They have, as of mid-August 2006, yet to book their first passenger, but the engineers, ground-support planners, and flight directors at DayJet's Virtual Operations Center (VOC) have been "flying" thousands of pretend passengers and hundreds of simulated Eclipse 500 Very Light Jets in and out of community airports throughout the Northeast for more than four years.
"We knew that Very Light Jet aircraft could physically provide non-scheduled service to local airports at cost-effective prices," says Brad Noe, DayJet vice-president of engineering. "What we had to figure out was whether we could devise an on-demand reservation system that would take each day's travel requests, match them up with the aircraft and crews available on that day, and schedule them to optimize equipment utilization and minimize down time and deadhead (non-passenger-carrying) flights. "In other words, could we come up with back-end technology that would enable us to run a profitable business in real time."
The system DayJet developed to power the VOC and, eventually, the "real" operations center, is unlike any other flight-control program in the industry. Designed to be totally paperless, it analyses data supplied by the reservation system, aircraft instrumentation, flight crews, ground crews, weather service, and maintenance staff and adjusts fleet and personnel deployment accordingly.
"Other airlines have the capability to run these scenarios," Noe noted, "but they're always working with schedules. We're constantly throwing disruptions into it - a flight or a leg of a flight dropped because a passenger cancelled, a flight being added because a late caller needed a immediate connection - that's why we needed a virtual operation system we could use to optimize and simulate a fleet of hundreds of aircraft as well as our initial 10 or 20. Because our business can only scale up as far as our technology scales up.
"We know Eclipse will get us the airplanes, so instead of worrying about that we've focused on the technology of how to run the business." The proprietary Astro computer application, which was designed and written entirely in-house, is what Noe call's an "agent-based technology."
"One of the main things it does is mimic a customer's decision-making process," he says. "We loaded it with historical data about each of our markets - how many people go between each city pair, how many of them are next-day travelers, what their demographics are, how long it takes and how much it costs to get from Point A to Point B by various different methods.
"Say someone wants to go from Boca Raton to Savannah three days from now. What we wanted to create was a software agent that could analyze whether it made more sense for that customer to drive, use a commercial carrier, or fly Dayjet. By doing that the program tells us where and how much demand we're going to get."
Though the VOC handles simulated reservations up to 30 days in advance, information on a specific day's flight requirements are only transferred to the program's "flight optimization engine" 12 to 24 hours before the travel date.
"It's very interesting to see the schedule develop onscreen as the program is working," Noe says. "At the beginning of each travel day it's sort of liquid and unformed. Than it undergoes what we call a 'gelatinization' process - it starts to jell and becomes semi-solid and finally firm. We can still change it, but we basically know what our flights are, what aircraft each customer is going to be on, what legs each crew is going to fly, where each plane will need refueling, etc."
Noe stresses that however firm a day's schedule may look on a monitor, the nature of on-demand travel means that it can and frequently will be changed. Astro always knows where each aircraft is, when it lands, when it takes off, how many hours the crew has been flying, how much fuel is onboard, what its maintenance schedules are, etc. and it uses this knowledge to continually re-optimize the network in real time.
"Let's say a passenger shows up at the airport with excess baggage," Noe says. "That information goes into the system and the program immediately recalculates the fuel consumption for that flight segment, reschedules the aircraft's refueling stops if necessary, and analyses the rest of the day's schedule to see if that extra refueling stop will affect it. For example, the extra time on the ground for refueling could mean that aircraft will miss a scheduled pick-up in another city, If that's the case, the system will automatically try to reassign another aircraft and crew to fill that request."
According to Noe, the VOC has been remarkably accurate at juggling all its aircraft, pilots, and passengers and keeping them in the air.
"We have an ongoing contract under which professors and grad students at the Georgia Tech Operations Research Department
mathematically analyze the same data we feed into Astro. Schedules that we produce in minutes take them days to validate, but we're always within a few percentage points of ultimate optimization. Noe notes that Dayjet flight crews, as well as passengers, will benefit from Astro's uncanny ability to merge two passengers here, three there, four airplanes flying somewhere and five on the ground in other places into a coherent, efficient "big picture."
"Barring weather problems or other unforeseen circumstances, pilots will leave from their home airports and arrive back at their home airports the same day," he says. "They'll also work regular shifts, the same hours and days off each week. This is something scheduled airline pilots don't get and it's definitely at least partially responsible for the unbelievably high caliber of the pilots who are responding to our recruiting initiatives."