About A-CDM Round the Coffee Table – Where did it come from and how does it work?

On 16-08-2016, in CDM, by steve

This is the second part of the A-CDM series in which we will look at its history and get some more insight into how it works. You can find the first part here.

In the previous article we explored the essence of Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM) and what it means for an airport that decides to implement it. Now it is a good time to go back in history and look at the origins of collaborative decision making. History is a great teacher and this is true also for the history of A-CDM.

A bit over two decades ago, airlines in the United States were increasingly dissatisfied with the way air traffic management worked or rather, failed to work as they saw it. Representations to the FAA did not bring the improvements they sought, so they got together and under the leadership of US Airways they started looking into the various problems they encountered in daily operations, determined to dig up the root causes and do something about them.

Although a lot of people expected to find things that would fault the FAA for the less than satisfactory state of affairs, what they found was very different. Sure enough, there was plenty that the FAA could have done better, but that venerable organization was by far not the only one contributing to the problems. To a surprisingly large extent, the behavior of the airlines themselves needed to be improved if the problems were to disappear. Airports were also found to be one of the causes of the operational difficulties.

Before we look more closely at two actual and very typical early cases of collaborative decision making success, it is worthwhile to highlight that in general, the airline investigation revealed that the aviation industry was generating prodigious amounts of information but very little of that information was being shared among the partners while most of the information was in fact essential if good operational decisions were to be made. The world appeared to be composed of silos, each partner working in their own closed environment irrespective of the fact that decisions in the silos impacted all the siloes individually and together. To illustrate the point, let me quote Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher (1788-1860) who had famously said “You can compare ordinary society with Russian horn music, where each horn has only one note to play, and only the punctual coinciding of all results is music.” Now replace “society” with “air traffic management decision making” and you will see what I mean. The silos of old produced very little music and a lot of noise… it was this noise the airlines noticed when they set out to improve things wishing to hear more music and less noise.

At Atlanta Airport (the home of Delta Airlines) the terminals are built in the form of a series of parallel buildings, with aprons between them. When an aircraft pushes back, it can be turned left or right, depending on the runway to be used for take-off. Unfortunately, in the bad old days, the Delta dispatcher had no clue which runway a given aircraft would be getting and so the push-back was a kind of roulette, a guessing game which could result in some aircraft having to taxi endlessly to get to the runway it could have reached in minutes if only its nose were pointing in the right direction. The airline team looking into problems discovered that this particular issue could be solved if the FAA tower and the Delta dispatcher had a direct phone link to coordinate the take-off runway. Anecdotal evidence suggests that when the proposal was put forward to the FAA, they agreed in principle but said that they did not have a budget for the phone… In the end, the airlines themselves purchased two red telephones and these were put in operation in no time at all when it was discovered that the landline between the two workplaces did actually exist. Next day, departure delays for Delta airlines dived at a rate never seen before. Although this is a story from many years ago, the message is still loud and clear:

Even the most serious operational problems may turn out to have a reason that is simple to solve. Furthermore, working closer together is primarily a working method and not something needing complicated technology.

The other important message, also from the early days, comes from Philadelphia. The airport there was already very congested and airport slots were the rule of the day. Somehow, the theoretical capacity of the airport was not being reached, with the actual number of movements consistently less than what it could have been. When the troubleshooting team looked into the matter, they found out that one of the airlines was cancelling a lot of their flights on the day of operation but they never told anyone about their plans to cancel… even when they knew already beforehand that the flight would not be operated. So, the airport ended up with a lot of “empty” slots flying around. It took a lot of time and persuasion to convince the airline in question that telling the airport about the cancellations would not hurt their business interests, competitors would not hijack their passengers and all in all, they as well as the others would benefit if there was a bit more trust between the partners.

TRUST…. Another A-CDM key-word.

The message?

There is a huge amount of important information held by the various partners but often this information is not shared for fear of competitive disadvantage and abuse. In fact, well organized sharing of information is beneficial to everyone and hurts no one. Building trust between the partners is what makes information sharing possible.

Following these humble beginnings, collaborative decision making, as a concept and practice, grew in sophistication but has always kept its basic premise: share information on a basis of trust and keep things simple. Collaborative decision making is a way of working and not some technological wizardry. Sure, modern information technology helps, but at the end of the day, A-CDM is what you and me make of it by working in the CDM spirit.

But how?

You have been to Disneyland and have stood in line to get on a ride. As you plod between the guide rails, with a long line of people before you, you fret all the time. You know that the attraction you are dying to ride on closes at 6.45p and it is now 6.30p. Am I going to make it? You hope Disney would never allow people to stand in line and then not get on the ride… but this is a hope, not actual knowledge. Of course, in the real world you will have seen the little boards, kind of milestones, which say: It is xx minutes to the entrance from here. You look at the next board and it says 30 minutes… The ride closes at 6.45 and it is now 6.30. Now you KNOW that you will not make it! Clearly, something has gone terribly wrong… May be an usher is sick and did not stop people queuing in the first place, whatever. But you still have time to shout, call for the ride not to close at the usual time… You solve the problem before it gets out of hand.

A-CDM works using a similar principle. By watching carefully how the airport operations progress, for instance aircraft turnarounds, comparing progress to the conceptual milestones established to measure the progress (it is 30 minutes from here to the entrance in Disney terms…), problems become visible much earlier and because we share all the relevant information between all the partners, timely and effective decisions can be taken to avoid the problem or at least reduce the adverse effects.

Of course an airport is not Disneyland and the stakes are higher than whether or not you get on the ride you covet. But the principle of recognizing a problem in time, when you still have options to do something about it, is the same.

We call this “improved predictability”. This is what A-CDM is all about.

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