We airline people sure love our acronyms! And here's one that the vast majority of my Southwest family doesn't (yet) know...AGIFORS SSP.
AGIFORS is an acronym for a professional society that is dedicated to advancing the science and the application of Operations Research in the airline industry. The acronym itself stands for Airline Group of the International Federation of Operational Research Societies. The main group is divided into study groups that study individual areas for more detailed study, and the "SSP" at the end denotes the Strategic and Schedule Planning study group. Other study groups tackle such topics as Cargo, Crew Management, Revenue Management, and Airline Operations. Each study group under the AGIFORS umbrella meets once a year, with each meeting hosted by an aviation vendor, university, or airline. Previous sessions have been hosted by Boeing in Seattle, Cranfield University (a small aviation university) in rural Bedfordshire, England, and by a whole list of airlines scattered across the globe. This year, Southwest hosted the event (for the first time ever!) and treated the attendees to a little LUV.....Southwest style, of course!
Attendees of AGIFORS study group sessions range from airline schedule planners and operations researchers to university academes to commercial aviation vendors. Attendees present to the group the results of their work on topics centering around creating efficient, "operable" airline schedules. This year, we had about 50 attendees from airlines and organizations on five continents. Presentations at this year's session included new techniques for "robust" scheduling (meaning creating a schedule that is not only efficient and attractive to Customers but is also "recoverable" should a major weather or airspace event disrupt aircraft flow around the network), maintenance "reachability" (designing an airline schedule that allows for minimal disruption in order to route aircraft for overnight, routine maintenance), and new thoughts in optimization airline schedules (presented by one of the SWA scientists that wrote our new Global Optimizer!).
Now before all of you rush out to try and get the "No-Doze" concession at next year's study group session, you have to understand the audience at these meetings. Attendees can be categorized two ways: one, multiple-graduate-degree holders whose job is to do high-level airline mathematics in order to create better schedules, and two, those (like me) who are only marginally mathematically literate but whose job it is to implement better schedules--so folks in my "category" of attendees come to these sessions and feverishly try to learn all we can from the brilliant minds in the group in order to make our airline schedules better. You'd recognize us if you saw is. We're the ones in the session with sweat pouring off of our foreheads with smoking-hot pencils, taking notes at a feverish pace.
During the study group session, the attendees took to Southwest's Culture like Paris Hilton takes to publicity. It took about a day of being at SWA's Headquarters to get the group "drinking the Kool-Aid." We told them, in advance, that the uniform of the day was casual. Shorts were perfectly fine. And they still showed up in business casual, or worse (TIES!!!! GASP!!!!) However, by day three, everyone was dressed in nothing "worse" than business casual--and we even had a few of the legacy guys in shorts and sandals. In the meantime, we treated the group to some good ol' Southwest fun--from a building tour (including a brief Herbie sighting!), to a hamburger cookout (thanks, Jaime and the Schedule Planning team!), to the conference dinner in our corporate campus eatery, "The Landing." Southwest's HDQ complex provided a truly unique, and memorable, venue.
Why, you might ask, would airlines that compete like gladiators in a chariot race collaborate on how to solve the problems that we all share? It's simple, really. There are two reasons. First, at this, fairly theoretical level, there is kind of an academic camaraderie of scientific sharing going on. It's almost like the "publish or perish" mentality in academia--publish what you've discovered, but don't give away all the code. The presentations are never so detailed as to reveal proprietary corporate "secrets" but are detailed enough to share new thinking about old problems. And two, while airlines might be incredibly competitive from a marketing and financial standpoint, from a scheduling and operational standpoint it makes much more sense for us to share what we've learned. All of us are trying to operate as ontime as we possibly can, and we de facto have to plan "around' each other. If any of the airlines are way "below the curve" in ontime performance--it messes ALL of us up. So let's at least share the new thought processes....and let the operation deal with the reality.
Gary Kelly, Southwest's Chairman, CEO, and President, provided the keynote speech to the study group, and condensing what he said, he told the group that in this operating environment, any airline that wasn't operating optimally--wasn't going to be operating at all, in the longer term. Southwest attends study groups such as AGIFORS to make certain that understand how to get to that optimality, and that we're as close to the cutting edge of the science of airline operations research as possible so that we can publish the most "robust" (love that word!) schedule for you.
Even if I don't understand all of it. But I'm working on that!