Austrian Network Planning in Times of COVID-19

How do you actually plan a network in times of COVID-19? Which criteria are necessary? And how do you choose the right destinations?

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Austrian Airlines Finally Taking off Again

After a flight stop of almost three months, Austrian Airlines restarted flight operations on 15 June 2020. In July, additional destinations will follow. Reason enough to take a closer look at this restart. How does such a restart actually work? How do you choose the right destinations? And what about the current passenger demand? In this blog post, we will clarify all of this with Robert Heusmann, Senior Director Network Planning at Austrian Airlines.

First things first: What are the main tasks of a network manager?

Main Tasks of a Network Manager at Austrian Airlines

Robert Heusmann:

Essentially, a network manager takes care of the entire planning of the network - i.e. when to fly to which destination, which aircraft to use and how often to fly to the destination.

Austrian Airlines network manager Robert Heusmann
This already sounds complicated under normal circumstances. What is the biggest difficulty with the current restart?

Difficulties of Network Planning in Times of COVID-19

Robert Heusmann:

One of the most difficult things about restarting is to recognise the right time and extent. In other words: when do we take off, where do we fly to, with which aircraft and how often. Weighing all of this up is already quite complex. But to be fair, the situation is new for all of us. But even before and during the lockdown we had some difficulties here. We always had to ask ourselves the questions: When do we shut down? How many destinations do we still fly to? What kind of restrictions do we face? But getting started again is far more complex - but also exciting.

Grounded Aircraft of Austrian Airlines
Where do you actually start planning here?

Start of Austrian Airlines Network Planning

Robert Heusmann:

At the beginning, there are a few basic premises that we have to adhere to. One point is particularly important: to connect other hubs of the Lufthansa Group in order to offer customers as many destinations as possible. Another aspect is to serve the "important" routes, i.e. the major European destinations, which have a high point-to-point demand. In this way, we make it possible for guests from Vienna and around the world to travel to and from Vienna without changing planes. Basically, this is the first step. We will then begin to revive the hub structure. In other words, we are activating our strengths, especially in Southeastern Europe, in order to reconnect the Vienna hub in a further step.

When talking about "important routes", is it based on passenger volume or yield?
Austrian Airlines Boeing 777 in the air

Key Destinations of Austrian Airlines

Robert Heusmann:

First and foremost, the travel demand is important - so primarily the number of passengers. This applies both to the major European capitals and to the German territory, where we have been strongly represented in the past. However, we should not ignore the issue of economic efficiency. So there are many factors involved.

Initially, 37 destinations were operated. Why exactly these destinations?

Selection of Austrian Airlines Destinations for Restart

Robert Heusmann:

As described, the routes with a high point-to-point demand are the ones we will operate first. In other words, destinations that show a high direct demand and where we believe we can revive the first traffic flow. For example, we expect groups of travellers who are heading for Eastern Europe to be the first ones who want to and will fly again. Particularly, the "VFR segment", i.e. "Visiting friends and relatives".

Couple at the airport wearing masks
Do you believe in this demand or are there real signs?

Market Research at Austrian Airlines

Robert Heusmann:

We have real signs. On the one hand, we are constantly sharing information with our colleagues within the Lufthansa Group, because some of them were still flying during the lockdown and therefore have a good sense of the current demand. On the other hand, we identify which flights are currently requested and we also have a strong sales department which is very sensitive and gives us feedback all along. However, the booking behaviour of our customers is still very cautious, which means that we have to focus on other indicators than just incoming bookings.

Now that bookings are possible again, is there a general interest in air travel?
View of the bay of Zakynthos

Demand of Air Travel at Austrian Airlines

Robert Heusmann:

We can definitely identify interest. For some routes there was an immediate high demand, other destinations might take a little longer. All in all, we also notice that the booking behaviour has become much more short-term. So we are talking about one to two weeks. But this is probably also due to the fact that many travel restrictions have just been lifted on 15 June or are being extended at the very last minute, which again requires further intervention. So it has become much more short-term. Nevertheless, we are glad to be back in the skies.

What about long-haul flights?

Austrian Airlines Long-Haul Flights

Robert Heusmann:

Long-haul flights will be operated as of July. Of course with an appropriate initial program and not in the strength we were used to. Traditionally, Austrian Airlines is particularly strong with regard to North Atlantic flights, which is why we will be launching these flights right from the start. However, since we are also operating within the Star Alliance Group, we will also pay more attention to the hubs of our partners - i.e. primarily Chicago, Newark and Washington. These are broadly the destinations we will be flying to in summer.

View of the Chicago River

Thank you, Robert, for the look behind the scenes of network planning in times of COVID-19. All the best to you and stay safe!

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