Smart Swarming at Southwest Airlines

By Robert Mark on December 18th, 2008

Southwest jetwhineAnyone who has blogged for more than a week will tell you that new media writers don’t press keyboards because we crave the fame and fortune of a successful media empire like Jetwhine (ahem). Most of us have long ago learned to cope with those accolades. It’s the prospect of regularly meeting fascinating people from all around the globe that really gets my blood pumping.

Just such an opportunity appeared a few weeks back when I stopped in for lunch with some of my blogging pals at Southwest Airlines’ Dallas HQ. Emerging Media Director Paula Berg told me there was this really smart fellow that I simply had to meet, although she admitted she didn’t completely understand everything he said all the time.

At lunch, Paula made him sound like a bit of a rocket scientist when she explained the swarm-like theory of airline finances he’d been working on. Of course, I had absolutely no idea what that meant either, but the next thing I knew, I was sitting in Doug Lawson’s office in an obscure part of the central hive that is SWA HQ building. Doug Lawson1 jetwhineI knew right away he was a numbers guy when I walked in … no windows. Communicators go mad in those kind of places.

Doug, a Ph.D. and the airline’s Manager of Financial Analysis, was a likable fellow right away, even if most people probably think he needs a haircut. I think it perfectly set the stage for the scientific theory that was to follow. “What exactly do you do at Southwest Doug?” I asked to prime the pump.

“I’m a living systems engineer,” Lawson replied. He didn’t even pause to let it sink in on me. “I try to improve the service experience for our customers by using living system principles.” I looked at Paula with a bit of a “I see what you meant,” sort of look. But I listened more closely because it was clear from Lawson’s facial expressions that he knew he, at least, was on to something.

“The components that make up our customer service experience, like the actual number of service desks at the airport, or the number of agents ready to take care of people, or the actual functions they perform and when … all must be as reactive to the world around them as the customer. And people never act the same way in the same setting. Their behavior is influenced by their surroundings.” At times the conversation assumed the tone of a pure theory, but clearly the goal for Southwest is to process the greatest number of passengers as possible using the fewest resources necessary to maintain the quality of the experience.

Doug Lawson2 jetwhine “We’ve tried, through computer simulation, to convert customer insights about our service into living things, so to speak, things that have memories, that we can quantify into costs. Those things, those insights must survive on their own too,” hence the swarm theory Lawson explained. The swarm concept evolved comes from the study of insects that learn and survive based on the experiences of the smartest among them. Lawson calls his system “VIV,” Roman numerals for life. I simply called it Viv.

At Southwest, Doug’s theories mean experiences must justify their costs to remain viable parts of the customer experience, six service counters rather then eight, for example. It was beginning to make sense, especially when Lawson added that he designed the software to run all the simulations for these events to see what kind of life they might take on.

Boarding Group A, 1 through 30

Remember all the hubbub last year when Southwest changed it’s boarding process? That was Doug and his team after watching thousands of computer simulations with little stick people trying to board a 737. “We found you don’t always get a nice wonderful solution either.” He used plenty of WILMA in there too during the calculations, short for the “window, aisle, middle seat organizational concept” Lawson explained when I raised my hand to ask. “We want people to board quickly. Getting off is no real problem. We tried computer sims boarding five rows at a time in a variety of sequences and it was a mess. Simply boarding the back first didn’t necessarily help either.” But they figured it out and developed the current system of group boarding by number after exhaustive testing. He showed me too, why my idea of using the back door for boarding sounded good, but really didn’t save what it cost to use.

Or imagine something we all take for granted like which gate we’ll arrive at when we land at MDW, DAL or DIA. Lawson’s team watched thousands of hours of additional simulations – 200 days worth per city in fact – to try and get it just right, so the airline doesn’t pay for unused gates nor make passengers wait on the ground because there are too few gates when needed. Doug’s simulations also decide how many people need to be at each gate at what time to make the arrival and departure work like clockwork.

I would have kept asking more questions, but the communications people let me know it was time to let Doug get back to playing the Southwest version of the Sims. Is a living systems engineer a necessity? Compare the bottom lines of Southwest against United or US Airways or American and you’ll see Doug’s stamp of success everywhere. Works for me.

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17 Responses to “Smart Swarming at Southwest Airlines”

  1. Drew Says:

    One correction: The new boarding process has been in place just over a year, not a few years. Thank you for posting this insightful piece!

  2. Robert Mark Says:

    Thanks for that correction Drew. Through the magic of on-demand media that has just been fixed.

  3. B-Rad Says:

    I applaud that guy! It also goes to show that great leaders attract incredible employees. Who’d thought that job/person existed?

  4. Shashank Nigam Says:

    This is simply brilliant. I’m sure almost every airline has this function in one capacity or another – some probably even outsource these studies.

    What would be really interesting is if people like Doug from various airlines get together to improve and possibly standardize such processes by sharing their knowledge and research. May be these can be defined by the type of plane. I’m sure it’ll be beneficial for the patrons overall, and happy customers would mean greater loyalty, which then leads to greater profits.

    What say?

  5. Paul Says:

    Years ago when I was working for America West at ORD, we had a flight depart at 03:00 AM for PHX. One night, we had approx 10 people booked on the flight. It was a 737-200. In the spirit of creative customer service, we boarded by “shirt color”. Nobody really got the joke tho, since all the passengers were half asleep. They all just got up and walked to the jetway like zombies. What can I tell you, sometimes you have to do anything for cheap entertainment.

  6. Paul Says:

    In the future, there will be a new boarding process. Each gate will come pre-configured with your assigned seat… The actual seat.
    All the seats will be configured and the passenger will simply have a seat and buckle up. When the airplane arrives, the nose will open up(similar to cargo planes), and the seats which will be on large plate, will simply be inserted into the airplane. This will take 5 minutes, rather than the normal 20 minutes. Once the seats have all been slid into the airplane, they will lock down, and the nose will be closed and secured.

    The offload will occur the same way, only opposite.

  7. Ron Heimburger Says:

    Rob,

    Makes sense to me.

    And ie that also tries to incorporate the emotional experience of the buyer.

    I think that this is a huge piece of the carrier selection criteria of frequent flyers. I think that this also influences how we pick our FF program.

    The “hassel factor” that includes all of the chain of events to complete a flight – booking/check in/boarding/inflight service/baggage, etc. – are very important.

    I think that the major boarding change that LUV initiated this year is very positive. And that they enhanced the gate/boarding experience – by providing better gate seating and accessible ac outlets – was smart.

    The “dash” to hit the check in button at 0.01 seconds after it opens up is still a hassell. (i.e. – I will be barely in time for church tomorrow because I want an a slot.)

    I have been on NWA the last several weeks – over MEM – and I have been.

    Definitely impressed by their TPA and MEM check in and gate crews – and their in flight crews. They are definitely better than XJET personnel.

    Everyone have a “Blessed Christmas Season”.
    And safe travels.

    Ron heimburger

  8. Robert Mark Says:

    Shashank Nigam Says:
    December 20th, 2008 at 2:08 am … “Greater profits.”

    Mmmmm. If it were that easy everyone would be doing this wouldn’t they? I think the main obstruction to airlines are the people who run them.

    It really is a control issue. If they “can’t imagine these sorts of things themselves, then they can’t be very important,” sort of philosophy.

    That’s why the Southwests and the JetBlues are successful. They are willing to let people see the customer in a new light.

  9. Robert Mark Says:

    And Paul … Let’s not be giving anyone at United any ideas. They take things like this very seriously.

  10. Bob Trader Says:

    I experienced Southwest’s new boarding process for the second time on Dec 1st. I hate it. Never again. I just made reservations on United for a trip in January. My Rapid Rewards card got thrown in the trash.

  11. providence Says:

    An interesting post! I fly SW quite often and while I agree the boarding system is still not perfect, it’s way better than it was, and worth the extra hassle given SW’s decent prices, convenient schedules, and on-time performance. At least I get where I am going on time, and they have never even lost a bag.
    However, I have wondered why they don’t instead board all the window seats first, then all the aisle seats, wouldnt that really be quicker? I know seating with companions would be an issue, but it seems it shouldn’t be an insurmountable one…

  12. Jeffrey Sigmon Says:

    What an interesting great job!

  13. The Southwest Effect in Ireland? - Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinion Says:

    […] When Ryanair opened for business in 1985, many analysts thought the Dublin-based carrier could evolve into a European airline modeled on the success of Southwest. Having had the opportunity to fly Ryanair a few times, I can tell you that the Southwest folks probably have very little to worry about on that front, something my first flight on the European airline confirmed. At Southwest, boarding is by group to bring some sort of order to the process of putting folks in their seats. In fact, we spoke to Southwest’s Doug Lawson about just that topic last year.                                                                                                                    […]

  14. The Southwest Effect in Ireland? | RENT-A-PLANE Says:

    […] When Ryanair opened for business in 1985, many analysts thought the Dublin-based carrier could evolve into a European airline modeled on the success of Southwest. Having had the opportunity to fly Ryanair a few times, I can tell you that the Southwest folks probably have very little to worry about on that front, something my first flight on the European airline confirmed. At Southwest, boarding is by group to bring some sort of order to the process of putting folks in their seats. In fact, we spoke to Southwest’s Doug Lawson about just that topic last year.                                                                                                                    […]

  15. » The Southwest Effect in Ireland? Does the RyanAir brand come close? - SimpliFlying || Aviation :: Branding :: Technology || Airline marketing, airline brand management, social media, Web 2.0 Says:

    […] When Ryanair opened for business in 1985, many analysts thought the Dublin-based carrier could evolve into a European airline modeled on the success of Southwest. Having had the opportunity to fly Ryanair a few times, I can tell you that the Southwest folks probably have very little to worry about on that front, something my first flight on the European airline confirmed. At Southwest, boarding is by group to bring some sort of order to the process of putting folks in their seats. In fact, we spoke to Southwest’s Doug Lawson about just that topic last year. […]

  16. securoseal Says:

    A point to note if you’re checking in luggage is that many of the travel accessories that are sold as luggage security items (locks, cable ties, security seals, etc) do not actually work to protect your luggage. You’d think for the money spent on these things it would take time to break into a bag, but it’s as simple as several seconds with a paperclip or even a pen. And people wonder why there is a problem with luggage theft.

  17. Paul M Says:

    As long as WN has open seating, I can’t think of a better way to board that airplane then WN is currently utilizing. Perhaps if WN wants to board people windows first, you can put rewards on all the window seats. First drink is free for a window seat patron! ;-)
    Or if money is tight, you could have a raffle for all the window seat patrons. Randomly chose 10 window seat people for the reward.
    It would also be fun for the patrons.
    Make it a Miller beer out of MKE, and you’ll be able to board those planes in 5 minutes!
    To understand the concept, check out this short video on youtube. Note how many people start using the stairs, simply for a simple reward. :-)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lXh2n0aPyw

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