Spirit Focuses on Its Schedule to Improve Operations

Spirit, Technology

Spirit did not have a good summer in 2021.

For years, this wouldn’t have been a big deal. After all, the airline prided itself on only caring about offering low fares. A terrible operation was just part of the package. But the airline changed, especially when Bob Fornaro came in as CEO in 2016, followed by Ted Christie in 2019. The operation became important, and the summer of 2021 proved to be a low point as the airline raced to capture the quick return of demand post-COVID.

Spirit Airlines Operational Performance By Month

Data via Anuvu
A14 = Arrivals within 14 Minutes of Schedule
Cxld % = % of Total Flights Canceled

Instead of just deciding to live with a poor operation, Spirit decided to take action. The airline did the usual things, like adding more crew buffer in more of its stations to help deal with increased absences or delays, but it also went beyond that.

Spirit switched its aircraft routing model away from a Southwest-style point-to-point system to an out-and-back model. Instead of going, say, LA to Vegas to Dallas/Fort Worth to Fort Lauderdale, it would run an airplane from LA to Vegas and back, then from DFW to Vegas and back, and then from Fort Lauderdale to Vegas and back (or something like that). Since Spirit sold very little connecting flights away, there wasn’t really much appeal to the point-to-point model for the airline in the same way that it appeals to Southwest.

Spirit was able to create this new schedule beginning in April 2022, and I’m told it did not see an impact on aircraft utilization.

The airline also thought about how it brought down its off-peak flying on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Instead of doing deep off-peak cuts, Spirit decided to go with more stability since it made it easier to schedule crews through the week.

All of this combined allowed the airline to post a much better summer in 2022 with minimal cancellations. But wait, there’s more.

Just last month, Spirit announced that it had purchased Amadeus SkySYM, software that would help the airline optimize its schedules using artificial intelligence (AI). It’s a part of a system that Southwest has been using since 2018 which was originally built by Optym and sold to Amadeus. Any time I hear about an implementation of AI, I assume it’s just a buzzword, so I reached out to Spirit to learn more and had the chance to speak with John Kirby, VP of Network Planning.

The idea beyind SkySYM is that it allows you to feed history into the system, so that it can then analyze future schedules and suggest ways to improve them. It’s a form of machine learning, as I understand it.

To understand whether this would really work, Spirit had to see how well the system could predict actual performance. It loaded in historical schedules and had it predict performance. Then Spirit could compare that to actual performance and see if it was worthwhile. While the system naturally can’t accurately predict when thunderstorms will sit on top of New York City or decide to put Fort Lauderdale underwater, it did predict regular performance “very closely” and hasn’t given any really strange results.

With history loaded into the system, Spirit can now move ahead with the next part of the plan. Starting with the July schedule of this year, Spirit has loaded the new schedule into SkySYM and run it in parallel with its normal schedule planning process. If the changes make a lot of sense, Spirit will incorporate them into the system. If there’s something wacky in there, it’ll give Spirit pause. The airline will then try to pick apart why something is being suggested so it can feel fully comfortable.

I asked John to explain the scope of this system. Is it thousands of changes? And how broad is it thinking? Will it suggest canceling flights, for example?

John says it’s probably going to suggest somewhere “in the hundreds in terms of things you can do to improve the operation.” And this isn’t about wholesale changes to schedules. It’s more about adding a little block time on one flight, or reducing it somewhere else to reallocate it. It may suggest adding 5 minutes to the turn time in one place based upon the model it has built.

In the end, these hundreds of things do add up to something. John said the airline thinks this can improve on-time performance by 1 to 3 points. That may not sound like a lot, but with 25,000 monthly flights that means 250 to 750 flights that no longer have an issue. That’s a real impact.

Spirit is already feeling confident that this system will work well after all the testing it has done. Once it puts it into actual production for a couple months, it will start trusting the system more to make these small changes so that it can keep trying to improve the operation, just the next step in the plan is put in place two years ago.

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13 comments on “Spirit Focuses on Its Schedule to Improve Operations

  1. I wonder if this software can also work with other parts of an airline’s operation. For example, one on particular airline I often fly has a tendency to screw up the arrival process. There’s an aircraft at our gate (we’re early), there’s an aircraft at our gate (we’re on time), there’s an aircraft at our gate (we’re late), there is no one to marshall us in/out, can’t find a tug, there’s no one to operate the jet bridge, etc. I’ve easily had several otherwise early/on time flights end up late due to station operational issues. If some stations have this happen more frequently than standard, could the AI come up with solutions like changing ground crew scheduling, gate utilization, or firing station managers?

    1. Come on, Len, I think we all know that you’re talking about UA at ORD. And if not, I feel the same way, compadre.

  2. This system can’t be that great if Delta hasn’t implemented it. Please discuss the vastly superior system that Delta uses as well as the vastly superior system Delta agreed to purchase but hasn’t installed yet and the even more vastly superior system that Delta’s thinking about purchasing sometime in the future (but please treat this as a virtual certainty). Sincerely, Mitt Nudd

    1. “This system can’t be that great if Delta hasn’t implemented it. Please discuss the vastly superior system that Delta uses as well as the vastly superior system Delta agreed to purchase but hasn’t installed yet and the even more vastly superior system that Delta’s thinking about purchasing sometime in the future (but please treat this as a virtual certainty). Sincerely, Mitt Nudd.”

      For a second there I thought you were poking Tim Dunn.

  3. Can “Spirit” and “Improve Operations” even go in the same sentence? I wonder if they’ll be rolling out a new fee to cover the cost of the system. “Pay this or be routed through Newark, your choice”

    1. for 2022 and 2023 to date, according to DOT data, Spirit’s on-time and cancellation rates are right at 7th out of 10 US carriers in the industry – with B6 and the rest of the ultra low cost carrier segment of the industry below NK. WN obviously joined the bottom group of airlines for 2022 cancellations due to its Christmas nightmare.

      Ultra low cost carriers, by nature, have to aggressively schedule in order to maintain lower costs than other airlines.

      Spirit is doing better than its ULCC peers and at least in on-time, better than Jetblue.

      From my own experience, NK processed a partially used ticket refund quite fast so they have the resources to allow passengers to bail on their system. I flew NK not as the first choice but because they could get me back stateside, something AA could not do in any reasonable amount of time.

      DOT consumer complaint data for 2022 shows that Spirit gets a higher source of complaints from the category of “flight problems” than other airlines so they know where their problems lie and are addressing them but do other things – including baggage handling, refunds, and oversales – as good as or better than other airlines some of which charge more – a lot more.

  4. Spirit, like every other low cost carrier, has to aggressively schedule its operation in order to keep its costs low. It is precisely because Spirit, just like every other airline, has to deal w/ ATC limitations and bad weather that they have to figure out how to recover when the wheels fall off.
    I experienced this first hand just a few weeks ago. After AA cancelled a flight from Latin America on which I was booked, I booked a last minute trip on Spirit via FLL to try to get back for the events at home I was trying to be present for. The flight back to FLL was flawlessly executed but fully Spirit style (scores of crying babies at 3 am included). We boarded the connecting flight, taxied out only for the captain to tell us that there was a ground stop heading north from FLL. We spent two hours taxiing around FLL and shutting down the engines only to return to the gate because there wasn’t enough fuel (the cold front that moved through was fully forecast so why didn’t they take more fuel in the first place) and then the flight cancelled. The terminal looked like NK at its worst in customer service – but more significantly was the high percentage of NK and B6 planes all in the same situation (they largely share the same terminal). Everyone else’s S. Florida operation was just as much of a mess but MIA was slightly better off operationally – but it still was apparent that the only way to get out without spending another day in the airport was to drive. Interestingly, NK refunded their part of what I paid far faster than AA on which I had used none of the ticket. FLL is pushed to the limit which means B6’ promise of adding even more service to get the merger approved is certain to lead to even more operational disasters.
    NK has been more responsible in addressing its operation – far different than the way B6 runs its operation, always looking to push their system to the limit.
    Good for Spirit for looking how to keep the wheels from falling off since, when it has happened, it has been a spectacular failure.

    1. “I booked a last minute trip on Spirit”……

      Does Delta know about this? Have they approached you about turning in your Sky Miles FF card?


  5. I did not expect to learn Tim Dunn booked on AA flight to South America instead of DL and friends on a Cranky post about how NK is trying to improve its operations.

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