Contextual Inquiry of a Major US Airline Systems Operation Center

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Feigh, Karen M.
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A contextual inquiry was conducted at the airline’s Systems Operations Control (SOC) from the 13-15th of November 2006. A total of 26 hours of direct observation were conducted with various members of the SOC Staff including several of the Operations Coordinators, the ATC Coordinators, and the Operations Manager. During the inquiry a wide variety of situations occurred: unscheduled maintenance delays, estimated ready time slips, multiple hub ground delay programs, severely reduced arrival rates due to cross-directional winds, ground delay program revisions, and diversions of international flights. The vast majority of these situations were handled as if they were no different from routine operations; however, there were moments when the key SOC personnel were fully involved in the situation and the normal coordination and collaboration between the ATCCs, OCs, MOC and crew coordinators reverted to top down command and control. Thus the workload is not evenly distributed across all SOC personnel because of the geographic distribution of responsibilities. In addition to these observations this inquiry identified three issues with specific design implications, all centered around the OC’s work practices: overly involved coordination sessions with MOC, lack of control of printer output, and the use of schedule printouts as a primary source of solution information. All three of these issues lead to inefficiencies in the SOC operation, despite which, however, the SOC in general and the OCs in particular are able to remain effective. This report suggests that the OCs could become more efficient by shedding some of their printer maintenance tasks, extended MOC coordination sessions, and more effectively using software tools. In order to achieve this high level of effectiveness the SOC personnel actively adapt their roles and the balance of power depending on the level of operational disruption. With the addition of an MOC representative in the SOC or the availability of key maintenancerelated scheduling data, increased effectiveness may also be achievable under conditions of limited disruption. Changing the flow of messages from the printer to an on-screen system will help minimize the ‘busy’ work associated with maintaining the printer and keeping up with the printouts. Introducing new hardware and software tools to aid with the schedule sorting and filtering may also provide increased efficiency, especially for the more junior OCs.
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