Varolii Helps Southwest Wrangle Pilot Schedules, Sees Bigger Moves Ahead

10/6/11Follow @curtwoodward

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it had to be handled just right. And since labor and management may have to agree before new systems can be mandated, it was best for the text-messaging platform to be an opt-in system.

“Pilots tend to be a little grievance-happy,” Austin says. “It’s not unique to Southwest. There are unions, and if they don’t get what they want, they file a grievance. And it can get a little bit nasty.”

Nevertheless, Varolii says the new scheduling system has gone over well, with more than two-thirds of Southwest’s roughly 6,000 pilots signing up for the system and more than 100,000 text messages sent each month.

“We had tremendous early adoption, and then we ran into all kinds of little snafus. Things like, pilots clicking on the button at the same time—who gets it? So we’ve made lots of little tweaks,” Austin says. “We were a little surprised by adoption rate.”

Varolii says it could potentially expand the service to cover flight attendant crews as well, although that has its own sets of complications—more people on each flight, different preferences for routes, and so on. The company also is working on a possible adaptation of the idea into package pick-up, routing of trips to a customer’s houses to cut down on call-center coordination and wasted drive-time.

“We’re taking the concept of automating the same type of scheduling into other industries, and it’s resonating very well,” Austin says.

The next frontier, of course, is moving all of this activity into smartphone apps, which can push notifications to users in more advanced ways.

“Think about a cable company—there are lots of little widgets out there. I’m a traveler, and I watch HBO Go all the time,” Austin says. “What if I’m late on my cable bill? Shouldn’t my cable company be able to use that HBO Go application to say, ‘Hey, do you want to pay your cable bill? We are very excited about the smartphone as a future channel.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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