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Sun 2 May 2004 04:00 AM

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Work plans

Crew-scheduling applications are vital to airlines assigning 1000s staff across a global network.

|~|CA-Magnus Wennerholm.jpg|~|Magnus Wennerholm, senior vice president, airline solutions, Carmen Systems|~|The rapid expansion of airlines in the Middle East creates pressure on planning staff to ensure that the carrier has the right number of staff to man all of the flights. This is where crew-scheduling systems play a role, as their use of advanced mathematical modelling allows planners to quickly calculate how many staff an airline needs both now and in the future, and how to best use them. Furthermore, the systems also help airlines respond to delays and staff absence on the day of operations, so that there is the least amount of impact on service levels.

A well-deployed crew-scheduling system can produce a staff timetable that is efficient, stable and staff-friendly. The efficiency and cost-saving gains are garnered by calculating the right number of staff that an airline needs and then deploying them in the optimal way. “What you can do with the systems is cover the same production with the same quality with less crew, or you can use the crew that you have to cover more production, which is usually what happens,” explains Magnus Wennerholm, senior vice president, airline solutions, Carmen Systems.

“Typically, when we bring our products to an airline, there is a productivity increase in the range of 5-10% compared to what they had before, which accounts for quite a bit of money,” he adds.

These systems have traditionally only been deployed by larger carriers, where the sheer complexity of operations means that crew planning has to be automated. However, they are now beginning to be implemented by smaller carriers as well, as they seek to use crew more efficiently in order to cut costs. “Before it was mainly the really big [carriers] that wanted it because they couldn’t make a solution work manually; so they need computers and mathematics just to put the jigsaw together. But with the competition increasing, the needs and the requests for this kind of solution are also much more widespread now in smaller airlines,” says Wennerholm.

Such a system benefits an airline, as they no longer need to hire more personnel than they need. Training periods for crewmembers can also be more effectively scheduled, so that they can be ready to support new aircraft types entering the fleet in the most cost effective manner. “What you need to do in order to minimise the cost is do just-in time training,” says Srinivas Kothakota, director, crew management products, Sabre Airline Solutions.

“A crewmember needs to be current on his qualifications, and if a certain timeframe occurs before he operates the aircraft, he has to go through recurrent training. Therefore, in order to minimise that training cost these crewmembers need to be trained just in time, so that they keep their qualifications current,” he explains.

Aside from these direct staff-related cost savings, airlines can also save money by generating shift patterns that keep staff at their home base more frequently, which cuts down on overseas hotel bills, and also patterns that limit the number of times crewmembers need to fly commercially as passengers with other airlines in order to be in the right place to work a flight. “[The systems] can recommend how to use the crew that you have in an optimal manner and thereby reduce hotel allowances, overtime pay, transportation costs and meal costs,” says Vinay Dube, vice president, EMEA, Sabre Airline Solutions.||**|||~|dubay.jpg|~|Vinay Dube, vice president, EMEA, Sabre Airline Solutions|~|In calculating these shift patterns, or pairings, the system not only needs to take into account the most efficient use of staff, but also staffing regulations, such as the maximum number of work hours. The pairings also need to strike a balance between efficiency and safety, in terms of factoring in possible delays. This is important as while having all staff work exactly eight hours, for instance, would be the most cost effective solution, it doesn’t allow for delays. As such, if a crewmember is meant to get off one flight and then board a second one, which is departing a few minutes later, then any delay to the first flight will have repercussions for the second one as well. “If you tighten [the pairing] up too much, then with even the slightest delay, the whole thing falls apart. You then have to get more crew on and it’s actually much [more difficult],” says Simon Elder, principle consultant, Avient Solutions.

It is therefore preferable to have a more flexible timetable, which takes into account the possibility of delays, even if that means that staff work less than they could do. “If you have a few delays you can still maintain the original planned pairings,” says Elder.

At the same time, however, the system can also ensure that the gaps between the flights crewmembers are scheduled to work aren’t too long or else personnel would be waiting around too long. “The systems improve the quality aspect for crew,” says Wennerholm. “They don’t have a very early morning flight and then have to sit somewhere waiting to catch a very late flight,” he explains.

Once the pairings are drawn up, the system moves into the crew rostering stage, where the anonymous pairings, which can be up to 10 days long, are assigned to specific staff. This rostering is done seperately, after the pairings, as it introduces a host of new complications, such as crew requests, training needs and holiday periods, which would overwhelm the system if they were handled at the same time as the pairings.

“Most airlines plan their vacations, for instance, 15-18 months in advance, and when you are planning vacations, you need to make sure you have the right number of crew with the right qualifications at any given point of time for each day, month and throughout the year,” notes Kothakota.

In terms of requests, many airlines also operate ‘fair share’ schemes, which means that staff are able to request specific destinations or flights they want to work or not work. This then helps the airline keep staff happy, as crew get to work on a variety of different routings, but it adds further complications, as the system needs to know what routes staff have worked over the last few months. Similarly, the system also needs to be able to access the HR records of cockpit staff, so that it can ensure that pilots are given flights on the right variety of aircraft, with the right frequencies, to maintain their ratings. “Part of the training is the flights people have done and their recency for flying,” notes Elder.

On the day of operations itself, the crew-tracking system, which monitors staff movements in real time, does not need to do anything if everything goes according to plan. However, the chances are that there will be problems, such as a delayed flight or a crewmember ringing in sick, which will force alterations to the schedule. “You are not having to do anything [on the day] with the system, unless there is a problem and then it tells you,” says Elder.

The response to a problem largely depends on where it happens and how much impact it will have on the scheduling. For instance, if the flight is going to be delayed by 45 minutes then it is probable that the same crew can operate it, provided that some flexibility was built into the crew pairings. If the problem is going to cause a crew to go over its legal flying hours, however, then the system will highlight this and another crew needs to be found.

If the problem is at the airline’s home base, then a standby crew can be easily summed; however if the problem is at an outstation then another crew may need to be flown there as passengers on a commercial service in order to operate the flight. However, this information needs to be quickly passed around to all of the staff members affected. “The information needs to be readily available and a constant stream of data needs to be available [to the planning department],” says Kothakota.||**|||~||~||~|Implementing a crew-scheduling system therefore requires a combination of technical integration and business process change. The pure integration side is the more straightforward, as the use of tools such as XML now makes it relatively easy to connect the crew-scheduling application to other back end tools, like payroll and the HR system. However, before this integration can take place, there needs to be a clear map of how information flows around the airline and where these legacy systems connect, which is not always clear.

“It’s more than just a question of how the interfaces work,” says Elder. “Usually, at most airlines, they are at the stage where there are a lot of systems that don’t talk to each other very well; they’ve grown up in a very ad hoc manner… [As such,] there are a lot of decisions you have to make about what is the logical flow of that information and who should have control of that information,” he explains.

Furthermore, the system also needs to know and be programmed to handle the different staffing rules enforced at the airline. This can be a mix of legal requirements, union rules and contract agreements, which may vary between different staff — even for those doing the same jobs. “A captain may have a different contract to a first officer, or within the flight attendants there are maybe two or three different contracts,” notes Kothakota.

Standardised statutory rules simplify this to an extent, especially when using a hosted system, such as Sabre’s, as all airlines operating under FAA or JAA rules, for instance, will follow the same staffing regulations. “For something like that, it’s just a straight slap in the system, as we have all of the relevant information related to this standard,” says Dubay.

However, for larger airlines operating in different legal environments and with staff working on different contracts, the complications can quickly mount, which impacts on the implementation time. “Typically, at the smaller size airlines, the number of interfaces [with different systems] is less, and the complexity of their operations is not as great as a larger sized airline,” notes Kothakota. “But, it can take anything between three months and 24 months [to implement a system], although I am talking about extremes,” he adds.

The implementation of an advanced crew-scheduling application also causes working practice changes for both the crew planning staff and the crew themselves. For the planners, the systems automate much of their role, which means that instead of planning schedules they need to focus on selecting the right schedule.

“Before the work was more focused on establishing a plan, but with the new solution you can create plans very quickly and you can create many of them, so it’s more a matter of analysing different alternatives,” says Wennerholm.

Modern systems also change how crew interact with staff planners, as they need to log on via the internet to see their schedules and send in requests rather than using the phone. “Getting that change of attitude from the crew, to actually use those systems rather than ringing up can be a challenge,” admits Elder.

Moving ahead, the industry is beginning to try and develop systems that combine the crew pairing and crew rostering, as well as aircraft movements, into one big system. At present, these systems are closely linked, but separate, and combining them into one may produce even greater efficiencies and quicker results. “Traditionally, the airlines have solved [crew planning] in a very segmented way. They do something in one step and then they pass it to someone else who does the next step. Of course, there is a big risk of sub-optimising when you do that,” says Wennerholm. “The challenge is that the computers and the mathematics need to get even better before you can do the whole thing in one shot, but that is definitely a long-term ambition,” he adds.

However, Elder believes that this may merely introduce further complication for only limited benefits. Instead, he maps out a vision of different but closely linked systems that are hidden behind one unified window. This will then allow each system to handle only the data it really needs, such as specific aeroplane or staff information, but still allow staff to access unified reports. “The best thing is to have specialised systems for the different areas, but which have communication between them and which share data,” he contests. “It doesn’t have to be the same system, provided to the user it looks like the same system.”||**||

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