Aircraft Turnaround Revolution in the Era of Sanitized Travel

Aircraft turnaround is an essential topic for the aviation community. In the typical time window between flights, there are more than 100 different tasks that need to be done.  This ranges from unloading passengers and bags, refueling, and cleaning the cabin, to ushering in new travelers and crew. In a matter of minutes, the aircraft must be ready to safely take off for the next flight. In this operational hustle, every second counts. The longer a jet is on the ground, the fewer routes it can fly. Furthermore, while stationary, carriers face several costs including airport fees depreciation and less opportunity to sell more tickets.

In this critical process, everything must be carefully choreographed. When operational disruptions occur, delays can create a domino effect across the system. Some irregularities like adverse weather conditions are certainly beyond airlines´ control. However, those coming from inadequate ground handling activities result in millions of dollars in costs every year. To prevent these inefficiencies, decision makers are constantly looking at solutions that facilitate the reduction of turn times without compromising service quality.

In the New Normal, measures aimed at controlling the spread of the pandemic pose new challenges for turnaround management. Overcoming them will be crucial to maintaining good on-time performance, a key indicator for customer satisfaction.

The effect of COVID-19 measures on aircraft turnaround

Before the Coronavirus outbreak, increasingly busy airports put ground handling companies and carriers under pressure. Constraints in airside capacity and increased market competition accelerated the need for improving aircraft turnaround management. Efforts resulted in turn times fluctuating in a range from 25 minutes for short-haul flights to 90 minutes for long-haul ones. Strategies that previously helped speed up ground processes, will now require some adaptation. The sanitary protocols arising from the pandemic are altering procedures that for years were established as standard.

To restart an industry hit hard over the past months, aviation stakeholders are focusing on creating a safe travel environment. Ensuring compliance with regulations to contain the spread of COVID-19 will play a crucial role in regaining passengers. While essential to boost demand, these preventive measures add extra complexity to airport operations:

  • Keeping social distancing during embarking and deboarding
  • Enhanced aircraft cleaning protocols between flights
  • Health assessments and COVID testing

From a passenger perspective, we see processing times at airport terminals taking longer. Until vaccination is fully rolled out and implemented, extra health checks for travelers will be required before and after flights. While in the eyes of the public this is a sign that their wellbeing matters, such examinations could lead to late arrivals at gates. Without an efficient plan, the additional activities created as a result of enhanced sanitation rules could delay the onboarding process. Finally, this could jeopardize the on-time departure of the plane increasing the risk of misconnections.

A factor for success – quick turns of planes are paramount to keep fleet utilization up and operational costs per flight down.

What can longer turn times mean for daily operations?

As the situation changes rapidly, we cannot exactly predict when and how passenger volumes will return. However, based on possible recovery scenarios, it is possible to have an idea of how much longer aircraft turnaround could take within daily operations. AiQ Consulting group examined the duration of ground activities conducted for the airplane model A320. To measure the impact of Coronavirus preventive measures, they used the following assumptions:

  • High impact measures consist of 3m physical distancing between travelers and 30 minutes of additional cabin cleaning.
  • Medium impact measures refer to 2.5m physical distancing between travelers and 20 minutes of additional cabin cleaning.
  • Low impact measures contemplate 2m physical distancing between travelers and 10 minutes of additional cabin cleaning.

The study set as standard turnaround time for a full flight carrying belly cargo approximately 45 minutes. When comparing this value with calculations for each scenario, the outcomes were as follows:

  • High measures increased aircraft turnaround time by 138%.
  • Medium measures resulted in 95% longer turns.
  • Low measures extended ground handling procedures in 51%.

From this evaluation, it becomes clear that lengthier cleaning regimes and slower embarking processes due to more spaced queuing will alter turnaround durations. While demand remains at moderate levels, the additional time could be absorbed if the schedule allows without significantly affecting operations. But, we already see airlines including more routes to meet pent-up demand this summer. What could this mean? That even before reaching pre-pandemic traffic levels, the lower capacity utilization derived from complying with COVID measures could cause significant operational bottlenecks. What can aviation stakeholders do to prevent this?

Redefining aircraft turnaround with the power of advanced algorithms

An efficient aircraft turnaround is teamwork at its best. The collaboration between airports, airlines and ground handling companies becomes more crucial than ever to manage this process amid schedule volatility. Cooperation includes the creation of channels to share a highly valuable asset: data. Taking the most out of the information available is paramount to make well-thought decisions. Advanced software can support this by reflecting the impact of COVID measures in the calculation of turn times.

Optimization starts with having a clear and concise overview of all ground handling activities and their respective progress. A purpose-built user interface shows which tasks have high priority, and which need special attention due to irregularities. This way, it is possible to detect where delays originate, how big they are, and what stakeholders are being affected. The system suggests automatically alternative handling options to offset schedule alterations based on:

  • Real-time status of ground handling activities
  • Actual passenger and baggage loads
  • Operational flight information
  • Resource availability

Considering that sanitary regulations can change at any time, establishing a standard for optimal aircraft turnaround time may not be accurate. Every day of operations is unique requiring managers to analyze the ground performance on a much frequent basis. By doing so, they can detect potential opportunities for the improved design of daily routines on a flexible basis, rather than adhering to the rigid structures of the past.

Because every minute on the ground counts

Today, optimizing ground operations is a matter of survival. To get travelers back, carriers need to ensure not only a safe journey, but also offer competitive fares. To achieve this, finding ways to reduce unnecessary costs while the plane is on the ramp is a must. Social distancing rules, enhanced hygiene protocols, extensive health checks are all measures not previously part of the travel experience. In this new reality, standard operating procedures must be redesigned to incorporate sanitation requirements. That includes rethinking aircraft turnaround management for which efficiency is critical for operational profitability. This process is particularly challenged with slower boarding/deboarding processes, and more frequent disinfection after each flight. As a result, turn times have risen significantly compared to pre-pandemic levels jeopardizing an airline´s punctuality.

With jets spending more time at the stands, ground support equipment and staff are needed for longer periods longer per flight. As the number of resources available is limited, this eventually will cause major capacity constraints, especially when demand rebounds. Managers will need to adjust flight schedules to accommodate the extended turn times. Implementing these changes is complex, especially in a volatile environment. With the support of sophisticated process-monitoring and steering tools, managers can smoothly incorporate any additional resource requirements in their calculations and set task prioritization. Factors that may negatively affect a seamless turnaround are promptly identified and can be corrected. This fosters operational awareness and transparency, a key formula to mitigate disruptions in the long term.

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