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Today’s Efficient Flight Departments

Money has never been tighter for airlines large and small – which is precisely why flight departments are being expected to deliver more while costing less. It’s a tough feat, given most departments were running “mean and lean” before the recession hit. Still, some Canadian airlines have come up with creative new ways to maximize their flight departments. Here’s a look at how some of the country’s key industry players are doing it.


May 17, 2010
By James Careless

Topics

Money has never been tighter for airlines large and small – which is precisely why flight departments are being expected to deliver more while costing less. It’s a tough feat, given most departments were running “mean and lean” before the recession hit. Still, some Canadian airlines have come up with creative new ways to maximize their flight departments. Here’s a look at how some of the country’s key industry players are doing it.

WestJet’s centralized ground operations
Ever wonder how WestJet manages to keep its fares so low? One reason is the company’s innovative and economical management of its flight department.

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Moving to a single aircraft type has saved Bearskin significant money.
PHOTO: bearskin


 

Take ground operations, for example. Traditionally, airlines have established local ground operations offices in each of the major airports they serve. These offices handle local aircraft dispatch and communications, two-way radio links with crews fuelling, servicing and restocking aircraft parked at the terminal, plus the hundreds of other details that have to be handled to keep an airline on time and in the air. (Note: Customer service agents, although interacting with ground operations, are a separate entity.)

The traditional ground operations model comes with a number of problems. First, there’s the tendency of some staff to be loyal to the office they are attached to, rather than the airline as a whole. Another challenge involves running a chain of local ground offices: it costs money for floor space, equipment and telephone/data lines. It can also be difficult for airline management to know what’s happening to their fleet at all times, because ground operations are not integrated. Finally, running separate ground offices can waste manpower, especially late at night when traffic drops off.

WestJet has solved this problem, and improved its ground operations as a result, by consolidating its 400 ground operations staff in Calgary. They work in a centralized facility, with duties for each airport divided among them.

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WestJet has implemented innovative and economical methods to manage its flight department.
PHOTOs: westjet


 

“For our pilots and runway crews, having ground operations in Calgary is an advantage,” says Shaun Horton, WestJet’s director of commercial operations. “This is due to our integrated communications network. Each ground operator has an ARINC communications terminal where, with the push of a button, they can talk to aircraft aloft or ground handlers. This makes for easy dispatch and ground system management.” Because WestJet’s ground operations crew is centralized, there are no conflicting loyalties, and handing off from one city to another is fast and easy. Moreover, the airline is able to maintain a bird’s eye view of its operations at all times.

“Having centralized ground operations also lets us use staff more effectively,” Horton says. “For instance, when things slow down in Toronto after dinner, some of its designated staff can be reassigned to help out in Calgary and Vancouver. This gives us more flexibility and allows us to provide much better service, while actually reducing costs.”

The advantage of centralized pilots
Many airlines have pilots assigned to certain cities, with the pilots living in these areas and using them as their personal “hubs.” This isn’t the case at WestJet: Its 3,000 aircrew members all work out of its Calgary headquarters. The result is that its HR infrastructure is significantly reduced. With the exception of Calgary, there are no offices that serve crew members, although R&R rooms are provided at some of Canada’s larger airports.

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Nearly 40 per cent of WestJet’s employees do not live in Calgary, yet live within driving range of one of the Canadian airports that WestJet serves.
PHOTOs: westjet


 

At the same time, nearly 40 per cent of WestJet’s employees do not live in Calgary. They live within driving range of one of the Canadian airports that WestJet serves – even though their official place of business is Calgary.

“The idea is simple,” Horton says. “Having a central crew office cuts costs and makes us more efficient. Meanwhile, letting pilots live where they want to – within reasonable limits – gives us aircrew nationwide. We simply arrange for them to start and end their workdays at their closest WestJet-served airport.”

Since this airline’s flight schedule varies considerably from summer to winter, this approach allows WestJet managers to be flexible in assigning flights. They just have to work with the distributed pool of people they have at hand, who can be moved from one flight to another as demand requires.
“We instituted this policy just four years ago,” Horton says. “That nearly 40 per cent of our workforce have used it to live outside of Calgary indicates just how popular it is. And yes, it does save us money.”

Bearskin Airlines: one-aircraft model
Bearskin Airlines used to fly a range of aircraft, including Beechcraft 99s, Piper Navajos and King Air 100s. But that’s no longer the case. Today, this Ontario regional carrier flies 14 Fairchild Swearingen Metroliners (19-seats, twin turboprops) and nothing else.

“Moving to a single aircraft type is saving us money big time,” says Brad Martin, Bearskin’s director of operations. “Better yet, the savings are found across our entire airline.”

Take maintenance: By only flying Metroliners, Bearskin only has to maintain parts for this aircraft. “This has substantially reduced our parts inventory,” Martin says. “It has also allowed our technicians to become specialized on the Metroliner, which has made them into experts.” Such is Bearskin’s knowledge of the Metroliner, in fact, the other airlines are now bringing their Metros to Bearskin’s shop for service.

“Our pilots are also flying one type now,” he continues. “Again, this has resulted in them getting far more flying hours on the Metro, and thus becoming far more adept in this aircraft. Their increased experience translates into safer flying and better situational awareness. It also means that all of our pilots can fly this aircraft, which improves our scheduling flexibility.”

WestJet is following a similar path, having recently retired the Boeing 737-200 from its fleet. Today, the company only flies Boeing Next Generation 737s.

Quality assurance at First Air
First Air keeps Canada’s North connected with scheduled passenger and cargo service between 26 northern communities and Edmonton, Winnipeg, Montreal and Ottawa. The company’s fleet is quite varied, running the gamut from the ATR42-300 and HS-748 to the Boeing 737 and 767, plus the only two civilian Hercules operated in Canada. (Sadly, First Air’s beautiful, if noisy, Boeing 727s have been retired.)

To cut waste while improving overall flight department performance, First Air VP operations Mark Gallant has instituted a company-wide quality assurance program. In its simplest terms, quality assurance is a series of checks and balances that ensures things are running as they should, from office supply requisitions to aircraft fuelling and servicing.

“Quality assurance is not just about ensuring people follow company policies,” says Gallant. “It is also about serving our frontline workers, because they are the core of our airline.”

To date, First Air’s quality assurance program has indeed cut costs while improving overall efficiency. “Getting things done efficiently is the name of the game for airlines today,” Mark Gallant concludes. “We have to keep costs down while keeping reliability and safety up. Quality assurance does this for us.”

Potent possibilities
The ideas implemented by WestJet, Bearskin Airlines and First Air prove it is possible to get more out of your flight department – and save money in the process. The best news is that all of these approaches are worthwhile based on the improvements they deliver, the cash savings being a bonus. But such bonuses are more precious than ever, given today’s economic climate.

The bottom line: It is worth the time and effort to take a hard look at your flight department, to see how you can make it do more for less. Sometimes the solutions are simple, such as streamlining procurement procedures. Sometimes they are complex, like centralizing local offices into one location, thus reducing staff and duplicated efforts. Whatever the option, anything that saves money without hurting operations is worth considering.