Digitalize your ramp
Author: Michael Muzik, Product Manager and Consultant, Lufthansa SystemsSubscribe
Digitalize Your Ramp
Being a digital airline – a top business challenge Future Ramp
Many airlines claim their top business objective is to become a digital airline. Both network and low-cost carriers therefore invest in strategies to differentiate themselves from competitors. Digitalization is often defined as the key success factor in this hyper-competitive market as it provides a high degree of innovation.
DIGITALIZED PASSENGER TRAVEL EXPERIENCE
Most airlines are moving forward at some speed with digitalizing their passenger travel experience: you can book / re-book, and receive information about flight changes, for instance, and all directly via your mobile device (figure 1).
However, when visiting airlines and entering the apron I often bump into a more or less seventies scenario where ramp agents are still working with walky-talkies, clipboards, pens, pencils, and a lot of paper (figure 2).
In light of that, I’m going to use this article to consider the concept of a digital ‘Future Ramp’.
THE RAMP AGENT WORKSPACE
Let us first have a look at a ramp agent’s workspace: they are usually hired by companies that provide airport terminal services as well as airlines and airport authorities. They play a crucial role in delivering airside services to the air transport industry and making sure the plane is ready to take off. A ramp agent covers a range of important functions from the safety of the aircraft, ensuring that the plane is properly secured and checking the correct loading of luggage, cargo and mail into the plane, to guiding it into the proper terminal. Other duties include supervising the cleaning of the aircraft, directing the airplane to and from the gates, and operating the ground equipment necessary to secure, load, and unload the plane. Finally, they also might have to monitor relevant occupational safety regulations.
The above described range of duties / workspaces can of course vary from airline to airline. But it is most important not to forget this: in case of any deviations during the turnaround time, the ramp agent will usually be the trouble shooter to get the plane taking off right on time.
Trouble shooting in a black box
As punctual ground operations have become an increasingly critical success factor for the passenger travel experience, it is difficult to understand, why so many airlines still use pen and paper to manage their ramp activities; when digital (mobile) solutions could fundamentally improve their work environment and efficiency. For instance, they could provide real-time transparency about all important ground processes, such as turnaround management, load control, transfer passengers and bag management. But with pen and paper the ground operations situation put these important trouble shooters into a black box. Experience and intuition remain as the main drivers for operational decisions.
This doesn’t have to be the case: a digitalized ramp is the answer. It is IT support on a mobile device bringing isolated core business processes together on a dashboard and allowing the ramp agent to better manage all workspaces (figure 3).
FUTURE RAMP: DIGITALIZE YOUR RAMP
What could such a digitalized ramp look like? To answer that, I will share with you some best practices, that I have encountered at more or less advanced airlines, for selected digitalized ramp agents’ tasks and workspaces: plus, I’ll add a few of my own ideas about how IT support can improved ramp activities.
Turnaround management is a critical success factor: punctual turnarounds have become a key element for success and for the airline’s on-time performance. Though actively controlling ground processes is still a relatively uncharted territory for many of them, even in that there is great potential for improvement (figure 4).
Turnaround Management involves controlling the aircraft’s turnaround processes on the ground. A turnaround is like a pit stop which demands seamless coordination between the airline (boarding, etc.), the airport (jet-way drivers, buses, etc.) and service providers (catering, cleaning, etc.). For this to run smoothly, everyone involved has to know what they need to do and at which time. It is a highly cross-functional process with many interdependencies that mean that simple paper, Excel-sheets or any other manual solutions won´t help to bring this complexity under control. So, how can digitalization help?
Digital visualization of the turnaround
We are usually talking about a turnaround time frame of 25-45 minutes for a short-haul flight. Real-time visualization of the turnaround situation on a mobile device will therefore give the ramp agent the chance to proactively manage their assigned turnaround flights. Why? They cannot be in the belly, at the cargo door, at the gate and in the cabin or on the flight deck at the same time. A digitalized visualization of the processes around the aircraft allows the ramp agent to always be up-to-date about the overall situation of their turnaround. This will include the option to immediately drill down to individual processes (cleaning, catering, etc.), indicating what exactly is the reason for the delay, for example: ‘Is fueling ready at its position for its service?’ (figure 5).
Management by exception
The late refueling warning in figure 5 is probably the strongest argument for a digitalized turnaround management. This so-called ‘Management by Exception’ approach steers the situational awareness of the ramp agent directly to irregularities. S/he can focus on solving them, instead of being distracted by other processes that work well.
Manual and digital data capturing
The prerequisite for effective turnaround monitoring is up-to-date and reliable time stamps. They can originate from various sources such as the airline, the aircraft, or airport systems and / or from manually entered time stamps delivered by the ramp agent and / or the service providers (figure 6).
With artificial intelligence (AI) technology, even manual data collection can be automated. It allows airlines to easily transform unstructured data simply from a video stream into time stamps. By looking at each gate position with a camera, the system is able to recognize objects and activities and can thus monitor the progress of the turnaround process (figure 7).
Benefits of digitalized turnaround management
Summarized the digitalization of the highly complex and cross-functional turnaround processes has the following benefits:
- Full transparency about the turnaround process;
- Quick identification of delayed ground handling processes; and…
- Minimization of operational disruptions by taking timely actions.
All this adds up to increased punctuality by making up for rotational delays and minimizing handling delays; thus saving delay costs.
CARGO MANAGEMENT AND LOAD CONTROL
Digitalized Load Control activities
Ramp agents usually supervise the loading and unloading of freight, mail and baggage from aircraft. Digitalization will lever this core operational process to a significantly higher quality and efficiency level: digitalized load control allows the ramp agent to simultaneously and remotely update the latest load information directly from the apron into the core weight and balance system of the load controller (figure 8).
A digital solution for a ramp agent in load control will, among other features, provide the following basics:
- Access to necessary flight leg information;
- Workflow transparency and support;
- Access to (relevant) documents;
- Leg handling options (e.g. update of baggage numbers);
- Interaction and communication.
Benefits of a fully digitalized load control process
The benefits of digital load control can be summarized as:
- Visualization of load data to all relevant ramp personnel;
- Option to simultaneously update the system directly from the apron;
- Productivity increase;
- Provision of easy and cost-efficient IT deployment;
- Easy and fast training of staff (as ramp personnel have a high labor turnover rate).
TRANSFER PASSENGER AND BAGGAGE HANDLING
The importance of passenger and baggage misconnection handling
Misconnected passengers and bags cost the airline industry not only millions but also their reputation. Passenger sentiment has become even more critical than ever for airlines as passengers nowadays often share their experiences on social media.
Transfer passengers are mostly handled by the station / hub management and / or gate agents. However, real-time transparency about the passenger re-accommodation status and the baggage situation would help the ramp agent significantly, because it allows her/him to pro-actively prepare for certain recurrent deviations in order to ensure punctual departures. The following two examples demonstrate the potential impact of digitalization here.
Figure 9.1 Figure 9.2
Transparency about capacity figures
Transparency about estimated, booked and actual passenger figures is a big plus. As in figure 9.1, if the red colored alert is displayed about more passengers to be expected in in Economy (Y) and Premium Economy Class (E) that might lead the ramp agent to the operational decision to prepare for more baggage to be loaded than originally planned by the booking figures. S/he orders an additional baggage container in advance, knowing that in such situations gate agents usually check passengers as they enter the boarding gate to bring larger hand luggage into the hold. This avoids being forced to submit this order at the end of the boarding process, which might cause a delay because the container has to be delivered. It is all about saving precious minutes within a very limited time frame.
Transparency about connecting situation
At the bottom of figure 9.1 the ramp agent is fully informed about the passenger connection situation of the four booking classes. Red highlights indicate connections that are already re-booked by the station management. However, more interesting for the ramp agent are the amber streams. They indicate, in this case, that one connection with three economy passengers (0/0/0/3) might have a problem to connect with this flight because of delayed inbound flights.
In a digitalized world a simple click allows him to retrieve detailed passenger connection information as figure 9.2 illustrates. He can for instance see that one economy class passenger (0/0/0/1) coming from flight JP 116 from Ljubljana (LJU) will arrive by a Ramp Direct Service (RDS) directly via the apron and not via the usual gate boarding process. Another important piece of information is that one business class passenger (0/1/0/0) from Aberdeen (ABZ) has a critical (amber) connection. That´s why the ramp agent might pro-actively decide to wait with the loading of this passenger’s baggage until it´s clear that he will make it. With such information the ramp agent minimizes the risk of having to offload the baggage later which usually causes delays of 5-10 minutes.
Benefits of digitalized passenger and bag situation
The best operational plans often get derailed due to unexpected deviations with impact on the passenger travel experience. Having the passenger sentiment in focus, smooth passenger and baggage connections will always have top priority. To achieve best results the ramp should be involved in the whole concept of the airline’s passenger re-accommodation management.
COMPLETENESS, SAFETY AND QUALITY CHECKS
The ramp agent usually assists in the set-up of the ramp and the storage of equipment. They might also observe safe ground-handling procedures and check the completeness of cargo items to be loaded for the outbound flight as well as be responsible for the maintenance of ground service equipment, including the performance of equipment checks and other company material. Duties might include inspection and reporting of inoperability, lack and absence of staff, equipment in use or compartment. A digitalized ramp makes any paper checklists or reports obsolete and also omits physical storage of documents and tracking of each action by automated log files and signatures.
COMMUNICATION BETWEEN STAKEHOLDERS
The alpha and omega of efficient ramp operations is communication between all involved stakeholders. On the ramp special conditions apply: the ramp agent’s workspace is somewhere outside on the apron, s/he is moving around a lot and sometimes has to fight with noise and weather conditions.
Being able to constantly exchange information in an efficient way is a prerequisite for managing operational deviations successfully. But phone lines might be busy and cost precious minutes out of tightly calculated ground times as might too lengthy phone talks. The digital solution for an efficient communication between the ramp agent and the stakeholders might therefore be a group chat-functionality. It enables immediate exchange of information between all stakeholders involved – so everybody is on the same page (figure 10).
When irregularities and unplanned situations occur the ramp agent needs to make fast decisions. The best operational decision is worth nothing if it isn’t executed immediately. One standard process is to order or request from any stakeholder (service provider, airport, etc.) certain actions or information (e.g. enhanced loading crews, ordering missing meals, etc.) and receiving a confirmation. Time consuming phone calls can be omitted. Digitalization allows processes and pre-defined digital workflows to be designed: for instance, an ‘order – approve / reject’ mechanism that delivers immediate results.
In practice this means, instead of making time consuming inquiry calls, the ramp agent can ask the fire brigade for a ‘parallel boarding’ with one fingertip to catch up the time for the delayed fueling process (figure 11). Other requests might include additional cleaning personnel or to ask catering for additional five business class meals due to unforeseen upgrades. The advantage is that s/he gets an immediate answer (approve / deny) by the stakeholder. The benefit is that each involved stakeholder has full transparency about the current workflow state in real-time.
Digital airlines have a greater potential to create innovation thus a unique customer travel experience by combining information, business resources and processes as well as digital technologies. Digitalization should therefore be among the top objectives of any airline’s business strategy. However, to really succeed in today’s highly competitive airline business, digital innovation must cover every aspect of the airline business, not only the ones visible to the passenger.
The future ramp described with digitalized mobility solutions will fundamentally change how airlines operate on the ground. It also prevents airlines from only modernizing isolated core business processes, because a digital ramp provides a more holistic picture from ramp perspective. It therefore enables a new level of data-driven collaboration across all airline ground processes and stakeholders collectively. This will lead to a significantly improved on-time performance and thus a seamless customer experience.
Starting at the frontline with the Check In, Michael Muzik has accumulated more than 20 years of varied airline experience within the Lufthansa Group. His career at Lufthansa German Airlines developed through cabin crew recruitment, crew management, and revenue accounting to then being on the vendor side with Lufthansa Systems. At Lufthansa Systems he works as a product manager and Consultant for several operational products, including Operations Control, Crew Management, Hub and Turnaround Management, and Weight and Balance.
Lufthansa Systems are insiders, real experts for digital transformation and close to the heartbeat of the aviation industry. It’s a combination that makes their service offering unique, helping leading airline companies to benefit from digitalization. The firm provides tactical data for a safe and efficient flight, offers best-in-class maps for navigation in the air and on the airport and paves the way for a connectivity above the clouds that goes far beyond entertainment. All this in a customized approach: together with their customers they want to make aviation smarter, safer and more connected.