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The art of preparedness in aviation

Though snow is nice and definitely idyllic, it can be a major nuisance in the aviation business causing delays and cancellations. Irregularities cause uncomfortable situations and bad customer experience and the only way to handle these challenges, is by thorough preparation.


Heini Noronen-Juhola

Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 18.01.2022

It is again winter time in the Northern parts of the globe and the snowy days are here. Even though snow is nice and definitely idyllic, it can be a major nuisance in the aviation business causing delays and cancellations. Therefore causing uncomfortable situations and bad customer experience for the passengers.

Snow storms and other adverse weather conditions as well as crowded air traffic, strikes, accidents or equipment malfunctions are a major reason for irregularities in aviation. But out of these, the weather is always the major player in aviation and a usual cause for irregularities.

The impacts of irregularities can be minimized with preparedness

How to approach the irregularity situations due to weather in aviation and especially from the passenger perspective? There are basically three ways to prepare:

  1. Don´t prepare. Don´t do anything beforehand. Just let the potential irregularity pass and do everything to recover and ease up the harms. Give the passengers meal tickets, blankets, water and chocolate.
  2. A couple of days before the expected irregularity start cancelling the flights. Minimize the damages by reducing the amount of operations largely. Let the passengers stay away from the airport and rebook them to future flights.
  3. Make scenarios for various irregularities and prepare actions and contracts beforehand to get additional help, staff or subcontractors to cope with the situation when it happens. Prepare irregularity processes beforehand with the whole community and work together throughout the whole situation. Continue the operations with some delays and potentially some cancellations. Focus on serving the passengers by ensuring the flights.

As we have seen in the newspapers, all these three choices have been in use in the world of aviation. Sometimes the choice has been there because the operator has taken a calculated risk, or sometimes just because these things haven´t been thought about before. Or, maybe on a good day the risk of an irregularity seems so distant that no effort is allocated to it.

Based on my own experience, it is definitely clear that the sizes and the impacts of irregularities can be minimized with preparedness. Yes, there are always situations that just are too massive or hard to handle, but all preparations are helpful even in the worst cases.

Creating scenarios, making action plans based on the scenarios and ensuring resources for the various action plans by creating systems, back up plans and contracts gives lots of power for coping with the irregularity. When you add the power of cooperation and shared situational awareness to the picture, you start to be very powerful in the situation.

The catch here is that the preparedness is definitely a tradeoff between the smooth operations and the money. Being prepared costs money. But on the other hand if you do not prepare and just let things happen, it might cost you even more.

Preparedness requires the cooperation of a whole ecosystem

In 2010 London Heathrow closed down because of snow for almost one week. According to the media sources British Airways lost about 50 million pounds because of that happening. Add up the costs for all the other airlines as well, the airport and the rest of the ecosystem, and of course the harm for the passengers, we end up with a very big amount of money. And a very bad passenger experience.

If the irregularity situation is likely or expected to happen, there is more willpower to make preparations for that. In the Nordic countries the likelihood for winter conditions exists during five months of a year. Thus, the motivation for winter process preparations is high. On the other hand, global warming has made the weather less predictable than before and making predictions is more difficult everywhere. it is even more important to be prepared than before.

In aviation the challenge is that you cannot do anything alone. If the airport keeps the airfield operable and runways open also in bad conditions, but the airline has chosen not to purchase extended resources for longer lasting aircraft deicing processes, the runways remain empty. Or if the airline reserves extra personnel for ground handling purposes but at the same time the airport chooses not to keep the airfield operable.

One missing link in the chain of operations can cause the whole card house to collapse. Therefore, it is crucial to have good relationships and common understanding as well as respect of targets and each other´s challenges in the whole ecosystem.

Preparedness in aviation is not science

Preparedness in aviation is hard work. It requires making snow plans on a summer day, creating sometimes strange scenarios, working on action plans and doing this all together with the whole and sometimes unwilling ecosystem. It requires a lot of leadership and commitment. In the actual situation it requires constant holistic situational awareness. It requires common goals.

Preparedness in aviation is not science, but a form of art.