Pilots on demand: Airline staffing strategy of the future?

Pilots on demand: Airline staffing strategy of the future?

Airline companies generally have the odds stacked against them; operating a flight on time without any untoward incidents is the result of meticulous planning and implementation, offering very little room for error. Some issues reveal themselves early enough to be solved by an astute operations control (OCC) professional, but sometimes they occur without warning. One particularly troublesome issue is having a flight full of passengers getting ready to taxi down the runway and take off into the skies, only to realize that two of the most important people onboard (the pilots) cannot – or just will not – fly the plane which they are scheduled to.

The underlying reasons could range from unavailability of sufficiently rested crew to a pilots' strike like the multiple incidents in Europe recently that made headlines. Failure to predict the problem is one thing, but simply not having the resources to fix it is another. There is probably only one scenario that is even worse – knowing that the resources exist, but not having them within grasp when you need them the most. But the good news is, solutions are materializing for these issues!


The solution deployed by Boeing to solve a recent pilot strike gives us a good hint about what the future of airline staffing may look like. Through a third party agency, Boeing supplied pilots to the affected airline company. Aircraft manufacturers often supply pilots to airline companies for operating their new models until the airline acquires sufficient skills for the same. This means it is no secret how to source the talent, but also evident that you don't need headcount on your rolls anymore, only access to their skills and time, on demand. 

By law, no pilot can fly more than 1000 hours per year, which for a typical five day workweek translates to a mere 4 hours a day. While not denying pilots any credit for the work they put in to earn a commercial flying license, we must recognize that there is significantly more efficiency to be achieved in the staffing strategy.  

Let's start local: When you are not able to drive yourself from point A to point B within your city, what do you do? You can lease a vehicle with driver by calling an Uber; or you can lease a vehicle and drive it yourself. Or, you can hire a driver for a short term to operate your vehicle, maybe through Craigslist, or Getafreelancer.com. This third model works in the airline context because of the peculiar combination of conditions – infrastructure (aircraft) is available beforehand, while the work requires very high level and specific skills (and hence comes at a high cost) your demand is limited to a specific time frame.

I know, it sounds scary at first and you can barely see through all the red tape that would hold back such an initiative. But look at the cost advantage which may be derived from such a platform. Not having such expensive resources permanently on your payroll effectively eliminates your salary bill and improves efficiency. There have been recent cases where pilot unions themselves have demanded better management of staffing. Instead, you can have qualified pilots bid for the job, on a per flight basis, and hire whoever offers you the best deal for his/her experience. You can set your own parameters for the algorithm to select the most suitable/dependable/affordable pilots; no complicated union negotiations, no expensive payouts to passengers for having their flight cancelled without warning. On the other hand, good pilots will not be stuck with bad airline brands which hamper their work, because they can easily choose not to bid on those offers. 

Most of the "disadvantages" which may seem apparent now, such as the lack of predictability in supply of pilots or the quality of whoever is available, are mere teething problems which will automatically be solved once the model is well established and familiar in the market. Eliminating the expense of operations will let the airline to focus on other elements of the customer experience, possibly driving down fares in the long run.

Many of us have been in situations where our flights got cancelled because pilots weren't available; a few particularly unfortunate ones among us faced that fate after the plane began taxiing down the runway (true story!) because that's when the pilots actually crossed the threshold and became technically unfit to fly. While it is shocking that the airline operations management software failed to spot this and alert the operations people, having a suitable platform to seek out qualified pilots for the flight would save a lot of money and embarrassment for the airline and so much more for passengers. 


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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Sunday, 20 May 2018

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