Printed headline: JetBlue’s Sysops
With an average of 1,000 flights a day to manage, JetBlue Airways’ system operations center (SOC) in Long Island City, New York, has its hands full. The majority of these flights originate from nearby John F. Kennedy International Airport, which is one of the airline’s three maintenance hubs. As the only piece of JetBlue’s operations running 24/7 at the company headquarters, the 350-person staff of the SOC plan, coordinate and manage all of the airline operations from one big room.
Aviation Week visited the center in November to get an inside look at how the operation runs. With 881 departures scheduled that day, activity was more relaxed than usual. According to Tom Lloyd, director for system operations duty, the busiest days can handle up to 1,050 flights.
Teams at the center include crew services, maintenance control, aircraft on ground, dispatch, blue watch (which handles security and law enforcement issues) and air traffic systems. Each team is clustered around four central pods devoted to different geographical regions. The fourth region was added recently to help alleviate the workload for the other three. Each pod is responsible for about 250 flights a day, with a team of six crewmembers collaborating to keep things running smoothly. Led by a system controller, the staff members handle tasks related to crew issues such as ensuring pilots and crew are scheduled legally (in accordance with Part 117 regulations), pending weather diversions and keeping an eye on how these issues affect maintenance.
“Every single time we have a delay, when you’re looking for an airplane to run your flight, the first thing we have to do is make sure our maintenance operation can support that,” says Lloyd. He adds that the pod’s router—who works under the tech ops umbrella—must make sure that rerouted aircraft are not being placed in a location where the airline cannot recover scheduled maintenance items.
If an aircraft lands in a location where JetBlue does not have maintenance operations, the maintenance control team—composed of maintenance controllers and airframe and powerplant mechanics—contacts a maintenance provider in that area to coordinate needed work and make sure it is done in accordance with JetBlue’s maintenance manuals. To manage maintenance needs, the team uses the TRAX digital maintenance system (which holds all logbook entries) and software called Movement Control, which provides a graphical representation of JetBlue’s flight schedule. If, for example, an aircraft has an open write-up and cannot be closed for an extended period of time, it causes an out-of-service event. This triggers action from various teams in the room because other flights then need to be planned around that aircraft’s availability, whether that involves cancellations, schedule manipulations to work around the delay or finding a spare aircraft. On any given day, JetBlue has an allocated number of spare aircraft waiting in strategic locations for situations like this.
One team closely involved in delay situations is the air traffic systems desk, which serves as the liaison to the FAA. These team members collaborate with the FAA on the airline’s operational plan and work within JetBlue’s business model to reduce delays and prioritize flights based on their impact. A crucial element of the air traffic systems desk is meteorology support through JetBlue’s business partner, The Weather Co. A meteorologist staffs the desk 16 hr. a day to monitor real-time weather and provide support. Lloyd says the airline has been able to mitigate delays that the FAA wanted to issue because its own in-house weather forecasts have been more “optimistic” than the FAA’s. This has provided untold savings in delay costs.
“Having a meteorologist at our disposal to help collaborate on the operational plan and bounce ideas off of is invaluable to us,” says Lloyd. “It is definitely a luxury, but we couldn’t live without it at this point.”
Although the staff meteorologists can alleviate service disruptions due to weather on some occasions, there are others—such as the recent hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands—that are impossible to work around. For serious situations such as hurricanes, JetBlue uses a scale from Level 1 to Level 3 to categorize major weather disruptions.
“A Level 3 event generally means you are shutting down a focus city for some period of time,” says Lloyd. “Those can be fairly straightforward, and that’s what a lot of the hurricanes were like. We know the airport’s going to close. We figure out, based on collaborating with the team in place and our understanding with the FAA on things like infrastructure, how far in advance we need to get the last airplane out and shut off the lights. Then we would simply work with them on the back end about when we can start and be ready to go.”
According to Lloyd, Hurricanes Irma and Maria were especially disruptive from an infrastructure perspective, but JetBlue stayed in constant communication with its team on the ground and external stakeholders such as the FAA to resume service as quickly as possible to provide economic support and supplies. Karen Roa, general manager for tech ops standards and crewmember engagement, says the airline sent two 18-wheel trucks full of supplies to Florida in advance of Hurricane Irma to make sure they were ahead of the curve, and it provided relief flights before both hurricanes to take crewmembers and their families out of harm’s way. Following the hurricanes, the airline has been involved in several relief efforts in Puerto Rico, including an internal program where volunteers traveled to the island to provide help.
“They love technicians because we’re good with our hands,” says Roa. “We went out there with trucks and chainsaws, made sure our crewmembers were OK and hooked up their generators.” Although there was some damage to JetBlue’s facilities in San Juan and Orlando, it has since been repaired, and the airline’s maintenance team is scheduled to move back into its facilities in Orlando soon.
To handle JetBlue’s response to emergency situations like these, there are two rooms located just off the SOC floor. The first—a situation room of sorts—overlooks the SOC and features a large round table as well as TV monitors with multimedia capability for monitoring news feeds and customizing social media feeds. In an emergency situation, a team—including groups from legal, corporate communications and support management leadership—convenes in the room to come up with the best response plan. Lloyd says JetBlue has a different response for different types of events.
“An emergency slide deployment with customers needing to evacuate would be a very different response than [that for] a geopolitical event,” he says. For example, after the Boston Marathon bombing, JetBlue’s emergency response team used a roster of every crewmember who was nearby to check on their well-being, offer assistance and track down anyone who had not been accounted for yet.
For events requiring a more escalated response, such as the hurricanes, the emergency response takes place in the adjacent room. Called the Emergency Command Center, the room seats approximately 90 people, and incidents being handled there generally stay active for about three weeks.
With such heavy demands for the team in the SOC, JetBlue is working through plans to expand it. Lloyd says the previous space from which JetBlue system operations moved in nearby Forest Hills about five years ago was around half the size, but with the airline’s expansion plans, it will need to add more staff at some point in the next few years. In addition to a growing team and growing space, JetBlue’s expanding fleet places demands on the airline to continue finding solutions to keep things running smoothly.
One such example is evaluating new planning tools via JetBlue’s Tech Ops 300 initiative. The network planning team’s workload includes building out flight schedules to accommodate long-term heavy maintenance work such as C checks.
“We have to make sure we have the tools available to efficiently plan maintenance with less manual labor from our planners,” says Roa. “It’s very labor-intensive for them to plan and schedule what needs to be done at what time, when it can be done and what station it can be done at.”
From a maintenance perspective, JetBlue recently reached its goal of providing iPads to each of its technicians by year-end to help with mobility. In addition to these Tech Ops 300 projects, Roa says the airline is looking into artificial intelligence to manage parts allocation. At the SOC, Lloyd says technology plans have mostly focused on incremental improvements to existing software.
“A lot of what we do here is very specialized, so you can’t just go to Best Buy and pull your software off the shelf,” he says. “You have to go to a very small number of companies that do this, so there’s a lot of work involved in making sure things are made to our specifications, they work properly and that back-end support is there, because we need to be up 24/7. We can’t afford to stop the airline because some piece of software isn’t working right.”
Roa adds that JetBlue’s main goal right now is making sure it is ready for Tech Ops 300. The initiative seeks to prepare for operating 300 aircraft by the end of 2017, through projects aimed at decreasing operating costs, increasing efficiency and enhancing fleet reliability. “It’s all about getting us to that next level,” says Roa.