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Keep the planes flying on time

Doctoral student Mazhar Arikan recently was waiting for his flight connection when the airline announced a delay.

“The crew was coming in late, and they needed to take the mandatory break between their flights,” says Arikan, who is scheduled to earn his doctorate in May. “Basically, a delay that occurred the day before was having an impact on me and several travelers the following day. That’s the kind of problem I look at with my research.”

Arikan’s main interest is service operations management. He has co-authored two papers dealing with airline flight schedules and delays. The first, written with his committee chair, Purdue Professor Vinayak Deshpande, is under third review at Manufacturing & Service Operations Management (MSOM).

The second paper, under review at Operations Research, was written with Deshpande and Professor Milind Sohoni of the Indian School of Business. That paper earned Arikan second prize in the 2010 MSOM Student Paper Competition. He also has two papers in progress.

“Professor Deshpande and all of my committee members have been very supportive,” Arikan says. “I came to Purdue because the faculty here is world-class, and the operations management area has an outstanding reputation.  I also like to do work that has practical applications, and our airline research would certainly qualify.”

The researchers sought to find ways to reduce the impact of flight delays. Among their findings, they discovered that airlines pay great attention to fares, as those flights with higher fares generally receive better service. But that same importance is not always given to flights with many connecting passengers.

“It’s as if airlines sometimes pay more attention to idle planes sitting on the ground than to passengers who are waiting for or missing flights,” Arikan says. He adds that all flights are treated equally in terms of on-time calculations, without taking into account the number of connecting passengers on some flights and the bigger impact that delays would cause on those connecting passengers.

The group identified several “bottleneck” airports, those that have the biggest impact on travelers in the United States. The researchers’ models also accurately predict on-time arrival probability of any given itinerary. These models can easily be used by passengers to evaluate their choice of carriers and help them make more informed decisions.

Arikan earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, and a master’s degree in industrial engineering from the University of Miami, where he graduated as the top student in his class. In addition to his research, he has taught two undergraduate core classes at the Krannert School, and he received a certificate in distinguished teaching for his efforts.

“At some schools, PhD students don’t have the chance to teach. I’m grateful that Purdue gave me that opportunity,” he says.

After graduation, Arikan would like to pursue a faculty position in operations management. Wherever he travels to interview, he’ll be aware of the process that got him there. “I always think about the details when I fly anywhere,” he admits.