Like any other industry, aviation has a lot of stuff that happens “behind the scenes” that the average Joe isn’t aware of.
In fact, often people within that industry may not be aware of some of it either. After all, how often do you go to a restaurant and think about all the stuff that goes on in the kitchen before you get your food? Someone has to know how much of what to order, and someone has to determine how much of each food to make ahead of time based on demand and popularity.
The airlines work the same way. As you read this, the calendar will be indicating summer. And not just any summer, either, but the first summer after the strangest summer any of us can remember, along with a weird winter that didn’t seem to want to end. Many airlines already have a small team of people working on next winter’s operations. Deicing fluid needs to be ordered well in advance, with supplies adjusted based on expected fleet plans at each airport/hub, training manuals for all affected work groups need to be updated and harmonized, and equipment needs to be maintained, replaced, and repaired. Just getting the manuals updated is time consuming, because at some airports the work is contracted out to a company that handles multiple airlines, so everything has to be written as simply as possible.
Deicing equipment only gets used a few times a year, so functionality checks start early in order to find issues that result from leaving stuff sitting around for months on end. The folks who train the trainers also need to be brought up to speed early so that the training pipeline gets started, staffing can be adjusted, and schedules accommodated.
Another big behind-the-scenes area is the long-term scheduling of flights. Every airline calls it something different, but it’s basically the same: where will we be going, and with which airplanes, in 12 to 24 months. The three big seasonal peaks are Thanksgiving, which is easy (in the relative scheme) to plan on; spring break; and summer vacation, specifically the month of July.
My airline is constantly putting out communications about the next one or two summers, because those busy months drive the training schedule for pilots, and to a lesser degree, flight attendants. Big events factor in as well. For instance, last year, the Olympics were supposed to be a major focus point. COVID changed that, and this year the Games may be held with no crowds. Next year, the World Cup is on the docket, but it’s too soon to say how COVID may or may not affect that event, and that doesn’t take into account which teams may or may not qualify.
Maintenance is another never-ending cycle of planning and contingencies. Airplanes are subjected to some form of light maintenance every day or so, but they also need to be scheduled for “heavy” inspections based on the manufacturer recommendations. These checks pull the airplanes out of service for a few months at a time, and they are scheduled a year or more in advance. A majority of these events take place outside the United States, especially for wide-bodies. That is yet another variable that needs to be accounted for.
There are also unexpected events, like the grounding of the 737 MAX, which was down for two years, got released to fly, and then was partially grounded again. Airlines can accommodate some of these curveballs, but too often the only resort is to cancel flights and issue refunds.
Just like a restaurant that has to plan for a big social event, the airlines have to constantly tweak their plans, and often there are a lot of partners involved and a lot of unexpected ripples that have to be dealt with in the process. It’s part of what makes aviation such a dynamic, exciting industry: There is never a dull or a still moment. But there is always something that needs to be done.—Chip Wright