Tim Nickel has already worked in Operations Control Centers (OCC) at various airlines. After several career steps in Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, he started as a consultant for OCC processes in the Lufthansa Group. Today he leads the Flight Operations Academy, at which Lufthansa Aviation Training (LAT) offers the training and further education of employees in OCCs. We talked to him about the role of Flight Operations Officers, LAT’s unique training features and the effects of the corona crisis.
LAT has been bundling part of its activities under the name “Flight Operations Academy” for several years. You have been responsible for this area for around two years. Tell us about it. What training courses does LAT offer there?
Nickel: When thinking of Lufthansa Aviation Training, most people in the industry combines it with the training of flight crews. It is, after all, the core business of LAT. However, at the Flight Operations Academy we train another important but less prominent area within flight operations. We train the staff on the ground. Strictly speaking, the people who work in the so-called Operations Control Centers (OCC) and who are responsible for flight operations there. These include primarily the Flight Operations Officer (FOO), but also other groups of people who work there, such as Crew Planners or Maintenance Controllers. The function names and task delineations within the OCCs can vary from airline to airline. However, whether it is “FOO”, the term “Flight Dispatcher” or “Operations Controller”, which was used more frequently in the past – these people plan and coordinate the entire network before and during the flights up to the safe arrival at the destination airport.
What exactly are the tasks of a Flight Operations Officer?
Nickel: The FOOs have a similar understanding of a flight as pilots do. With the big difference, of course, that they do not fly the plane. One can imagine the atmosphere in an OCC as in the operations center of the police or fire brigade. The FOOs prepare the flight for the cockpit crew. This includes, for example, route planning taking into account the weather and special features at airports and along the entire flight route (NOTAMS), the calculation of fuel quantities and much more. The cockpit crew receives the briefing with the flight data on this basis. Today this is usually done digitally. The pilot makes the final decision about e.g. the amount of fuel to be loaded. However, the preparation already takes place in the OCC. The FOOs also send the flight data to the central administration of the respective national Air Traffic Control Centers.
Does that mean that the OCC is primarily involved in the run-up to a flight and less during the actual rotation?
Nickel: First and foremost, that's correct. However, it is also a matter of reacting to any irregularities in the operational process during the flight. This could be a deviation from flight plans or crew assignments, for example. Let us assume that an aircraft cannot start its planned return flight to Frankfurt due to a technical malfunction in Lisbon. Do you need technical staff? How long will required checks and repairs take? What influence does this have on the new departure time and on passengers who may even transfer? Will the aircraft be needed back in Frankfurt for further rotations? Do the originally planned route & weather still fit? How long can I still use the crew in Lisbon due to the Flight Duty Time & Rest regulations? These supposedly small deviations in flight operations can have a major impact on overall operations. It is all the more important that the OCCs reschedule and react on short notice. The importance of OCCs in flight operations is often underestimated. But the staff there always has three dimensions in mind: First, of course, flight safety, then passenger convenience and cost efficiency.
Who is the target group for the courses offered by the Flight Operations Academy? Can interested individuals also register?
Nickel: Individual training is not a regular part of what we offer. However, interested persons can contact us. In such cases, we evaluate options for integrating them into a course on an unscheduled basis. In general, we carry out the training courses on behalf of airlines. That means we train the staff specifically for their OCCs. Our product portfolio is very differentiated. We also have the option of working with the customer to adapt the training content required in each case. Certainly, the most frequently booked course by the airlines is the FOO Basic Course, in which we offer initial professional training in around 22 weeks. But special further training offers and recurrent training courses, such as regular, three-day trainings for experienced FOOs from the entire Lufthansa Group or specially tailored courses lasting several weeks, such as the last one at Eurowings Discover, are increasingly being carried out.
You already mentioned the possibility of customized trainings for airlines. Is that a unique selling point for LAT? Are there any other factors that characterize the training at the Flight Operations Academy?
Nickel: Yes, our customized training offer is something special. From my point of view, however, two other aspects are very important for the quality. We attach great importance to the differentiated technical expertise of our training staff. By this, I mean that, for example, in a four-day recurrent training session, we do not just have one training leader who covers all subjects or courses. We have the right trainers for the right subject. The weather course initiates, for example a meteorologist, the ETOPS training a Captain, etc. This focus on the technical expertise of the training staff is still not a matter of course in the industry.
And the second aspect?
Nickel: Competency-based training. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recently issued a recommendation that training should no longer be purely knowledge-based, but rather competence-based. With the FOA, we were the first provider to implement this for OCC training. Competence-based training describes the intersection of “knowledge”, “skill” and “attitude”. So it is not the aim to impart knowledge theoretically and to query it using multiple-choice tests. Rather, it is about teaching the participants the right skills in order to be able to apply the knowledge in practice in different situations.
And in what form do these trainings take place? Have there been any changes here due to the effects of the corona pandemic?
Nickel: Like many others, we quickly looked for new ways to reduce face-to-face training during the Corona crisis. We did that particularly well at FOA. We were able to switch completely to a “virtual classroom” within a very short time. And in the course of the last year we have further perfected this with various didactic means.
From your perspective, did the crisis have a general impact on the FOO's job description?
Nickel: Of course, as already mentioned, the crisis has accelerated the digitization of the training and professional field. However, I expect constant change here on a more general level over the next few years. With new possibilities, such as artificial intelligence and data mining for calculating predictions, the skills to understand and control this data are becoming increasingly important. In addition, I think it is important to further open the training beyond the classic silos and thus further strengthen the staff's understanding of peripheral areas. I also see a great need for competence-based training and a cross-divisional understanding of the big picture in other areas in flight and ground operations. Here at FOA we are working on various projects to integrate this approach into our training courses. A three-day course with employees from crew planning and crew control at Brussels Airlines recently ended. Due to the large number of competence-based exercises, it was an eye-opener for many participants.
Mr. Nickel, thank you for the interview.