Private Jets and the simplicity of production scheduling

By Kevin Meyer, 31 July 2011

Private aircraft have taken a beating recently, partly fair partly not.  They can be written off as a “cost of doing business” just like innumerable other costs, subject to the same accounting rules and stipulations.  And the same gray areas – which get some folks apprpriately into trouble and give the industry a black eye.  The industry also supports a lot of manufacturing jobs.

Used appropriately they can add considerable value – and reduce cost.  The medical device company I run has access to one, but unlike the stories you generally read about ours is used sparingly, it is always filled, it is never just for executive travel.  If I can ferry six engineers and shop floor folks from one location, literally across the street from the non-commercial airport but over an hour from the nearest commercial airport, down to our facility 250 miles away for an all-day kaizen event, then have them back home in time for dinner with their families without having to stay in a hotel or endure hours of more travel – that’s value.  And that’s how we use it – perhaps we need to dub it the “Kaizen Express.”  In fact, our owners and execs generally drive the five hours because there isn’t sufficient real reason to fill the plane to make it worthwhile.

But I understand the allure and potential addiction, and thankfully I can’t begin to afford the addiction so it isn’t even a temptation.  Point-to-point travel, available with just a couple hours notice, no security lines, no fighting for overhead space.  But what’s really fascinating to those of us operations types is what goes on behind the scenes and fractional jet ownership companies.  And that’s what regular reader Chris pointed me to after reading my piece on the remarkable Bangkok Air.

Each day without relent, teams of NetJets dispatchers, meteorologists, reservationists, and other specialists at the company’s sprawling operations center in Columbus, Ohio, marry the movements of NetJets’ more than 600 U.S.-based aircraft, 2,500 pilots, and 270 flight attendants (found only on larger airplanes) to the unpredictable travel needs of the company’s well-heeled customers. The final product is a domestic flight schedule that unforeseen vagaries, from mechanical malfunctions to snowstorms to the occasional volcanic eruption, will likely reduce to little more than junk before the sun sets the next day.

“An insane ballet that requires constant attention to detail” is how Lynn Wombacher, NetJets’ manager of emergency communications, describes the daily process.

Just a little bit different than the supposedly complex operations of a major commercial airline.

It’s no way to run an airline. But then, NetJets, which in fleet size is the nation’s fourth largest domestic air carrier—behind Delta (722 aircraft), United (710), and American (618)—is no ordinary airline. Ordinary airlines operate flight schedules that change little from one day to the next.  NetJets functions in effect as an airline on demand, where no two days are the same. Trying to meet that demand, company officials assert, is one of aviation’s most logistically complex endeavors.

“If you talk to people in the airline industry, it’s funny to hear them describe their challenges,” says Bill Noe, who worked his way up from a $26,800-a-year first officer in 1993 to become president and chief operating officer of NetJets North America. “I always go, ‘But wait a minute, you know exactly when you’re leaving, right?’ ‘Oh yeah.’ ‘You know exactly where you’re going, right?’ ‘Oh yeah.’ ‘And how’s that difficult?’ “

Ha!  As someone who runs a contract manufacturer I have similar thoughts when talking to my colleagues that run companies with their own products.  How hard can it be?  But of course that’s when many of those folks take the easy way out and build and stuff into inventory instead of matching production to actual demand – that can be tough.

So think for a minute about the scheduling required to get 600 products to the right place within just a couple hours – with a wide variety of product types tailored to destination, number of passengers, speed… and curve balls.

But no software, regardless of sophistication, could ever account for the curveballs the company’s employees commonly field from NetJets’ fractional owners and Marquis Jet Card holders, who buy the use of NetJets aircraft in 25-hour blocks.

” ‘I think I might want to leave at eight but it could be 10,’ ” says Noe, describing the kind of calls NetJets sometimes receives from its customers. ” ‘I may have four people but it could be eight. I may have a dog but I may not. I could forget to tell you one of those things and just show up. And oh, by the way, I don’t want to go from Palm Beach to New York. I want to go Palm Beach to Moscow.’ “

Tack on changes in weather, unscheduled maintenance, crew illness, even political turbulence – and you have an interesting furball.

So as much as I often rant against complex software systems and favor the simplicity and visual power of whiteboards, I can understand why scheduling software could be useful in this case.

In the early days, the company tracked aircraft on metal boards imprinted with a 24-hour grid and magnetic bars representing aircraft. Today’s NetJets planners employ a proprietary, in-house-designed, Windows-based program called IntelliJet II, which took several years to create and is maintained by NetJets’ more than 200 information technology employees.

IntelliJet II constantly factors in virtually every conceivable variable—from weather and aircraft weight to runway lengths to sunrise and sunset restrictions—for all airports. If, for example, IntelliJet sees that a scheduled landing at a small airport in Kentucky will take place in the rain, and the aircraft assigned to the trip requires a longer runway than what is available to land safely in slippery conditions, the software will automatically downsize to a smaller airplane that can handle shorter runways and alert the change in aircraft to the NetJets dispatcher assigned to the flight. Or if a flight is going to land earlier than anticipated, IntelliJet II helps ensure that the client’s limousine shows up at the destination airport earlier by notifying owner services representatives of the discrepancy in arrival of aircraft and limo. With its omniscient grasp of the unfolding picture, the software requests action from its human users only when necessary. “Without a system so advanced, it would be virtually impossible to coordinate and manage every aspect of every flight,” says Doug Henneberry, NetJets’ senior vice president for scheduling.

But see the difference?  NetJets started with a visual, manual approach.  That let them learn about and fine tune important scheduling parameters and algorithms.  Then they created software to aid that approach.

Contrast that with how most companies implement complex scheduling systems: going from “oh no it’s mayhem on the shop floor so we need computers and software” to “here’s an off-the-shelf system that according to the developer will fix everything!” in one step.  Without first taking the time to really understand the processes specific to their own operations, taking the time to optimize and improve those processes, and then taking the time to map (or even develop) a software solution that matches their processes.  And software that is flexible enough to support continuous improvement of those processes.

When you really get down to it, manufacturing is fairly easy.  I’ll point you back to one more story – the one on Toyota’s most efficient manufacturing operation that can radically change models in units of one on the fly – with completely manual kanban and without a scheduling computer to be seen anywhere on the vast manufacturing floor.

Think about Toyota and NetJets when you’re contemplating the mess on your shop floor.  Is it really complex, or have you just not taken the time to figure out what is really going on?

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Winston Churchill once said: Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. - That's me building an online business.

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