Pilots and cabin crew work in a very unique way. They also have lives to plan outside of flying. How can crew planning departments deal with this problem? And what are some of the approaches used? We discuss two approaches used and how they do not necessarily complement each other.
Pilots and cabin crew work in a very unique way. There cannot be many jobs where you work in multiple time zones in one day; even possibly finishing work before you, in theory, started it (in a different timezone!). Where one Monday morning you could be in London, another in Paris, another in the air (somewhere), and another at home!
This can make it difficult for crew to plan their lives – organizing school runs, arranging to meet friends, even watching their favorite football team. Similarly though it can also be a great opportunity to catch up with friends around the world. Airlines are very aware of this and are keen to try to put systems in place to help their crew.
Many airlines, particularly in Europe, adopt a preference or bidding system. In this approach crew can submit wishes (or preferences) for days off or flights to fly (in some airlines it can also be other attributes of a roster such as the time to check-in for a flight, or maximum length of a trip). When creating rosters for crew these requests are taken into account and where possible granted by the rostering software.
This in principle is a great idea – crew that like night stops can request them, crew that like trips to Barcelona can request them, crew that would like Tuesdays off can request them. And as long as crew aren’t all bidding for the same thing it works well (more on that later).
Quite often though there are universal elements of the rosters that are very popular (e.g. certain destinations or night stops) or unpopular (maybe standby duties). This popularity can be for a lot of different reasons; sometimes the duties are disruptive (like standbys) or tiring (like night flights) or maybe the allowances associated with a destination are very good.
To solve this airlines often adopt a ‘fairshare system’: in such a system the popular (or unpopular) ‘thing’ is shared out amongst the crew. So if there are 100 night stop duties in total and 20 crew in total, the fairshare approach tries to give each crew member as close to the average of 5 as possible. Sometimes the methodology also considers past duties, for example if a crew member had not reached the average night stops in recent months then his/her target for this month would be higher than the average of 5 (with of course the opposite for crew that had achieved more than the average in the past).
This naturally creates a conflict for the planners though. How do I give crew members what they want and share duties out at the same time? For example a crew member may say they like nightstops in Barcelona but that could dramatically increase their nightstops above the nightstops away target. Everyone wants a fairshare of the pizza but not always the toppings on their slice!
This problem then gets exacerbated by uneven bidding patterns. Everyone may bid to have Saturdays off, this obviously doesn’t work as flights need to fly on Saturdays! So how do planners satisfy this balance of satisfying requests, crewing flights and keeping the fair share distributions working. Ultimately in most airlines there are too many possible combinations of rosters to allow all these trade offs to be considered manually so many airlines use optimisation software that can help make these trade offs.
The key to managing this balancing act though is using the optimiser effectively to both get the most efficient rosters and also steer the rosters towards the company goals. Motulus.aero integrated crew scheduling optimiser allows tuning of parameters to allow planners to test the different weightings on individual preferences, fairshare and efficiency. Just as importantly though, the analytics dashboard allows planners to evaluate on a micro and macro level what impact these parameters are having on rosters produced; several scenarios can be run with different settings so the option that best fits can then be used moving forward.
The planners have a difficult job in making the trade off between fairshare and individual preferences, and ultimately what is more important is probably a more philosophical discussion we could debate (but won’t, well not yet at least!).
As it is today each airline, with different organizational cultures and priorities, will steer this balancing act. At Motulus we believe the most important thing is to give the planners the tools to drive rosters in the direction that is important for them.