x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Etihad Airways staff will 'shuffle the deck chairs' to keep on schedule

Airline's network operations centre manages the global operations of 47 planes and the crew of nearly 4,000 who fly in them.

ABU DHABI // At the front of the dimly lit room, a large world map tracks the location of each Etihad Airways plane in the air. Another huge screen shows the current and future activity of every plane in the fleet. A solid green line indicates a plane in the air, a gray line shows a future flight, and a purple line represents maintenance.

A red marker at the beginning or end of a flight predicts a delay. This is Eithad's network operations centre, where Chris Youlten and his staff manage the global operations of the airline's 47 planes and the crew of nearly 4,000 who fly in them. Among the 40 staff sitting at the banks of screens in the centre at any one time, there is an engineering group, a crew group and a cargo group, among others. There is also a customer representative who ensures that the airline, when making operational decisions, does not let financial considerations override the interests of passengers.

Next to the big maps and charts, two television screens show the latest news, to give the staff "situational awareness". One group is constantly looking for risks, said Mr Youlten, the vice president for network operations. Those risks can include anything from scheduled maintenance to the time of year. Staff try to predict their impact as much as two years ahead. "One of the big challenges is to seek out risk and mitigate it so it doesn't affect the airline day to day," said Mr Youlten, a 45-year-old Australian who previously worked for American Airlines and Ansett Australia.

Other risks include technical problems with the aircraft. When these happen, the engineering group assesses their scale and determines how long it will take to fix them. If it is just 20 minutes, the delay can be offset by speeding up the aircraft when it is in the air, or cutting the time on the ground later. Some delays can mean crews reach their maximum permitted duty hours, in which case replacements must be found.

"If the delay is as much as an hour, the duty manager will look at other options," Mr Youlten said. "He will say, 'Can I sustain that delay?' "If he doesn't want to absorb the hour's delay, he may choose to swap to another aircraft if there's one on the ground that's not due to leave for two hours. "We shuffle the deck chairs. We may swap the aircraft to a route that can absorb the delay." For example, at airports in New York and Sydney, aircraft might spend several hours on the ground, in which case a delay in arriving will probably not have an impact on the subsequent departure time.

If an aircraft is at risk of taking off late because of a short turn-around time, ground staff at the relevant airport can be alerted to ensure the plane gets extra-quick attention. But there are some risks that no airline can eliminate, such as fog. When fog descends, and it can happen in a matter of minutes, special plans are brought into operation. "Parts of the room are reserved for when something goes wrong," Mr Youlten said. "For example, if there's fog we can isolate a group to focus on that. By focusing reserves, the event is handled in isolation from the entire airline."

Etihad's punctuality record, measured as the percentage of flights operating within 15 minutes of schedule, is in the high 80s or low 90s, Mr Youlten said. * Daniel Bardsley