On March 13, 2006, I joined AirTran Airways as an analyst in the Network Planning Department, or to be more specific, I joined AirTran Airways as the only analyst in a Network Planning Department that consisted of three people. We described our staffing as “lean” (of course, at times it felt more like “anorexic” would be a better description), but for a self-described airline nerd such as myself, working in a lean environment at an airline that was growing by leaps and bounds gave me the opportunity to have hands-on experience with many different facets of the network planning and development process. One of the things I find most interesting to this day is international scheduling.
Back then, as now, thoughts of what new routes will be announced (and especially international destinations) always seem to be at the top of everyone’s mid-afternoon daydream sessions … (I know I’m not the only one who takes one, so stop pretending). As I travel through the system, I hear excitement and anticipation for the new cities that have already been announced and for what is on the horizon, and the excitement is contagious. However, few people have any idea how much work goes into each new route that is announced.
At this very moment, there are literally hundreds of people working to make sure the new international routes announced will depart seamlessly on their planned start date, but the process of finding and selecting a route that compliments the system is a process that can take years. We are all aware that the cost of fuel has risen significantly, and this is putting a strain on profitability, so before any route is announced it is put under intense scrutiny regarding its profitability, sustainability, and ultimately how it will fit into and improve the network. This is no different for international routes, and if anything, more scrutiny is put into their selection because of the added aircraft time investment that is usually required for these flights and additional start-up costs associated with them. How many people currently visit the destination each year? Does travel spike in certain seasons and shrink to nothing in others? Is the destination’s hotel and tourism infrastructure well enough established to handle added capacity and grow over time? Is there a local traffic element that we can connect with … if so, how do you most effectively get your message to them, and how do you sell them tickets (in some countries internet sales are non-existent and travel agencies are still heavily relied upon). All these questions and many, many more are researched, and then a decision is made.
Once a decision is made, the work of preparing for the flight begins. Every single aspect of an international flight must be reviewed and considered as being different than a domestic flight. Everything from the trash, which must be removed and destroyed upon arrival back into the United States, to the question of how to get ice for the return flight out of the international country must be considered. We must file for route authority with both the United States government and the foreign government. Slot requests, permits, and customs landing rights are just a few more of the mountains of paperwork that have to be filed prior to the start date. To get the approval for one flight, a person would have to interact with more lawyers, government officials, and border patrol agencies than most law-abiding people will ever have to in one lifetime. That’s why I have learned to say, “Thank goodness for our lawyers.” Flight Ops has to make sure they have the information needed to fly to the new international destinations, but also to any new alternate airports in the region in case they are needed. There are literally too many tasks to list in this short space, but as I mentioned above, there are hundreds of people working tirelessly on international expansion, and they all have their hands full.
So next time you are in an airport and you hear the boarding call for one of our flights heading internationally, or if you happen to be fortunate enough to be boarding one of these flights, remember the tireless and continuing efforts of the men and women who are making so many new international routes possible this year … then order an adult beverage with an umbrella in it, and try not to think about work again until you get back.