Varolii Helps Southwest Wrangle Pilot Schedules, Sees Bigger Moves Ahead

10/6/11Follow @curtwoodward

Here’s a sign that your industry is ripe for a technological overhaul: Last-minute scheduling is sometimes handled by old-fashioned phone trees, with human schedulers making hundreds of phone calls a day to fill open slots.

That was the case at Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV)—at least it was before a new text-messaging program supplied by Seattle-based Varolii helped push the quirky budget carrier’s system for last-minute scheduling into the mobile age.

Ten months later, some two-thirds of Southwest’s pilots have opted into the system to alert them about extra shifts. And Varolii, which recently raised $8 million in growth financing, is looking at ways to expand this new use for its mobile-messaging technology, possibly adding everything from flight attendants to ground-based package pick-up services.

Here’s the backstory: Like any other business, airlines sometimes have holes pop up in their employee schedule and need to find someone else to pick up the slack. Common enough—but that problem is a lot more complicated when you’re dealing with flights that have to leave on time, and a unionized workforce that doles out work based on seniority.

Southwest’s existing approach, Varolii vice president Andrea Austin said, included a website where pilots could check for open flights. But the airline also might have to turn to a call-down list in some cases, running through lists based on seniority until a pilot or co-pilot’s seat could be filled.

Varolii had already been working with Southwest, handling things like text-message alerts for customers and employee messages to spread word of shutdowns in emergency situations, like the landfall of Tropical Storm Irene earlier this year.

So could Varolii help tackle the pilot-scheduling problem? In one sense, adapting Varolii’s technology to that task wasn’t terribly complicated: In the broadest sense, you just point it at pilot data instead of customer data. The pilots can text back to claim a shift, problem solved.

But the particulars of having a union workforce definitely threw in some wrinkles. As mentioned, seniority is a huge issue. Mucking it up could cause big employee problems for Southwest, so 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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