Guest Post: How to avoid the calamity of mass flight disruption seen in the US last week

Guest Post: How to avoid the calamity of mass flight disruption seen in the US last week

Nick Shay, head of travel and hospitality international at Publicis Sapient, sets out what all airlines need to prioritise if they are to avoid the sort of disruption caused by a damaged database in the US last week

Why were 10,000 flights delayed and 1,300 cancelled in the US last week? The entire fleet in the US was grounded over a technical issue - a ‘damaged database file’, according to the FAA.

This is obviously a rare calamity - it’s been 20 years since flights were grounded on such a mass scale.

But it’s just the latest in a series of errors for US flyers who had to suffer through Southwest cancelling over 15,000 flights in December thanks to a combination of a bad winter storm and an antiquated crew scheduling system.

Closer to home, BA was forced to cancel around 20 flights in December also due to a technical glitch.

This is to say, flight disruptions as a whole are far too common. The airline industry needs to innovate fast to avoid future meltdowns and ensure any issues that do arise are dealt with promptly for concerned customers.

Ultimately, what is a bad day for an airline exec is a memory customers will hold onto forever of the missed family reunion, or stressful start to a holiday.

The good news about the US disaster is it highlights some issues airlines face here in the UK - and hopefully have time to address.

So, what do airlines need to prioritise to ensure disruptive events are prevented or mitigated as far as possible?

Dynamic route planning (and crew scheduling)

Many airlines, particularly budget airlines like Ryanair or easyJet, make their profit through tight turnarounds, super-efficient processes and standard aircraft and parts.

This reflects the US’ Southwest - which has gained infamy for its systems which did not account for live updates on where planes or crew actually were.

Often, the operational leadership of an airline has a tight discipline that is not integrated with digital strategy or capabilities, and digital is relegated to some ‘other’ domain for either moon-shots or nice-to-haves.

UK airlines would do well to learn from the failures of their US counterparts to ensure agile digital systems are in place before they are shown up on a big scale.

Proactive scenario planning

As the risks of weather events escalate and become much more common, with the climate crisis accelerating extreme weather event regularity, airline leaders need much better capability to consider scenarios and outcomes and prepare appropriate responses.

Ultimately, we have technology that predicts weather fairly accurately - when there is risk of a storm, airline leaders need to take note and start systematic scenario planning.

This means accounting for the worst-case scenario and identifying actions that could relieve stress on the system.

The use of cloud, data and AI will help airlines digest much larger and broader data sets in near real time.

This will enrich their understanding of extreme events and help them anticipate problems, rather than react to them.

Invest in digital from start to finish on the customer journey

Disruptions are minimised when they’re communicated well.

Airlines need to ensure they are digitally connected to the customer at all points to communicate quickly and effectively so that what happens below the glass operationally is connected and supports a better customer experience above the glass.  

The future is automated

Airline employees need to know of any delays or disruptions and when they might be resolved as quickly as possible.

Organisations need chatbots and automated communications tools in place to deliver information like business disruptions to customer-facing employees.

Most of the technology UK airlines need to invest in to avoid disruption as far as possible exists already - it is just a matter of investment and implementation.

Through careful planning, agile responses and quick communication to customers to ensure all re-alignment is as smooth as possible, airlines can avoid the reputational damage of mass cancellations, and maintain positive customer relationships through tricky scenarios.