Operations: working at the heart of an airline

Published: 29 Nov 2013 By David Learmount

Running the business so it makes money is what an airline CEO does. Driving an aeroplane is what a pilot does. But ensuring the aeroplane and the pilot are in the right place at the right time, both currently qualified and serviceable, is what an operations manager does.

Multiply that by the number of flights per day, and that’s what the operations department does – it keeps the airline working from moment to moment despite disruption by weather and a thousand other possible occurrences or mishaps.

Take Ryanair as a simple example. It’s big (300 aircraft), but it‘s designed for engineering and operations simplicity. It runs a single-type fleet with the cabin configuration completely standardised, so any aircraft in the fleet can perform any route, and all flight and cabin crew are type-rated on every aircraft. It’s all short-haul, and if there are no mishaps every crew finishes each day going home rather than to a hotel. The crew get their rosters and route briefings by logging into the airline’s ops system, Crewdock, which is their personal human resources interface too. The ops department is small for such a large and incredibly busy, efficient airline.

The ops staff at a big intercontinental carrier face a far more complex task. For example British Airways ops department has to deal with nearly 300 aircraft of seven different basic types, both short and long haul, and within those type groups there are multiple cabin configurations and – sometimes – different engine fits. Just because a route is normally served by a Boeing 777, the ops department has to ensure that a schedule on which First Class tickets are sold is matched with a four-class configured 777 rather than a three-class version.

Ops people have to be natural problem-solvers, because that’s what they do. They match the airline’s assets – human and hardware, to the promised schedule, come what may. It takes just the smallest twitch of the weather somewhere in the world, or pilots and cabin crew reporting sick, or an unexpected component failure on an aircraft, for the carefully choreographed system to start tumbling like a row of dominoes unless a way can be found to arrest it.

It’s like playing chess, but instead of kings, queens, knights etc, the pieces are aeroplanes with their maintenance schedules, pilot with their rosters, duty time limitations and recurrent training requirements, cabin crew likewise, airports with curfews, notams and changing weather forecasts, down-route accommodation for crew, passenger management – especially in the case of delay or cancellation, onboard medical emergencies, cargo management, aircraft weight and balance, dispatch coordination, and diversions. At BA there are 3,500 pilots flying 8,000 departures a day carrying about 100,000 passengers looked after by 15,000 cabin crew. Quite a chess game.

But if you want to be at the heart of an airline, and to make a difference to how well it runs from moment to moment, ops is for you.

So what kind of person do you need to be? A problem-solver, above all. You have an eye for detail but not lose sight of the big picture. You can be a graduate, but that’s not essential. If you have worked in any airline job in which you have interfaced with operations, engineering, passengers, freight or services, you will have a feel for how the airline works as an organic unit, so if your interview shows you to have the right personality for the job, you will get a warm welcome in ops.


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