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The heart of SWISS’s flight operations

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Thousands of passengers, hundreds of flights, dovetailed connections and – time and again – unforeseen events: SWISS’s daily flight operations are a complex system of countless processes and dependencies. And it’s in the Operations Control Center at Zurich Airport that all the strands come together.

The SWISS Operations Control Center.

The Operations Control Center, the heart of SWISS’s flight operations, is not just a place where pilots and cabin crew members come and go. It’s also where, 24/7, some 110 SWISS employees manage and monitor all the airline’s flights and take any decisions needed in the event of an irregularity. Via all their various screens, the SWISS flight operations teams keep a watchful eye on the 18 million passengers that SWISS transports every year, and ensure that the company’s 100 aircraft all arrive at their destination as punctually as possible.

A check of the latest meteorological forecasts reveals a storm developing on the US East Coast. What does that mean for the imminent flight LX 15 from New York to Zurich? How many passengers will need to have their onward connections rebooked if the flight leaves and arrives late? Could its routing be improved to make up a little time? Or might John F. Kennedy Airport close completely, requiring local hotels for all the passengers concerned?

The NOC monitors the entire flight operation.

Be it a storm in New York, an air traffic controllers’ strike in Europe or just the overloading of airport capacities: With the close interdependencies of arrivals and departures at SWISS’s Zurich hub, even a small disruption can have a huge impact on the stability of its flight operations. As a result, delays tend to affect not just individual flights but the whole system. If one flight is late, the aircraft, crew and any connecting passengers won’t be there for the next. So any such irregularity calls for close collaboration among various specialist units to determine the best response and take the right decisions at the right time.

The Mission Support Team follows all long-haul flights virtually.

All specialists under one roof

“In our Operations Control Center we have all the specialists for our traffic, crew and passenger management under one roof,” explains Marcus Schnabel, SWISS’s Head of Operations Planning & Control. “By enabling this close interplay among all parties involved, we can respond swiftly to the operational challenges and manage our flight operations worldwide in such a way as to ensure maximum customer satisfaction.”

Bars of various colours, cryptic abbreviations, charts, tables and warnings: Just a brief glance at the numerous screens is enough to appreciate the complexity of the work that’s done here. Network Operations Control (NOC) monitors every SWISS flight and is responsible for ensuring the safe, punctual and cost effective operation of the SWISS fleet systemwide. Together with Hub Control, which is housed below the airport’s control tower, the NOC strives to ensure that SWISS’s flight operations remain stable at all times, and will take prompt corrective action – such as shortening turnarounds, prioritising certain flights, swapping aircraft assignments or requesting more favourable parking positions – in the event of any irregularity.

The Flight Dispatch team is responsible for planning and preparing flights, including calculating the fuel volumes required (with due regard to both economic and ecological considerations), and also for providing the cockpit crews with the latest meteorological information for the route of their coming flight. In the air, the cockpit crews will receive further assistance from Mission Support, which tracks the progress of all SWISS long-haul flights. Mission Support will inform the pilots of any new developments, or give them timely notice of any emerging weather trends.

Crew Control ensures that sufficient numbers of the crew members required are available for all flights. In the event of a cancellation, reserve aircraft and crews may also need to be provided to minimise the resulting delays for the passengers involved. The Passenger Care Center will help the NOC to find the best solutions, will arrange and book alternative flights and will also inform customers of these developments (if it has their contact details).

An important part of flight preparation: The Flight Dispatch Team provides the cockpit crew with information about the flght route and the amount of fuel volumes required.

The peak summer season – a particular challenge

Both the numbers of SWISS’s destinations and the loadings of its flights increase in summer for the peak holiday season. Last summer brought the coincidence of numerous negative factors: limited (and in some cases further restricted) airspace and airport capacities, high seasonal traffic volumes, striking air traffic controllers in France, personnel shortages (and thus airspace capacity reductions) at Germany’s air navigation services provider and adverse weather, too – numerous severe storms over Europe and frequent “bise” wind conditions at Zurich Airport.

The results of all these factors were unusually large numbers of flight cancellations and delays. “It’s the structural capacity problems in Europe and in Zurich’s airspace that are the biggest headaches of all,” Marcus Schnabel says. Marcus and his team have taken a number of actions to help ensure that, while the general parameters remain far from favourable, this summer’s SWISS flight operations will be more stable than last year’s. “We’ve revised some of the more critical aircraft rotations, lengthened turnaround times, planned more reserve aircraft and strengthened our operations workforce,” he explains. “So we’ll be better able to meet and master the challenge of summer 2019!”

Text: Tobias Fries / Photos: Reto Hoffmann