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Southwest Meltdown Shows Airlines Need Tighter Software Integration

During the winter storm, amid a huge volume of changes to crew schedules to work through, SkySolver couldn’t handle the task of matching crew members and which flights they should work, executives of the Dallas-based carrier said. 

Southwest’s software wasn’t designed to solve problems of that scale, Chief Operating Officer

Andrew Watterson

said Thursday, forcing the airline to revert to manual scheduling. Unlike some large rivals with hub-and-spoke networks, Southwest planes hopscotch from city to city, which may have been another complicating factor.

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 aircraft. The airline sector has been among the slowest to adopt cloud-based and analytics technologies that could help solve complicated transportation network problems, those analysts say.

Airline operations software historically has lagged behind other technologies because, in part, a small number of providers build dedicated systems that can handle the scale of a major airline like Southwest, said

Tim Crawford,

a CIO strategic adviser at enterprise IT advisory firm AVOA. 

Much of the complexity behind airline-operations technology stems from the many real-time data points and constraints a single system must take into account, including federal regulations, weather, crew status and location, and aircraft maintenance and routing, said

Jahan Alamzad,

an airline analyst at consulting firm CA Advisors.

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

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

In Southwest’s case, SkySolver works well during more typical disruptions, but didn’t during the “extreme circumstances” of the past week’s storm,

Lauren Woods,

the airline’s vice president of technology platforms and incoming chief information officer, said Thursday.

Airlines generally have done a better job of maintenance and repair operations, but are much further behind in “the human aspect” of matching up crews, equipment, and passengers, said

R “Ray” Wang,

founder and principal analyst at IT consulting firm Constellation Research Inc.

Updating technology systems is particularly challenging for air carriers because of the business and operations risk of taking down a system, which can include grounded planes or stranded passengers, Mr. Crawford said.

Southwest recently completed an upgrade of its new reservation system and had been working through multiyear upgrades to systems used in its operations. But it had focused on maintenance and ground operations ahead of crew scheduling, said Southwest’s Mr. Watterson. “At the time that seemed like a proper sequence,” he said. 

Other carriers have given priority to upgrading customer-facing reservations platforms and flier loyalty programs over operations systems, Mr. Alamzad said.

Mr. Jordan said Southwest’s meltdown may push forward some of its operations modernization. “I cannot imagine that this doesn’t drive changes to the plan,” he said. “It’s the pace, maybe the level of spending. There may be a change in order of priority.”

The latest news on the airline's holiday cancellation and luggage fiasco

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The Wall Street Journal news department was not involved in the creation of this content.

Copyright © 2023 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Category: Technology

Source: Wall Street Journal Technology

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