4 Tips to Improve Your Crew Scheduling

The Context

You’re a crew scheduling manager.  It’s the middle of the month, and you’re starting to prepare the crew schedules for the following month.

Your pilots and crew have already submitted their preferred days off.  Maintenance has sent you the list of tails that require maintenance, and the time frames for each.  You now face the always-daunting challenge of making everything work.

To make things interesting, you’ve added a couple planes in the last couple months, but haven’t filled all the new crew positions.  You’re under pressure from your business manager to make the current staffing plan work long-term, and to keep staffing costs down, but Flight Planning wants more crews to give them more flexibility to sell trips; the constant battle between keeping costs down, and maintaining flexibility, goes on.

Theory

As a crew scheduling manager, you face a barrage of conflicting challenges: first, you must find a schedule that works legally, taking into account flight duty periods, rest periods, qualifications, required maintenance, and fatigue risk management.

Next, you must try to build a schedule that satisfies the business requirements; crew costs often make up a large portion of the overall business expenses for an operator.  That means you must minimize the number of crew while keeping utilization high, minimize indirect costs like hotels, transport and repositioning, and attempt to match training or off-days with maintenance and other events.

On top of this, attracting and keeping pilots in a highly competitive market means you need to try and offer some quality-of-life benefits to keep pilots and crew satisfied.  This often means minimizing their time on the road, offering a fixed number of days off per month, and trying to meet requested days off.

The sheer number of factors that need to be taken into account means that generating a schedule for even a small number of crew is extremely tough.  When fleets start to grow, and crew members start to number in the tens and hundreds, the problem becomes nearly impossible.

Combine this with the fact that most operators are using operations software that isn’t built to integrate with solutions that can automate some of the work, and the crew scheduling problem becomes one that occupies teams of schedulers for hundreds of hours.  Usually they spend their remaining time figuring out how to recover from the inevitable changes that get made to the schedule once published.

Ideally

In an ideal world, all your crew members would be identical; they would have the same qualifications, salaries, required rest, home location, etc.  

Your planes would also fly only one round-trip route, and it would be on a fixed schedule that always had the plane returning daily.

This would make the scheduling problem infinitely easier - crew could simply be rotated throughout the month, on a schedule that met all legal requirements for duty time, they could be home every night, and you could optimize the balance between how many hours they fly per month and their overall satisfaction.

Not only that, but your schedule could be the same each month, meaning that you could spend the majority of your time examining what-if scenarios to help grow and improve your business, rather than reacting to situations where the end goal is simply to make something work.

While this ideal scenario is never going to be reality, it’s a useful example to work from in examining some of the common mistakes that are typically made in crew scheduling, and how we can begin to think about more complex scenarios to move closer towards our optimal scenario.

In Practice

In practice, aircraft fleets aren’t often uniform; they don’t usually fly one route, and in the case of business aviation, there is often no fixed schedule - it’s lucky if flights are scheduled a couple weeks in advance.

That means compromises must be made to make schedules that work.  Here are some of the most common:

1. Overusing crew that are more flexible.

In our ideal scenario, all crew had the same qualifications, so they were interchangeable.  In more complex scenarios, there often still exists more flexible crew - they have more qualifications, they’re more senior, or they’re qualified on plane types which are more common.  Whatever the reason, typically their flexibility will lead them to be overused, leading them to be unsatisfied, to leave, or in some cases, to reach their maximum flights hours for a given time period, leaving you stuck without being able to use them.

2. Unconsciously favoring those who give feedback (usually negative).

Every month, there are always flights that some people want to fly, and some that people don’t.  Maybe it’s because of the length, or the layover location, or the number of nights they will have to spend away from home, but some just suck.  They might be the same types of flights for every person (Vegas, anyone?), but they always exist.

As a scheduler, and as a person, you always want to please, so when crew complain about certain assignments one month, it’s common to develop unconscious (or conscious) biases when scheduling.  Know that person really hates that route, and will complain endlessly about it?  Probably not going to assign it to them.  Know that person never complains, no matter what?  Easy to give them the one no one wants.  Over time, this leads to consistent scheduling biases.

In Practice: Generally

On a more general level, the amount of time and effort required to produce a schedule and then react to disruptions and changes throughout the month means that many ideal characteristics of the job aren’t addressed.  

Most of the things that get put on the back burner are proactive items.  Some of these include:

  • Looking at past schedules to identify months that required many, or few, changes to the original schedule, and the reasons for each.
  • Debriefing or getting feedback from all crew members on their satisfaction with the previous month’s schedule.
  • Examining systematic utilization of various crew members to determine who is being over- or under-utilized.
  • Running what-if scenarios to examine things like varying the number of hard days off, financial impact of layovers, increasing or decreasing crew with various qualification types, different maintenance or training schedules, working with the operations team to look at adding aircraft, etc.

How to Improve

With the above in mind, here are some things you can do as a crew scheduling team to work towards improving your scheduling:

1. Keep track of all schedule changes you make throughout the scheduling period.

If you schedule monthly, you should try and track all the changes you make to the schedule throughout that period, and the reason behind them.  This can be a simple spreadsheet, marking the schedule number, changes made, and the reasons, or you can save all the schedules you publish through the month and run a process at the end of each month to examine the changes.  We recommend tracking the changes as you go, as it eases the workload and will help track things while they’re fresh.

This process yields several benefits.  As a crew scheduling manager, you can track the habits of individual schedulers, and help keep the whole scheduling team on track in terms of the reasons changes are made to the schedule, and the type of solutions employed.

The second benefit is that by gathering this information, after just a few months, you should be able to identify some patterns that will help you schedule future months more efficiently.  Long-term, you should be able to identify patterns that repeat annually, giving you further insight.

The final benefit of this process is that if you ever bring in outside consultants to help you with the scheduling process, it will be much, much easier to get them up to speed, and they will often be able to spot further patterns.

2. Formalize the non-standard rules applied to crew members generally.

In general, whether it has been formally recorded or not, there will be a general plan for crew scheduling that is applied to the whole problem on non-standard rules (standard rules in this context are legal requirements such as duty time, rest periods, etc.).

Ideally, you should sit down with your scheduling team and record all these rules, and then arrange them in a hierarchy.  One example of this would be hard days off - how are those granted?  Do you take into account when the tail assigned to that crew is down for maintenance?  Do you take into account flights that are booked already? What other factors are considered?  Which are more important?

If there are different hierarchies for different scenarios, record those separately if possible.  

This process will not only make it much easier to get started with some automated optimization in the future, but will make sure the scheduling team is on the same page, and will give you a base from which to tweak rules and priorities in the future.

3. Formalize the non-standard rules applied to crew members individually.

This one is going to be difficult, as often the rules applied to particular crew members aren’t ones you’d like to write down, but it’s an important step.  It’s difficult to admit that you made a schedule choice because you didn’t want to get complaints from a pilot, but it’s important to note.

The best way to track this is probably to keep a document or spreadsheet for each crew member, in which you enter all the scheduling changes you made that affected that crew member, and mark any changes they requested, complaints they had, etc.

This should also include information you often take for granted, like the fact that they live 2 hours from base and need that time whenever they’re called up.

This process will again have multiple benefits - increasing transparency among your scheduling team, and aligning the team on scheduling priorities.  This will also be extremely important when moving towards automated solutions.

4. Track feedback from crew members on a consistent basis.

You should be seeking feedback from crew members regularly, mostly around crew satisfaction, with a couple goals in mind.

First, most airlines need to consider crew satisfaction if they want to be successful.  Crew are in high demand, and there is also a large cost associated with high turnover.  Businesses with high employee satisfaction have been shown to be more productive, and the list goes on.  

Tracking crew satisfaction with something like NPS will allow you to numerically quantify the ongoing satisfaction of your workers, and improve on it.  Often, simply showing that you value and consider their feedback will improve the morale of crew.

Further, gathering qualitative feedback on the reasons why they were or weren’t satisfied will give you data to go back and compare with the individual rules you apply to crew members, or even perhaps crew as a whole, and make changes to improve the overall satisfaction.

Conclusion

Hopefully the above has shed some light on some things you can start doing in working towards improving your scheduling process.

It’s very important to note that while the above suggestions may seem useless and tedious for some time, they are an investment.  You’ll need a minimum amount of data before you can identify patterns, but it’s worthwhile.  

Once you’ve gathered enough data, you can start to bring in some optimization and automation tools that will make your life much, much easier.  The ideal scenario we talked about earlier - one where you spend most of your days looking for creative solutions to proactively improve the business, rather than panicked and reacting - will be in reach.