Frontier made the right choice. "When oil is at $70 a barrel, it's hard to find spare cash, but Frontier realizes the importance of technology," he notes. "They've had the guts to walk away from apps they've outgrown. They're looking to sustain the next level of growth. These technological decisions are major capital expenses that require executive approval. None of this happens overnight. In two years, Rapp's done a lot."
Frontier's slogan is "A whole different animal." And a whole different IT department is what the company is trying to create.
This was first published in August 2006