Airline crew shortages: Key reasons and the solution - Part 1

Airline crew shortages: Key reasons and the solution - Part 1

When passengers complain to airline staff about delays to their flight, they don't realize the irony of the situation. A crew member in full uniform, who is seemingly on active duty and apparently ready to fly, in some cases is not getting paid for their time until the doors close and the aircraft taxis out from the gate. For many crew their effective paid duty period ends once the flight is parked at the gate at the destination airport and the doors are open for the passengers to disembark.

Sometimes an airline crew is part of the reason for delay/cancellation of a flight – such as when they are either unable to fly (have exceeded their legal hours on duty), or are simply unavailable (a late inbound aircraft has aboard the required crew for the outbound flight). Airlines schedule standby crews for such situations, in order to mitigate the affect on their network but that depends on them planning for this coverage. 

Where were the crew?

This is the common or garden variety resource crunch, where an airline faces a shortage because either assigned staff failed to turn up for duty (e.g. traffic jams, delayed commuter flights, sickness), or those who did were now simply no longer available for duty (typically "out of hours" due to unplanned roster changes) – despite being planned, assigned and informed by the airline in their original rosters. Often in a case like this the "plan" has usually failed because the airline lacked the right kind of technology to schedule better standby coverage by calculating the probability of such an incident happening.To help an airline achieve this the system must hold sufficient historic data and use parameters to describe the current scenario, as well as sufficient crew on the airline strength to provide an optimum staff level; this is difficult for small airline companies where the redundant staff ratio can entail a significant cost overhead. 

What integration? 

 This has pretty much the same impact as a natural lack of resources, but it is more directly attributable to the airline's operations control centre and resource planning divisions because the problem could have been mitigated by better disruption handling and execution. This is more common than you may think, especially in airlines that still rely on mainframe IT and spreadsheet programs or a multitude of systems that work in silos with non-existent integration and lack any sort of proactive alerting.

Recognizing a problem, identifying a solution, soft-testing the solution for the desired result, communicating the solution to all stakeholders, confirming completion of assigned duties or ground events tasks by each of the crew schedulers those stakeholders and overall OCC management are often handled by different elements of the airline operations management system. It isn't unusual to see these systems failing to communicate with each other in a timely manner, or having a huge reliance on human intervention to solve these problems. This lack of integration exposes the entire chain to an increased risk of human error, as well as a heterogeneous human memory of past experiences to drive decision making. Interestingly, airlines who rely on mainframe and poorly integrated systems have more people in an OCC than digital airlines. Every additional human being is an additional source of errors.

The management of the crew during a disruption can be addressed, from a technology perspective, with an intelligently designed technology platform which has a good level of integration across all the various elements. This will break down the silos and allow different parts of the operation to share data and messages with each other, allowing the overall system to be a tremendous enabler for the human staff. Human intervention is still key to some decision making, but this can be done with the support of extensive and relevant information, as well as the assurance that all other distractions – such as routine tasks which lend themselves to total automation - will be safely taken care of by the system.  

The Case for Intelligent "Triage"

Triage in medical terms is the prioritization of injuries/illnesses for treatment, which becomes necessary when the system (hospital + staff) is faced with a large number of cases arriving at the same time; typically in an A&E department.The basis of the method is a preliminary appraisal of all cases upon arrival, resulting in a grading, so that the most urgent cases are treated before the less critical ones.

In the context of an airline and its crew management issues, there are some problems which are more important than others – both in terms of costs involved, as well as the long term impact they could have on the airline's overall services. Sometimes an airline has to consciously take the choice to cancel one flight, diverting the resources – either people or equipment, to ensure that other flights are able to proceed without disruption; this method can be used to solve problems arising from both of the above types of crew shortages.

However, there is a certain amount of risk involved in this manoeuvre because the airline is essentially taking a hit on one flight (or more) in especially in terms of revenue, penalties and passenger goodwill to ensure other flights continue. Therefore it is of critical importance to choose which flights are "expendable" in relation to others so as to mitigate the losses stemming from the disruption. Decisions of this complexity are difficult for operations staff to make without the support of an intelligent system. It is virtually impossible for ops staff to be aware of the current passenger and cargo commitment of each flight, what their connection patterns are, what the total impact will be and what exactly the indirect effects will be, without a comprehensive reporting structure from the operations management platform. The only thing possible in such a scenario is a series of guesses, based on an individual's assessment of the present and memories of the past. Each decision in the series acts as an input for the next one, thereby amplifying the effects of each assumption made; airlines just cannot afford to make mistakes here.  

The evolving dynamics of factors that contribute towards effective management of disruption and recovery is evidence enough that the solution lies in empowering and assisting users with timely information and intelligent tools, rather than providing a press-of-the-button universal solution.

​In the next part of this blog series I shall cover the major features one should look for in the ideal platform to solve this problem, as well as the key insights you would need to envision such a solution for your airline.


Daniel Stecher is Vice President of Airline Operations at IBS, and has more than 20 years of experience in the aviation and logistics industries. Prior to joining the IBS family, he was product manager and consultant for the schedule management, operations control and crew management product at Lufthansa Systems. Daniel is perpetually on the move, having raked up literally over a million miles of business travel in his career. He enjoys delicious home cooked food, reading books and the odd round of golf in his spare time.

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Comments 1

Guest - Victor Alegre on Saturday, 22 September 2018 07:48
Sure it pays for!

Thank you Daniel!
Disruptions as you write may be handeled gaining Loyal Passengers for the airline or lossing them for the future, Lossing the least money for the airline or creating the biggest chaos on its operation: When we talk about airlines that have more than 100 aircrafts, + 5.000 employees as Crew, for example IAG Group more than 1.000 destinations with more than 2.000 alternate aerodromes for flight disruptions...It really pays off to have he best platform to handle. Kind regards

Thank you Daniel! Disruptions as you write may be handeled gaining Loyal Passengers for the airline or lossing them for the future, Lossing the least money for the airline or creating the biggest chaos on its operation: When we talk about airlines that have more than 100 aircrafts, + 5.000 employees as Crew, for example IAG Group more than 1.000 destinations with more than 2.000 alternate aerodromes for flight disruptions...It really pays off to have he best platform to handle. Kind regards
Guest
Tuesday, 16 October 2018

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