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From Takeoff to Time Off: Crafting a better Work-Life Balance in the Airline Industry


For the aviation industry days off and vacation time are far from simple to schedule.

The lives of airline pilots and cabin crew members are far from ordinary. Balancing their professional responsibilities with family life proves challenging due to extended periods away from home, erratic schedules, and unconventional working hours. This magnifies the importance of meticulous holiday and days-off management – a pivotal factor influencing the motivation and job satisfaction of those working in the airline industry.

Regrettably, crafting an effective days-off schedule poses as one of the most intricate puzzles for airlines. Certain periods, such as Christmas, New Year, summer, or school holidays, witness a tremendous surge in demand. This demand significantly surpasses the available slots for time off, especially since these periods often coincide with peak travel seasons in the airline industry.

Holiday and days-off management employs various techniques and models, orchestrated at distinct time intervals. It begins with holiday management, typically planned six to twelve months in advance, organizing longer holiday periods of at least a week. This process comprises several steps:

  • First, a forecast is generated for the required and available capacity during the holiday period when employees can request time off. The required capacity hinges on the forecasted flight schedule and the crew requirements for different aircraft types. The available capacity forecast draws from crew members’ availability, work schedules, historical data-based predictions on training, absenteeism, churn rates, and the airline’s human resources strategy – including expected hiring and firing. Forecasts are made for each crew role since not all roles are interchangeable. While certain interchangeability is possible (e.g. a Captain may also fly as a First Officer), it may not always be economical from the airline’s perspective.
  • Based on these forecasts, available time-off slots are defined, considering the number of employees who can take holidays during a specific period. It is advisable to retain some contingency within these slot definitions, with more accurate forecasts reducing the need for contingency.
  • During a designated period, crew members submit their bids for specific time-off slots.
  • Upon collecting all the bids, an allocation process commences. Ensuring fairness in this process is vital. Different approaches exist, including prioritizing crew members with higher seniority, those with young children, or those who have not secured their requested holidays in recent years. Additionally, priority can be determined by assigning credits to employees, which they can link to their time-off requests. The more credits associated with a request, the higher its priority.
  • The allocated holidays are then communicated and incorporated as prerequisites into the schedule.


With those holidays planned well in advance, crew members have sufficient time to adapt their personal plans to accommodate the accepted or rejected requests.

After holiday management, the focus shifts to crew scheduling, typically finalized four to six weeks in advance. During this phase, airlines may allow employees to request days off, but typically limited to two or three consecutive days (with caps placed on the number of consecutive days for which days-off requests can be made).

Crew members can make both hard and soft requests.

  • A hard time-off request garners an immediate response and, if approved, is considered a rigid constraint in crew scheduling, necessitating a 99% assurance of adherence. These are typically used for significant planned family events, such as birthdays, weddings, exhibitions, or children’s shows.
  • A soft time-off request is more of a preference or nice-to-have. The airline will aim to accommodate such requests, provided the cost, due to suboptimal planning, remains below a certain threshold. When multiple crew members make soft requests for the same day, an allocation process is required. Maintaining a relatively high acceptance rate for soft requests is crucial to prevent crew members from becoming frustrated and ceasing to use the platform for these requests. At the same time, it is beneficial to give an indication of the probability the demand will be accepted, so that the requestor can already inform his/her family and friends. This can be done by showing historical acceptance rates for similar demands and/or by showing if any colleague (potentially with better ranking has made same request as you.

Finally, once the schedule is published, modifications may be necessary, including:

  • Extra Flights: Unexpected additional flights may require volunteers, typically employees who were scheduled to be off but are willing to work.
  • Disruption Management: This involves handling disruptions to the schedule caused by unforeseen circumstances, such as crew illness, staff turnover, aircraft issues, or adverse weather conditions. It may necessitate schedule adjustments, requiring employees to fill in for originally scheduled days off.
  • Flexibility in Swapping: Crew members should have the flexibility to swap flights or days off, provided both parties agree, and the swap does not violate any operational rules (e.g. EASA rules). This flexibility enhances employee motivation without incurring extra costs.

It is intriguing how what might seem like a simple matter – holidays and days off – becomes an immensely complex yet crucial facet of airline operations.


Photo by Harshil Gudka on Unsplash