The Southwest Way
"Southwest has a reputation for doing things 'The Southwest Way,' providing clever, unique ways of providing customer service, and as a result we have a lot of in-house developed applications," Taylor says. Several systems that tracked different aspects of flight, customer, and passenger information had to be reconciled. "The biggest challenge we had was making sure we had captured the right customers on the right flights, and then translating that data into a format that Varolii could use," he says.
"From a technical perspective, most of it pretty straightforward, except that data correlation was a challenge," says Alan Mitzel, a senior manager in Southwest's technology department. This data correlation needs to span both internally developed systems and the Sabre Reservations System.
"Getting good customer data continues to be a challenge," Mitzel says. "As we build out the service, we want to have good home phone numbers, cell numbers, and text messaging options, and we're working couple of other projects help us get that information."
Southwest programmers also created a custom graphical user interface, using Java Swing components, that allows Taylor's department to review every alert before it is sent out and customize the message that will be fed into the Varolii text-to-speech engine. So rather than automating the process entirely, so that notifications are sent the second a flight is recorded as changed or cancelled in the airline's operational systems, Southwest has chosen to inject a little human judgment into the process. "It lets Fred's team decide which messages are sent and which aren't, so that we can baby step into this," Mitzel says.
Taylor says he knows of only one significant misfire, when he got a call from a gate agent complaining that customers were showing up saying they had received a gate change notification that he knew nothing about.
Although Taylor was under the impression that this was the result of a programming error, a glitch in "one line of code," Mitzel says it was more of a timing issue. In this case, the system was generating alerts a little too quickly, based on gate change events recorded in Southwest's systems. Since operations personnel sometimes experiment by recording a few possible gate changes in the system before making a decision, the problem was corrected by introducing a delay in the notification system so that alerts aren't generated before a gate change becomes official.
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