Success with a complex implementation at Sunclass Airlines
Author: Lene Nielsen, Business Analyst, Nordic Leisure Travel Group ITSubscribe
Lene Nielsen, Business Analyst Nordic Leisure Travel Group IT and Karl-Oskar Tollsten, Head of Product
Management, N-Ops & Crew at NAVBLUE share an implementation completed in challenging times
Readers will agree that tackling demanding projects and implementing a new IT solution for any part of the business, albeit more so for a core critical system, is always a challenge. If we add to that challenge the further dimension of having to re-launch, as a new airline, part of a business that has closed but whose legacies come with the re-start, that looks even more challenging. Now add in the sudden onset of a pandemic that virtually shut down the commercial aviation sector (including this new airline) and you will see the extent of the task that faced Sunclass Airlines when selecting and implementing a new Operations control solution – most definitely an interesting case study. But first, a few words about the subject of the study, Sunclass Airlines.
Sunclass Airlines traces its roots back to a Scandinavian charter company founded back in the 1960s. It later became a part of the Thomas Cook group and, since the collapse of Thomas Cook, Sunclass Airlines has been established as the in-house airline within the Nordic Leisure Travel Group consisting of the three Scandinavian tour operators, Spies, Ving and Tjaereborg. The fleet includes eight Airbus A321s and two A330s flying one hundred percent charter out of Scandinavia, into the Mediterranean during summer while, in winter, it is mostly to the Canary Islands and a few long-haul flights to Thailand and the Caribbean which the airline aims to increase in future seasons.
THE DECISION TO IMPLEMENT NAVBLUE AND N-OC
Following the collapse of Thomas Cook, it was necessary to look at the Operations IT landscape because one the areas where the former group had made significant progress was in consolidating all IT operations across the five airlines that were part of Thomas Cook Airline Group. That created a significant problem for Sunclass Airlines who now had to operate independently. But the problem was turned into an opportunity, setting out to re-organize the IT operations landscape. It was not only a matter of finding a solution for the Ops and crew management but also for EFB, ground handling, departure control, ACARS… everything. The task was to either make new independent contracts with legacy providers or find new providers. It was important to select the application that was the best fit for the new reality. Secondly, it was also necessary to map and re-do all the integration infrastructure which amounted to quite a big task, all within a very tight timeline to complete.
So, Sunclass Airlines laid out a new IT landscape before inviting proposals from vendors for the various applications, including NAVBLUE. After a review of the different options, Sunclass Airlines decided to go with N-OC for Ops and Crew. One of the priorities for the new airline was to create a more flexible IT infrastructure. The existing infrastructure was rather rigid due to the siloed application landscape which made changes hard to implement. Flexibility was one of the key drivers, enabling task automation and integrations across the airline’s different applications. The intention was to minimize the manual workload by feeding data from one application to another.
A combined solution was attractive because Sunclass Airlines is a small organization needing a good way of allowing staff, who work in different areas of planning and crewing and day-to-day operations, to be in the same application at the same time. All of that was addressed by N-OC; especially the automation and the seamless integration aspects which are built into the core of N-OC, not as a secondary but as a main feature. Also, cost was a very important consideration; NAVBLUE was not the most inexpensive but nor was it the most expensive and overall made a good fit for Sunclass Airlines. These four points mainly drove their decision.
The first thing to say about N-OC is that the system has a large breadth of capabilities, handling more or less every process and department in an airline who all touch N-OC either working in the system or the process, or touching the processes in N-OC from up to two years prior to departure until day of operations and then post-departure and post-arrival. Usage can be adjusted depending on the airline. There is Sunclass Airlines which is a charter airline with timetables running two or two and a half years into the future in N-OC while there are other users who do not know what they are going to be flying next week because they are purely ACMI specialists who will work when an AOG (aircraft on ground) happens somewhere and the airline whose aircraft is grounded needs the ACMI to operate the flight.
The core solutions are crew planning, crew control, schedule planning and operations control with a wide range of smaller processes that touch these from training planning to basic maintenance planning. N-OC is at the center of the airline operations where every business process is touched either through direct interaction or integration. Sunclass Airlines is an excellent example of how to embrace the system and integrate it into the airline’s business as the centerpiece of the IT landscape. In short, N-OC is a comprehensive Operations Control solution for airlines.
THE SELECTION AND IMPLEMENTATION OF N-OC
Initially, Sunclass Airlines looked at four providers including their incumbent plus three others. Given the circumstances of the Thomas Cook collapse, there was not much time to map all of Sunclass Airlines’ processes and business requirements. But what impressed them with the NAVBLUE team was the organization, professionalism and indubitable experience in conducting the business process review to help Sunclass Airlines better understand their processes and needs before suggesting how the solution might handle them. That was a NAVBLUE unique selling point.
Also, there was the successful scoping of Sunclass Airlines’ legality rules which the airline realized had been significantly underestimated; it turned out to be a huge task. With the legacy agreements that accompanied the business from the previous owner came four union rule sets plus it is fair to say that Sunclass Airlines does not operate pure FTLs (Flight & duty Time Limitations) so there were a lot of custom rules that had to be built which was a main part of the implementation and it was a comfort to know that those issues were taken seriously by a prospective solution provider. Ultimately, 171 rules related to both union and airline’s own requirements had to be developed and incorporated into the solution. In fact, when NAVBLUE was introduced to the rules at the first business meeting with Sunclass Airlines and when, also, Sunclass Airlines stated a desired timeline, NAVBLUE had to say ‘no’ to configuring all of the rules in that time – everything else, yes; the rules, no. A further three months was added to the timeline to allow for that but it did require Sunclass Airlines to make arrangements to bridge the gap, which they did. In that respect, the unexpected arrival of COVID helped, not something you will often read.
From there, the implementation process was well structured and conducted. There was a clear method selected with a combination of an issue tracking tool that allows bug tracking and agile project management, and a task Gantt chart and timeline as well as follow-up meetings which all gave a good overview of the process. The timeline was exceeded by one month which was, in fact, quite impressive as the extra time was required for a review of the legality rules and, of course, limited resources due to COVID. Overall, the implementation went well and was completed in ten months.
One thing that Sunclass Airlines could not help but notice was the extent to which the NAVBLUE team really understood the business from end to end and the diversity of tasks within Sunclass Airlines. It was not just an off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all option. Together, the teams explored different ways in which the NAVBLUE solution could be used to meet the inevitable variety of changes and challenges that go with the unusual circumstances of establishing a new airline that has a legacy provenance.
CHALLENGES FACED DURING THE PROGRAM
Having been operating with systems inherited from the old business and which kept users within very rigid systems frameworks, the team at Sunclass Airlines were not used to the idea of a solution that was so flexible and agile to the project’s changing needs. That gave them the opportunity to be more innovative, than had been the case before, about how the system could be used. It also meant that, to leverage full advantage from that flexibility and agility, Sunclass Airlines had to look more closely into the way they worked and their processes. Also, with regards to the legality rules, the assumption was that it would be a huge task but, even then, the team was astonished at the full magnitude of that task that was successfully achieved.
ORGANIZING AND DELIVERING THE TRAINING
Usually, training with the N-OC team would be with physical training sessions but, due to COVID, that was not possible. As a result, all training and associated meetings were carried out remotely. The good thing about training remotely was that the training delivery could be recorded in order to go back to the sessions and review, if any questions were later identified – an opportunity that is not available with physical training. But what was missed from physical training was the interaction between the trainer and the trainee in which the trainer can pinpoint the areas where trainees might be out of their comfort zone. For the trainer it is more difficult to train remotely but the NAVBLUE team did a great job. Everyone was new to virtual training but both teams worked hard at making it work and succeeded.
THE USER EXPERIENCE WITH NAVBLUE AND N-OC
From past experience and having previously undertaken major systems changes in the past five years, the Sunclass Airlines’ team was used to changing vital systems. Also, with many years of working with their incumbent, they had visual confidence with the Gantt charts whose layout was familiar. Also, Sunclass Airlines retained the same colors and naming convention that had been used in the legacy systems, which made it easier for people to adapt to the new system. But users had grown used to work with systems that was not configured with the same degree of flexibility and is now on a steep learning curve to discover the full potential and flexibility of the N-OC system.
Most end users were furloughed during the project implementation, so when they returned, it was to a completely new system landscape. What stood out for them was how easy the new system was to use, especially noticeable in all the disruption caused by COVID.
EXTERNAL AND INTERNAL APPROVALS
As an EASA Operator, Sunclass Airlines’ FTL schemes and change management procedures are approved as part of their AOC; therefore, no direct approval is required from the Danish civil aviation authorities for changing the Crew Management System. However, of course, there was an internal change management procedure with the individual sign-offs done by reviewing tickets from the issue tracking tool, approving them and accepting them during the user acceptance period followed by a final sign-off of the entire delivery. There are jurisdictions where the authorities require direct approval of system replacement but not in the case of Sunclass Airlines.
Sunclass Airlines would, if called to do this again, try to limit the systems to be changed to just one at a time rather than both infrastructure and eight applications at the same time. That was quite challenging: as one team member put it, rather like attempting a heart and a brain transplant at the same time. They would also prefer to have had a little more time; such a project should not take several years, it would lose traction, but another five months would have been preferred. In a similar vein, the Sunclass Airlines team would be a little more realistic about the initial go-live scope and perhaps have taken down the scope a little bit to focus on the core systems. And then be operating with an established backlog from the get-go, enabling non-core feature ideas to be parked until after the go-live. In fact, that was the method that was ended up with anyway. But having done so from the beginning would have assured that the resources had been allocated for post-go-live rather than having to request more resources to complete the final touches.
Advice that the Sunclass Airlines team would offer another airline considering a similar system change would be to first, map the business’s processes before the event and be very precise in the scoping of the initial go-live scope. Also, be sure to sell the change to end users, the reasons why the change is taking place and to ensure that the users buy-in to the change, otherwise the success of the project is at risk.
BENEFITS DELIVERED BY THE NEW SYSTEM
One of Sunclass Airlines’ main goals was to achieve a more integrated operations IT platform which was delivered from the get-go; but, as the system is used, it is apparent that increasing numbers of pieces are fitting together and it is a fast process to get new things connected. Especially during COVID, Sunclass Airlines has been using the system for automatically reporting crews to national health authorities. When the aircraft lands, using the capabilities in N-OC, workflows outside of the application are triggered that send details to the health authority. It is also used for tracking the re-qualification of crews when they return to active duty. Furthermore, it is used as a broadcast and alert system enabling effective communication – all within a few clicks on the Gantt. The automation capability of N-OC has really started to prove its worth and show its potential and the flexibility of the platform has been appreciated. Even though the system might have been put to the test at times with the volume of changes cause by COVID, it has proved its capability.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
At the time of writing, Sunclass Airlines was just in the final stages of mapping out step 2 of the project. Considering the short timeline, there are a lot of ‘nice to have’ developments to consider plus there is a further need to review the airline’s processes. Also, as all the end users were furloughed during the project implementation and were only activated during the go-live, there was not a chance to fully involve the end users in the overall vision of the system landscape. But, one thing that users have learned is that, because everything was changing all the time during COVID, the system is very flexible and Sunclass Airlines provides very fast solutions to whatever is thrown at the system. So, there is a need to sit down and consider step 2 of the project to get it organized, apart from fighting the disruptive effects caused by COVID.
One big plan is to develop concepts for resource modelling and predictions and use the tools within N-OC to build further autom ation concepts. Sunclass Airlines has been low on internal resources during the pandemic so now, as operations are coming back with some consistency, and as resources return, it is possible to think about developing more concepts to make full use of N-OC.
The Sunclass Airlines team were keen to recognize the excellence of the post-go-live support that the NAVBLUE provided . The team deals with a lot of suppliers and NAVBLUE has really stood out. The number of changes, fixes, new features that have been delivered since the go-live has been amazing.
From NAVBLUE’s perspective, Sunclass Airlines has proved a very good example of how N-OC should be embraced and how it can be utilized within an airline. For example, N-OC does not have to do everything in the airline but it can provide inputs to in-house tools such as flows and automation, and, for Sunclass Airlines, feed the in-house flight service. Sunclass Airlines approached NAVBLUE with the thinking of how they could enhance their events in N-OC and how the integration of Operations databases could be achieved. For NAVBLUE, this project is a model on how to implement core critical systems like N-OC in an airline.
25+ years’ experience within airline operations disciplines such as rostering, dispatching and 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 and IT project manager for implementing N-Ops & Crew for Sunclass Airlines and is one of the driving forces to utilize the full potential of our new application landscape.
Karl-Oskar Tollsten (a.k.a. ‘Kotte’) is the Head of Product Management, N-Ops & Crew at NAVBLUE, an AIRBUS Services Company. In his role, Karl-Oskar is responsible for managing the global product strategy for N-Ops and Crew (N-OC). Prior to joining NAVBLUE, he had 15 years’ experience in managing OCC, Ground Operations, Security and Emergency Response for different airlines. Back in 2011, he was the launch customer for N-OC (formerly RAIDO).
Sunclass Airlines 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 & 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.