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CASE STUDY - Keeping Southwest Airlines One of the World’s Safest Carriers Is No “Accident”

Commentary by Tim Logan, Director of Flight Operational Safety, Southwest Airlines


Southwest Airlines (SWA) is proud of its safety record, but the truth is that this record must be earned every day on every flight. As an industry, flight safety experts from the major carriers meet routinely to share lessons learned and best practices. Through this knowledge-sharing process, the most obvious safety-related issues have been identified and addressed. What remains are the more obscure, subtle, elusive, and hard-to-pinpoint issues. Given that SWA operates over 2,900 flights a day and maintains a fleet of 427 aircraft, their challenge is to proactively identify operational safety issues that—alone or in combination—could contribute to an undesirable incident.

The Challenge

A few years ago, Southwest Airlines (SWA) implemented the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) to capture flight-related incidents. Whenever there is an incident, a flight crew member fills out a form and the data is stored in the ASAP database. The data consists of two parts:

  1. Structured data (flight, aircraft, crew, airport, weather, etc.)
  2. Narrative in freeform text (unstructured data) that describes the incident

Interestingly, the most useful data is captured in the text. SWA’s Flight Safety Department (SWAFSD) decided to use cutting-edge software to help them better analyze the ASAP structured data, and more important, the text narratives in a tightly integrated environment. The main objective is to find the proverbial needle, not in one haystack, but in multiple haystacks. Additional objectives include:

  1. Improve the productivity and efficiency of the flight safety staff
  2. Understand the root cause of an incident
  3. Understand the details that contributed to the reported incident as well as the big picture
  4. Identify the sequence of events that could lead to an incident
  5. Provide analysis beyond traditional reporting
  6. Ability to perform:
    • Proactive analysis versus reactive analysis
    • Analysis at the speed of thought
  7. Software should:
    • Be fast and easy to use
    • Allow exploratory as well as confirmatory analysis
    • Be able to handle complex data
    • Have the ability to provide early warnings of factors that contribute to incidents
    • Discover unknown relationships, anomalies, and correlations
    • Facilitate the discovery of actionable information to help eliminate incidents
The Solution

Southwest Airlines Flight Safety Department is staffed with experts in flight safety and aviation, but not statisticians. Therefore, one of the main requirements was to find an easy-to-use, yet powerful analysis solution. Starting in 2003, SWA launched an exhaustive search for analysis software, undertook a request for proposal, and performed several proofs of concept with leading BI and data mining vendors. In Q4 2004, SWA selected PolyVista® Discovery Solutions.

The PolyVista solution was implemented and deployed in record time—in only three weeks! The implementation team consisted of three people:

  1. SWA flight safety expert
  2. SWA data expert
  3. PolyVista consultant

PolyVista Discovery software is a tight integration of four technologies:

  1. High-performance, multi-dimensional database (MDD)
  2. 2-D/3-D visualization
  3. Data-mining algorithms
  4. Text mining engine

“We were very impressed with the ease of use and results PolyVista delivered,” said Tim Logan, director of flight operational safety. “PolyVista’s software doesn’t get in the way of doing our analysis,” Tim added. “It’s like the software is transparent to the user.

The automated Discovery function ofPolyVista increases our analysis capabilitieswithout having to add additional staff. It’slike adding really smart and experiencedanalysts.
—Tim Logan, Director of Flight Operational Safety, Southwest Airlines

“We immediately moved forward with PolyVista, and their solution was implemented in just three weeks! PolyVista brings together both our structured (numeric) data and our unstructured (textual) data from our incident reports. It provides an easy-to-use environment that enables our staff to not only ‘ask a question and get an answer’ but also automatically guides our users to new and unexpected information hidden in our data. The automated Discovery function of PolyVista increases our analysis capabilities without having to add additional staff. It’s like adding really smart and experienced analysts,” Tim said.

Solution Benefits

The short-term benefit is improvement in flight safety operation best practices. The long-term benefit is accident prevention.

You don’t know what you don’t know: While it is important to allow a flight safety expert to explore a hunch, it is more important to help that flight safety expert to think outside the box. This implies that the expert has to search for interesting events in places that he or she might not otherwise think of examining. This objective is accomplished with the help of PolyVista’s prebuilt algorithms. An algorithm can be easily configured to look at a 34-dimensional space; find an interesting event with, say, seven or more dimensions; and identify at least five or more events. Once a relationship is found, the expert can make a determination about the quality of the relationship, and determine the next step. The discovery algorithms have greatly increased the productivity of the safety staff, allowing them to spend more time analyzing issues and much less time searching for them.

case study Southwest Airlines  case study Southwest Airlines  case study Southwest Airlines

As an outcome of this rigorous analysis, the SWA Flight Safety Department is not only finding events that are internal to SWA (events that are within SWA’s control), but they are also finding events that are external to SWA (events that are not caused by SWA, and/or are not in their control). Such events are shared with the FAA, which in turn brings them to the attention of the pertinent entity, such as an airport authority, the controller of a particular airspace, and so on. In this way SWA is helping to improve flight safety for everyone.

Another benefit of the solution is the feedback to the crew members. As the crew members realize that their reports are being analyzed and used to improve safety, they are more motivated to capture better data in their reports.

As mentioned at the outset of this case study, achieving a great safety record takes expertise, diligence, and an eye for details. Maintaining that level of performance requires a passion for excellence and innovative technologies. The airline safety environment constantly changes in response to new regulations and procedures, evolving aircraft technology, conditions at airports, and ever-increasing congestion of the airspace. Once a safety issue has been detected and fixed, it is unlikely that it will surface again. The next important issues will likely be new, different, unanticipated, and will slip past the existing reports and preprogrammed alerts. In this regard, PolyVista is uniquely positioned and proud to assist SWA as they improve flight safety for their customers and the industry at large.

Most businesses can relate to the importance of finding their own particular needles hidden deep within their ever-shifting haystacks. These needles can be safety issues for SWA, quality issues at HP, or irregular trading behavior at BP. So how about it, what’s “needling” you?

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

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