In plane sight
Friday February 03rd 2023, 10:43 pm
Filed under: Family,History

Got a Hey look at this offer! from Southwest Airline. Which reminded me.

At the niece’s second wedding reception, my husband the computer scientist was talking to his cousin the pilot.

Who had been stuck in the Christmas meltdown. But who had managed to get through such that he flew the plane that got Richard’s sister (and himself) to the actual wedding, and he was pretty happy about that: he got a planeload of people to where they were fairly desperate at that point to go.

He said, The thing people don’t get is that Southwest allows its crews to live wherever they want. They have a great deal of autonomy because in each city they’re assigned out of, there’s central management to report to who take requests and adjust personal schedules and smooth things and make people happy. There are unwritten rules that everybody understands and abides by, and you have this authority centralized to where you live and by people you get to know like a big happy family.

And that’s usually good, he said–but when it was bad it totally melted down, and we on the inside could see this coming and tried to warn them.

Hubby the software guy said, But if you do it that way then you can’t update because you can’t write software that manages operations better without having the rules being written down. Which means adhered to. Which means giving up power: everything across the system would become centralized to the system.

Computers have no human empathy component. Things would have to be Done A Certain Way to make the automated system work–which means a lot of those managers would become completely unnecessary and lose their jobs.¬†And the crews and the pilots would lose a whole lot of autonomy (not to mention their friends they’ve worked with forever.) You just go where/when you’re assigned.

I thought, There’s got to be some degree of middle ground.

So it’ll be interesting to see what the FAA does as it plays grown-up to the various sides here.

3 Comments so far
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Interesting to learn both sides. Thank you.

Comment by DebbieR 02.04.23 @ 10:13 am

There’s some easy middle ground there:
1. allow for some self-updating of location via web, not just by phone (at least have that as a “the system has melted down, turn on the thing that lets people update themselves” option)
2. if a flight gets cancelled, don’t have the system automatically expect the entire plane’s crew to be at the flight destination location for the flight that got cancelled. (that they don’t already have this is the really boggling one for me)

There is apparently already some automation built into the system (see: the system expecting them to be at the end-points of flights that had been cancelled). It doesn’t have to be a choice between a free-for-all and autonomy; you could just make the rules that *do* exist match reality better, and you might get a solid 95% of the way there, which might in turn result in just enough to not crash like that again. (but: they should still have a way of saying “okay, we need to reset everyone’s location; right now it matters less whether a few people took unauthorized vacations or stretched the rules, and matters more that everyone’s location quite simply gets updated right now, so here’s the system, text-based or online, to take in that info from most flight crew without needing to wait on hold.”)(i.e. enter it online; or if your phone number matches the system phone number for you, then text your employee ID number and the airport code for the airport you’re nearest to, and if you don’t have access to that phone, then go through a phone tree that validates your identity before accepting your updated location)

It might also be possible to have the system be mostly rule based (but… more sanely rule-based, see: cancelled flights *don’t move flight crews*) and have managers be able to make the exception decisions – that would be more prone to Southwest deciding, erroneously, that they don’t need managers (we have Ample Evidence of airlines deciding things erroneously, so I don’t think this is a stretch), but might also be a decent way to go: if you’re not in the city your last actually-successfully-flown-with-Southwest flight dropped you in, update with managers, and update with managers once a month or so to make sure that those systems remain agile and that flight crews remain familiar enough with the system that they can navigate it easily.

(also in computing; agree that if you have the system fully execute all the rules, you need to have whatever rules you do have be well-defined; there are still a number of ways of encoding human flex into the system, though, as colleges demonstrate with their override codes for class registrations which the *advisors* can put in if a student is in reality qualified for the class but hasn’t taken a specific prerequisite, and the override codes that *instructors* can put in if the student is eligible for the class but the class is technically at capacity *but* if the room they’re in is big enough for a few more students and if the instructor is okay with the extra grading workload. Mostly-rules-based; some human flex.)

Comment by KC 02.04.23 @ 10:56 am

We’ll just hide and watch.

Comment by Sharon Stanger 02.04.23 @ 12:25 pm

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