Time is a Precious Commodity

The most important commodity an airline has, aside from its people, is time. 

An airline is about the profitable and efficient use of its allocated time for the daily operation. Unproductive time costs real money, poor reliability, and negatively impacts a customer’s perception.

Perception value has real revenue implications around intent to repurchase and recommend. A gate hold out over five minutes will negate all the good will created by the air carrier during a passenger’s travel journey.

Delayed flights cost airlines billions annually in both operating costs and customer perception value. The opportunity is that two thirds of all delays are controllable by the airline. Controllable delays are repeatable, predictable, and preventable.

Airlines have long battled to produce strong, efficient operational performance.

The carriers that have outperformed have created a sustained competitive advantage and will continue to do so into the future.

The Value of Optimizing Air and Surface Capacity

Each airline operation strives to optimize all the available air and surface capacity on any given day within its scheduled time.

Its processes and solution tools are designed to preserve and return time back to the daily operation, especially when under stress – minimizing disruptions and preserving revenue. In addition, it identifies new efficiencies or deficiencies in the current plan which are incorporated back to the schedule design cycle. 

A tall order for any business, but especially for one that has more uncontrollable components – i.e., weather, air traffic – during the day of operation than any other business model.

Building the Strongest Foundation

Time optimization begins with an integrated schedule design to build the strongest foundation.

Every airline’s schedule has its own unique personality. It’s designed to achieve the business model’s goals whether the focus is best-in-class customer service, the lower cost alternative, superior resiliency, a premium price for the network’s depth and breadth, or a combination of one or more.

Achieving success is a continuous discussion with all the operating groups around tradeoffs to determine the right balance of revenue, strategic investments (i.e., flying time/ground time), and tactical costs (i.e., delays and cancelations).  

The integrated schedule must act as the independent arbitrator for all the operating groups. It should have no bias built into the process. A true system of checks and balances for the airline.

The concept of a true integrated schedule design process has eluded most airlines, yet it is key to drive continuous value creation especially around revenue optimization and reduction in controllable delays.

How do Airlines Manage Time on the Day of Operation?

The Hours

The Operations Control Center efficiently and reliably manages the daily execution of the overall schedule. It coordinates the airline’s network and its partners ensuring the successful completion of the operation within its time parameters and/or reducing the severity of daily disruptions.

Every day is an Irregular Operation (IROP), so it becomes critical to keep the network moving with minimum “ripple effects” that drive additional operational and customer impacts.

Equally important, the operations control center must put crews, aircraft, and scheduled maintenance requirements back together minimizing the impact on the next day’s operation.

The operations control center must think not only of today, but tomorrow and beyond.

The Minutes and Seconds

At the station level, flights are turned and ready for departure within the planned or minimum standard time requirements. There are robust cross-divisional processes for departing the aircraft – providing optimal operational control and coordination.

All processes and staffing are designed to return time back to the schedule focusing on recovering from delayed flights ensuring the network and passengers keep moving reliably forward.

Pre-plans are developed throughout the day to avoid last minute surprises. This ensures people, equipment, and facilities are in position to achieve a departure within zero minutes.

Three Common Traits of Successful Time Management

Airlines who successfully manage time during the operation and subsequently design more efficient schedule plans share three common traits:

1. Improved Decision-Making Around a New Single Truth

Earlier and more accurate information drives better decisions providing the opportunity to preserve and return time back to the daily operation.

It’s all about the quality of the data and how it is aggregated. The critical information path in the daily operation is the flight information and forecasts of OOOIs (Out-Off-On-In). Fusing data from multiple sources such as airlines, airspace, and airports with advance analytics enables a new single and accurate picture of all operations and external components, not just one airline.

Without a complete accurate view of the entire operating environment, operating decisions taken will never realize their full value potential.

This new single truth allows an airline to maintain the integrity of the daily operation and focus on key value areas that return time back to the operation and subsequently the next schedule design. Examples include:

Flight Prioritization: Improved OOOI accuracy to determine which flights to depart first in the bank or hold at the gate improving passenger connectivity and reducing the “ripple” delay effect throughout the system.

Improvement of Air and Surface Capacity: Earlier forecasting of runway configurations and air traffic arrival rates set optimizes throughput – reducing delays and IROP severity.

More Accurate Flight Time Planning (Block Times): A more predictable operation provides an opportunity to reduce scheduled block times improving daily on time performance. The time savings can be incorporated into the next integrated schedule design to free up aircraft and crew resources.

2. Collaboration with Everyone – A Single Pane of Glass Concept

Many of the same-day operational decisions in aviation that directly impact airlines costs and customer service are controlled or influenced by multiple players outside the airline (e.g., Air Traffic, Airport Operators, etc.).  

It is key for all stakeholders to view, collaborate, and communicate from the same situational awareness platform. All constituencies, regardless of size, location, or role, have web access and can participate.

Creating a single, unified view of the operation supports the new integrated approach. Airlines, Airports, Alliance Partners, ANSPs, Aviation Vendors (i.e., line maintenance, cabin service, etc.) could compose a community. The platform’s value proposition grows as critical mass is achieved.

For example, a single collaborative decision platform (CDM) allows a global alliance to operate as a single entity versus separate members from an operational perspective. Now both revenue and operational performance are seamless to all constituents of an alliance. No city in the world is dark. There is full gate-to-gate visibility of everyone’s operation anywhere in the global network.

A new single truth plus CDM allows for a more reliable reset of each flight, flight bank and reduces customer memorable events (i.e., long delays, misconnections, lost bags, IROPs). It drives efficiencies of facilities and staff which can be incorporated back into the schedule design process.

3. Use of Operational Digital Twins (ODT)

An Operational Digital Twin (ODT) identifies repetitive patterns in the schedule design, operational processes, and execution that occur each day.

Digital approaches and advanced analytics can inform and optimize decision making.

A digital twin of the physical system or network allows airlines to simulate functions and predict potential delays, which can then be used for learnings, mitigate risks, and quickly address challenges proactively.  It includes competitive performance to allow for a full operational view.

An ODT sees every area of the operation in real time. It follows every flight along its OOOI journey. Archives it all for machine learning and can simulate an unlimited number of possible outcomes.

It also allows for the quick daily replay of the operation providing faster learning and understanding. It is then fed back into the daily operation and schedule design.

By linking actual operational results along with revenue-driven network planning creates a virtuous circle. The result is true integrated schedule design. One system for every operating constituent to work from versus the current siloed systems.

It can be used for the three key areas that must work together to achieve the full value potential. These areas are:

  • Real time operations
  • Operations planning/analysis
  • Integrated schedule design

For example, an airport gate plan is produced during the schedule development process and finalized after publication.  It is a fixed plan that is not easily adjusted during day of operation.

Frequent gate changes are a disruptive event for everyone. Passengers are settled in the gate area, connecting bags positioned, as well as fuelers, caterers, and other partners to name a few who are working from the plan.

Chronically early arrivals are the main driver of changes by excess block time scheduled in the planning process. This leads to many gate hold outs and/or changes during the day. 

An ODT can predict and identify repetitive patterns of flights that hold out, which gates are impacted and the available gate options during those time periods.

Rather than following the fixed gate and making disruptive changes, the operation creates a new gate plan each night based on the patterns detected and which gates are available.

The result is reduction of disruptions to the operation and especially customers.


There are major financial, resiliency and customer perception benefits to be gained by addressing identified challenges in an airline’s daily network operation, as well as feeding repeatable, predictable impacts and lessons learned from same day back into the planning cycle.

In addition, by linking these operational results along with revenue-driven network planning creates a virtuous circle. The result is the much elusive integrated schedule design process.

A new single truth and CDM allow an airline to optimize all the available air and surface capacity on a given day minimizing disruptions and preserving revenue.

An Operational Digital Twin identifies new efficiencies or deficiencies in the schedule to be addressed in a truly integrated fashion where all operating groups are equal partners driving for the highest profitability, operational resiliency, and brilliant customer service.

It unlocks the opportunity to significantly address an airline’s controllable delays and other structural efficiencies to sustain a competitive advantage for many years to come.

Meet the Author

Lucio Petroccione has 35 years of industry experience including over 20 years as an executive with Delta Air Lines, ten years with his own consulting company, and as an Expert Advisor for McKinsey & Company and Oliver Wyman. He has worked with over a dozen airlines on four continents ranging from start-ups to the largest carriers in the industry, including governments and organizations (i.e. IATA). His focus is Schedule design and Optimization, Integrated Operations Planning and Operations Control Center.

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