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Southwest Airlines soars with analytics

The Southwest Airlines IT team completed an upgrade to Oracle 9i RAC and increased its use of data analytics to fend off fierce fare competition and rising fuel costs.

Patrick Bolling, a senior manager at Southwest Airline's enterprise data warehouse, has seen his company's IT team adapt to the increasing turbulence in the airline industry -- over and over again.

When Bolling began working at Southwest Airlines in the late 1990s, the company was satisfied with its small data center, located at the company's headquarters in Dallas.

We want those people to make decisions on the front line with the most information possible at their fingertips.
Patrick Bolling,
IT senior managerSouthwest Airlines

But company growth and the September 11 terrorist attacks forced executives to rethink their computer infrastructure. A second data center is now being built to reduce security risks, improve data recovery and use data analysis to help steer the company through rough weather, Bolling said.

When the airline industry was flying high, Southwest could use the profits from its busiest flights to help balance its losses on less profitable runs. Today, every dollar on every flight counts.

"We have turned more and more to our data warehousing environment since September 11," Bolling said. "There's been so much uncertainty and so much change from government regulations to competitive pressures, financial issues and the price of fuel that having good information to help answer questions from a competitive standpoint has been crucial."

The challenges faced by the IT team are daunting, however. Southwest flies to 60 airports in 31 states and data must be collected at each airport for use by analytics to improve customer service and reduce the bottom line.

Easing the effort is a massive Teradata data warehouse of 2 terabytes of usable data that enables the IT team to analyze up to 26 subject areas. The size and scope of the data warehouse is projected to double in size over the next two to three years as Southwest integrates all its corporate data.

Southwest also recently completed an upgrade of its Oracle DBMSes onto Oracle 9i Real Application Clusters (RAC). The company uses several Sybase systems and SQL Server for some commercial off-the-shelf software, Bolling said. The airline has also been mulling over Linux plans.

Business managers use data from customer complaints, flight times and airport delays to lost luggage, frequent fliers and fuel costs to solve problems and remain ahead of the competition, he said.

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Data warehousing

For instance, information collected at one airport made it clear why such a high rate of passengers complained of long check-in times. The results of the data analysis were taken to security personnel, who then improved passenger screening, Bolling said.

"We were able to solve the problem without emotions and with just the facts," he added. "When security saw the facts, they helped adjust their locations and our customers were much happier in the end."

On the heals of the company's Oracle upgrade, the company is in good shape to weather bad times. It was a difficult change since the company was running different versions of Oracle, but the migration went smoothly and only took a few months, Bolling said.

"When we were a small airline we could manage the company on the instincts of our leaders, Bolling said. "We would never take away the instinct part of resolving problems, but we want those people to make those decisions on the front line with the most information possible at their fingertips."

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