Effectively Plan For Irregular Ops

Over the past decade, passengers stranded on tarmacs or in terminals have caught the attention of the media, public watchdog bloggers, and politicians. These situations, called irregular operations (IROPS) events, disrupt flight schedules and passenger travel itineraries, often negatively impacting passenger service provided by the aviation industry.

In response, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) passed legislation targeted at both airports and airlines, including the DOT’s Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections rules in 2010, and the FAA Modernization and Safety Improvement Act of 2012. These efforts intend to promote mutual assistance in the aviation industry to alleviate the effects of IROPS on passengers.

To assist airports in complying with new regulations, creating newly mandated plans, and improving passenger service, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) funded and the FAA sponsored an Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) project to produce ACRP Report 65: Guidebook for Airports Irregular Operations Contingency Planning. This guidebook, released in February 2012, helps airports develop both DOT-required tarmac delay contingency plans and individual airport IROPS response plans.

One Airport At A Time

During the nearly 24 months of research leading up to the publication of Report 65, the ACRP research team concluded that airports need to focus on more than just stopgap measures to make gates available for deplaning passengers during tarmac delays. Report 65 provides tools to assist an industrywide reform, one airport at a time.

The recommendations are based on a concept first coined by Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) management in 2007. The “C3” concept, which stands for “communication, collaboration, and coordination,” challenges airports to work in conjunction with other service providers, such as reliever airports, airlines, airport tenants, ground personnel, concessions, and government agencies including the FAA, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

“C3 enables all aviation service providers to bridge the gap between going it alone with individual plans to achieving an environment of partnering for success,” says Jim Crites, executive VP of operations at DFW. “When the industry works together to distribute diversions evenly across several airports, they realize a collective success in the eyes of passengers while achieving a cost-effective solution to maintaining the balance between supply and demand.”

This C3 philosophy is the driving force behind the tools and resources found in Report 65. It shows how airports can use local IROPS committees to involve all providers to formulate collaborative contingency plans for establishing shared situational awareness. Shared situational awareness is created when information is clearly communicated between all aviation service providers as needed to help these organizations ensure passenger needs are met.

Report 65 also shows how these committees can gauge plan effectiveness, which is an airport’s ability to respond to four categories of IROPS impact situations related to passenger service. These situations include: surge (passengers and aircraft), capacity (terminal and gates), after-hours (security and concessions staffing), and extended delay.

Comprehensive Guidance

Beginning in Part 1 – Fundamentals of IROPS Planning, the guidebook’s six chapters review the necessary steps for implementing C3 to improve airport response efforts. Part 2 – Resources, provides various topics and tools that can be used to achieve collaborative plan development as well as a sample IROPS plan. Three of the sections from Part 2, including Resource A – Topics for IROPS Plan Development, Resource B – Model IROPS Contingency Plan, and Resource C – Tools, are available on the ACRP project website in a Microsoft Word format that airports can download and tailor to their own circumstances.

Both the model plan and guidebook are scalable to relate to large, medium, and small airports. They are also flexible to support airports in either improving their existing IROPS contingency plans or creating a completely new plan. To ensure its scalability and flexibility, Report 65 was tested on five airports of varying size. Lessons learned from these airports were then incorporated into the final draft of Report 65 before it was released.

The guidebook demonstrates how a local IROPS committee can be used to leverage executive buy-in from service providers who may not be on board with the recommended C3 process. Chapter One – Executive Buy-in/Get Organized describes how a cross-sectional committee provides a nonthreatening environment for starting a dialogue between various local service providers.

“We had an initial plan in place when we began looking at Report 65, but we found it easy to use the tools and model plan to form our local IROPS committee and refine our tarmac delay contingency plan by the spring [DOT] deadline,” relates Brian Thompson, operations manager at Rochester International Airport. “The guidebook demonstrated the critical role each individual plays in delay and diversion situations, and showed us how important it is to work together effectively with so many different parties.”

Airports that already have contingency plans in place are offered methods for exposing gaps in current operating procedures related to IROPS response. In Chapter Two – Document Current Situation, exercises like a self-assessment questionnaire and checklists for evaluating current plans can identify where C3 solutions can be implemented. For instance, these tools can detect where passengers, especially those with special needs, require additional accommodations both in terminals and off site at hotels during events lasting more than 24 hours.

Cost-effective solutions for airports are provided in Chapter Three – Establish Procedures to Cooperate. Airports are provided sample agreements to use with airlines, the FAA, CBP, TSA, concessions, and ground transportation for sharing resources with one another. These can include flight status communication for reliever airports so they can meet the needs of incoming passengers and aircraft. In addition, its synopsis of technology considerations is focused on ways C3 can be generated or improved upon during IROPS events at varying economic levels.

In Chapter Four – Review, Update, and Training for Plan Implementation, airport IROPS committee members are given tips on how to update plans and train personnel once their contingency plans have been developed and approved. “Table top” training, or exercises that are accomplished across the table from one another using the C3 process, enable participants to practice communicating how they would handle real-life IROPS situations, such as appropriately staffing and stocking concessions to handle extra passengers.

Methods for developing shared situational awareness are highlighted in Chapter Five – Consolidated Cooperation During an Event. In addition to tracking aircraft and weather patterns, the guidebook recommends initiating C3 protocols with concessions, ground transportation, government agencies, and reliever airports to evaluate the situation and anticipate needs. These needs can include the ability of a terminal to accommodate passengers and the number of gates available to meet aircraft delayed or diverted there.

To achieve continuous improvement, in Chapter Six – Capture Lessons Learned and Updating Plans, the local IROPS committee is tasked with ensuring C3 continues after each IROPS event occurs through a debriefing process. This focus on regular updates ensures contingency plans evolve with changing regulations, conditions, and passenger needs.

Improving Customer Service

Once Report 65 was published, the FAA not only endorsed it, but also requested that it be disseminated through regional training sessions. ACRP staff members, in conjunction with the FAA, chose hub airports across the country to host these sessions based on their proximity to congested airspace and unique climate conditions. These airports were located in areas around Washington (D.C.), Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta, Orlando, and Phoenix.

Approximately 90 percent of major U.S. hub airports attended these training sessions. This has resulted in a significant number of the busiest airports across the nation being equipped to develop IROPS contingency plans using Report 65’s C3 philosophy. By using the guidebook as a tool to develop individual IROPS contingency plans, consistent response planning may be implemented nationwide. This could potentially make it easier for everyone to collectively anticipate IROPS event protocols, and proactively initiate response measures to ultimately improve customer service for passengers.


ACRP Report 65 can be viewed by going to the TRB website at http://www.trb.org/Publications/Blurbs/166569.aspx. Hard copies can also be purchased at this site. Airports are encouraged to first read the fundamentals section and then proceed with additional topics they may find beneficial. ACRP research team members included: Aviation Innovation, LLC; Mead & Hunt Inc.; Barich Inc.; and The Greater Toronto Airports Authority.

About the Author

Rose Agnew is principal of Aviation Innovation, LLC. Agnew has more than 25 years of business and management development experience within the aviation industry. Her work includes supporting airports with developing Irregular Operations (IROPS) Response Plans in coordination with airlines and government organizations.

Stephanie Ward, AICP, is an aviation planning manager for Mead & Hunt with 20 years of planning experience for airports and aviation agencies. Her work includes traditional master planning, environmental assessments, land use compatibility plans, state system plans, and public involvement.