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In decades past, many departmental areas of an airline functioned somewhat independently. Essentially, they operated largely in terms of a silo- based mindset, tasked with their own objectives and goals, and complete with singular departmental metrics to gauge their own performance and results. Staff in these units often had little or no concept of occurrences outside their own area of work, often limited knowledge of other departments and the work carried out within them, and only a modest understanding of the extent to which each may influence the other.
Hence, the impact of decisions in some areas was not well appreciated or comprehended in others. It was a most dysfunctional structure. In these times too, before the relative ‘explosion’ of air travel that was to take place in later decades, there were few competing interests. The regulatory environment restricted competition, there was minimal airport and airspace congestion and Air Traffic Control operated with vastly simpler equipment and procedures, than today. Fuel was relatively plentiful and other than during identified, recurring periods of world tension, was reasonably priced. Governments often supported or owned airlines, and the cost to do business was less questioned or at least was not under the spotlight anywhere near as much as today.
The early years
The OCC as it was then more commonly termed, was no exception. It was often an area hidden away within an airline, seemingly unknown, certainly misunderstood, often mistrusted, and considered by senior management as a cost function to the bottom line of the business. As such, management had no appetite to invest in improving the operational centre. Without due recognition, investment for improvements to operational systems, communications tools, and appropriate staff recruitment and training, was not forthcoming. In addition, the tools in the OCC were often individually sourced and used in isolation for single tasks. They were technologically diverse, often obtained from an array of suppliers with vested interests in specific aspects of the operation (such as for Aircraft Movements, Crewing Resource Planning, or Reservations functions), but lacking the scope and capability to present as unified packages. This resulted, for example, in the Aircraft Movements system not ‘communicating with’ the Crewing system, or the Reservations system. This lack of system integration and cohesion caused much frustration, increased workloads, and inefficiencies in the way in which the OCC was able to operate, and certainly became a growing concern for cost control.
Of course, once these individual systems were selected and ensconced in the day-to-day operation, their use became the norm, with greater reliance by staff, and with little incentive to change what appeared to work well (albeit independently). As a result, the financial (and social) cost of replacing them to enable improved standardisation, or better still, synthesis, became prohibitive such that there developed a sustained existence of numerous, stand-alone programs. Notwithstanding systems shortfalls, of course in these times there was no internet in existence, so access to, and gathering of, reliable information to aid decision making, and then communicating and disseminating the results was a slow process. Travel agents dominated and so were relied upon to service passenger bookings and journey management, and the passenger was largely in the hands of these systems. Booking conditions were quite strict as well, with economic penalties for booking one-way, requirements for minimum stay, and often inclusion of specific days (e.g., Saturday) to receive discounted packages. Passengers had little choice and certainly no self-input into booking processes.
The problem-solving process was highly reactive; typically applying a ‘fire-fighting’ approach as the OCC responded to situations as they evolved, and hence recovery was highly reactionary and somewhat routine. During these times, a blame culture mentality was evident. As functional areas largely operated independently, an attitude of ‘XYZ have done this or that’ was quite prevalent, and other areas would feel obliged to ‘fix’ problems created elsewhere. In this era, of course, there was less competition, but the downside of that was that there was also less choice to assist in providing viable solutions (e.g., uplift of disrupted passengers on the airline’s own flights or those of other carriers). Solutions were to a large degree ‘hull’ focused, rather than customer focused, meaning that disruption solutions were predicated more on salvaging aircraft patterns than they were on mitigating the effects on passenger trips. Even the terminology ‘passenger’ used in the earlier days was attitudinally differently from the terms ‘customer’ or ‘guest’ more commonly in use today. In these earlier days, load factors (i.e., the proportion of occupied seats to total aircraft capacity) were typically light, and with frequencies of flights being fewer, disruption recovery was relatively straightforward. Disrupted passengers were often accommodated when they could be - usually on ‘later’ flights, even sometimes having to be uplifted the following day or, worse, when a service was next scheduled (and even then, one having sufficient seats for carriage). Low-cost carriers, as we know them today, had either not emerged in the early years, or were just starting to take a foothold.
Into the 21st Century
In the 1990s and 2000s, many evolutionary changes occurred in the industry. The prevalence of low-cost carriers was materialising, leading to rapid changes in competition, and driving costs down. Linked strongly with this was the change to airline ownership, with many governments divesting themselves of involvement with their national airlines. With the subsequent ‘explosion’ in air travel, congestion started to become a major problem in numerous regions of the world. Airports expanded to cope with greater demand, and secondary airports began to gain acceptance, developing greater infrastructure to handle growing domestic needs, and often facilitating international services.
Activity within the OCC steadily became more system focused, as changes in technology materialised. Software vendors either realised the potential, or were driven by the airlines themselves, to focus on providing these developments, such that tools emerged to enhance the usefulness of graphical displays available to Controllers, thereby delivering greater functionality to assist in optimising disruption recovery. For example, to manage a major weather disruption (such as a blizzard or hurricane) more readily, the newer tools enabled large-scale remedies affecting high numbers of flight stages to be enacted in a shorter time- frame, resulting in faster recovery, and a reduction in the workloads of Controllers. Technological improvements also contributed to more coordinated approaches among functional areas, especially those with engineering, commercial and operational interests, and a joint problemsolving culture developed. Thus, a transition from self-satisfying departmental pursuits to airline-focused, integrated decision outcomes began to emerge.
To support this approach, joint metrics were developed to measure, inform, analyse and advance systems performance, leading to innovations in planning and operating, but increasingly with a focus on continuous improvement across the board. Part of this process has seen greater attention given to revenue retention and protection, and importantly, cost control. There has also been a concerted effort to pin-point opportunities for cost reduction, particularly targeting high-cost activities such as Crewing and Maintenance resources, as well as isolating costs associated with non-core activity. As a result, productivity was increased, reductions in overheads realised, and levels of spares and inventory driven down. Outsourcing became instrumental in helping to reduce workforce size and liability. For example, maintenance repairs and overhaul, once handled in-country, could be outsourced to local third-party contractors or sent off-shore, airline workforces were downsized, and with the casualisation of the workforce, full-time employment translated to part-time or casual positions. Certainly, more flexibility in employment agreements was becoming necessary to enable substantial change to the way in which work was done.
What was significantly changing over this time was the re-focusing on customers and analysis of their relative worth to the company. A lot of this was fed by awareness of growing competition, not only in terms of the number of new airlines and therefore much greater choice for the travelling public, but in terms of evolving state-of-the-art aircraft, with sophisticated premium cabins in many cases, offering an extensive display of product and service. Far more choice and the fact that customers can readily take their business elsewhere with little or no penalty have been some of the drivers of the re-focus on the customer journey. Thus, customer impact has become increasingly central to operational decision making, especially with regard to high-value customers in premium class travel or those with high-standing loyalty (either from their home or primary carrier, or from alliance and partner airlines).