Instinctively, we know there’s a lot of advanced technology in the airline industry. All of those buttons and doo-dads in the cockpit are impressive, if not a little bit overwhelming (even to people obsessed with technology). However, a significant portion of the innovation within the airline industry has nothing to do with the planes themselves, but with the efficiencies of running an airline.

According to Nirav Shah, vice president, information technology at Republic Airways and recent CTO of the Year awards honoree, some of the most disruptive and transformative tech innovations serving the industry are coming from his relatively small but growing team of 60 engineers, applications developers and other tech pros who work at Republic’s headquarters on the Northwest side of Indianapolis.

“I moved to Indianapolis in 2007, and yet I had no idea that Republic Airways was 10 minutes from my house or that there were nearly 1,000 people working here at the headquarters,” Nirav said. “In just the past 18 months, we’ve done work that has not only helped save the company hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the other airlines are all talking about what we’re doing and looking to Republic as an industry innovator.”

The $1.28 billion company employs more than 6,000 people total, including pilots and flight attendants, and its 1,000+ daily flights to 100 cities make it the second-largest regional airline in the U.S. The airline started out as Chautauqua near Buffalo, New York, before moving to Indianapolis in 1994. You can learn more about Republic Airways from the company’s recent 45th anniversary celebration, 25 years in Indianapolis and historical timeline.

Nirav Shah, Vice President, Information Technology, Republic Airways.

One of the biggest shifts that new CTO has helped usher in at Republic has to do with the way the company as a whole views technology–essentially reclassifying itself as a tech company with air travel at its core.

“In about a year’s time we migrated systems to the cloud, rolled out new ERP and analytics platforms, implemented many SaaS platforms, started a Robotics competency and reorganized into an agile methodology operation, all while hiring like crazy and growing the team by 25% including focus on diversity in tech,” Nirav said. “Ultimately, this has set us up to move very fast and to approach technology differently. We’re not ‘order takers’ who get a call when something goes wrong. We’re partners with flight operations, HR, finance, marketing–every single company department–and we’re solving some of the problems that have plagued the airline industry for decades.”

Republic Airways’ iPad-based Electronic Flight Release app, for example, has replaced the paper-based dot matrix checklists that pilots are required by the FAA to sign, verifying safety measures like fuel volume and passenger manifests. Crew Life, a mobile workspace app (originally developed in 2014 with Indianapolis-based software consultancy Developertown), uses technology like real-time data access and software bots to automate the clerical or mundane to free up staff for more thoughtful work. Adoption of Republic’s apps among its employees are greater than 90%, and they have eliminated the need for crew members to call a corporate hotline and wait for someone to read their itineraries or contact different partner airlines just to get a flight home for the night.

Crew Life is evidence that Republic Airways has been forward thinking and ahead of the curve for years, but the speed at which the company is implementing its digital transformation has greatly accelerated. When management announced Republic Airways would be creating a new pipeline program to address the pilot shortage, nothing of its kind actually existed. 

Just 90 days later, however, Republic launched LIFT Academy, a tech-forward flight training program that is designed to create a “classroom-to-cockpit’ path for its students, combining flight, flight simulator, online and in-classroom training. 

“The whole team adopted this start-up mentality and came together to make LIFT Academy a reality,” Nirav said. “We broke some new ground with state-of-the-art technology and an educational approach that works extremely well for potential pilots and for the airlines that are fighting against a critical shortage.”

LIFT Academy is on track to become the largest flight school in the nation and the only one operated by a regional airline. Graduates are guaranteed a job at Republic and the academy offers financing and loan assistance. Part of the academy’s success is due to the LIFT Lab, a mobile virtual reality flight experience that gives users the sensation of flying. It’s been featured at more than 150 events over the past year including airshows around the country and Dell Technologies World in Las Vegas.

“The big picture outcome of LIFT Academy and LIFT Lab, as well as our apps and bots, is that Republic Airways is the disruptor that’s blazing a technology trail for the rest of the airline industry,” Nirav said. “The strategy is straightforward. We have direct access to airline experts with tremendous knowledge inside our own company–literally in the same building–and our tech team is dedicated to working together to solve lingering problems and keep improving the experience for our pilots, flight attendants and passengers.”