They say it takes a village to raise a child, well it takes a small town to run an international airport. Every day is an incredible feat of logistical and operational planning and delivery; from the check-in teams to the ground handlers and the security staff.

Nowhere is that clearer than in the air traffic control team, but at Heathrow we do have one added secret ingredient: HOEC, the Heathrow Operational Efficiency Cell.

In HOEC, we act as the technical experts and the interface between the airport, the airlines and the tower team, acting as the air traffic control representative within the Airport Operations Centre (APOC), with the objective of doing whatever we can to help the air traffic operation run as smoothly as possible.

That means strategically looking ahead at the schedule days in advance to identify any challenges and coming up with plans to mitigate them, and then making tactical changes on any given day to boost punctuality and keep people moving.

Our job is to take the hand that’s been dealt– good or bad – and to make the best of it…or failing that to reshuffle the deck in our favour!

It’s an approach that works. Last year, we helped save 47,000 minutes of delay at Heathrow, saving the airlines £4.1m (including £1m in July alone). It’s incredibly fulfilling, and I love it.

Inside Heathrow’s APOC.

Every day is different, but by being sat in APOC means I’m surrounded by many of the people I might need to speak to or work with. The Met Office forecaster, airside operations manager, the stand allocation team and many others. They’re all here, and each of us has the same collective goal – to make this airport run as well as it possibly can. That makes coordination, information sharing and decision making infinitely easier, and it’s a relationship that very few other airports around the world have.

In practice, when you’re dealing with an airport operation that has historically been scheduled to 98% capacity, this can mean making relatively small changes. If we think delays might be peaking, we’ll look at what we can tweak or tuck to get things back to normal that much faster. That could be through gaining a little extra capacity with couple of arrivals on the departure runway or talking to our colleagues at Swanwick or Eurocontrol about changes to any airspace capacity regulations.

That in particular is so important. The benefit we have of being on the ground, at the airport is we can see the impact of any regulations and immediately grasp how effective they’re being. We’re often able to get traffic levels raised sooner or lifted entirely because we have eyes and ears here at the airport. That can mean the difference between people getting away or having their travel plans ruined.

One of the tools we use for both strategic and tactical support is called ‘Demand Capacity Balancer’. A ‘digital twin’ of the airport, it allows us to model potentially thousands of operational scenarios to help us arrive at the best possible plan for each day. It takes account of the weather, runway changes, holding levels, airspace regulations and just about anything else you can think of.

Tools like DCB take a lot of the ‘gut instinct’ out of decision making. It provides evidence that can support or challenge a plan of action and allows us to be much more nuanced and precise. In the past, a bad weather day might have necessitated a 15% reduction in the schedule. Now we can run that scenario through DCB and conclude we only need 11% or 12%. That sounds small, but it makes a huge difference to the airlines, and of course their passengers.

When we were faced with major operational disruption around the planning for The Queen’s funeral last year, DCB meant 85% of the planned schedule was able to fly despite it being one of the most complex days we’ve ever experienced. During Covid, it helped the airport decided when to change from single to dual runway operations as traffic began to return.

All the tools we use in HOEC are a fantastic support and have helped us build hugely positive relationships with the airport operations team and the airlines

And it really is those relationships that are at the heart of what we do, and what makes HOEC such a successful part of the Heathrow operation. It’s so good, I’m surprised more airports don’t do the same!


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