A five-year $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) program has allowed CEE Associate Professor Laurie Garrow to employ big data to analyze the policies that make flying something of a mixed bag for a lot of travelers.
"Many people find air travel frustrating," says Garrow, who received the NSF CAREER award in 2009. "Flight delays, missed connections, full flights, long security lines and add-on fees are just a few reasons why air travel can be so frustrating."
Garrow's research on this issue was recently highlighted by NSF, which published some of her findings, "Using Big Data to Design Policies to Improve Airline Customers' Experiences."
"The U.S. Department of Transportation helps make air travel less frustrating by setting policies that protect the rights of air travelers," Garrow writes." For example, at a Senate panel in 2012, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that he had been urging airlines not to charge fees to reserve more popular coach seats.
"It can be challenging for government agencies to design policies that best balance the needs of customers and airlines because policy makers have historically had little information about airline customers."
Garrow says the Internet is providing new opportunities to design policies that better protect customers. For instance, several firms have created databases of airlines' prices from online sources, and sell this information to airlines. Garrow's research explores ways in which researchers and policy makers can use these big data to better understand how customers respond to airline practices.
"There is currently a lot of discussion related to the airlines' practice of blocking rows of seats for their premier customers, such as frequent fliers with elite status. Some have questioned whether showing seats as being unavailable to non-premier customers misleads customers into purchasing a premium coach seat," Garrow says.
"These individuals argue that the practice of blocking seats may lead customers to believe a plane is fuller than it is, and encourage them to pay more to reserve a window or aisle seat towards the front of the plane."
Using publicly-available seat map and pricing data from a major U.S. airline, Garrow's research showed that customers' purchases of premium coach seats (with extra legroom and early boarding privileges) are strongly influenced by seat map displays.
Garrow found that customers avoid seating in middle seats and seats near the back of the plane by purchasing premium coach seats. In fact, customers are 2-3.3 times more likely to purchase premium coach seats when there are no window or aisle seats that can be reserved for free.
Garrow used these results to show that if this major U.S. airline were to block certain rows of seats for premier customers, the airline could sell more premium coach seats and potentially increase seat revenues by more than ten percent.
"This is one example of how big data can be used to better understand how customers respond to airline practices," Garrow says. "Practices that are shown to hinder customers from informed decisions when selecting flights can be prioritized as part of future government policies, thereby improving airline customers' experiences."
The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is a Foundation-wide activity that offers the National Science Foundation's most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. Such activities should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.