Taking Flight: The Logistics of Commercial Air Travel

Originally published on

Your plane might be up in the air, but its logistical management needs to be firmly grounded. 2.5 million domestic and international passengers fly out of the U.S alone on any given day — and keeping up with that volume of globetrotting poses a difficult logistical challenge for commercial airlines. From baggage tracking to in-flight meal planning to coordinating air traffic, airlines must keep an enormous number of moving parts in sync. Routes and schedules are typically planned months in advance, but airlines must maintain enough flexibility to adjust for inclement weather, last-minute airplane maintenance, and other unforeseen obstacles. While to passengers, any little hiccup can be frustrating, to airlines, major changes of plan are par for the course.

Getting The Plane In Place

Before airline tickets even become available to consumers, airlines must grapple with a number of variables: coordinating takeoff and landing times at busy international airports; planning for routine maintenance (which generally takes place overnight, and can only be carried out at certain airports); and scheduling a full cabin crew, members of which may be arriving at the airport from disparate connecting flights. It’s no surprise, then, that airlines typically solidify their schedules between seven and ten months prior to a flight’s departure date. With all this logistical planning in the wings, you may wonder why delays are still such a regular part of commercial airline travel. Generally, the answer comes down to some tiny hiccup that creates a domino effect. When one plane is delayed (due to a mechanical issue, inclement weather, or air traffic), this may delay its arrival at the tarmac, and in turn, the takeoff and arrival of any subsequent flight scheduled for that specific aircraft. No matter how much advance planning airlines do, they must remain agile in the face of unforeseen obstacles.

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

You might be surprised (or maybe even a little alarmed) to learn that planes frequently take off with parts broken or missing. Even so, their chance of crashing is still only one in 11 million. Why? Because airlines have nearly perfected the art of airplane upkeep. By keeping a meticulous digital maintenance logbook, mechanics are able to record and identify every mechanical problem and routine maintenance function performed on an aircraft. That doesn’t mean that a plane won’t take off with a wonky bathroom light or other minor malfunction every now and again — but it does mean that any issues that arise are attended to in order of gravity, which prevents unsafe planes from leaving the tarmac. As in many massive logistical operations, modern airlines have developed management systems that identify and prioritize issues by urgency and importance.

Delivering Baggage From Point A to Point B

Ensuring that each passenger’s corresponding baggage makes it onto the plane is just as complex a consideration as keeping the airplane’s mechanics up to snuff. Barcoded tags are attached to a passenger’s luggage upon check-in, and these are used to track the bags through the duration of the trip. This barcode can be scanned by any baggage handler, and includes its owner’s full itinerary information updated in real-time. This sophisticated system is extremely agile — allowing for delays, re-routes, layovers, and other unforeseen circumstances. Because airlines rely on both advance planning and dynamic scheduling, many opt for high-tech logistics management solutions. With real-time visibility into the complexities inherent to the industry, commercial airlines can ensure that they account for every detail — down to the last mini peanut bag.