On March 18, American Airlines experienced one of its most horrendous weather days ever at its principal hub, Dallas/Fort Worth. It canceled hundreds of flights. Yet by the next evening, its operations were largely back to normal. American's quick recovery from what could have been a headline-making nightmare was due in large part to new software developed by its operations research department.
Jim Diamond, managing director of the department, described two tools developed by his team to ease the pain of massive weather events. The data needed to make sound decisions during a weather event have always existed, he said, but they were housed in a gigantic mainframe system that made retrieving them cumbersome. "You had to seek out information," he said. "You would type in a command and get a one-line message back." Diversion Tracker enables diversion coordinators to see the big picture: where planes are and how long they had been there. "The information is presented in one place at one time, and it is updated dynamically," Diamond said.
As situations approach critical thresholds, alerts appear on the monitor screens and pages are sent to the cell phones and pagers of key decision makers.
"Because we had laid the foundation for better data, we could tap into data in a more effective way," Diamond said. Tim Niznik, the IT manager who developed the software, noted that Diversion Tracker monitors all flights in the AMR network, including American Eagle and American Connection flights, consolidating it all into one display. Previously, those flights were monitored by separate controllers.
Diversion Tracker will send an alert when an airport nears the threshold for how many operations it can safely handle, avoiding the overloading of a station with too many aircraft. It also gets data from new sources: the people in the cockpits. "Pilots can send information back to this application about where they are and whether their passengers are ready to take off or get off the plane," Niznik said. They can provide information on how long it has been since toilets were serviced and food and water provided. Taxi Monitor, another new tool, was designed to avoid those notorious episodes of passengers stuck on tarmacs for many hours.
"In the old days, we knew a plane was in Austin, but we didn't know whether it was at a taxiway or at a gate," Diamond said. "This tells us the actual status of the plane, passengers and service." It's inevitable that some flights will be canceled in severe weather, Diamond said, but the new tools allow American to take a more targeted approach to cancellations. "It helps us decide things like the order in which flights are brought back to Dallas and priorities in terms of international flights and crew legalities," he said.