Q&A: planning for survival in the aviation industry with INFORM

Luke Christou 22 September 2020 (Last Updated September 23rd, 2020 10:20)

Uschi Schulte Sasse, senior vice president for the aviation division at optimisation software company INFORM, discusses the challenges airports may face, what needs to be prioritised, and how planning software can aid the industry in its recovery.

Q&A: planning for survival in the aviation industry with INFORM
The coronavirus pandemic has proved highly damaging for the aviation industry. Credit: Brett Sayles.

Airlines such as Flybe and Virgin Australia have already fallen into administration as a result of the pandemic, while airports such as London Heathrow were forced to reduce security, baggage, engineering and maintenance staff to counter a 97% fall in passenger numbers. With experts believing that it could take five years for the aviation industry to return to pre-Covid-19 levels, the disruption is far from over.

Luke Christou: The long term impacts of Covid-19 are difficult, if not impossible to predict. Given the uncertainty, how can airports prepare for the future?

Uschi Schulte Sasse: Increasing complexity and unpredictability have been something that the aviation industry has repeatedly been faced with. Things always became more complex because we didn’t have the infrastructure available, capacity limits and so on, but uncertainty has peaked with the Covid situation.

I believe uncertainty is always best faced with pre-planning for various scenarios, and with flexibility. You need to be able to learn, you need to be able to quickly adapt, and you need to be really agile in your responses to certain situations. How would you do that? I think you need to capitalise on the data that is available. You can use machine learning or other new technologies that you can make use of now to learn from the data that you already have. 

You need to use your elaborate and sophisticated planning tools to constantly evaluate various what-if scenarios. If you’ve thought through a similar scenario, you’re already at an advantage to somebody that has never thought it through.

Tools with decision support will help you there. In our INFORM tools, this is what we call agile optimisation, which is actually designed to keep your operation reliable, efficient, and resilient against all of these unpredictable factors. 

LC: Where should airports focus? Should short-term challenges be prioritised, or should the industry be looking beyond Covid-19?

USS: There’s no clear answer. I would like to say let’s focus on the time after Covid-19 and make sure that we’re all prepared, but if you’re not here anymore because you couldn’t survive Covid-19, that wouldn’t make sense. 

You need to work on both. You need to work on the very short term: what can I do now? What is the imminent need that my operation has? How can I support that? But also not lose sight of your long-term goals, such as sustainability, being more flexible, having the right resources available, making sure employees are trained and that their shifts are fair, that the future is cost efficient and paid for everybody involved, because you can’t survive without it.

LC: So what should airports plan, manage and optimise to support them through and beyond the pandemic?

USS: Airports need to optimise many things. Specifically now, queue length and congestion is one of those things. You can calculate how many staff members you need for the number of counters that you need to open, and when you need to open those counters depending on the arrival profiles of your passengers.

Airports may need to reconsider task times too. Before the pandemic, something may have taken 20 minutes, but now you need to sanitise your hands before and after the task, so you need another three to five minutes at the beginning and the end. By planning, you can already see what kind of effect that has on your demand curves. 

Even through ground handlers all do the same thing, everybody does it slightly differently. Everyone works slightly different, every environment is slightly different and every regulation that your government issues is slightly different. You really need to be able to work in that environment with those parameters and test different scenarios — the effects of different regulation; the effect of how many staff do you now need versus how many staff can you put on furlough. Does that result in cost saving? But, on the other hand, are you furloughing staff that you need for your operation to continue? You can use planning tools to measure and trial scenarios and see what the outcome is.

LC: In your recent World Aviation Festival presentation, you suggested that Covid-19 could also serve as a catalyst for more sustainable practices in aviation. How?

USS: This is something that is very close to my heart. We have a whole sustainability team at INFORM, really moving our tools forward in terms of how we can help our customers to achieve their sustainability goals.

You probably know about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which 193 states have signed up to. These are not only related to ecological goals – being more green – but also goals in taking care of all of the organisms that live on our planet. The numerous ways to better the lives of humans, employees – to make sure that they have fair shifts, even workloads, even access to education and even pay – are all things that our tools can actually help you to achieve. We can make sure that the goals that a company has put into their sustainability report are part of our optimisation parameters, so they can really make sure that they are working towards their goals in all areas.

Of course, our systems also help in reducing CO2, by having less empty travelling, by only utilising ground support equipment when we need to, or not using the auxiliary power unit when we can use land power. All of that is something that our tools can actually help you achieve. 

To my knowledge, most of the subsidisation that airlines and airports get from governments is linked to them reaching certain sustainability goals in a certain timeframe. I think that’s a very good thing. Now we need to make sure that those goals are reached to make the world a better place, and move Earth Overshoot Day back towards the end of December, rather than August.

LC: Given increased cost pressure caused by Covid-19, is now the right time for aviation to invest in new tools and technologies?

USS: They [INFORM customers] say that now is not the time for big investments. Because they’re fearing for their liquidity, they can’t spend unless there is a really, really good return on investment. 

Instead, they need to make use of what they have. How much of Excel’s capabilities does the average person use? Let’s say 50%, yet Excel can do so much more. It’s the same with our systems. Some people really use them to the maximum, which is great, while others just use the standard features when they could use the rest as well. That’s something that we’re offering in consultancy – working with customers to actually think about how they can make the best use of their tools during the crisis.

Sometimes the aviation world is so stuck in rules and regulations, contracts that you have with your unions and so on. Now is the time where you can really try out different things and really see if there is a better way – not only for the employer but also for the employees. 

LC: Can the aviation industry survive Covid-19 if it continues as usual?

USS: This might not be a very popular opinion, but I don’t think we can continue as usual. It won’t work. And I don’t think we should. I think this is a big chance; the aviation industry has always come out of a crisis in a better way. We’ve always been creative in overcoming different situations and coming out on the other side with more efficient, flexible ways of working that are better for employees. It’s always enabled technology to play a role too. It’s time consuming to implement technology and really make change, but this is a catalyst. It enables change to happen quicker, and for the positive.

Should all airlines, airports and ground handlers use tools? Yes, I think they should. It gives them access to good planning and optimisation results that they might not have had before the crisis. They can now evaluate how positively or negatively certain business processes or procedures affect their operations towards reaching their goals. They can set themselves new goals too.

I hate to see aircraft on the ground, and it really hurts my heart to be in this situation, but I think that we can and will get out of this better off. After 9/11, security got 1,000 times better. Now, after Covid-19, hygiene, cleansing and sanitisation will be a lot better than before. 

I know it’s going to be tough, but I’m really optimistic that we’ll come out of this crisis in a better aviation world.