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Staying Ahead of Schedule: How Tail Planning Can Enhance MRO & Fleet Management for Airlines

Kevin Deal, VP, North America, Aerospace & Defense, IFS

Staying Ahead of Schedule: How Tail Planning Can Enhance MRO & Fleet Management for AirlinesKevin Deal, VP, North America, Aerospace & Defense, IFS

Commercial aviation market figures are staggering. In its current outlook, Boeing predicts orders for nearly 40,000 new aircraft over the next 20 years valued at $5.9 trillion. Much of the boom in passenger demand and fleet expansion is being driven by Fleet Management for airlines in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific, which are witnessing year-on-year air passenger demand of over 10 percent eclipsing the growth in demand of carriers in North America and Europe. As Kevin Deal, Vice President, North America, for Aerospace & Defense at IFS explains, there are new solutions that provide airline operators with a better way of working to combat aircraft planning and maintenance challenges as fleet schedules become more complex. All airlines face pressure to increase efficiency by sweating airframe assets. But, it’s a complex issue how do planners optimize aircraft allocation while coping with unexpected operational changes and unscheduled maintenance? A typical airline will have an aircraft allocation team on this chore, spending some 3-4 hours to prepare a single one-day optimized plan. But, tightly planned schedules can quickly be thrown out of kilter by last-minute changes. Add in weather, airport delays, or engine failures and airline operations can soon become jeopardized.

The Elements of Planning

The utilization and optimization of a fleet involves a number of interrelating factors which need to be balanced and reconciled to produce a cost and asset-efficient schedule. For example, long-term maintenance, destination-based constraints and aircraft restrictions need to be factored in to route scheduling, not to mention the unscheduled, short- and mid-term maintenance requirements that must also be managed compliantly.At the same time, elements such as fleet allocation, flight frequency, and seat planning must be synchronized with crew rostering, ground support, and equipment planning. As more planes take to the skies and more routes are introduced, the optimization of an airline fleet quickly becomes too complex for traditional planning methods to handle.

​Effective tail planning can provide airlines with an edge as they keep passengers happy and protect their bottom line 

The Tail Planning Challenge

Any number of variables can impact fleet planning and cause major headaches for airlines. For a start, a fleet often contains aircraft of different ages and capabilities such as flight range, flight capacity, and even class of travel. The maintenance requirements of each air­craft will also differ at any point in time depending on the number of hours operated, landings made, and the scheduled maintenance window available. The lack of maintenance synchronization can cause a chain of disruptions, meaning air­craft are unavailable for flights and adding to lost revenues. The effects of these delays flow down the network, beginning a costly snow­ball effect of more delays or cancellations. All airlines are susceptible to ‘unknown unknowns’. For example, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimated that the infamous 2010 Eyjafjallajökull volcano cost airlines $12 Mn a day due to schedule disruptions. No amount of affordable planning or contingency can account for ‘acts of God’ or political disruption, but airlines can be better prepared for when these events happen in the future. When the unknown strikes, re-planning an entire fleet schedule quickly becomes a task which is too large to manage manually.

New Solutions Now Provide Aircraft Planning-from Head to Tail

Traditional tail planning software hasn’t always kept pace with this increasing growth and complexity. To avoid revenue lost through inefficient or delayed actions, airline operators need to look at new solutions which focus on the three key areas to take full advantage of the booming commercial industry.

1. Route Efficiency

With aircraft capable of flying more routes than ever before, airlines and passengers are looking for more efficient air travel on both short and long-range routes. Armed with an optimized tail planning solution, airlines can automatically determine which aircraft is best suited to fly a route by looking at the range and fuel efficiency of that aircraft for example, using a newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft on a route or vice versa-because of operation or maintenance needs. 

Airlines must also be able to analyze data to consider other aircraft types if required for example, comparing the cost of ground servicing an aircraft during a stopover.

2. Fleet Utilization

Tail assignment per route becomes significantly less of an operational management issue for the airline if all the individual and cumulative fleet constraints are reconciled by a single solution. The complexity of fleet commonality also becomes less of an issue as the solution should account for many more of the individual restrictions and requirements from each aircraft than a manual planner. This makes it easier to satisfy restrictions and create a plan that is viable for all aircraft, without having a negative impact on the payload or making adjustments to the fleet.

3. Maintenance Planning

Maintenance planning must also be optimized by finding the best time slot for the airline, maintenance crew, and aircraft. Factors such as hanger capacity, personnel availability, and specific maintenance requirements of each aircraft must be considered and used to optimize the maintenance schedule with the flight schedule. Maintenance and flight planning have different priorities maintenance means inactive aircraft while flight planners want as many planes in the air as possible.

A Competitive Edge in a Booming Industry

With passenger and airline growth showing no signs of slowing down, modernizing the allocation and optimization of aircraft within a complex fleet will only increase in importance. To meet this challenge, these new solutions have been developed to ensure the multiple elements of airline planning run smoothly together, and provide planners with instant readjustments when faced with disruption. In the competitive world of commercial air travel, effective tail planning can provide airlines with an edge as they keep passengers happy and protect their bottom line. Failure to plan can leave airlines trailing in the wake of more organized carriers keeping up with the booming commercial aviation market.

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