Staying ahead of schedule
Andrew Stimpson, Solution Manager for Aerospace & Defence at IFS, examines better ways of working to combat aircraft planning and maintenance challenges as fleet schedules become more complex.
Commercial aviation market figures are staggering. In its current outlook, Boeing predicts orders for nearly 40,000 new aircraft over the next 20 years valued at $5.9 trillion. Much of the boom in passenger demand and fleet expansion is being driven by airlines in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific, which are witnessing year-on-year air passenger demand of over 10% - eclipsing the growth in demand of carriers in North America and Europe.
All airlines face pressure to increase efficiency by sweating airframe assets. Yet it is a complex issue - how do planners optimise aircraft allocation while coping with unexpected operational changes and unscheduled maintenance?
A typical airline will have an aircraft allocation team on this chore, spending some three to four hours to prepare a single one-day optimised plan. However tightly planned schedules can quickly be thrown out of kilter by last-minute changes. Add in weather, airport delays or engine failures and airline operations can soon become jeopardised.
The elements of planning
The utilisation and optimisation of a fleet involves a number of interrelating factors which need to be balanced and reconciled to produce a cost and asset-efficient schedule. For example, long-term maintenance, destination-based constraints and aircraft restrictions need to be factored in to route scheduling, not to mention the unscheduled, short- and mid-term maintenance requirements that must also be managed compliantly. At the same time, elements such as fleet allocation, flight frequency and seat planning must be synchronised with crew rostering, ground support and equipment planning.
As more planes take to the skies and more routes are introduced, the optimisation of an airline fleet quickly becomes too complex for traditional planning methods to handle.
The tail planning challenge
Any number of variables can impact fleet planning and cause major headaches for airlines. For a start, a fleet often contains aircraft of different ages and capabilities such as flight range, flight capacity and even class of travel. The maintenance requirements of each air-craft will also differ at any point in time depending on the number of hours operated, landings made and the scheduled maintenance window available.
The lack of maintenance synchronization can cause a chain of disruptions, meaning aircraft are unavailable for flights and adding to lost revenues. The effects of these delays flow down the network, beginning a costly snowball effect of more delays or cancellations.
All airlines are susceptible to ‘unknown unknowns’. For example, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimated that the infamous 2010 Eyjafjallajökull volcano cost airlines £10 million a day due to schedule disruptions. No amount of affordable planning or contingency can account for ‘acts of God’ or political disruption, but airlines can be better prepared for when these events happen in the future.
When the unknown strikes, rescheduling an optimal assignment and maintenance schedule quickly becomes too large a task to be undertaken manually.
New solutions providing head to tail aircraft planning
Traditional tail planning software has not always kept pace with this increasing growth and complexity. To avoid revenue lost through inefficient or delayed actions, airline operators need to look at new solutions which focus on the three key areas to take full advantage of the booming commercial industry.
1. Route efficiency
With aircraft capable of flying more routes than ever before, airlines and passengers are looking for more efficient air travel on both short- and long-range routes. Armed with an optimised tail planning solution, airlines can automatically determine which aircraft is best suited to fly a route by looking at the range and fuel efficiency of that aircraft - for example, using a newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft on a route - or vice versa - because of operation or maintenance needs. Airlines must also be able to analyse data to consider other aircraft type options if required - for example, comparing the cost of ground servicing an aircraft during a stopover.
2. Fleet Utilisation
Tail assignment per route becomes significantly less of an operational management issue for the airline if all the individual and cumulative fleet constraints are reconciled by a single solution. The complexity of fleet commonality also becomes less of an issue as the solution should account for many more of the individual restrictions and requirements from each aircraft than a manual planner. This makes it easier to satisfy restrictions and create a plan that is viable for all aircraft, without having a negative impact on the payload or making adjustments to the fleet.
3. Maintenance Planning
Maintenance planning must also be optimised by finding the best time slot for the airline, maintenance crew and aircraft. Factors such as hanger capacity, personnel availability and specific maintenance requirements of each aircraft must be considered and used to optimise the maintenance schedule with the flight schedule. Maintenance and flight planning have different priorities – maintenance means inactive aircraft while flight planners want as many planes in the air as possible.
Gaining the edge
With passenger and airline growth showing no signs of slowing down, modernising the allocation and optimisation of aircraft within a complex fleet will only increase in importance. To meet this challenge, these new solutions have been developed to ensure the multiple elements of airline planning run smoothly together and provide planners with instant readjustments when faced with disruption.
In the competitive world of commercial air travel, effective tail planning can provide airlines with an edge as they keep passengers happy and protect their bottom line. Failure to plan can leave airlines trailing in the wake of more organised carriers keeping up with the booming commercial aviation market.