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Photo: Jonas Malmström

Aviation

Unsung heroes

Per Limrell and his Operations Control Center team may keep a low profile, but without them, the SAS network would grind to a halt within hours.

The Operations Control Center, or OCC for short, is a critical piece of the puzzle that keeps SAS running smoothly from day to day. And yet if it’s working as it should, travelers will likely never know this small team of people has had such an important role in getting them to their destinations on time.​​​​

That’s because the OCC is tasked with making sure all the pieces fit together for every flight. “Our mission here is quite straightforward,” explains Per. “We make sure that we have airworthy aircraft and the right number of properly qualified crew parked at the gate at the due time for departure. Then it’s just a matter of solving any problems along the way to ensure that happens.”

Traffic and crew controllers allocate planes and people to each flight. And each person is dedicated to one area – all flights in and out of Sweden here, all Norwegian flights there, then Copenhagen plus intercontinental. There’s also a team in charge of rebooking passengers affected by disruptions.

Meanwhile, the logistics and technical side of the OCC works around the clock troubleshooting and monitoring the entire operation to keep everyone flying. A maintenance controller and technical planner make sure all planes are airworthy, getting real-time updates on the technical status of every single aircraft in the fleet, while alongside them a technical purchaser sources spare parts to limit unnecessary downtime.

One of the most striking things about the OCC is how calm it is, considering that there are dozens of aircraft taking off or landing throughout the SAS network during any given hour. It is the definition of a well-oiled machine.

That’s not to say things don’t get difficult, however. Natural disasters, political unrest, adverse weather and industrial disputes – even a handful of inconveniently-timed technical issues – can all throw a spanner into the works of this carefully orchestrated ballet that sees crews, aircraft and passengers all getting to the right place at the right time for an on-schedule departure.

“Everything happens here. I see us as the firefighting department at SAS.”

The OCC team monitors every flight to be as proactive as possible. “We’re watching and saying, ‘okay this flight is 10 minutes late out of Heathrow, when will it land in Copenhagen? Can we make an aircraft swap to get back on schedule?’ So actually we’re working with all daily flights in some way. Naturally there are fewer now, during the pandemic, but up to 1,000 daily flights under normal circumstances,” he says. “That’s why we refer to playing chess here. We’re always looking several steps ahead.”

Per tells a story about needing to swap out an engine cowling – the very large covering for the engine – on an A330 in Newark. It’s characteristic of the logistical puzzles an airline can face, and which the OCC has to solve. They found the correct cowling, but it was in Hong Kong, halfway across the world.

“We managed to get it to Frankfurt, then it was reloaded onto a Lufthansa freighter, but the problem is, they operate to JFK, not Newark. That meant it had to go on a lorry across New York,” he explains. “Due to the size of the cowling a special truck for oversized cargo had to be arranged and a permit secured to operate over the bridges with a nighttime escort.” 

Per Limrell, Head of Operations Control Center. Photo: Jonas Malmström

This is an operation where experience counts for a lot. And the office is unique in that once people start working here, they tend to stay. “It’s a lovely atmosphere to work in. The people here, the way they deal with situations – I’m proud of them every day,” Per says.

“At the same time, the charming part of this is that there’s always something new happening,” he continues. “You chat with some of the people who’ve been working with this for close to 40 years and they still come across something new all the time.”

In the coming years, Per sees technology bringing the biggest shift to what his department does.

“We’re looking forward to a new platform where we have the crew, fleet planning, traffic planning and the operational part integrated into one system, also incorporating artificial intelligence. That will be the next major transformation and we’ve started working on this.”

The next leg on the journey

Limrell has worked in various positions at SAS but like all great journeys, the end is on the horizon. Per will retire this summer after serving SAS for an amazing 44 years.

When interviewed some time ago, he exclaimed that he wouldn’t give up his post at OCC for anything. “I won’t leave this place until they carry me out of here,” he said, laughing 

So now his highly cherished colleagues know what to do in June.

Facts about OCC

  • The OCC oversees around 1,000 flights per day during the high season (pre-corona figures).
  • SAS used to have one OCC for each base country – Denmark, Sweden and Norway. In 2013, the three were merged into one centralized OCC in Stockholm.
  • SAS keeps one long-haul aircraft and five short-haul planes on hand as backup in case any of the fleet has to be taken out of service, to minimize the chance of cancellations and excessive delays.
  • The OCC is set up to run even during extreme situations and has its own generator for power that can last up to seven days. There is even a backup OCC building at a secondary location in case the main office becomes unusable.

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