How Has COVID-19 Impacted the Airline Industry?
COVID-19 is the longest irregular operations (IROPS) event the airline industry has ever seen. Long-term, I believe this event will drive bankruptcies, industry consolidation, and a reduction in service levels by at least 25%. In fact, this has already begun as four airlines in the U.S. and at least 12 worldwide have filed for bankruptcy since March 1.
Ultimately, however, we WILL recover.
Recovery time fluctuates based on severity. Demand will return when the passengers feel safe and financially confident. For example, it took over three years to recover after 9/11 and nearly 10 years after the great recession and associated spikes in oil prices. This time, I believe it will take at least three years after the vaccines and other therapies are developed to even get close to pre-COVID-19 levels. This pandemic marks a transitional event for our industry, and it will impact airline health and safety standards moving forward.
Disruptions Happen Every Day
While we cannot control major disruptions such as natural disasters and extreme weather events, we face minor disruptions every day that we can mitigate. These disruptions are often the result of late arriving equipment, customer service, crew scheduling, maintenance issues, ATC, and weather delays. For passenger and freight carriers, a delay of an hour or even 30 minutes can affect passenger and crew connectivity, aircraft flow, and package delivery times.
Long delays, especially early in the morning, can affect the integrity of an entire airline network. For example, for optimal crewing purposes, airlines will often use the same flight crew on multiple lines of flying. If a delay causes the crew to miss their connection, multiple flight schedules on multiple lines of flying are now being affected. This creates a domino effect of misconnected passengers, bags, and crew members.
Passenger carrier flights are not the only flights affected by these disruptions. Freight companies have spent the last 30 years building their reputations around on-time deliveries and dependability. The cost of late package deliveries is not just monetary, it’s customer loyalty. A delay on just one critical package with a time guarantee could mean the loss of a corporate customer to a competitor.
Are Most Delays Within Your Control?
The Department of Transportation publishes the percent delayed flight information in the monthly Air Travel Consumer report. Three key delay categories are Air Carrier (AC) delay, National Airspace (NAS) delay, and Late Arriving Equipment (LAE) delay. Over extended time periods, AC and NAS delays are similar in magnitude and LAE delays are the largest delay category.
According to the Department of Transportation, air carrier delays are due to circumstances within the airline’s control, such as maintenance or crew problems. Airlines have attempted to mitigate these delays by adding buffers into their schedules, building more time into crew patterns, and using more spare aircraft. Spares and buffers, however, cause airlines to leave money on the table since fewer flights are scheduled and planes remain on the ground. While buffers and spares help, they are costly, and they cannot mitigate all air carrier delays.
Similarly, a portion of the NAS delays are within ATC’s control. In today’s environment, while the ANSPs generally do a great job, there are instances where avoidable delays are inserted into the system and propagated. These are mostly the result of conservative judgement calls due to a lack of data driven decision support tools.
How to Mitigate Delays
From the airlines’ perspective, delay mitigation starts with the schedule construction and the allocation of resources including blocks, ground time, spares, and maintenance time. The aircraft and crew lines of flying need to be built in such a way that when disruptions occur the schedule is repairable, while balancing fleet health through scheduled maintenance.
Operationally, the best way to mitigate delays is through cross-functional integration, collaboration, and the use of predictive decision support tools. This applies to both operations within an airline and to those at the national or international level.
For example, diversion events are “choreographed” chaotic situations involving multiple parties. To effectively resolve the problem, airports, airlines, and ANSPs must be able to collaborate. However, collaboration is only effective if the systems are integrated to the point that all parties have a common situational awareness, or “single truth” available to them in real-time. Decision support tools can then be used to determine how to manage the event and the subsequent recovery, i.e. which flights to bring back to the diversion airport and how fast.
By using an integrated aviation solution, you can avoid data duplication, data inconsistency, and data latency issues. You will not only optimize workflows and collaboration but also eliminate the costs of cross-platform coordination and communication.
What Are Some Recommendations for Airlines Seeking a New Disruption Recovery Tool?
Avoid free tools
Whether you are looking to mitigate disruptions from ground delay programs, diversion events, or weather, free tools will not cut it.
In a ground delay program, swapping flights one at a time will result in unsatisfactory outcomes. Therefore, an airline of any size needs a decision support tool to optimize the sequence of arrivals and departures from a hub to ensure maximum passenger connectivity and to maximize on-time performance.
During diversion management, you need a decision support tool that will tell you where your aircraft is in the hold stack, whether or not holds are increasing, and what the expected hold time will be. With freeware visualization tools, you will not be able to tell your aircraft from the next guy’s by the time the 5th one enters the hold pattern.
Major disruptions, such as snow storms or hurricane events, require even more complex operations recovery tools that consider aircraft, passenger, and crew optimization.
Consolidate to regularly used systems
Identify systems that cover at least 90% of the daily use needs of your cross-functional teams. Statistics have shown that niche decision support tools with incremental performance benefits will not realize full value unless they are used on a regular basis, causing teams to scramble during an already chaotic event. By collaborating over the same system every day for minor disruption recovery, your users will be better equipped to handle major IROPS events with reduced risk of error.
If you cannot consolidate, integrate your data
Sometimes systems are so specialized that implementing a single system is not feasible from a computer architecture or user interface perspective. In this case, the issue becomes data integration. You need to be able to share the appropriate data reliably and in a timely fashion to enable decision support systems to solve the correct problem and have an optimized user experience.
Increase your visibility
Today, most major airlines have tools that can forecast and monitor event progression for their own company’s flights. However, during a diversion event, snowstorm, or hurricane recovery, you need a system that will give you the full picture of all other flights across multiple airlines as well. A single view into diversions across all airlines enables dispatchers and crews to determine whether to hold, how long to hold, and when to divert. When planning and executing a recovery event, it is important to know what the total available capacity is and to plan the demand on large stations holistically with knowledge across all operators. In doing so, you will prevent gridlocks and other unnecessary delays.
My name is Ilhan Ince and I am the Chief Product Officer of PASSUR Aerospace. I have 15 years of experience in the aerospace industry and an additional 20+ years of experience in the transportation industry. Prior to joining PASSUR, I served as the Managing Director of the American Airlines Operations Planning and Performance Team where I was responsible for operational goals, performance, and improving operating efficiency. My first transportation industry position was with the US Airways Operations Research team developing schedule optimization software. I have since worked on many aspects of airline operations and network optimization including block planning, robust schedule development, and operations recovery. Prior to joining US Airways, I worked in the aerospace industry developing mission planning and control systems for remotely controlled ground and air vehicles.