Altitude22: Southwest credits network planning tech for COVID competitive advantage

Altitude22: Southwest credits network planning tech for COVID competitive advantage

The US lowcost carrier's Matt Muehleisen told airlines executives at the Amadeus event that it's ability to adapt to circumstances but limit disruption was vital during the pandemic

Technology allowing a more dynamic approach to schedule planning helped leading US lowcost carrier Southwest Airlines cope with disruption wrought by the COVID pandemic.

Matt Muehleisen, the carrier’s senior director of network planning, told the Amadeus airline executives summit in Dubai that carriers must be quicker to adapt to disruption.

He said the grounding in March 2019 of the Boeing 737 Max, which represented 36 aircraft, or 5%, of its fleet, was “tough” but was nothing compared to the challenges of the pandemic.

At one point schedules were being published just one month before flying as the airline looked to continuously re-optimise its fleet of aircraft.

“Where do our customers want to go, when do they want to go and how often? It sounds easy and in the past I believe it was easy for us. I believe we took it for granted.

“In the pandemic you did not know what your customers wanted anymore, you did not understand what they need. You are trying to react to what’s going on around you.

“Now we are in an era when we do not know anything about our customers any more, we don’t know what our airline can do, so we are constantly reacting.”

Southwest had previously built its own scheduling technology tool in the 2000s, to optimise its fleet usage and to give it a competitive edge, Muehleisen said.

This enabled it to optimise based on seasonality, but during the following decade it worked with Amadeus on a new scheduling system called Skymax that made more use of operational data.

“We needed to know what we were building was operable, it was where our customers want to go when they want to go and something our fleet and crew could handle,” said Muehleisen.

During COVID scheduling that would traditionally were one to five years shrunk to three to six months and at times were being published just a month out from departure.

This allowed Southwest to continually build hundreds of schedules that it knew it could deliver operationally in the time it used to be possible to create one.

Muehleisen said a development called Adapt Optimisation was built so that schedule changes were deployed that caused the least amount of disruption to customers who had already booked.

“If you’re going to put a totally new schedule out there that’s completely different to what customers have already booked you want to produce something close to the times they’ve booked.

“It enables our customers to maintain the flights that they may have booked already and it allows us to bring in new data we may not have had when we developed the schedule originally.”

This approach enabled Southwest to add 18 news markets to its network during the pandemic that would not have been possible if schedules were being rewritten manually.

Muehleisen said this showed that the carrier’s own booking and trends data was much more powerful that basing scheduling decisions on forecast market data two to three years out.

“That’s what sets us apart with these tools,” said. “It’s a competitive advantage that we were able to utilise during the pandemic.

“We got lucky. We started this process 15 years ago and now we are in a spot where we are able to constantly work and iterate to get the schedules we need, the profitability we need and operation we need.

“That’s what allowed us to success in this environment. I believe it’s time to invest in network planning. The tools are here to work with all different kinds of carriers.”