Case Study: A new flight operations IT solution for Sunclass Airlines
Author: Lene Nielsen, Business Analyst Nordic Leisure Travel Group IT at Sunclass Airlines and Peter Friis Højgaard, Head of Flight Operations, Sunclass AirlinesSubscribe
Lene Nielsen, Business Analyst and Peter Friis Højgaard, Head of Flight Operations both at Sunclass Airlines share the story of a change made under high pressure internally and externally
We’re pleased to have the opportunity to share with readers a case study of when Sunclass replaced its complete IT infrastructure, especially in-Flight Operations. Our focus will be more on what the airline can do to facilitate a more dynamic environment where it can work with data and events and automation. Just to put the case study into context, we’ll first tell you something about Sunclass Airlines and how we got started.
Sunclass is a small Scandinavian charter airline, dating back to the 1960s that has, through several decades, been involved in several ownerships, the latest as part of the Thomas Cook Group which collapsed in 2019. Today Sunclass is part of the tour operator Nordic Leisure Travel Group with a fleet of 10 aircraft, Airbus A321 and A330s: there are also 700 crew (figure 1).
Our operations cover all Scandinavia carrying in the region of two million happy Scandinavian sunseekers to the Mediterranean; Greece, Balearics and Turkey during summer season, whereas, in the Winter season, operations change to the Canaries and Egypt as well as long-haul both east and westbound.
THE REASONS BEHIND THE PROJECT
Our legacy was an integrated IT infrastructure for all operational systems across the five airlines in the Thomas Cook group. The collapse therefore forced us to review existing complex system landscape and remodel a new setup (figure 2) which could support our reality of being an independent airline.
SELECTING A NEW SOLUTION
Just one week after the collapse of Thomas Cook, Peter was given a deadline of only one month to establish the requirements for the future architecture. He built a bullet point list (figure 3), defining the requirements for future architecture considering costs, flexibility and automation possibilities. Selection of which of the existing systems worked and already matched our new operation was evaluated, and we renewed the contracts with Vistair, maintaining our document management system, as well as our long-lasting cooperation with CrewApp which provides our crew with roster-view.
Whatever system we selected it needed to have the potential to automate, and we would rather buy-in to the potential in an application which had a change-driven outlook, than an ‘off the shelf system’ ticking all the boxes. It was an extremely compressed selection process, only two months, to decide on a crew and flight ops management system to sit at the core of our new environment. Our choice was N-OC ops and Crew from NAVBLUE. The integrated system had the potential for event-based automation, a flexible API and integration method. Looking back now, we realize we have actually achieved what we set out for. We re-started our business ensuring that we maintained the airlines original values.
IMPLEMENTING THE NEW SOLUTION
As mentioned previously, we were extremely pressed for time and had to create a very optimistic project plan. The contract with NAVBLUE was in place in January 2020 and by February 2020 we started the project, with milestones and implementation roll out plan agreed. However, as we all know by March 2020 Covid struck. The question we asked ourselves was, how on earth could we implement a new Flight Ops and Crew system with no flights? This was the overriding challenge we faced; even so, it was only one of the challenges (figure 4).
Given the history of our airline, our crew legality rules are complex, covering four different union agreements. An important factor in our decision when choosing NAVBLUE was how seriously they were engaged with this specific area. Close to 200 legality rules were custom-built by the NAVBLUE team. However, we ourselves seriously underestimated the amount of work, time and resources needed to test the rules once built.
We also underestimated the importance of thorough end user training. Usually, these training sessions are the opportunity to build engagement and a relationship with the vendor. Yet again, another challenge caused by Covid: as Trainers were unable to fly into Copenhagen and end users were furloughed, the training had to be carried out via Microsoft Teams. We recorded the training sessions and re-used them for colleagues as they returned back into office; however, we underestimated the missing engagement caused by remote training. That said, Covid left us no choice, and everything was conducted remotely, we sat in the hangar in Copenhagen, and NAVBLUE in Stockholm and Malmö. It was very odd to be that disconnected.
An additional challenge was that, when it was time to test system, we didn’t have any rotations due to all aircraft being grounded. Test cases were built to test the setup, and we even built a fake movement generator, just to create some form of activity in the Gantt charts. On top of this the NAVBLUE solution was not the only implementation we worked on to meet the deadline. A further six systems were to be implemented in other parts of our business, with all of them being interdependent and connected.
Our aim had been to complete the implementation by October 2020; we managed it by November, only one month delayed; however, considering the circumstances, that was quite fast. In fact, for the timetable, we were enabled by Covid as we would not have been able to implement both the Crew and flight ops systems this quickly with normal operations.
WHERE WE ARE NOW
What we have now achieved is a flexible and event-driven flight ops and operations system (figure 5).
With the core integration layers in place and using the event-based automation capabilities Sunclass Airlines now has the capability to quickly adapt to new challenges with the new work processes plus, within hours, we can automate processes that would have been unthinkable using the legacy systems.
All our implementation projects have now been completed: one of the last roll outs was the EFB which is now at the final stage for approval. This also acts as an information source back to Operations, to our management systems and to data systems in general. There is a very flexible set up for new automations in N-OC which we have only just started to exploit.
Another great achievement is that we have integrated our training management system. Whenever instructors are line-releasing flight crew after training, they do this straight away on their individual iPad, which is integrated into the training management system, which then in turn, instantly updates the crew management system. This is one of the use cases where, prior to N-OC, we’d had a lot of manual cross inputs – you could see on the wear and tear on the carpet between the training and crew rostering department, as they were constantly walking back and forth updating each other; whereas, these days this data is right at their fingertips.
During Covid we were faced with a new requirement from the health authorities, to provide a list of crew members on board flights from specific countries within three hours of every landing. The setup of this automation took four hours. Whenever an aircraft landed, we used the ACARS as a trigger to send an event message that pulled all the information needed to complete the list and send. This is a small detail, but one of the first fully automated jobs running smoothly saving operations a lot of manual work and the possibility of missing the deadline of the requirement.
We have also built a tracking system for crew undergoing LIFUS (Line Flying Under Supervision) training which created a massive task, as our traffic schedule was extremely disrupted in the startup after Covid; every time training on flights had been planned, the next minute, the whole schedule would be cancelled, and planning had to update the manual tracking sheets again. So, we combined some legality rules and forced the schedulers to flag those flights with special designators which then enabled us to pull out the flights, arranged them, sequence them to have an activity log and then, by the time the flight has landed, it updates the status as completed. Again, this setup is connected to the training management system which is updated accordingly when the line release is completed. The same setup is also undertaken with security and background checks.
Disruptive events drive change (figure 6). We would never have pulled this off had it not been for these disruptive events like Covid and the collapse of the previous business, Thomas Cook.
It was a huge challenge for end-users to keep up with the changes which were implemented while they were furloughed. The changes were on a large scale and comprehensive. We definitely learned that a flexible and integrated setup, requires a new set of competencies as well as oversight and management within the company. As a general point, airlines need to consider these processes, and integrate the automations as well as data sharing works within the company. This is why our focus now, and going forward, is on our end users as it’s a matter of understanding the new processes. If you understand the process within the business, you can also take advantage of the systems and continue developing and growing regardless of changed circumstances.
For software vendors facing an increasingly disrupted environment, we implore you to make your systems easy to integrate. Include events in some form and ways of either retrieving data through API or a simple email that can be used for automations in other systems. In short build good core products with flexible integration endpoints.
More than 25 years’ experience with rostering, dispatching and as an OCC duty officer has provided Lene with a unique view on airline operations. This led to a key business project role implementing consolidated ops systems within Thomas Cook Airlines Group and later her current position as Business Analyst in Nordic Leisure Travel Group. Lene acted as the IT project manager for implementing N-Ops & Crew for Sunclass Airlines.
Peter Friis Højgaard
Peter started out as an aircraft engineer over 20 years ago. After several years working within aircraft maintenance, he transitioned to continued airworthiness management and, since then, has held several management positions in maintenance, continued airworthiness, regulatory oversight, and now within flight operations. He has played a key role in the conception and implementation of a new flight operations IT landscape within Sunclass Airlines.
Sunclass Airlines was part of the Thomas Cook group and, since the collapse of Thomas Cook, has been established as a stand-alone business with the Nordic Leisure Travel Group. The fleet includes eight Airbus A321s and two A330s. In summer, Sunclass Airlines flies charter missions to the Mediterranean destinations, Greece and the Balearics. In winter, it mostly flies to the Canary Islands and a few long-haul flights to Thailand and the USA.
NAVBLUE is a leading services company, wholly owned by Airbus, dedicated to Flight Operations and Air Traffic Management products and services for airlines, airports, and Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs). We combine aircraft manufacturer expertise, flight operations know-how and agile development to enhance operational efficiency, optimize resources and increase productivity for safe and sustainable aviation. Our global teams deliver a reliable, optimum and customized user experience to more than 500 customers worldwide.