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Intelligent Scheduling Will Drive the Next Frontier of Improving Customer Experience

Airlines have invested in making many of their offerings increasingly data-driven in recent years. Yet they haven’t taken the same approach to schedules, one of their preeminent products.

An airline’s schedule is fundamental to it’s retailing strategy. However, schedules are typically set by airlines six months to one year in advance using their past performance data only. Schedules may be set up even farther in advance for airports with high traffic. This limits airlines’ ability to be both proactive and reactive to changes in market demand.

Take for example, when a destination becomes very popular with travelers due to being featured in a new television show, such as Croatia after Game of Thrones. Most airlines are currently unable to increase the number of connections to a new destination outside of what is already scheduled for the next six months. Airlines need access to new technologies and leverage more robust market data to be able to respond to market dynamics more effectively and in real-time.

“The schedule is the airline’s true core product,” said Kathy Turney, director of product management for planning and scheduling solutions at Sabre. “Without it, no plane is flown, and no seat is available — the schedule starts everything. You can see it as the very first step in the complex chain of events that leads to the airline flying its customers from point A to point B. Planning and scheduling define an airline.”

As more airlines realize the importance of creating schedules that prioritize both revenue maximization and customer needs, they are looking for ways to make the process more insight-driven. Such insights often come from seamless hand-offs and data exchanges between departments such as revenue management, sales and marketing, and operations. By taking a more customer-first and intelligent approach to scheduling, an airline can create brand preference amongst its customers, drive operational efficiencies, and increase earnings.

Setting a feedback loop between operations and scheduling teams, for example, can be a great first step. Say a daily flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport to Vancouver International Airport at 5 pm consistently shows a delay of at least 30 minutes for an entire month. By coordinating with the airline’s operations team, the scheduling team found that this was a peak time of day at John F. Kennedy Airport. So even a two-minute delay on the airline’s side in New York could cause a 30-minute delay in departure. The scheduling team could take that new information into account and update and book a different departure slot with more buffer built-in in their next schedule update. This one small piece of knowledge could help reduce customer dissatisfaction due to unexplained delays and help operations team staff appropriately prevent additional costs, and as a result, improve profitability and earnings for the airline.

“As the industry embraces dynamic scheduling, hand-offs between responsibilities cannot be sequential anymore,” Turney said. “There has to be a constant back-and-forth of information to ultimately help the scheduling and planning teams create robust schedules.”

Airlines cannot rely on past performance data alone to create schedules as they strive to focus more on their customers’ wants and needs. “During a recent customer forum, one of the biggest areas of conversation was airlines’ need for data feeds across commercial and operations. So, we’re setting up our solutions to be able to accommodate this need,” Turney said.

These solutions must integrate demand data from third-party sources to be more proactive and better predict future demand. Sabre is currently testing and researching how to decipher specific market activity by deriving insights about market size and customer preference from Google Flights data. This will lead to more dynamic scheduling and better network planning. “Utilizing customer-centric data that feeds into the scheduling process and provides real-time market insights enable close-to-day-of-departure adjustments that are directly connected to traveler demands,” Turney said.

An example of a close-to-day-of-departure change would be to change an aircraft based on customer demand. Airlines can use revenue management data to understand the type of seats customers are booking the most. If the airline finds that there is a lot of demand for premium seats on a particular route, it can swap out the aircraft for one that has more premium seats without disrupting operations, simultaneously driving incremental revenue by selling more of the airline’s premium product. By taking this cross-departmental approach, airlines can ultimately create and offer schedules that can be reliably fulfilled, more profitable, and meet customer needs more effectively.

This dynamic approach to scheduling, however, also requires all the fulfillment partners to be in complete sync during the entire scheduling and planning process, in real-time. This includes the different teams responsible for selling the schedule to code-share partners as well. Sabre’s Schedule Exchange tool allows real-time synchronization across schedule details so that the distribution channels and airline partners can stay on the same page.

This ability to be in sync is already yielding results. Initial Sabre studies suggest that Schedule Exchange was able to reduce disruption costs by 8 to 10 percent as airlines were able to get a schedule out to market faster. Sabre also estimates that automating various tasks will increase productivity for airline employees by at least 10 percent. For example, Schedule Exchange will automatically alert airlines of a codeshare error instead of them having to run separate reports to look specifically for an error.

“In the near future, enhancing an airline’s ability to create a schedule that is truly dynamic, maximizes profitability, and provides its customers with an unparalleled passenger experience is what Sabre wants to deliver,” Turney said. “With all the data, insights, and technologies available to help us break down silos and deliver next-generation planning and scheduling, we can empower airlines through our intelligent solutions to offer the right product in the right place at the right time.”

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