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An Airline Story

Last night I was supposed to fly back from San Diego on American Airlines. The experience showed me, again, how customer service could be improved with Enterprise Decision Management (EDM). Let's see...

Old Way

  • It's 7:30pm. The 7:30pm flight is still showing "On time" even though boarding has not started.
  • "We're waiting for maintenance and don't have a time yet"
  • At 7:45pm we are told that maintenance will make a decision at 8:15pm
  • At 8:25 or so the flight is canceled and we are told we will be on standby for the 9:40 flight
  • In fact we are not on standby until we re-book with the agent so gradually we all do that
  • At 9:30pm about 6 of us are told that there is not space on the plane (only 9 people actually got seats on the later flight). The 9:40 flight is the last flight to San Jose - all alternative flights have already left.
  • We go and wait at the ticket counter while the staff call around, hotel by hotel, to see who will honor the "distressed rate" that is all American Airlines wants to pay. By 10:30 pm we have a hotel room and a shuttle and are re-booked on flights in the morning.

It seemed to me then, and seems to me now, that this process could be improved using EDM. Now, to be fair, EDM could not prevent the problem with the plane (though perhaps an EDM-driven maintenance system would have done better), nor could it have made the later flight bigger. EDM alone would not make American Airlines act less cheap and offer incentives to people willing to give up seats on the later flight (as they do when they overbook a flight) nor would it have helped the staff remember that the hotel shuttle did not run early enough in the morning (forcing me to go through the hassle of getting them to refund a cab ride). But it could, I think, have improved the experience. Here goes.

EDM Way

  • It's 7:30pm. The 7:30pm flight shows "Probable Delay"
    Rules have combined the lack of boarding with the maintenance call out and flagged the flight as probably delayed
  • As maintenance continues to work, the actions they take update the status of the flight
    E.g. to "Delayed, possible cancellation"
  • At 7:45pm we are told that maintenance will make a decision at 8:15pm
    At this point two things are true - the odds that the flight will be canceled have risen dramatically (any long maintenance delay is a bad sign) and the consequences of the cancellation are known.
  • The system identifies the passengers on the 7:30pm flight likely not to get a spot on the later flight.
    It uses models and historical data about the flight to assess the most likely number of passengers who will actually show and figures that 8-10 spots will be available - there is no reason why they should wait until they board the plane. Yes, it is possible that this flight will be different from all others in terms of no-shows etc, but it is very unlikely. It has prioritization rules (based on ticket price, frequent flier status, check-in time and so on) that enable it to identify the passengers who are not going to make it.
  • The system also flags some passengers (either delayed or on the later flight) who live locally and suggests that the gate staff offer them an incentive to stay home one more night and fly in the morning.
    This involves airline travel dollars but avoids hotel charges for those passengers, likely a better deal for the airline
  • At 8:25 or so the flight is canceled and everyone is put on standby for the 9:40 flight automatically
  • Rules check for other flight alternatives and trigger the gate staff to call up those most likely to not make the flight. Alternative flights are offered to these passengers as "You are not likely to make the later flight".
  • At 9:30pm a couple of passengers are told that despite everything there is no space on the plane and told what hotel they are staying in and where to meet the shuttle
    The system has communicated with the hotel systems to find spaces based on the most likely number of passengers who will have to stay over and has this information ready for the gate agent.

So why is this better? Well customers are better informed and get more chance to influence the process. The system is proactive not reactive, minimizing the impact on the customers as a group and on individual customers. The gate and other airline staff can focus on the customers as the system is working on the mechanics. I know that I would have preferred it.

Written sitting in San Diego airport at 5:30 in the morning unshaven and in the clothes I wore yesterday...

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