Although being stuck at an airport often produces anxiety and impatience in most people, it also helped kick start the early research career of Dr. Heng Chen, assistant professor of supply chain management and analytics. Chen, who came to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln College of Business with the launch of the Department of Supply Chain Management and Analytics at the start of the 2016-17 school year, quickly found his niche in the area of data analytics to improve service and reduce costs in the airline industry.
“The airline industry has a lot of issues right now,” said Chen. “Air traffic demand is soaring but we have continual problems due to climate change where a lot of weather issues are created. For example, my wife and daughter just traveled from China on a day when there were 700 flights canceled in Chicago alone because of thunderstorms. They had to stay at an airport for 10 hours after traveling from China to the U.S. It can be a woeful experience for customers.”
Chen grappled with the issue in part by defining the various stakeholders served through air travel. He identified stakeholders as the airlines, airports, passengers, general public and government.
“Different stakeholders have different objectives. The airlines want to reduce costs and they want to improve service. The airport wants to improve ground utilization and passengers want to reduce travel time, as well as higher quality services. The public, and in turn, the government wants to reduce emissions and noise. What I found is these objectives do not conflict with one another. By reducing fuel costs and improving airline schedules, the objectives of the industry can be in line with all other stakeholders,” he said.
One notable area Chen researched involved looking at new airplane descending procedures. Along with his co-author and former Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Senay Solak of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Chen published several papers including, “Lower Cost Arrivals for Airlines: Optimal Policies for Managing Runway Operations under Optimized Profile Descent,” in Production and Operations Management
, which ultimately won the 2016 Outstanding Paper in Air Transportation from the Transportation Science & Logistics Society (TSL).
“The traditional descent would be kind of a stair-step approach to the runway. Now airlines are introducing a new approach where the aircraft can descend directly from the top of its descent to the runway. There are several benefits to this. It requires fewer thrusts with this new procedure, which reduces noise and saves fuel costs and emissions. We started with this new approach and thought about how this new technology would benefit the various stakeholders,” said Chen.
In addition to winning a best dissertation award from TSL for his work, Chen expanded his transportation research into other areas such as airport utilization and drone delivery management.
Most people don’t realize the airport retailing area can account for more than 40 percent of revenue at an airport. We look at human behavior at an airport to identify when people are most relaxed at the airport, which usually occurs after going through security but before the call for boarding. This is the golden hour for airport retailing, where people begin to wander around the concourse and relax amidst various things to do at the airport,” he said.
Dr. Jennifer Ryan, Ron and Carol Cope Professor of Supply Chain Management and Analytics and department chair, sees Chen as a critical member of the faculty. His expertise provides students with practical business knowledge they will need in their careers.
“He’s really the key person in our department working on transportation issues,” said Ryan. “He also adds value directly to our students through teaching the Global Sourcing and Distribution (SCMA) 439 course. Heng reached out to University Procurement because of their expertise buying things on a daily basis on campus. Nebraska procurement staff now come to speak in his class on issues related to purchasing and finding suppliers and products. Students appreciate hearing about those practical day-to-day issues.”
Chen also teaches Introduction to Operations Management (SCMA 331), a course required for all College of Business students. He appreciates the opportunity to work with students so close to moving into the workforce themselves.
“I bring knowledge to students and they bring their passion to me. I learn a lot from their energetic minds. It’s a great two-way interaction and mutual relationship. I feel they can use this knowledge as they go on into their careers. I see a bright future for them,” he said.