Southwest Airlines Cho.
The accident, which stranded thousands of passengers during one of the busiest travel weeks of the year, exposed a major industry shortcoming: crew scheduling technology that was largely built for a bygone era and in need of an overhaul.
Southwest relies on an off-the-shelf application called SkySolver, which it has customized and updated but is nearing the end of its life, according to the airline. The software was developed decades ago and is now owned by General Electric Cho.
During the winter storm, executives at the Dallas-based carrier were unable to complete the task of matching SkySolver crew members and which flights they were scheduled to work amid massive changes in crew schedules.
Southwest’s program was not designed to handle problems of this magnitude, Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson said Thursday, forcing the airline to return to manual scheduling. Unlike some major competitors with hub and talk networks, Southwest’s flights run from city to city, which can be another complicating factor.
According to a GE Aerospace spokesperson, multiple systems are involved in crew planning. The company said its software is not an all-in-one solution. Rather, it’s a so-called backend algorithm that airlines can add with other software. According to GE Aerospace, the algorithm collects input from other systems to make recommendations for crew troubleshooting.
According to analysts, many operators still use local solutions built mainly on old mainframes.
Analysts and industry insiders say the aviation industry is overdue for a massive technology overhaul that will leverage highly scalable cloud technologies and fully integrate disparate sources of real-time data to better connect crews with aircraft. According to these analysts, the airline sector is one of the slowest to adopt cloud-based and analytics technologies that can help solve complex transportation network problems.
Airline operations software has historically lagged behind other technologies, in part because so few providers build custom systems that can handle the scale of an airline as large as Southwest, said Tim Crawford, strategic advisor to the CIO of enterprise IT consulting firm AVOA.
Market research firm Frost & Sullivan said the global airline IT market generated $21.2 billion in revenue in 2019, with Amadeus IT Group among the leaders. SA,
International Business Machines Corp.
and Saber Corp.
It was established in 1960 as a joint initiative of American Airlines Group Inc.
Partnerships with cloud providers such as Alphabet Inc
Google Cloud and Amazon.com Inc
Amazon Web Services is also expected to help airlines and solutions providers improve their technology, Frost & Sullivan said. According to Frost & Sullivan, they are part of a technology partner ecosystem that could help them become future direct competitors to airline-software companies.
Dr. Edward Rotberg, senior researcher at Gurobi Optimization LLC.,
said that Southwest’s hopscotched point-to-point model — rather than a node-and-spoke model — significantly increases the difficulty of the problem and requires more computing power than its existing systems can handle.
Much of the complexity behind airline operations technology stems from the many real-time data points and constraints a system must consider, including federal regulations, weather conditions, crew status and location, aircraft maintenance and routing, Jahan Alamzad said. Weather analyst at consulting firm CA Advisors.
Mr. Alamzad said the most serious IT challenge facing airlines stems from applications developed in silos by vendors or the airlines themselves. When carriers upgrade their aircraft to newer analytics software to improve routing, for example, those systems are not linked to the software they use to manage the crews operating those flights.
Mr. Alamzad said that while this lack of connectivity is not normally a problem in daily airline operations, it can be catastrophic during severe disruptions such as a holiday storm.
In Southwest’s case, SkySolver works well during more typical outages, but it didn’t during the “extreme conditions” of last week’s storm, Lauren Woods, the airline’s vice president of technology platforms and incoming chief information officer, said Thursday.
Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said that while the carrier has good systems in some areas, those systems still “need better intelligence to talk to each other.” For example, he said, The Baker, an optimization system developed by Southwest to automate crash recovery and select flights to cancel, requires “better visibility” into crew scheduling systems.
R “Ray” Wang, founder and chief analyst at IT consulting firm Constellation, said airlines generally did better on maintenance and repair operations, but lagged behind on the “human aspect” of matching crews, equipment and passengers. Research Inc.
Updating technology systems is particularly challenging for air carriers because of the business and operational risk of system downtime, which could include downed planes or stranded passengers, Mr. Crawford said.
Southwest recently completed a new reservation system upgrade and has been working on multi-year improvements to the systems used in its operations. But the crew focused on maintenance and ground operations before scheduling, Southwest’s Mr. Watterson said. “At the time, it seemed like the right sequence,” he said.
Mr Alamzad said other carriers have opted to develop customer-facing booking platforms and in-flight loyalty programs over operational systems.
Mr. Jordan said Southwest’s collapse could prompt a modernization of some of its operations. “I can’t imagine it won’t lead to changes in the plan,” he said. “It’s the pace, maybe the level of spending. There may be a change in the order of priority.”
– Alison Sider contributed to this article.
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