Future Ramp (Part 3): Digitalize Your Turnaround Management

Punctual turnarounds have become a critical factor for success for airline operations, though it is still a relatively uncharted territory for many airlines. Therefore it shall be part of any airlines digitalization strategy.  The biggest obstacle however is the laborious gathering of the necessary data. “Turnaround Management 3.0” might be a solution.

In my initial publication for the multi-part blog “Future Ramp: Digitalize Your Ramp” I mentioned several core airline business processes to be handled by the ramp agent that from today’s point of view could be digitalized to a large extent. These ramp agent workspaces are:

  • Turnaround Management
  • Load Control
  • Cargo Management  
  • Passenger & Baggage Handling (local & transfer passengers / pags):
  • Directing aircrafts through the apron
  • Observing safety and quality in Ground Handling
  • Other important ramp agent tasks (e.g. calling ambulance, doctor)

Starting with this blog I will have a closer look on each of these important airline business processes and explain the digitalization capabilities, concepts and chances. The beginning makes Turnaround Management and why it is a perfect fit into the concept of a digitalized ramp.

Why are turnarounds a core airline business process?

Turnaround Management involves controlling the aircraft’s turnaround processes on the ground. Punctual turnarounds therefore have become a critical factor for success for airline operations, though actively controlling ground processes is still a relatively uncharted territory for many airlines. The period of time between on-blocks and off-blocks therefore very often remains a “black box” for carriers of any business model – even there is great potential for improvement.

Benefits of Turnaround Management

In detail the benefits of an implemented Turnaround Management can be summarized as follows:

  • Full transparency about the turnaround process
  • Higher process stability by process definition
  • Quick identification of delayed ground handling processes and  
  • Minimization of operational disruptions by taking actions

All this adds up to increased punctuality by making up for rotational delays, minimizing handling delays thus saving delay costs. Optimizing turnarounds are not only a topic of network-oriented airlines. Low-cost carriers as well benefit from optimized turnarounds – as this is part of their business model.

Implementing Turnaround Management

To successfully implement professional Turnaround Management, an airline has to consider the following steps:

  1. Operational set-up: Definition and set-up of a reference model with pre-defined target times
  2. Operational monitoring: Monitoring of current ground handling activities and steering in case of process delay or irregularities
  3. SLA Management: Set-up of corresponding Service Level Agreements (SLAs) for steering and ex-post monitoring of service providers
  4. Data analytics: Performance monitoring and analysis by Quality- and Service Level Agreement (SLA) management.

In the following I will focus on the operational aspect of Turnaround Management, as it covers the ramp agent‘s daily work routine (or workspace).

Monitoring turnarounds is one important workspace of the ramp agent

Turnaround Management involves controlling the aircraft’s turnaround processes on the ground. A turnaround is like a pit stop which demands seamless coordination between the airline (boarding, etc.), the airport (jet-way drivers, buses, etc.) and service providers (catering, cleaning, etc.). For this to run smoothly, everyone involved has to know what they need to do at which time.

Turnaround Management is usually an essential part of the Airline Ground Operations Department today. Mostly the ramp agent, turnaround coordinator or any similar role on the apron is usually responsible for the coordination of one or more dedicated turnarounds (in coordination with Hub or Station Management and / or Operations Control in the back-office). That is why digitalization and also mobility solutions on the ramp play an important role for monitoring and proactively steering aircraft turnarounds.

Why digitalized Turnaround Management on the ramp?

Turnaround Management is a highly cross-functional process with many interdependencies. Simple paper, Excel-sheet or any other manual solutions won´t help here to get this complexity under control. A successful real-time monitoring and proactive managing of aircraft turnarounds by the ramp agent or turnaround coordinator is only possible, if the following five basics that can be only achieved by digitalization apply:

  1. A reference model is set up
  2. Automatically calculated target against actual times
  3. Dynamical shifts of target times in case of (arrival) delays
  4. Proper visualization of the operational situation on different detail levels
  5. Implemented “Management by Exception”-philosophy

Let us have a detailed look on each of these five basics:

(1) Prerequisite: Set up a digital reference model

To monitor and proactively steer aircraft turnarounds, the set-up of a reference model within a system is mandatory. It is so to say the “brain” and starting point of all real-time monitoring activities on the day of operations for the ramp agent. This digitalized reference model defines exactly within the context of airports, sub-fleets, etc.:

  • Processes (Boarding, Cleaning, Catering, etc.);
  • Process point and reference points (e.g. for de-boarding: aircraft door open, first passenger leaves aircraft, last passenger left aircraft)
  • Target times (When shall process start?)
  • Dependencies (is the start / execution dependent on another process?) and
  • Responsibilities (which airport / service provider or in-house department has to execute this process)

The result of such a set-up can be more than 100 different reference models, that any human brain cannot memorize or – if talking about paper or Excel solutions – will first initiate a “search process” for the right document / file, instead of taking care of the turnaround operations.

(2) Automated calculation of target vs. actual times

For real-time turnaround monitoring an airline needs – apart from system pre-defined target times in the reference model – the actual times for each airport, service provider or own airline departments’ ground process. These actual times, represented by so-called “time stamps” are usually collected either automatically (e.g. if the cargo door opens) or manually (e.g. by the catering provider via pushing a “start” button on a mobile device they started catering the aircraft).

A digitalized Turnaround Management will automatically match target versus actual times in real-time. This is required to evaluate the in-time progress of the turnaround execution. Let me claim this: Such a calculation of maybe 12-15 processes is generally speaking not possible for a human brain to simultaneously process within a 30 minutes turnaround period. Moreover, the ramp agent is possibly standing somewhere at the tail of the aircraft on the apron and he cannot parallel watch the loading, fueling on the ground, the boarding on the gate as well as cleaning and catering in the aircraft – unless he or she has some kind of ‘superpower’.

(3) Dynamic adaption of target times

We all know: Airline Operations in many cases do not follow the planned schedule. This fact exactly is my next argument for a Turnaround Management digitalization instead of paper-based or Excel-based turnaround management. A digitalized turnaround process will automatically and in real-time adjust dynamically the reference model in case of any aircraft arrival delay or of process handling irregularities. It will also react to short-term changes like aircraft or position changes, where different reference models aka target times will apply.

(4) Visualization of turnarounds on different detail levels

Only by a real-time visualization (on his / her mobile device) of the turnarounds the ramp agent will have the chance to proactively manage his assigned turnaround flights. As mentioned above: He /she cannot be in the belly, at the cargo door, at the gate or in the cabin or flight deck at the same time. A digitalized visualization of the processes around the aircraft on the ground is therefore mandatory. It should ideally provide two views:  

  • Gantt Chart view for one single turnaround (see chart 1) and
  • Table / Journal view for one single turnaround (see chart 2). 

This allows the ramp agent or turnaround coordinator to be up-to-date on his / her mobile device about the overall situation of his / her assigned turnaround. This shall include the option to immediately drill down to the single processes (cleaning, catering, etc.), indicating what exactly is the reason for the delay (such as: “Did cleaning arrive too late at position?” Or: “Was catering punctual at position and just didn’t manage to start on-time?”).

(5) Raising the situational awareness: Management by Exception

Probably the strongest argument for a digitalized Turnaround Management is the following one: A proactive visual warning mechanism that raises the situational awareness on irregularities for the ramp agent in real-time. This so-called “Management by Exception”-approach implies that only deviations have to be focused on, all other information can be neglected. So why distract the ramp agent with endless and time-consuming lists of turnaround processes to be monitored, if he only has to focus on a few?

As a graphical solution I recommend the simple traffic light philosophy:

  • Green: “OK, no action needed”
  • Yellow: “Watch out!” (but within a OK range)
  • Red: “Action shall /must be taken!”

This philosophy will allow the ramp agent or turnaround coordinator to take immediate actions for delayed ground processes. Examples might be for instance a “Quick Cleaning” or “Enhanced Loading Crew” to reduce the targeted process times and catch up delays for a punctual departure.

Digitalized Turnaround Management: Summary

As outlined by the five requirements above, the highly complex and cross-functional processes of Turnaround Management respective the proactively steering of the interplay between airline, airport and ground service providers definitively need a digitalized approach. Paper, Excel-sheet or other manual solutions won´t be of much help here, especially when talking about a turnaround period of 25-45 minutes for a short-haul flight.

Outlook: Get rid of the last manual action by using AI: Turnaround Management 3.0

As I mentioned at the beginning: Even there is a great potential to improve the on-time performance, proactively controlling ground processes suffers still from not the best engagement within airline operations. Therefore, for me the important question is: Why is there still such a hesitation among airlines to implement a Turnaround Management?

According to my experience the biggest obstacle is the laborious gathering of the necessary data to visualize the turnaround performance in real-time. But this must not be: With new technologies available on the market, this problem is past: Artificial Intelligence (AI) allows you today to easily transform unstructured data simply from a video stream into “turnaround time stamps” and will omit the burden of manual data collection. As this is a topic for its own, I will come back for this very interesting topic in one of my future blogs.

However, shall you be interested in learning more about this new technology, I would kindly like to invite you to attend the presentation “Turnaround Management 3.0. How Artificial Technology revolutionizes Airline Ground Operations” of my colleague Manuel Van Esch, Business Consultant at zeroG, a Lufthansa Systems subsidiary for data solutions and me on the Airline & Aerospace MRO & Flight Operations Conference EMEA, March 26th & 27th, 2019 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

I look forward to hearing your feedback ….or probably already see you in Amsterdam in about one month.