Saturday, 25 May 2013

Managing disruptions – software hurdles and how to get over them

The fact that airline decision makers are not aware about the full impact of disruptions on airline costs and overall business performance is mainly associated with dynamic nature of airline business and fragmentation of the existing information systems. Current applications like scheduling and network planning, operations control, aircraft maintenance, departure control, crew planning and various optimisation solutions are designed to satisfy individual planning and operational functions. Consequently, improvement decisions are made to predominantly serve departmental interests where even the best solutions do not guarantee the best system results. Integration and optimisation appear to be the biggest hurdles.

Integration of basic operational software applications has always been on vendors’ agenda despite airlines’ scepticism. A senior operations executive at a Big Three US carrier said that the ‘dream of completely integrated system that provides intelligent real time decision-making in Station Operations Centre, maintenance and airport operations is just that – a dream. There is a notion that at some point in the future this has to converge in an integrated system but it’s just not out there. The decisions we make today are far more complex than the systems are integrated to handle’.

Airlines and vendors have put in lots of effort to optimise the process of schedule recovery, but not many of their solutions have proved to be reliable and used in practice to their true potential. Some of the most costly airline disruptions have been caused by implementation of optimisation tools, causing long cascading effects including months of reduced operations. Airlines can make improvements in operational efficiency as long as they invest in workable solutions, rather than wasting their time and money developing the impossible. Sabre’s Chief Scientist said: The issue in operations is that you have a pretty complicated set of flows for aircrew, passengers and aircraft. There are an awful lot of possible solutions or recovery strategies for each component. If you are looking for a typical US domestic hub with complexes of 40 flights out, you’re talking literally billions of possible solutions out there. Not surprisingly, identifying the best solution, whether in terms of recovery costs or passenger service impact, is just impossible. Even airlines with the best data processing systems tend to look at some relatively simple localised solutions that may work for a particular hub at a particular point in time but that may have some downline impacts either for that particular hub later in the day or tomorrow or at other stations around the systems.

It is obvious that major improvements in the development of fully integrated information systems are still not in sight. The situation is pretty much the same at the other end: strategic and corporate managers are not fully aware about the effects their decisions have on operational performance. Their efforts to establish these links are sporadic, mainly subjective and usually related to loss recovery from third parties.

From these points of view, the situation may seem incurable. But, what if we start seeing the disruptions from a different perspective? What if instead of just being immersed in a myriad of daily problems we step above operational to a strategic plane where operational plans are conceived? With the support of the right tool, we would be able to see a bigger picture about disruptions, how they come into existence, and identify those with biggest impact on airline cost and quality of service. We will surely be much more selective about where our attention goes, which can give us more time to focus on problems that really matter. We will also be able to better understand internal relationship, recognise airline, airport and ATC limitations from a higher perspective, recover losses caused by third parties and much more. This new approach to still unexplored area of airline management (described in ‘Beyond Airline Disruptions’) opens up new opportunities for airline executives to act selectively and efficiently, continuously improving  operational performance and quality of services.