Forecasting, flushing, flying, and faceoffs

I finally made it to Huntington Beach, after spending a 7+ hour layover in Dallas. When they concluded that Plane 1’s scratch on the door wasn’t a quick fix we were dispatched to a different gate and boarded Plane 2. We were just about to take off when they announced that the toilets wouldn’t flush, so once again we had to wait for maintenance to report. You can’t confine hundreds of people to a metal tube for 3 hours without bathrooms! Relief washed over us as we heard the joyful sound of flushing. But our relief was short-lived, because the captain then announced that we couldn’t take off because the First Officer had now exceeded the FAA-regulated number of hours he could work. So we deplaned again while they went looking for more crew. By this point my colleague Brad was on the phone with our company after-hours emergency travel service, which got us rebooked on a later flight, aka Plane 3. Or really Plane 4, if you count the one that brought me and Brad from North Carolina to Dallas.

In the taxi Brad and I were talking about whether analytics could have prevented this situation, and he pointed out that while our travails were not fun, a certain amount of problems represent normal variation. I’ve flown dozens of flights in recent years without this kind of trouble, so the fact that the system works as well as it does, when we take to the skies in those metal tubes and they don’t run into each other, is still a bit of a miracle to me.

And in fact what feels sometimes like the man behind the curtain is no miracle but a very analytically-driven system, since transportation leads many innovative approaches in analytics across most parts of their business. So while you can’t forecast a blessedly rare event like a malfunctioning toilet, you plan for what you can plan for. And you simulate! So I’ll listen with extra interest to the presentation by the American Airlines team, which is a finalist in the Innovative Applications in Analytics Award. They will present on Tuesday on a “Simulation Approach for Aircraft Spare Engines & Engine Part Planning,” a talk I look forward to attending. The other two finalists in this competition, which is sponsored by the INFORMS Analytics Section (of which I am the Secretary), are from the Mayo Clinic (presenting on their Intelligent Surgical Scheduling System) and the MIT Operations Research Center and Rue La La (presenting on Analytics for an Online Retailer: Demand forecasting and Price Optimization at Rue La La). As an officer in the Analytics Section, I encourage you to all three presentations, because the judges have said that the caliber of work is on par with the Edelman Competition, which will of course be over by Tuesday.

Another competition sponsored by the Analytics Section and my own company, SAS, is for the Student Analytical Scholar Award. For this competition my colleagues at SAS prepare a case study based on a real engagement we’ve done and provide it, along with some data, for students to analyze and decide how they’d tackle the problem. Their submission is a statement of work, where they are challenged to balance the technical veracity of their proposed solution along with all the business issues. A compelling and “sellable” proposal is key, and our winner this year is Jodie Lam from the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. The prize was having her expenses paid to attend this conference and the INFORMS Professional Colloquium (IPC). A fellow classmate of hers from their Master of Management in OR program, Qinlu (Louisa) Chen, was named Honorable Mention, and she will also participate in the IPC. Both of them will present posters of their work on Monday, so I encourage you to seek them out.

The third faceoff sponsored by the Analytics Section is the Spreadsheet Guru Competition, where contestants receive four rounds of problem statements, with solutions judged on the basis of clarity and solving speed. The final round will also run on Tuesday, and as with the Innovative Applications in Analytics Award, the 2015 Spreadsheet Guru will be announced at the end of the day on Tuesday. We’ll be recognizing all these stellar folks at a breakfast on  Monday morning for the Student Analytical Scholar winners and the Innovative Applications in Analytics and Spreadsheet Guru Competition finalists. Please congratulate all these folks for their hard work in reaching this stage. The Analytics Section is pleased to showcase these very different examples of analytics in practice.