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Rostering – a spotlight on the crew members perspective


At Motulus we believe our crew scheduling optimization solution balances efficiency with the human impact that rosters have on crew.  After years in crew planning and software development I decided to find out what the crew think!

It’s the airline’s crew roster publication day, a monthly event where all the crew members find out their schedules for the following month.  A crew member, let’s call them Jo, is anxiously checking their phone every 5 minutes; all around Jo in the crew report centre their colleagues are doing the same.   Everyone is chatting but slightly more distantly than normal: their minds are elsewhere.  Finally the phone ‘beeps’: Jo opens the roster app quickly.  Disaster!! “A flight during the school play, working the weekend of my friends BBQ and the school run next Tuesday looks impossible.  Ok I got the Barcelona trip I bid for but that run of earlies then lates at the end of the month doesn’t look pleasant.”

Elsewhere in the airline a crew planner is meeting the publication of these rosters with a sense of release and relaxation.  It’s the end of several weeks of hard work; juggling competing priorities against a whole host of complicated rules.  The crew planner has finished this month’s rosters and now needs to move onto next month.  I was once in that role, there is enormous relief at roster publication however my colleagues and I were not blind to the impact our work had on the crew.  In fact through many years experience in meetings I held with crew or union reps, or forums or in emails I saw the challenges rosters could have on crew.

We believe our solution should balance pure efficiency with the human dimension of rostering.

Today, working for a crew scheduling software provider, I am coming at it from a different viewpoint.  At Motulus (as other providers do) we think our solution balances out the competing demands of efficiency, operational robustness and providing crew the best lifestyle they could have.  But at Motulus we believe our solution should balance pure efficiency with the human dimension of what our optimization software does.  With this hat on I decided to try to learn more, but this time not from a planner’s perspective  but directly from the crew themselves.

I met up with 5 crew, they were:

  • both pilots and cabin crew
  • worked for scheduled, charter and cargo carriers
  • based in both Europe and the Middle East
  • still flying or recently left the industry

Our conversations were focussed around:

  • what was good and bad in rosters
  • how important was publication day?
  • what was standby like?
  • how did they like to interact with crew planning teams

The importance of publication day was paramount.

The importance of publication day was paramount.  One crew member highlighted that in the majority of jobs you knew where you’d be at the end of each day (an example given was that there was a recent month they slept away from home 15 nights).  Whilst they all accepted this was part of the job the variability and uncertainty was a big challenge, particularly when childcare became an important part of their lives.  They all agreed that the stage of life they were at made their desires from a roster different but the anticipation of the publication date, and the subsequent roster they received, would have an equal impact on their mood.

They talked of the need to do a lot of re-planning as soon as rosters were published which in its own right was challenging. One said never invite a crew member to a BBQ and expect them to turn up; another that a pilot was more likely to be available later in the month for a round of golf as they would have more notice.

After a number of years they had become ‘numb’ to the process

When we talked about particularly good or bad experiences; most said they could not explicitly call any out, but in part, as one said, it was because after a number of years they had become ‘numb’ to the process.  The ‘system and process’ had become part and parcel of their lives.  Although one person mentioned a few particularly awkward national holiday periods where they seemed to work every year: they said celebrating New Year with colleagues would not always be ideal!  A few touched on the relief and happiness of getting what you want,  but all mentioned you should set expectations with a touch of realism: there was after all a flying programme to be flown.

The implications of rosters on planned events were not the only things crew were looking for in rosters though.  There would always be a check for particularly fatiguing patterns, or airfields that were more challenging.  Everyone had different views of what constituted a tiring roster or what was a undesirable airfield (for some it was ATC, for some the business, for some the conditions)  Two pilots honed in on 18-30 rest periods planned: not enough time for two sleeps but too long to be awake with one sleep, everyone agreed it wasn’t so much the earlies or lates that were the problem but the transition between the two.  They all accepted that irregular hours were part of the job and also that there was a difference between being tired and fatigued.

One thing there was a universal perspective on was standbys – they were boring, inconvenient (if short notice standbys), restrictive and created instability.  Fairness in allocation was a key theme.

Jo’s wait on publication day will hopefully be less anxious in the future!

The feedback was clear, and consistent: it made these conversations invaluable.  At  Motulus we already consider crew requests in our optimization solution and are currently developing a crew app to enable easier interaction between crew and rostering systems.  The insight from these conversations will help us further shape this .  The collective view of the teams on crew planning was clear as well as transparency and honesty (everyone was pragmatic – a hotline to crew planning is not practical).

The end result will be a crew rostering optimization that drives a focus on people as well as efficiency; with the end effect of delivering the benefits that improved crew satisfaction will bring.  We believe both are possible using the power of deep mathematics and high performance  computing.  Which means that Jo’s wait on publication day will hopefully be less anxious in the future.

If you’d like to share your experiences or learn more about our solution then please get in touch at


Steven Rushworth bio:  I have worked in the travel industry for over 20 years and a number of large airlines and tour operators in Europe.  Coming from an analytics background  I have focussed principally on crew rostering and revenue management during that.  My interests are how mathematics (specifically optimization) and good software design can help organizations with their business problems

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Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash