A traditional “Irregular Operations” (IrOps) is obviously a thing of the past, far into the future. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine what an IrOps actually meant and what consequences it had. IrOps didn’t just mean a delay of any flight or a broken baggage transporter for which a replacement could be quickly found. IrOps meant a major event with the potential to disrupt the flight handling processes of a major airport for hours or even days. In North America, for example, it was often caused by bad weather, especially during the hurricane season. Major IT breakdowns or a fire in a power distribution system are other IrOps events that occurred repeatedly. As they can neither be anticipated nor their effects be assessed, this led to regular major disruptions at the large hubs with their complex flight connection schedules being particularly susceptible to IrOps. Huge interruptions cost a lot of money and also damage the good reputation of the respective airline. In addition, the airports are highly focused on efficiency – and the higher the level of efficiency, the more susceptible the system is to disruptions. Therefore, IrOps is no longer about increasing efficiency, but about minimizing potential damage – a situation that is very similar to the current situation in the entire aviation industry.
IrOps despite existing capacities?
Let's remember that it was just months ago that the airports were bursting at the seams. The global travel boom ensured that, especially in the summer months, all available resources reached their capacity limits. Today, this reads like tales from a parallel universe. The crisis has hit many industries hard, but the aviation industry has been hit the hardest. Even though many airlines and airports are gradually increasing their capacities and hoping for improved business conditions following the tough winter season, the road ahead is still long and rocky. Although the growth compared to the level of a few months ago is remarkable, this level is incredibly low. The forecasts that it will take years for air traffic to return to the volume of 2019 seem to be coming true.
Yet, IrOps remains an issue. Many resources are now in abundance, especially immobile resources like check-in counters, gates and parking positions. The crisis, however, has its own challenges. In order to ensure their own survival, airports and airlines have reduced their capacities within weeks to such an extent that they can't just ramp up from one week to the next. Many employees are on unpaid leave, short-time work or, sadly, even jobless. Entire fleets of aircraft and apron vehicles have been mothballed and terminals have been shut down. Within these limited resources, the re-start operations have been successful, but the tight resources and the new COVID-19 related legal requirements are creating new challenges.
Planning and capacity situation in the pandemic
The pandemic itself can no longer be regarded as an IrOp. We’ve grown accustomed to the new situation for months and have adapted to it.
At some European airports, during the brief summer peak, some resources were close to running short. Several airlines even had to use more planes than originally planned in order to meet demand.
Another aspect is that ground staff too often cannot be deployed as flexibly as before primarily because many staff members are on unpaid leave or part-time work schedules. The remaining teams also can no longer be put together as flexibly as before. In order to minimize a possible COVID-19 spread, team members are often no longer as mixed as before, but rather remain static in the same teams. As reasonable as this may be from an infectious disease protection perspective, it makes shift planning more difficult. Moreover, it’s unforeseeable which countries and destinations will close down or re-open next. This requires unprecedented flexibility from planners and dispatchers; a permanent state of emergency.
If planning is already difficult under the given circumstances, it is more so on the day of operation. Just as an example, let’s define the sudden closure of several destinations as an IrOp. In this case, it’s important for the decision makers to have a quick overview of the situation. Important core questions are, for example are: How many flights have a problem? How many passengers and connecting flights are affected? What is the availability of parking positions? What impact does the event have on the aircraft crews and their working hours? An operational dashboard, which visualizes the situation of flights and resources in a clear and understandable way, is often helpful. It’s also essential that flight information is provided in real time. The next step is an IT-based prioritization of the flights to help reduce costs. This could work even better in the future thanks to automation and machine learning. In the case of an IrOp, IT-based systems will, in the future, be able to calculate network-wide potential costs in various scenarios. Subsequent systemwide publication would even better support decision-making processes in order to find the most cost-effective solution.
When will IrOps come back?
Speaking of the future, we can only guess what the world of aviation will look like in another year or two. The imponderables are too great. Everything depends on the worldwide development of pandemic-related events and the subsequent political decisions. If we assume that, as predicted, vaccines for broad-based vaccination would actually be available on a global scale from next year, this would be a game changer for the aviation industry. A gradual return to the travel situation before the pandemic would then be possible. However, it is too early to determine a timeframe for this. One thing, however, is certain. In the long term, there will be a significant increase in air traffic compared to now. The question is whether the industry will be able to react to a sudden increase in demand and quickly rebuild the complex networks, especially for long-haul flights that have been idle for so long. When the time comes, the situation will be similar to what it was before, with delays, capacity limits and IrOps. Even if it sounds strange, maybe we should hope for it?
When will the Corona IrOps be replaced by the conventional IrOps again? Or is it forever a thing of the past? What do you expect from next year? Share your opinion with us!