Meet Daniel Fry '13

Daniel Fry

Senior research assistant
MIT International Center for Air Transportation, Cambridge, Massachusetts
— economics and mathematics major


Q. How did you choose Augustana?

A. Augustana College stood out to me as the right choice when I was a senior in high school for several reasons. I was impressed by the core values. I have visited many campuses, and occasionally I hear the statement, “and you can make some money, because that’s what this is really about.” At Augie, it is much more than that. I feel proud to be able to say my college is an institution with integrity, vocation, and excellence. The focus is on nurturing intense, enduring curiosity —that is wonderful and has immeasurably enriched my life. The professors at Augustana are superb. They push you to meet your full potential and then a little farther.

When I chose to study at Augie, I knew the class sizes were small; I anticipated more attention from professors. I did not anticipate the genuine interest, compassion, and friendship that I received from them and continue to receive! I felt at home at Augie from the beginning, and that feeling only intensified over the four years I spent there. Now that I live in Boston, and soon in Seattle, I relish opportunities to visit the Augie community, and I’ve enjoyed being visited in Boston. Once an Augie Viking, always an Augie Viking.

Life at Augie

Q. Favorite class and why?

A. A lot of classes at Augie left a big impression, from poetry with Dr. Hicks, advanced composition with Dr. Looney, percussion ensemble with Dr. Pennington, Augie Choir with Dr. Johnson and Weston Noble, real analysis with Dr. Gregg, or all of the economics courses with Drs. Sorenson, Nesiba, and Eggleston. That includes an incredible trip to Thailand with Dr. Nesiba to study political economy. Prof. Haar’s “Exploring the Christian Faith” and Dr. Minister’s “Marx and the Modern Life,” were great classes for viewing what I thought I knew in new ways. One class, however, stands out: “Tracing the Roots of Western Civilization in Ancient Greece.” My freshman year, about twenty freshman and I travelled to Greece and the UK with Dr. Wentzel and Dr. O’Hara. The journey changed my life. Climbing to the top of the fortress atop the Acrocorinth was awe-inspiring and climbing the same steps as the Apostle Paul in the shadow of the Parthenon was the same. It had not occurred to me before that class the interconnectedness of history and the classics with the modern life. Nor had it occurred to me how profoundly ideas can change the world.

Q. Favorite professor and why?

A. Suffice it to say that a lot of professors at Augustana made a profound impact on how I learn and how I see the world. A lot of them I count as lucky to have as friends. I won’t pick a favorite, but I’ll tell a story about Prof. Looney. She is an incredible professor who opened up the world of Indian literature to me, along with classics from most other parts of the world and some excellent contemporary work. She was the best critic I’ve had when it comes to grading essays. She is also a great person to talk to. When I first returned to Augie during Christmas break after starting at MIT, I met with Prof. Looney for tea and a discussion and, like everyone I had been meeting, she asked me how I was doing at MIT. I told her that classes and research were very challenging but that I was doing quite well, learning lots and meeting the experts in my field. She said, “Yes, yes but how is your soul?” That is the liberal arts at work — the Augie advantage.

Q. Best Augie memory?

A. When I was a freshman, my friends and I took several projectors from the library, hooked them up to my computer, arranged chairs in the interior layout of a Boeing 757, and simulated flights to Cancun and Hong Kong in the Bergsaker day room. The virtual excursions were complete with inflight movies and pizza. I still have my cardboard pilot’s wings!

After Augustana

Q. Tell us about your journey after graduating from Augustana – first job, grad school, travel, etc.?

A. After finishing my last math course at Augustana, an independent study over the summer, I hopped into a Toyota Prius with my parents and all of my worldly possessions and drove to Boston, to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I’m now finishing my thesis that will mark the successful completion of my Master of Science in Transportation, with a focus in airline economics and operations research.

The journey has been both difficult and rewarding with plenty of coursework in economics and engineering. On top of that, I spend 20-40 hours a week researching at the MIT International Center for Air Transportation. My field of research is airline revenue management, and I conduct experiments and analysis on a wide range of topics, from joint cabin optimization, alliance revenue management, and demand driven dispatch. For example, members of global airline alliances such as Oneworld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance have complicated networks and must coordinate availability between their systems; one of my projects in the last year has been to help them do so optimally. Demand driven dispatch and revenue management are the topics of my thesis; I am writing about coordinating between airlines’ aircraft scheduling processes and revenue management systems to put the right planes on the right flights and then charge the right fares for those flights.

In the summer interim, I was at Alaska Airlines in Seattle as a pricing and revenue management intern. I had a great time working with them; I can say that I think they are the finest airline in North America. It was exciting and challenging to put together a project from planning to implementation. I’m thrilled to be heading back.

Q. Tell us about your career – what’s an average day like?

A. My average day starts with Earl Grey tea. Then I ride the T to MIT and take my seat in the ICAT lab, Building 35. MIT loves acronyms and numbers. I regularly attend speaking events, seminars, and lectures, but most of my day is spent working in the lab. I run simulations of multiple airlines operating large networks in competitions using a simulator designed by Boeing and elaborated upon by MIT. Then I analyze the resulting data, compare and contrast it with industry data, and prepare presentations. A lot of my responsibility is to predict the outcomes of competitive “games” and use statistics and simulation to see if my predictions are accurate.

The other part of every day is interacting with my labmates. It is a lot of fun to work with them on their various projects, all relating to airlines, and explain concepts and industry practices. Nothing tests your knowledge of a subject like having to put together a lecture and then field questions.

Q. Greatest challenges and best rewards of your current role?

A. The greatest challenges of my current role are balancing my time and responsibilities and to make sure I practice sound analysis. I’ve got a host of projects and it is both difficult and entertaining to switch between them. For sound analysis, anyone who has attempted econometrics knows it’s messy work, and the optimal solutions to problems in operations research hinge on the applicability of the underlying assumptions. I credit taking philosophy courses at Augie for allowing me peer into the processes I work with, scrutinize the underpinnings, and develop better models. Models are bad representations of reality, but often they are all that we have.

The best reward for my current work is sharing my research to airline experts and practitioners from around the world and watching the ideas I develop come into practice. Three to four times a year, I travel to conferences and present several research projects. These conferences have taken me to around the US and internationally to Montreal, Copenhagen, and soon Shanghai. There, I present to industry experts who take my research back to their companies as well as give me feedback on my work. It has been great to not only research with the best in the field at MIT but also to be in direct communication with over fourteen leading global airlines that use my research.

Q. Greatest professional accomplishment thus far?

A. My greatest professional accomplishment thus far is the project I developed at Alaska Airlines. It spans two departments and is being implemented across the airline’s entire network (104 cities in Canada, the US, and Mexico). I can now say that I have put my knowledge to use and it is directly impacting Alaska’s roughly 30 million annual passengers. Importantly, the project helps not only Alaska Airlines but also a large number of medium and small cities with improved connectivity. Connecting the world with civil aviation is an imperative. I take it as an honor to have a hand in bringing together businesses, families, communities, and cultures.

Q. What’s next for you professionally?

A. In June I will be moving to Seattle to rejoin Alaska Airlines as a full-time employee. I will be working first in the Pricing Department to start a series a systems projects to improve their current practice. Then I will begin working on systems projects in a wider range of planning processes. Alaska Airlines has an excellent product, now recognized seven years in a row by J.D. Power as the best airline in the U.S. (and that is for customer service, not financial performance). The WSJ recently said the same. Alaska Airlines is dedicated to the customers and communities it serves as well as preserving the environment through efficiency and recycling and treating its employees well; those are traits I was looking for. I was also looking for a feeling of home, as when I chose Augustana. I felt at home working with the people of Alaska over the summer, and I think I know why: my director went to Gustavus Adolphus in Minnesota and the corporate culture has certainly been shaped by the CEO who went to Pacific Lutheran University, another liberal arts institution founded by Norwegian immigrants.

Q. If you could offer a prospective or existing Augie student some advice, what would you say?

A. At the risk of sounding cliché, I’m going to say that hard work pays off, and don’t give up on childhood dreams. I’ve dreamt of running airlines since I was a small child, building airports on the kitchen floor and flying toy planes around the yard. On a different note, don’t settle for subjects that other people tell you are practical. Yes, take some math and econ, but I can’t emphasize enough how helpful philosophy and English have been, along with all of the other subjects in a liberal arts education. There is nothing more practical than having a mind open to the world and a mind capable of thinking well. These are more valuable than any specific skillset.

At Home

Q. Tell us about your family.

A. My parents currently live in Pierre, SD but will be moving to Sioux Falls, so Augie can expect to see more of them (they both attended Augie). My father had a long and distinguished career serving the people of South Dakota first in the Department of Revenue and then as the Director of the Legislative Research Council. He is now enjoying retirement, although rather than relaxing he promptly began a number of volunteer activities, joined some committees, and started a part-time job. My mother manages a very successful travel agency and is the principle inspiration for my career. Her business prowess and dedication to her customers impressed me, as did the incredible world she has opened through travel to my family and countless others.

My brother, also an Augie alumnus, has been having an adventure. He moved to the Czech Republic where he met his wife Alena, who holds a Doctorate in Translation and specializes in translating the works of Edgar Allan Poe. They then moved to Pierre where Chris ran a distillery, followed by Sioux Falls where he oversaw the processes at a butanol plant (he studied chemistry and economics, along with a host of other things, at Augie). Then they moved to Sonoma Valley for an opportunity to try winemaking. Finally, they are now in Chicago, where Alena works for an international law firm and Chris is earning a Master of Science in Finance.

Q. What’s given you the greatest personal satisfaction since graduating from Augie? And why?

A. This is a tough question to answer. When I left Augie and traveled to the East Coast, then to the West Coast, back again, and so on, I was very afraid I would lose touch with the people I love, friends and family. This hasn’t happened. Whether meeting up with friends in Seattle, getting visitors like Reynold Nesiba in Boston, or going back to South Dakota for reunions, we’ve stayed in touch. Skype helps a lot, too. I’ve also met a lot of great people at MIT. No matter where life takes you, nothing compares to being surrounded by community, giving and receiving. As it turns out, I find personal satisfaction when I’m not looking for it. More than a few people at Augie hinted that may be the case.

Q. A foundation for life at Augustana begins with our five core values – Christian Faith, Liberal Arts, Excellence, Community and Service. How did your time at Augustana help to ensure those values remain central in your life? 

A. The core values of Augustana College are more than just banners on the wall. The lives and lessons of the faculty and staff that are Augie provide the most enduring example of the core values. My parents told me that the friends I make in college will be friends I keep for life. That has also been true. We emulate our teachers, and so Augie and the community of friends I grew up in taught me to build my life on these core values. Hence community, one of the core values, has helped tremendously to bind me to the other four.