Operations control in a pandemic
Apr 09, 2020
Half of the world’s population is presently subject to social distancing measures countries have put in place to slow the spread of the virus, preserve their health-care systems from collapse and buy time: the more slowly the pandemic unfolds, in fact, the greater the chance for new treatments or vaccines to help. Hence, “the pandemic needs to last, at a low level, until either enough people have had Covid-19 to leave most immune (assuming immunity lasts for years, which we don’t know) or there’s a vaccine”, says Gideon Lichfield, editor in chief of the MIT Technology Review.
It’s a long drive: an alternate between periods of severe distancing and times of softened measures – to preserve lives and living – will be the distinctive mark of these times. Which is currently the most burning issue on the agenda of the world’s decision-makers. With the consequence that “things won’t go back to normal after a few weeks, or even a few months. Some things never will”, concludes Lichfield. We need to accept this reality and work out the best way to live and work in these unprecedented times.
The airline industry will not see a «turn the page and move on» recovery: eventually a rebound will happen, but in fits and starts, by trials and errors, by successes and failures. Markets will be gradually reopened, taking into account that it might be suddenly necessary to step back after a new outbreak. In times like these it is critical to remain vigilant on workforce and passengers protection and adopt measures to secure both biological safety and business continuity. Operations control executives have a responsibility to rapidly take initiatives in these regards. The experience of these days shows in fact that the most effective moment to take strong actions is extremely early since waiting is high-risk. Although gaining a clear understanding of what solutions work is likely to take time, the crisis is already showing the direction. Let's not waste what we are learning in these difficult days!
We would like to recommend here four measures we believe are helpful to build an actual border between the business- and the virus-sphere:
- Implement a 2-tier ops control model. That is, establish a safe operating space. It’s time to reconsider the traditional «all-under-one-roof» (often titanic) ops control setups. We have advocated this for quite a while – for a variety of reasons – and now it is more vital than ever. To protect the workforce and secure business continuity at one go it is crucial to set up a pragmatic operating model that is able to minimize the risk of infectivity (i.e. the chance to quarantine the staff) while preserving operational decision-making at all times. We recommend to implement a 2-tier ops control model around an on-site decision-making core (a minimum viable unit, easier to protect by appropriate measures) and a «production» layer working remotely (i.e. functions that support decision-making by producing flight plans, crew rosters, maintenance schedules, reports, etc. and that adapt the throughput to the decided course of action). Don’t think it’s unrealistic! Look around: decisions that normally take years of discussions are taken in a few hours since doing nothing is too risky. Proving that what we would have long considered unrealistic is happening right here and right now… and working! Then consider to let the model stay! If properly implemented a 2-tier model gives the right focus on key responsibilities of ops control also in the long run. And helps in preserving liquidity: smaller buildings, lower rents.
- Learn to play the game in the era of remote working. Yet, this is an almost-unknown world for ops control but critical to actually run a safe operating space. We recommend to review roles, responsibilities, authority, procedures and ways to communicate in this respect. What's more, it would be a serious mistake to reduce smart working to just an imposed parenthesis, pending the return to normal work. «Normal» is going to be this new way of working: the change of these days is not reversible and ops control will certainly be no exception. So, don’t hesitate: in a moment of crisis minds can change quickly!
- Create a «pandemic control» role in your daily passengers control activities. For the next years it will be far more important that dealing with traffic congestion delays. We can easily “imagine a world in which, to get on a flight, perhaps you’ll have to be signed up to a service that tracks your movements via your phone. The airline wouldn’t be able to see where you’d gone, but it would get an alert if you’d been close to known infected people or disease hot spots”, to put it again in the words of Gideon Lichfield. Many countries will take uncoordinated measures to protect against virus outbreaks. That’s for sure: new stringent – and not unambiguous – requirements will be imposed on the airlines to control who they have onboard. Think about it, and start preparing now.
- Incorporate an «early warning» team tasked with issue identification and response plans setting, across a time horizon from a few hours to some months ahead of the day of operations. Led by a senior executive, the team has both a monitoring and a direction-setting role. It needs to stay focused on rapidly interpreting what is happening in real time – since every day brings news of developments – so to get ahead of events rather than reacting to them (we believe – as an example – that a topic to focus on is what countries will decide regarding travel requirements – as already mentioned – and assess how that can influence and shape the operations and the business). Team members need to develop a systematic ability to absorb and act upon existing information rapidly and effectively to avoid a complete lack of knowledge of what ought to be done.
Uncertainty reigns and we can’t predict the most likely developments. What is certain, however, is that we can't stand still and wait for the tide to pass.
World map with cloud formations (Copyright: William Putman, NASA/Goddard)