Contextual Inquiry of a 100 Aircraft Regional Airline Systems Operation Center
Feigh, Karen M.
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A contextual inquiry was conducted at the Systems Operational Center (SOC) of a Regional Airline with approximately 100 aircraft from the 24-27th of July 2006. A total of 30 hours of direct observation were conducted with various members of the SOC Staff including the Director of Systems Operations (DSO), the Manager of Customer Operations (MCO) and the Line Maintenance Planner (LMP). During the inquiry a wide variety of situations occurred: unscheduled maintenance delays, estimated ready time slips, a bird strike, a disruptive passenger requiring a cabin lock-down, a declared emergency due to oil temperature, taxi delays, weather delays, and brake-cooling delays. The vast majority of these situations were handled as if they were no different from routine operations; however, there were moments when the SOC personnel were pushed to their professional limits and the introduction of any other, even minor, issue could have caused severe disruptions to the schedule. The majority of problems faced by the the airline’s SOC on a daily basis came from lack of resources (planes and flight crew) and from inclement weather. During the inquiry, between 4-12 planes ( 6-9% of the fleet) were consistently out for unscheduled maintenance. Additionally, one one day during the observations 241 flight crew who were scheduled to fly were unavailable. Unlike other airlines, ATC restrictions are not often an issue for this airline, although station curfews in southern California do place an additional constraint on the schedule recovery process. Beyond the resource shortages and the inevitable weather interruptions, the majority of problems stemmed from software tools which limited the effectiveness of the SOC personnel. For example, several of the major software tools depend on different databases with limited connectivity, creating discrepancies between systems and requiring information to be entered multiple times. Additionally, the VisOps tool, used a primary measure of airline schedule adherence, does not support the logging of problems/issues, solution generation through the use of either advanced sort and search features, optimization algorithms and solution sharing. To make best use of the software tools on hand, especially VisOps, larger computer monitors are needed. The resolution at which the software tools must be set for visibility limits their usefulness with 19 inch monitors. Finally, none of the staff interviewed could indicate to any consistent quantitative feedback regarding the relative merits of their decisions on overall system performance. Instead, they often faced inquires about specific decisions which may only make sense when viewed from the overall context of the situation. Appropriate feedback could be provided as summary statistics regarding number of fights canceled, average delay and daily operational costs, which could be generated and displayed to them automatically.