Southwest Airlines placed fourth on Fortune's World's Most Admired Companies list, and one of the criteria that companies are judged on is innovation. Network Planning has always been all about innovation—planning the most efficient, creative way to use our fleet of “red-bellied warbirds” to serve the best interest of our Company. Many of you have heard about our incredibly unique schedule optimizer, and how it came to be. It’s an amazing story of Southwest entrepreneurialism and ingenuity at its best; if you don’t know the story, you can click here to read a blog piece I did about it back in 2007. The Optimizer gives us enormous flexibility to innovate within the schedule, whether it’s “harvesting” available aircraft time on the West Coast and applying it for new service on the East Coast; better aligning arrivals and departures at some of our large stations to improve connectivity; or just putting our flights at better departure or arrival times.
But there is a lot more innovation involved in writing a schedule than meets the eye. A lot of the art of schedule writing boils down to where to “put” time. Realistically, time is a zero-sum game—flights can only leave so early, and can only get in so late, from a Customer-desirability perspective (for example, very few people would want to leave Dallas Love Field for Houston Hobby at 3:00 a.m., even if what might be the most efficient way to schedule the airplanes). In general, we know that a Customer demand-based operating day means that we can’t have our airplanes start before 6:00 a.m. or finish much after 10:00 p.m. So, given that finite amount of time, the innovation comes in what you do with that time. Do you increase block times at the expense of turn times? Do you increase turn times and shave block times? Depending on how you do the math, you could get either answer. The art of innovation comes in the formulas of the arithmetic and the historical analysis that’s done so that you don’t just get an answer, you get the right answer.
There are lots of other behind-the-scenes innovations that are baked into our schedules. Things designed to improve operating efficiency, like devising ways to avoid assigning similar-sounding flight numbers to airplanes operating at airports at roughly the same time. Things like finding ways to rapidly offer the Customer more choices to get them where they want to go during peak-demand times (with a little help from our friends in Revenue Management!). And things that are entirely behind-the-scenes, like finding innovative forums to enable better collaboration and communication between the operating Departments within Southwest, like our Integrated Planning effort.
This continual innovation, both of our schedule product and of the processes we use to create it, takes a group with extremely varied talents. The 50 Southwest Employees in the Network Planning departments have backgrounds and educations that range from mathematics and operations research to geography to psychology. And each one of us have just one goal in mind—writing the most efficient, safest, and most profitable schedule in the airline industry. We’ve been schedule innovators for 40 years now….and here’s to 40 more!