Some months ago our Chief Customer Officer Christiaan Hen wrote a guest article for Airports Council International’s blog section ACI Insights with the title “Unintuitive Truth” followed by a more recent second version, which was published on the Assaia blog section. The basic story is that although airlines have cut down their flight schedules to a large extent, airports will, even with a slight increase in flights, face a capacity crunch when it comes to their aircraft stand infrastructure. The primary drivers are longer turnaround times, more frequent flightplan alterations and closed/blocked infrastructure.
Since the publication of the articles we received positive feedback from people around the world who are responsible for Stand Planning and Allocation at their respective airports. They thanked us for pinpointing the industry to this problem and confirmed that there will soon be a time when traffic increases and it will be challenging to accommodate a higher number of flights, given the longer turnaround times and increased variance in turnaround duration.
When this time comes, it is important to be able to react quickly and make decisions that lead to optimal outcomes which deliver maximum value to airlines and passengers. For many airports around the world, however, making optimal decisions is unfortunately very difficult, especially when it comes to Stand Management. The underlying reason for this usually has to do with a lack of real time situational awareness and/or legacy systems. Existing systems typically have a limited featureset which is often outdated because Stand Management is not seen as a value adding process but rather a necessity.
Airports are reaching their capacity limits
Before COVID-19, several airports such as London Heathrow or New York La Guardia have already reached their capacity limits due to their inability to further expand geographically. In the next decade this effect will become even larger and affect more airports around the world. For the European market, Eurocontrol estimates that the number of congested airports in Europe will increase from six in 2016 to 28 in 2040. This increased congestion makes asset utilization activities like Stand Management more important than ever. Given the importance and complexity of this task, it can only be performed successfully by using advanced technology.
This is part one of a series of blog posts looking into what a future-proof and fully integrated Stand Management solution, Stand Management 4.0, must look like. In this part the focus is on the Stand Planning phase. The second part will focus on Stand Allocation on the day of operations. Our definition of the Stand Planning and Stand Allocation phases is as follows:
Stand Planning 4.0 must in principle provide three key functionalities on top of the “basics” that the best Stand Management systems of today offer:
- Flexibility: No more cryptic and static rulesets that require days to amend, if they can be amended at all. In the future any rule or input parameter must be changeable instantaneously and semi-automatically. They should directly be reflected in the system.
- Automated Feedback Loops: Most recent information from daily operations must be looped back into the planning phase so that future plans are always based on the most up-to-date information and day of operations can start their work with a more realistic Stand Plan. Eventually there will be no more clear difference between Stand Planning and Stand Allocation. It will become more of an integrated process that moves through time.
- Full Integration: Integration will be essential. Especially the seamless integration of the Stand Planning phase and the Stand Allocation phase. Integrations to many third-party systems that feed valuable information into the Stand Planning phase to find an overall optimal solution will also be important.
The following blog post will discuss these key functionalities in more detail.
Flexibility is King
Before the pandemic broke out, Stand Planning was performed in regular intervals, normally on a seasonal basis around the IATA slot conferences. Longer horizons were sometimes applied for long-term capacity planning and as input for Master Plan exercises.
Coming closer to the day of operations, some tactical planning was done with the goal of resource management. A more robust and detailed flight plan that includes aircraft type, scheduled arrival and departure times and maybe even some additional information such as cabin configuration would be used for this phase.
Stand planning is changing
Since COVID-19 all of this has changed and there is no longer any “regular” Stand Planning. Flight schedules now change almost on a daily basis with a lot of variance between planned and operated flights (see OAG). Whole terminals are being closed and reopened again, and aircraft stands are being used to park excess aircraft for an indefinite period. One can say that today’s Stand Planning is more of a continuous real-time activity than a periodic exercise. And unfortunately, it looks as if this situation will remain with us for quite some time.
Future stand planning solution
All of this uncertainty means that any future Stand Planning solution must allow its users to have the highest level of flexibility possible when it comes to changing the rules and input parameters with which the system plans. Gone are the days when cryptic rule databases needed experts to update them. Many of today’s, and even more so tomorrow’s, users have grown-up with Smartphones and highly sophisticated user interfaces (UI). They will expect the same level of sophistication from a professional tool. In a study by Nintex, 80% of decision makers in US-based firms adopted technology specifically based on a suggestion from a Generation Z employee. This shows that B2B software must adhere to the expectations of the most tech savvy and UI-experienced user group one can think of.
For this user group any alterations made in the system will have to be displayed instantaneously. Any change, be it the closure of an aircraft stand or the maximum number of daily tows, must be possible straight from the user interface through simple actions such as drag & drop or sliding levers.
There is also no excuse any longer to have separate rule sets for different stages of the Stand Planning and Stand Allocation process. True flexibility can only be achieved when every decision is based on the same understanding of the current operational environment. Otherwise the best Stand Plan is worth nothing if for whatever reason it is based on different rules than the ones that apply during the day of operations.
Flexibility has also become more important on another level. As an effect of COVID-19, home office has become a more common way of working. This has increased the necessity for flexible access to operational systems like Stand Planning systems. Access via VPN to a virtual machine will no longer be sufficient. Mobile or fully web-based solutions will become the new norm in order to allow access from anywhere and anytime.
Feedback Loops? Yes, please!
When you are working in the Stand Planning department of an airport, or in some instances also an airline, the following request may sound very familiar: “Is it possible to feed information from the day-of-operation back into the planning phase of the system so that it can be taken into consideration for future plans?”. And how often did you hear “Well, if you perform some manual alterations, there is a chance that the system will accept it” as a response?
Stand planning is not static
Airport operations are not static so why should Stand Planning parameters and rules be? Just because the turnaround of your average Airbus A320 took 35 minutes two years ago, doesn’t mean that it still does so today. In fact, our own data shows that the average time of turnarounds at a typical European airport has increased tremendously, from originally 65 minutes before COVID-19 to 105 (+62%!!) minutes now. What is even more important is that the mean variance increased from 50 minutes to 78 minutes (+56%).
A truly powerful Stand Planning solution must be able to automatically cope with such a dramatic change. It should continually compare its existing rule set against what actually happens on the day of operations. As soon as it detects a pattern it should be smart enough to directly update the underlying rules or at least notify the user to do a quality check and make necessary changes.
In addition, a continuous feedback loop from the day of operations back to the planning phase will have a positive impact on the day of operations itself. An improved Stand Planning will be the basis for the Stand Allocation. Thus, the more robust and up-to-date the stand plan is, the less alterations must be made in real time on the day of operations. This will result in an overall more cost efficient, agile and resilient Stand Management process.
Ultimately the use of Artificial Intelligence coupled with modern Machine Learning algorithms will make a clearly defined ruleset obsolete altogether. In that stage the system will draw conclusions from real time data, past experiences and use predictions to define the most optimal Stand Plan. It will be a continuous process where a new optimal can be defined as soon as any of the underlying parameters change. As a fully fluid plan might be impractical, the system will take this into consideration and make the changes within a certain degree of freedom.
This is the only way to achieve a truly up-to-date Stand Planning that is not based on outdated rules but on data that reflects the actual reality of daily operations. Especially in turbulent and unstable situations such as the ongoing crisis, such self-learning capacity is a key prerequisite that will add agility and should no longer be lacking from any system.
Integration, Integration, Integration!
It cannot be overstated how important it is to have a fully integrated Stand Planning and Stand Allocation system. Even though the Stand Planning phase and Stand Allocation phase might be performed by different departments, maybe even by different companies, everyone should work with the same Master Plan that is based on a common set of rules and input parameters and that flows seamlessly through time without ever leaving the system. Any export, download or transfer of information from one system to another creates unnecessary friction, which always results in inefficiencies.
In addition, any Stand Planning should not be a stand alone exercise that is detached from the remaining organization and airport and airline ecosystem. Integrations to other tools such as a Resource Management System or an airline’s Revenue Management or CRM system is of hallmark importance. The information provided by these systems can have important implications to the overall result of the optimal Stand Plan. It may have a huge impact on passenger satisfaction when a long-haul flight to New York is parked as close as possible to three feeder flights with 60 connection passengers. And as these figures can change over time, so should the Stand Plan.
To add flexibility and also allow for an improved feedback loop, airports and airlines should also look into integrations to data providers that do not directly come to mind when thinking about Stand Planning. Data about weather and climate, economic developments in certain parts of the world, local and regional mega events and so on must be included in the mix in order to fully understand the short to medium term aircraft stand requirements.
Stand Planning 4.0
The above mentioned functionalities will be essential in the future to be prepared for a less predictable industry. Operational resilience, agility and the optimal utilization of existing infrastructure will become even more important than it is today as expansions of airports will not be possible any more in many parts of the world.
Certainly there are many other features, let us call them “basics”, such as scenario analysis, that a good Stand Planning solution must be able to handle. Quite a few of these basics are already available today to some extent. The three key features of the future will differentiate a good from a great system, however, as it will allow airports and airlines to very quickly and effectively react to any kind of change in the operational environment.
Efficient operations are crucial
The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has shown that nothing is impossible and in order to stay on top of the situation airports and airlines must work hard. It’s like going to a gym. Shaping your body so that it looks good is one side of the medallion, but if the exercises do not add any actual strength, it will not lead to a stronger body, but just a nicer looking one that is still vulnerable. The same applies in the aviation industry. Investing only in passenger-facing and revenue-generating technologies is sexy and makes the airport and airline look good towards the passenger and the market. But it is all in vain if thousands of passengers are stranded for days because the operational systems in the background are completely outdated and can no longer cope with the pressure from daily operations. The hard work of years of marketing and sales are destroyed within hours. And in the end, safe and efficient operations that allow passengers to go from A to B as quickly as possible is the fundamental cornerstone of passenger satisfaction.
Fortunately the necessary technologies are already available today and can be applied seamlessly in the aviation industry. Stand Planning 4.0 is no science-fiction and the first real-life tests performed by us have shown that using the above features can create great value. Recently we have proven that applying the concepts described above to a major European airport operation made it possible to facilitate the same number of flights with less stands and 50% less tows and bussing operations.