Southwest Meltdown Shows Airlines Need Tighter Software Integration

South West Airlines Co.

The collapse that 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 engineered for a bygone era that needs a major overhaul.

During the winter storm, amid a huge volume of shifts in crew schedules, SkySolver couldn’t handle the task of matching crew members to the flights they should be working on, executives said from the Dallas-based carrier.

Southwest’s software was not designed to solve problems of this magnitude, chief operating officer Andrew Watterson said Thursday, forcing the airline to revert to manual planning. Unlike some larger rivals with hub-and-spoke networks, Southwest’s planes hopscotch from town to town, which may have been another complicating factor.

Analysts say many carriers still rely on local solutions, which were largely built on legacy mainframes.

Analysts and industry insiders say the airline industry is overdue for a massive technology overhaul that would take advantage of highly scalable cloud technologies and fully connect disparate sources of real-time data to better coordinate crews with airplanes. The airline industry has been among the slowest to adopt cloud-based and analytics technologies that could help solve complex transportation network problems, these analysts say.

Airline operations software has historically lagged behind other technologies because, in part, a small number of vendors are building dedicated systems capable of handling the scale of a large airline like Southwest, said Tim Crawford, CIO strategic advisor of enterprise IT consulting firm AVOA.

The global airline IT market generated $21.2 billion in revenue in 2019, market research firm Frost & Sullivan said, and leaders include Amadeus IT Group SA, International Business Machines Corp.

and Saber Corp.

formed in 1960 through a joint initiative between American Airlines Group Inc.

and IBM.

Partnerships with cloud providers like Alphabet Inc.

Google Cloud and Inc.

Amazon Web Services should also help airlines and solution providers improve their technologies, Frost & Sullivan said. According to Frost & Sullivan, they are part of the ecosystem of technology partners, which could help them become future direct competitors of airline software companies.

Dr. Edward Rothberg, chief scientist of Gurobi Optimization LLC, a startup that develops mathematical optimization software used by carriers like Air France-KLM,

said Southwest’s hopscotch “point-to-point” model—rather than the star model—significantly increases the difficulty of the problem, requiring more computing power than its current systems are likely able to handle.

Much of the complexity of flight operations technology stems from the many real-time data points and constraints that a single system must address, including federal regulations, weather, aircraft status and location. crew, as well as aircraft maintenance and routing, said Jahan Alamzad, an airline analyst at consultancy CA Advisors.

Alamzad said the most serious IT challenge facing airlines stems from applications developed in silos by vendors or the airlines themselves. When carriers upgrade to newer analytics software to improve their aircraft routing, for example, those systems aren’t connected to the software they use to manage the crew working those flights.

While this lack of connection isn’t usually a problem in day-to-day airline operations, it can become disastrous during severe disruptions like the holiday storm, Alamzad said.

In Southwest’s case, SkySolver works well during more typical disruptions, but not during the “extreme circumstances” of last week’s storm, Lauren Woods, the airline’s vice president of technology platforms and new chief executive, said Thursday. some information.

Southwest general manager Bob Jordan said that while the carrier has good systems in some areas, those systems still need “better information to talk to each other.” For example, he said “The Baker,” an optimization system developed by Southwest to automate disruption recovery and select flights to cancel, needs “better visibility” into its crew scheduling systems.

Airlines have generally done a better job of maintenance and repair, but are much further behind in the “human aspect” of matching crew, equipment and passengers, R “Ray” Wang said, founder and principal analyst of the computer consulting firm Constellation. Research Inc.

Updating technology systems is particularly difficult for airlines because of the business and operational risk of taking a system out of service, which can include grounded planes or stranded passengers, Crawford said.

Southwest recently completed an upgrade to its new reservation system and had been working on multi-year upgrades to the systems used in its operations. But he had focused on maintenance and ground operations before crew planning, Southwest’s Mr Watterson said. “At the time, it seemed like an appropriate streak,” he said.

Other carriers have prioritized upgrading customer-facing reservation platforms and airman loyalty programs over operating systems, Alamzad said.

Mr. Jordan said the collapse of Southwest could advance some of its modernization operations. “I can’t imagine it not leading 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 precedence.

—Alison Sider contributed to this article.

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