Business Unusual: Flight Planning and the Iceland Volcano Eruption
Paul Tronsor, Managing Director, Global Operations Control for FedEx Express
Wednesday April 14 started out as a normal day. I dialed into the regular early morning conference call within FedEx Global Operations Command in Memphis. For some weeks we’d been monitoring the rumblings of the Icelandic volcano. (And no, I can’t pronounce its true name, either.) It posed no threat to our flight operations.
But this volcano’s eruption propelled an ash cloud over the U.K. Indications were that the cloud would rapidly blanket the coastal and interior parts of Western Europe. Although our systems showed the situation to be manageable, European aviation authorities disagreed.
EUROCONTROL began closing down parts of European airspace. The result was the largest disruption of aviation space since WWII and the largest disruption of the FedEx network since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the U.S.
Immediately we began coordinating among our GOC operation centers in Memphis, Hong Kong and Paris to flex our network.
By April 15 we were unable to fly to our hubs in Paris, Frankfurt, Cologne and Standsted and were considering alternatives. When disruptions happen a “Plan B” is always in our back pocket. Our normal plan “B” for a Paris closure is Frankfurt, but that too was taken away from us. This disruption required us to develop Plan A—our normal operation—and Plan B in parallel as flight conditions whipsawed.
European airports would be closed, reopened and closed again within the span of minutes. The volatility was compounded by incongruities between the airports and the air space. There were moments when an airport was open but the airspace above remained closed, and vice versa.
With normal flight operations stalled we developed Plan B, which assumed Paris would remain closed in the foreseeable future. We would reroute flights into Southern Europe, possibly Madrid, Spain or Milan, Italy. From there, the freight would be trucked to other sites within Europe.
Executing any type of “Plan B” is a tremendous undertaking. We can fly aircraft to alternate countries–provided we’ve got the crews, fuel, landing rights and airport space. We can unload the freight at those sites—provided the freight is properly cleared through customs in that country. We can use ground transport once it’s on the ground—provided the trucks are available.
The totality of the FedEx network gave us access to all these resources.
Anticipating the disruption’s impact on operations was a global undertaking that our three GOCs managed as a whole. Supporting these operations are key positions that carry enormous responsibility when executing a contingency plan.
The Flight Dispatcher – known as the “Captain on the Ground” – is constantly evaluating routes and conditions of flight. Our Freight Movement Center team was constantly evaluating the products that were in the system and proposing movement solutions. The Service Recovery Specialist oversees the creation and implementation of the action plan while the Crew Scheduling Specialist ensures crew availability.
In fact, crew scheduling is one of the greatest variables when a service disruption extends over days. Scheduling must comply with the regulatory mandates governing all U.S. air carriers, such as the number of flight hours and ensuring adequate crew rest.
Outside of GOC, our Global Trade Services team is indispensable to facilitating international freight moves through the proper compliance and customs requirements.
On April 20, we were ready to go with Plan B—having positioned flight crews in Toulouse and Barcelona—when Charles de Gaulle Airport reopened.
Once again we had to flex our network, this time switching back to Plan A. Since we had accounted for this possibility we were ready to go.
With service restored, our team members worked to clear the backlog. Between our first flights from the U.S. to Europe on Tuesday, April 20 through Thursday, April 22, we moved 7.7 million lbs. of product. That’s a huge amount of freight. I’ve never been more proud of the FedEx team and the work of the professionals in GOC and their impact on the network. It’s a thrill to come to work every day and work beside my team.
I’m asked by people outside of Operations how we approach our contingency planning. I tell them we determine the most likely scenarios and develop plans based on those assumptions.
I’ve learned from experience to make a decision and stick with it. Decisions in our network have a huge centrifugal force that pulls everyone along.
When you’re in a situation that’s spinning fast, it’s tempting to change gears daily. This leads to chaos by pulling your people and systems in different directions. So we build decision cycles that extend over three to four days.
This longer cycle supports the leadership and cohesion required to manage an unfolding crisis. It also leaves room for adjustments along the way.
Finally, we debrief the team. The purpose of the debriefing that follows is to cull any wisdom gained from the experience. You can evaluate your decisions and learn from them, but you can’t change them.
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