The Same Wavelength
The complexity of day-to-day airline operations is an age-old problem. In an ever-dynamic environment where one event can trigger an avalanche of necessary changes to resource allocation and scheduling, it is an ongoing struggle for airlines to incorporate all relevant factors into resource planning. The task becomes even more difficult during irregular operations. There is a better way to address the planning problems associated with the everyday tasks and decisions in the system operations control center (SOC).
Having more comprehensive situational awareness across all dimensions of the planning problem optimizes real-time decision-making support in the face of all types of challenges. Although the benefits brought by deeper integration, such as shared information and processes, multiple feedback loops, cross-departmental what-if scenarios and impact analysis, may be helpful for initial planning, the need for immediate feedback becomes more critical during periods of irregular operations.
There are two large problems/challenges for airlines during regular and/or irregular operations: resource planning and recovery. Movement control is often considered the center of planning. The decisions of movement control affect crew management and planning, flight planning, and airport operations, including gate planning, maintenance and staff management. Although resources are often assigned months in advance, daily variables cause the need for immediate change to all of these.
When a flight has to be delayed or cancelled on the movement management side, or an airplane has to be reassigned, everything else is changed because of it, such as:
- Changing crew pairings,
- Generating new flight plans,
- Reassigning gates,
- Rescheduling maintenance crews,
- Reaccommodating passengers.
It could be argued that “integration” is almost worn out as a buzzword in software and solutions management. Every industry has long heard promises of seamless integration for any number of business-critical solutions, and the airline business is no exception. Integration is commonly accepted as a key component of optimal functionality, but what exactly does it mean? Sabre Airline Solutions® has found that there are many different definitions and expectations around the concept of integration.
We talked with executive-level leaders and end users within airlines to gain an understanding of how they view integration and its potential to improve operations. From these discussions and our hands-on experience working with airlines in their individual operational environments, some basic concepts of different levels of integration emerged.
At a base level, or the “shared-data level,” integration should reduce data entry and synchronize the data among applications. Data-layer integration ensures consistency in back-end data among different users in different applications. In most cases, airlines are functioning with this level of integration in their operations.
In Flight Explorer, graphical route editing, or “rubber banding”, enables dispatchers to modify routes directly in the graphical interface and export these results to the flight planning system. The first image is a flight going through weather, and the second shows a flight going around the weather.
There is a natural extension of this into process integration as well. For example, in many cases when a new employee is added, there is setup required in multiple systems across an airline. From a strictly administrative, data-entry perspective, having a single point of entry for this data, which would then be shared by multiple systems, creates an element of integration that is both process and data oriented. The airline industry is largely operating at this shared-data level.
Sabre Airline Solutions sees an opportunity to expand the value of data-layer integration by influencing the repetitions of external data coming into applications. For example, out of all the thousands of pieces of real-time weather data that are available, which ones should come into the system? Also, what is the best way to stay current with industry changes and requirements and other critical-factor data that directly affect flight planning or movement control?
Sabre Airline Solutions’ Data Services offers a way to manage this data through a single point of entry, ensuring that incoming data is current, reliable and pertinent, and thereby freeing up airline employees and resources to focus on the critical decision-making components of their jobs.
How does this concept along with higher levels of integration point toward industry standards and best practices? Sabre Airline Solutions is well positioned to build and strengthen such standards and to set the expectations for consistency in data. The technology company continues to evaluate how to best influence the development of standards for data and integration for the airline industry, which will pave the way for higher-level process and solution-level integration.
Moving beyond the shared-data level, the layers of integration become more difficult to define. One way to delineate the layers is to move from data to application to solutions. Application-layer integration builds on the shared-data concept to ensure that changes to data made in one application are recognized in other applications where this data is critical.
It is possible to make decision support smarter within one application by pulling in select pieces from another solution. Although this is not a fully integrated solution, it uses information from one application to improve decision making in another. An example within Sabre® AirCentre™ Enterprise Operations is the automatic notification of aircraft assignments and changes passed from the movement management program to the load management program. Also, data regarding the weights of aircraft with passengers and cargo can be sent to the flight planning system for consideration when determining how much fuel is required.
Affects Of Movement Control On Airline Operations
An airline’s movement control is at the heart of planning. Movement control decisions impact crew management and planning, flight planning, and airport operations, including gate planning, maintenance and staff management. Regardless of how far in advance resources have been assigned, daily variables cause the need for immediate change to all of these critical areas.
In addition, service-oriented architecture (SOA) within solutions includes elements of data sharing as well as some elements of process sharing. It builds applications as services that can call to and from other solutions.
For example, the function of checking crew rules can be done as a service. From there, an analyst on the movement control side can call the crew rules evaluation service to see what the impact on crew will be for a certain decision in the movement management system. The crew manager can then review the impact and either accept it or suggest a better solution. This creates some degree of iterative brainstorming in the decision-making process. Sabre Airline Solutions’ movement management system can also create a what-if scenario that is sent to the recovery tool, which creates a recovery solution for the movement management system. Crew management can review the impact and offer feedback as mentioned above prior to a decision being executed, and this process can be repeated in a type of iterative feedback loop.
“Integration of data, user experience and business process will be critical for continued efficiency in the industry and has long been a focus across our broad portfolio,” said Erin Bouck, vice president of Sabre AirCentre Enterprise Operations for Sabre Airline Solutions. “Specifically, in Sabre AirCentre, it is a clear guiding tenet of our strategy going forward.”
At the solution level, integration builds on the consistencies created at the application layer to enable improved workflow or decision-making capabilities. The process-integration component crosses both applications and solutions and can be achieved at multiple integration levels to improve operations and determine the best opportunities for cross-operational decision support.
When data from other applications is pulled in as part of a feedback loop in a what-if analysis and is then used in the decision-making process, integration moves beyond merely sharing a data source or combining all data into one database. It is the iterative use of information as it changes based on what-if scenarios, or possible decision paths, that begin to reach the next level.
The optimal integrated tool will:
- Perform analysis of different scenarios based on potential outcomes for multiple areas of operations,
- Prioritize for the end user based on the chain of impact points,
- Provide airlines with only streamlined actionable and decision-supporting data.
The integration of Sabre® AirCentre™ Flight Explorer with Sabre Airline Solutions’ flight planning system provides this type of analysis capabilities. For example, the “rubber-banding” feature within Flight Explorer allows end users to edit routes on a graphical display and view the impact from route changes:
As integration expands to the optimal level, it creates decision-making support that includes feedback from many areas of impact prior to executing the decision. A heightened focus on integration and broadened use of applications at the higher layers should allow vendors and airlines to move up the chain from data sharing to solutions that provide powerful decision-making support tools to increase communications and efficiency and decrease operational costs.
From an airline’s perspective, there are both possibilities and obstacles to integration:
Top operational needs that can be met with higher levels of integration include:
- Visual (graphical) representation of various solutions prior to decision execution will consider multiple what-if scenarios and offer different results based on degrees of impact to different areas.
- Multi-directional, real-time communication regarding key information such as delays, aircraft changes, crew changes and time at which the aircraft is actually boarded.
- Single entry point for shared data and process information.
- Common situational awareness.
- Holistic recovery management — cross operational recovery management.
- Accuracy and efficiency.
- Flexible resource management — The need to see what-if scenarios across divisions, not just in movement management, but in seeing what happens as a result of movement decisions in crew management. The ability for crew control to automatically provide pre-decision feedback to suggest minor changes to the proposed plan and for movement managers to incorporate this feedback into decision-support data could have far-reaching effects, including overall cost reduction and more-efficient operations.
- Scalability — The ability of the system(s) to handle a growing amount of work in a capable manner or the ability to be enlarged to accommodate that growth.
Concerns and obstacles
- Who decides? While IT manages integration, it is the end user who is affected. The best solution from an IT-efficiency perspective may not provide the end user with an optimal outcome in terms of data consistency, critical process and data exchange definitions, process flow, and more. This is especially true when working with two separate solutions from two different vendors. To maximize the value of decision-support data, feedback loops and data exchange among solutions may need multiple iterations prior to execution to make the best decisions. It must be determined how this balance between processing time and complexity affect cost and resource requirements.
- Who controls? Although airlines often want independence and ownership of their data, they also want vendor support regarding data and infrastructure while ensuring consistency. Some airlines prefer hosted solutions while some prefer to house data and applications internally. How will the need for a balance between both affect the cost and for vendors to provide more complex integrations in future designs?
- Who checks? The inconsistency of data among multiple systems is a concern. In many cases, data has been entered multiple times in different systems, which leads to both conflicting and redundant records.
Business problems that can be solved by potential higher-level integration include
- Planning crew schedules for new-hire crew — Currently, multiple-system entry is required. Integrated systems allow updates to happen across all systems at the time a new crewmember is hired and entered into the system.
- Crew pairing — Getting the right crew on each flight.
- Notification across all systems when changes occur.
- Addressing issues such as how to fix a chronically late flight, taking the problem-solving model from merely reactive to planning and process modification for long-term effects.
Flight Change Domino Affect
When a flight experiences a delay, cancellation or reassignment, everything across the airline changes and adjustments must be made, such as reaccommodating passengers, rescheduling maintenance crews, reassigning gates and changing crew pairings.
The lines between tiers of integration are not always clear. In fact, it is possible for integration to exist in many combinations, with certain pieces standalone, others sharing data, some sharing a point of entry, some sharing process and some having a full feedback loop between solutions, which incorporates what-if scenario analysis and prioritization into what is presented to the end user as decision-support data.
Looking at the future of integration, a solutions partner, such as Sabre Airline Solutions, can determine structure and methodology for broadened cross-operational integration at a higher level. This is achieved by creating industry standards and best practices for the processes involved across multiple solutions.
When asking airlines whether they would rather invest in new features or integration, the majority chose features. However, they also indicated a strong interest in the operational improvements offered by solution-level integration.
Sabre Airline Solutions is investing in integration methodologies at multiple levels across its solutions portfolio. Integration can be extremely complex and costly. By considering integration in the process of development and strategic plans for different solutions, a single provider of multiple solutions can create an advantage for airlines through more extensive and uniformly integrated solutions.
However, more factors than straight dollars may affect integration requirements and objectives. For example, an airline with long-term investments (including financial costs, training and adaptation) in critical business applications from separate vendors may choose to create an integration layer between these solutions. Process alignment and design can still help achieve integration at a deeper level in this situation.
“The team supporting Sabre AirCentre Enterprise Operations is committed at a strategic level to empower airlines with a wide scope of integration capabilities,” said Bouck. “Our technology and resource investments are aligned to progressively allow airlines to define and drive their own evolution of business processes and operations integration.”
Software vendors and customers in every industry are still emphasizing the value of integration. Clearly, the conversation is far from over, but maybe it is time for the next chapter. On behalf of the airline industry, Sabre Airline Solutions intends to take integration to the next level.