20 08 Issue No. 1
A MAGAZINE FOR AIRLINE EXECUTIVES
T a k i n g
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A Conversation with Tim Hoeksema, chairman, president and chief executive officer, Midwest Airlines. pg. 36
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System operation control centers are critical to an airlineâ€™s day of operations, but the most effective, efficient SOC is an integrated one â€” from the people who work in a centrally located SOC environment to the systems that support them. By Dave Roberts | Ascend Contributor
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he room is crowded with people sitting in front of various types of computer or console screens. They are clustered in groups throughout the room — some on raised platforms overseeing the work of others. It is a windowless room, and around the walls are very large plasma screens that display many graphical pictures of colored lines around the world, weather depictions of sky conditions and forecast, and many charts filled with numbers and symbols. There is a low-level buzz throughout the room with many people talking at once — to each other or on the phone. Some are yelling instructions, many are asking questions, but all appear to be concentrating on the work at hand. The technology of communication and computing can be sensed throughout the room. At first glance, it appears chaotic. But with a closer look around the room, observing and listening, it becomes apparent that all is in order and that these people and the machines they
use are in control of their environment and their responsibilities. Is it NASA’s Mission Control Center? Is it the flight control room that has guided and controlled hundreds of space shots? No. Anyone in the airline industry could easily identify this scene. It’s an airline’s system operations control center — its nerve center. Within the confines of the SOC, airline personnel are monitoring and controlling the very essence of the operation of the airline at any given time … day or night. The SOC is a full-time, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year operation that oversees the airline — its schedule, flights, aircraft, staff, passengers and cargo. An airline runs on its heart and soul, but it is controlled by its brain and nerve center, the SOC. The SOC is more than a location where many operations business units come together during the day of operations to make air travel possible. The primary business processes within an airline SOC encompass communication and coordination with many of the airline’s
internal and external groups. These groups are always occupied with external events, working hard to ensure a safe, efficient and cost-effective airline. Success of an SOC is dependent on both the effectiveness and administration of the underlying business processes. It is the coordination of flight operations, crew tracking, maintenance and engineering, dispatching, airport and ground staff, and reservations and passenger service personnel working together to ensure the efficient and timely transportation of passengers, bags and cargo. It requires a fully integrated operation of flight, aircraft and crew systems to produce this timely experience. A positive flight experience produces huge returns on investment because of passenger satisfaction. Integrated airline operations enable high-level decisions that produce optimum results and a superior experience for customers, which, in turn, drive customer loyalty. The evolution of the SOC has been ongoing for many years, but today, the responsibilities of the
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The most efficient system operations control center combines well-trained airline professionals with end-to-end integrated systems in a single, centralized location to ensure communications occur in real time and day of operations run as smoothly as possible.
SOC include combinations of several functions, including: Monitoring, coordinating and controlling the operation of the airline and its resources on the day of operations; Planning and executing the daily operational plan and flight operations for all scheduled and non-scheduled aircraft movements toward ontime operations according to government and corporate policies and requirements; Managing operational control of the airline when irregular operations occur caused by adverse weather, aircraft or other mechanical problems; airport or air traffic control problems; or labor issues; Minimizing passenger disruption during irregular operations by operating the schedule as close to plan as possible and providing alternatives for passengers when flight delays or cancellations occur; Serving as the focal point for coordination during emergencies. The operation of an airline on a daily basis is complex, and a key to success is the efficient and effective completion of the flights as close to the published schedule as possible. Bringing it all together — airworthy aircraft, qualified and legal flight crews, sufficient ground resources, 20 ascend
and passengers and cargo — is a challenge. Months, even years, go into the planning of a flight schedule. The SOC is the entity that controls the execution of the plan to meet the legal requirements of various governments, the laws of aerodynamics and the goals of the airline. After safety, cost control, which is an essential factor of success when executing the daily plan, is achieved through reduced fuel consumption, improved personnel productivity and enhanced flight movement from departure to flight path to arrival. Airlines rely on the people and information technology located in the SOC to help achieve their corporate objectives. SOC staff members are the primary decision makers for the day of operations. This decision-making role requires communication and coordination with not only the numerous groups within the SOC but also the many external groups that are engaged in the physical operation of the airline. The centralized group of airline staff that oversees the operational control of the airline has not always existed. In the early years of commercial aviation, this control was decentralized and located at many different points around an airline’s airport system. Decision
making was very difficult given the separation of those responsible for the airline’s operation. Airline management realized that change was necessary, which is when centralized offices to manage the day of operations were formed throughout the industry. These new offices, called many different names, such as systems control, operations control and airline control center, had a common objective — to bring together in one location the people responsible for the daily operation of the airline. Airlines also realized that the most efficient SOC was created by centralizing, consolidating and integrating operational control functions, and they quickly understood that these new offices were successful in better coordinating and controlling the business, especially during irregular operations. Key in the establishment of these centers was the new, localized integration among operational functions that control the airline. Of course, in the early days, integration meant standing up and hollering across the room from one position to another, as verbal communication was the first form of integration used in these new SOC offices. The tools used to control the airline operations were once manual. The airline industry, which was one of the first to adopt computer
industry automation, was concentrating on automating passenger reservations, and SOCs and airports were among the last areas to be fully automated during the second half of the 20th century. With the introduction of automation into the SOC and its core functions, airline operations became even more efficient by reducing costs through productivity enhancements. Since aircraft generate revenue only when they are in the air, automation helped increase aircraft utilization through improved flight operations. By minimizing ground time, the aircraft could be scheduled for more flight time each day. The increased flying was brought about by more efficient operational control tools now automated within the SOC. Further improvements were still needed through systems integration so each segment of automated solutions was sharing and utilizing the same data. While the roles and responsibilities and even the functional departments within the many SOCs have changed, the core functions generally remain the same. These core functions, which range from managing essential resources to perform flight activities to the decision-making required during irregular operations, include flight planning and following, assignment of aircraft, scheduling of maintenance, control of flight and aircraft movement, and scheduling and tracking of flight crews. And all of these functions can be optimally achieved using end-to-end integrated solutions.
Controlling Flight And Aircraft Movement
The foundation for an airline’s day of operation is the flight schedule, a complex system designed to coordinate the published schedule with the required aircraft, crews and operational resources at various airports. Maintaining the integrity of the flight schedule is one of the SOC’s primary goals. The schedule is a complex linkage of aircraft, crews and passenger demand. An airline’s movement control is the system that oversees the reporting and monitoring of the actual flight times as compared to the flight schedule. Irregular operations cause changes to the flight times, and the movement control system is designed to ensure that disruptions are identified and corrective action is administered to quickly return the flight schedule to normal. On any given day, events occur that prevent the schedule from operating as planned. These disruptions upset the timing of critical flight events. The more restrictive the schedule is, the more difficult it is for the SOC to manage the day-to-day operation. When a disruption to the flight schedule occurs, various departments have a vested interest in which solutions are selected. Crew scheduling requires a solution that reduces crew costs. Maintenance control needs a solution that ensures scheduled maintenance is accomplished. Airport personnel must have a solution that accommodates their passengers as quickly as possible. It is the job of
the SOC to balance these competing interests and produce a system-wide solution rather than a local one.
Real-Time Management Of Pilots And Flight Attendants
Along with scheduling and monitoring the movement of aircraft, scheduling and managing flight crews is essential to an airline’s operational control success. Included in the end-to-end crew management needs of an airline are phases that address day-of-operations crew scheduling and crew tracking and recovery that are designed to ensure efficient deployment of crews at minimum cost while maintaining flight reliability and schedule integrity. Crew scheduling actually begins prior to the day of operation and, like flight scheduling, is a very complex requirement. Within each aircraft crew complement are different crew member types as determined by the airline, and crew scheduling ensures that there are legal and qualified crew members assigned to each flight. After crew assignments are made for each flight, the SOC crew controllers must track these crews throughout the operational day to continually be sure that flights have the correct, legal complements of crew members available. Crew controllers will also fill open positions and, if necessary, reassign crews when irregular operations occur. In the SOC, the tasks of movement control and crew management are closely related. Integration of data for these two areas provides many benefits when compared to systems that are managed separately. Decisions made by both of these functional groups have a direct impact on an airline’s operational performance and daily expenses.
Creating A Trip Plan For Each Flight
A flight plan is developed for each flight and is designed to ensure the operation of these flights adhere to all legal and safety requirements. Included in the flight plan are the flight route, speeds, altitudes, flight times and airport details to include designated alternate airports. Dispatchers within the SOC check for airworthiness of the aircraft, weight limitations for each segment of the flight (from taxi to takeoff to enroute flight to landing), route and altitude limitations and restrictions, required fuel for operation to destination, and contingency to alternates based on current and forecasted weather. In addition, flight planning considers the costs to the airline. Economical routes, altitudes and flight speeds are selected considering weather and air traffic control constraints. Factors related to flight schedules and connecting flights for passengers are considered in determining the flight plan. Fuel consumption is a key factor when determining the flight plan and the decisions to tanker or ferry additional fuel. It is essential that the flight planning system calculates the optimum level of mini-
mum fuel to reduce the amount of fuel onboard and reduce in-flight fuel burn and that there is justification when carrying additional fuel above the minimum. When additional fuel is carried above the minimum or legal amount required for a flight, more fuel is burned due to the extra weight. As a rule of thumb, every extra pound of weight (fuel in this case) burns approximately 3 percent extra fuel per hour. In some cases, the opposite process is most cost effective — add more fuel than is needed to fly to the next destination, known as fuel ferrying or tankering. Airlines analyze fuel costs at each airport to which they fly, and then they calculate the costs of flying (tankering) additional fuel from one airport to another versus the costs of buying fuel at the destination airport. The additional costs of carrying additional fuel can be lower than the price of purchasing additional fuel at the destination airport.
Following The Progress Of Each Flight
Flight following is the real-time tracking of flights from departure to arrival. SOC staff monitor the position of each flight at all times after departure. Flight following is necessary to enable the SOC to respond to any occurrence during the flight that may require communication with the flight crew. Estimated arrival times can be more accurately determined as a result of proper flight following, and destination airports and passengers can be updated when changes occur.
Adhering To The Aerodynamics Of Flight
Load planning, a critical safety element in flight operations, is the detailed process of gathering data on items to be loaded on the aircraft and calculating the load plan based on the aircraft’s basic operating empty weight or dry operating weight, meaning without fuel. Included in the items to be loaded are booked passengers, estimated bags, and mail and cargo for a particular flight leg, resulting in an estimated zero fuel weight when added to the operating empty weight. The load plan calculates the distribution of cargo and passengers on the aircraft and ensures they are loaded within the proper center of gravity and aircraft weight limitations. Since it is necessary for SOC load planners to coordinate closely with other SOC staff and airport personnel, integration of systems enhances the productivity and effectiveness of load planners. If the SOC is able to execute the day’s flight schedule, if sufficient resources are available to operate the schedules, and if there are no disruptions, operation control can be a routine task. However, the disruptions that inevitably happen can cause local resource shortages that require corrective action to avoid unacceptable delays or flight cancellations. While the SOC cannot prevent disruptions caused by external factors, the effective execution of business processes and systems
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Having access to real-time information enables SOC personnel to effectively respond to unexpected schedule disruptions, making it possible for airlines to quickly recover with the least impact on customers.
determines how well an airline handles and recovers from external events. SOC personnel must react to the disruptions — whatever the magnitude — to keep the airline running as smoothly as possible. The challenge faced by SOC personnel is that disruptions are caused by many factors to include resource limitations involving aircraft, crew members and ground personnel, mechanicals, weather, and air traffic control restrictions. Minimizing the impact on passenger service and maintaining the integrity of the published flight schedule requires close cooperation and communication among the departments within the SOC. Often, the decisions that must be made in the SOC to return the airline to normal operation may be affected by factors that are diametrically opposed to one another. The decision to cancel a flight may cause an aircraft to be out of position for a scheduled overnight maintenance check. The decision to operate the flight on a delayed basis to await connecting passengers may cause crew members to miss their connecting flights, thus delaying those flights as well. To make optimum decisions, the SOC must be able to provide the same data and situations to all functional groups within the center. Integration is essential to achieving the optimum solution. Enhancing the level of systems integration enables SOC controllers to focus on the most critical tasks and problems at hand. The ability of the SOC to manage and control an airline’s daily operations has been significantly improved with the advancements in information technology. Automation provides for improved exchange of information within the 22 ascend
SOC and between the SOC and external operational groups. Data exchange is more efficient, response times are quicker and employee productivity is improved. The human factor, often a problem during critical periods, is improved as errors are lowered and redundant tasks are reduced. Data accuracy is more dependable and provides for a safer environment and better customer service. The ability to analyze problems rapidly and more efficiently allows for better decision making and more of a proactive rather than reactive posture. Along with automation and information technology, further improved capabilities of the SOC are realized through the integration of the automated systems and solutions. Integration of SOC data during normal operations enables an airline to fly more efficiently and reduce costs associated with flight time, resources, fuel consumption, delays and cancellations. The enhanced operational control environment distributes information to appropriate personnel, providing common situation awareness with which to make informed flight-related decisions. The automated systems in the SOC are fully integrated so changes in one are immediately reflected across the board. Data is entered once and shared throughout the SOC as well as forwarded to other affected areas such as maintenance and engineering, crew scheduling, and aircraft routing. Integration reduces the risk of miscommunication as SOC controllers and other airline/airport employees have access to the same data that is in real time and updated with more current and factual information. The benefits
to the airline are more than just managing the SOC and the operations. In addition, there are realizable economic benefits associated with automation and integration — fuel savings, improved on-time performance, more effective recovery from irregular operations, improved payload through optimized load and flight planning, and improved productivity for SOC controllers and dispatchers. Disruptions or irregular operations can occur in many forms and at any time. Integrated solutions in the SOC are essential during these times to help the SOC fulfill one of its primary roles — to quickly and efficiently return the airline to its routine schedule. Many airlines today rely on manual systems or automated, independent systems to manage irregular operations. The recovery time and the resulting costs are much greater for these airlines than for those that have integrated their systems and share the data and solutions among the entire SOC staff and external departments required to handle the disruptions. Relying on integrated systems, such as the complete, end-to-end suite of SOC systems offered by Sabre Airline Solutions® , provides SOC controllers and dispatchers realtime, easy access to information from various functional areas of the airline. It enables them to enter and maintain data more rapidly and efficiently. Reaction time to irregular operation situations is increased due to instant notification of events such as flight delays and cancellations. The additional time enables the SOC team to make crucial decisions to return to normal operations. The room is now quiet. It is midnight, and the last large flight complex of the day has departed from the west coast. Several controllers and dispatchers are still on duty wrapping up the day. The low buzz is now calm as the shift ends. But the activities have not ended. A new group of people are settling in to begin the planning of the next day’s operation. Schedules are reviewed, aircraft assignments are matched to the schedule and the aircraft location, maintenance logs are checked, weather forecast reviewed for potential problems, dispatch desk assignments are made, and preliminary load plans have been developed based on preliminary passenger loads. In just a few short hours, the early morning originators will be scheduled for departure and a new operational day will be underway. The room will be buzzing again, and the airline operation will be under control thanks to the system operations control center, its people and its integrated solutions. a
Dave Roberts is senior principal of strategic planning, airline and flight operations for Sabre Airline Solutions. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.