Air travel seems pretty simple. Pack your bags, go to the airport, get on the plane and go. However there is a side of it we don’t see. A side where an army of people work hard behind the scenes to make our flying experience almost seamless.
“SOC or System Operations Control is a centralized location made up of multiple departments that oversees Air Canada’s daily operations,” says Kevin O’Conner, Air Canada’s Vice President of System Operation Control.
System Operations Control, or SOC as the airline calls it, is located just outside of Toronto. SOC takes a global view of Air Canada’s network, which operations up to 1,800 flights a day, on 400 aircraft to 6 different continents. The logistics of which can be hard to comprehend.
“It is very complex. And there are many challenges. A lot of customers, a lot of passengers may not see some of those challenges. It has anything to do with airport curfews as airplanes can’t always land at certain times of the day. The most impactful thing to daily operations is the weather,” says O’Conner.
SOC has 11 different departments, all under one roof trying to move aircraft. From data analysis to flight dispatch, it’s all here. Included in that is a team to help get you home, even with it may be a challenge. Challenges can arise from weather in a given location, to an aircraft going down for maintenance… or more recently an entire fleet of aircraft, the 737 MAX planes, being grounded.
“We are dedicated, passionate aviation enthusiasts that are in a customer service business. And we work hard each and every day to try and do better. We do understand that any disruption to someone’s journey is not going to be well received. And we do not want them to be in that situation. It’s not good for us, and it’s not good and certainly not good for our customers,” O’Conner says.
Customers are something the airline has been having more and more of each year. In 2018 alone, the airline flew nearly 50 million people, which is a new record for Air Canada. The airline employs tens of thousands of people around the globe to make this astronomical number a reality.
On the outside, while flying may seem simple to someone like you, or me, the fact is it’s far from it. There are thousands of people, managing hundreds of aircraft that fly millions of people around the globe each and every year. And this is all while fighting something there is no control over… the weather!
Rod Stone is the Director of Flight Dispatch for the airline. Rod looks after the Flight Dispatch and Weight and Balance staff. The crew of people work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Rod also looks very closely at the weather.
“We generally look 5 to 6 days out for the weather. Quite often we’re watching a system before it even develops,” Rod says.
According to Rod, when there is a flight in the air, there is a flight dispatcher at SOC. The crew monitors everything from the start of the flight to the end of the flight. From changes in the weather, to navigational aids and any unforeseen circumstances. They’re keeping an eye on all of it.
Weather and flying go hand in hand, and much like me, the first thing Rod does in the morning is check the weather. Unlike me, however, he is looking to see how it may impact flight operations for the day.
“Weather is everything in many regards. There is still a human aspect to flying. In today’s world we can, in some airports, like St. John’s that has a Category 3 Instrument Landing System, we can land hands off. But for a number of the stations we still fly into the pilots are intimately involved. We can only land when they have visual references. So winds impact us, snow, thunderstorms. Each season brings its own challenges,” says Stone.
But what about Newfoundland and Labrador weather? That presents a challenge all its own. A challenge Air Canada is very aware of.
“Newfoundland well…,” Rod says with a smile. “Every minute it changes. Even the computers, the aviation experts and Environment Canada experts, they all have challenges with it. Local expertise is super important.”
When you think about it, flying is truly an incredible thing. The complexities of it will make your head spin! So next time you fly, keep in mind there are many factors outside of any airline’s control that can cause delays. The biggest of which is the weather. One airplane can be slated for 4 to 6 legs in a given day. A backup or delay at any place along the route usually causes a domino effect in some capacity. Delays are something no airline likes, so to remember it takes tens thousands of hard working people to get you where you want to go, even when Mother Nature may not want to corporate.