PONTIFEX (Planning Of Non-specific Transportation by an Intelligent Fleet EXpert) was a mid-1980s project that introduced a novel approach to complex aircraft fleet scheduling.
Since the mathematical problems stemming from non trivial fleet scheduling easily become computationally unsolvable, the PONTIFEX idea consisted in a seamless merge of algorithms and heuristic knowledge embedded in rules. The system, based on domain knowledge collected from airliners Alitalia, KLM, Swissair, and TAP Portugal, was first adopted by Swissair and Alitalia in the late 1980s, then also by the Italian railroad national operator, for their cargo division. It is still in use today (2007).
Physicist Paolo Magrassi was the project manager who merged contributions from several companies (in addition to the airlines: Nixdorf, Siemens AG and Cap Gemini) and research institutions (Polytechnic of Thessaloniki, Heidelberg University and the Italian National Research Council, CNR). In 1988-1991 he raised funding in excess of €25 million from all companies involved and from the European Commission’s Strategic Programme for R&D in Information Technology. Managing the project required uniting the efforts of people from disparate communities and with very different mindsets, such as researchers, academics, practitioners, consultants, managers, public officers.
Two outstanding scientific contributors were Gerhard Mueller from Heidelberg and Marco Cini from Rome’s CNR. The key advances contained in PONTIFEX, such as the integration of knowledge-based programming techniques and procedural programming, are described in publications by Cini and Magrassi (such as, e.g., ). Other key contributors included Ettore Decio, Fernando Federici, Claudio Giarda, Antonella Vecchio, and Donatella Paschina, who eventually brought PONTIFEX into use at the Italian Railroads when she took there her role as Chief Information Officer from a previous Alitalia position.