Carnegie Mellon University

airplane

September 19, 2018

MBA Students Help a Nonprofit Enrich Children’s Lives

Angel Flight West is a nonprofit organization that coordinates free air travel in the western United States for children and adults with serious medical conditions and other compelling needs. One of their most significant services involves transporting hundreds of children with critical illnesses to specialized summer camps.

“These are camps that allow children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses to have a summer camp experience like other kids get to have,” said Stephan Fopeano, an analytics consultant for Angel Flight West, in an interview with the analytics software company AIMMS.

AFW began using an AIMMS platform this summer to manage its summer camp flights, thanks to a solution developed by Tepper School MBA students participating in the Operations Research Implementations course taught each spring by Willem-Jan van Hoeve, Carnegie Bosch Associate Professor of Operations Research.

Van Hoeve said, “The opportunity to work on a real business challenge using real data provides an important experience that mimics what MBA students will be doing in their careers.”

Operations Research Implementations

All MBA students are required to complete Optimization, a fundamental course on optimization tools, as an introduction to quantitative analysis. During the fall semester of 2017, MBA student Alex Bergin took the course with Van Hoeve. “I really enjoyed his class,” Bergin said. “In a very practical way, he covered a lot of the analytics that I was interested in.”

Operations Research Implementations is an elective course that Van Hoeve teaches each spring for students interested in furthering their work in analytics. MBA student Shane Gorth said second-year students encouraged him to take the class. “I was told the course was the next step to implement the solutions we had explored in Optimization.”

A key aspect of the course is learning to work with AIMMS software. “AIMMS is the software that gets used in the real world when people try to solve these problems,” Bergin said. “Part of the reason to take the class is that the class is in AIMMS.”

The focus of the coursework is implementing mathematical optimization models to real-world business problems. While many of the projects that student groups work on are samples based on data from companies that had participated in earlier courses, some of the student groups have the opportunity to work directly with an organization on current issues.

Complex Analytics Problem

AFW operates with a network of 2,000 volunteer pilots, who donate their time and use of their aircraft to provide free air travel to the populations AFW serves. “In the past, we had people on a white board hacking at the routing problem for several days,” Fopeano said. If a single pilot became unexpectedly unavailable, these complicated plans would have to be scrapped entirely. “This was very tedious and time consuming. We needed to find a more user-friendly and effective solution.”

Fopeano follows the blog of consultant John D. Cook, and reached out to Cook for advice on resolving these inefficiencies. Cook pointed him to Van Hoeve. “He’s known as an expert in the field,” Fopeano said.

Van Hoeve introduced AFW’s project to his Operations Research Implementations course and challenged one group of students to optimize the scheduling for its summer camp transportation. Bergin and Gorth were eager to work on the project. “We thought it would be interesting to actually build something that would be used by a client in the real world,” Gorth said.

Together with a few classmates, Bergin and Gorth developed a web portal in AIMMS that would help AFW to more efficiently plan their pilots’ routes, meaning the pilots would be in the air for less time and be able to accommodate more passengers on each flight. To help AFW manage costs, Van Hoeve worked with AIMMS to secure the organization a nonprofit license.

Planning Efficiency

The AIMMS platform developed by Bergin and Gorth’s team allows AFW to upload spreadsheets containing lists of passengers and their locations and destinations, and match them with details about available pilots: the number of passenger seats available, the total weight they can accommodate, and the dates they are available to fly. If there are any changes, AFW is able to load new spreadsheets and have the software update the routes immediately.

“The feedback we got from them was awesome,” Gorth said. “I think they were amazed that something that was taking them a couple days to do inefficiently could be done in less than a minute.”

AFW has already put the platform into practice scheduling the summer camp season flights. “By maximizing our pilots’ donations (in time and fuel), we can help more people,” Fopeano said. “If our pilots can save an hour of flight time, which can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, then they can donate those funds to help someone else. This is made possible thanks to AIMMS and Prof. Van Hoeve’s team at CMU.”

Fopeano said that the organization plans to continue to use the AIMMS solution across its network. He is assisting other groups in the Midwest and on the East Coast to implement the platform in their operations.

Future in Analytics

Bergin and Gorth return to the Tepper School this fall to wrap up their second year in the MBA program, both in the Business Analytics track. Gorth has completed a summer internship with CVS Health in pharmacy operations, and Bergin spent his summer with telecom consultants Altman Vilandrie & Company.

The students offered substantial praise for the course and for Van Hoeve. Gorth plans to pursue a career that blends strategy and analytics, and felt the project offered significant practice in the field. Bergin said, “I think a unique Tepper value add is the ability to really build something affecting a real business right now. This is not common across all schools.”