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How to influence delays and cancellations of flights due to lack of pilots

Airlines experience the dramatic shortage of pilots. In particular, the lack of both pilots and flight attendants is among top reasons for airlines to cancel flights all over the world. This is what we are going to talk about today with Maxim Andreev, Rosterize Co-founder & CEO.

- We've all been there, when your flight is delayed or canceled at the last minute. What do you think about it, Max? What's going on?

- The vast majority of airlines do sales planning, I mean flight planning here, separately from crew scheduling. It isn’t a big problem when you have sufficient number of pilots, while facing low passenger demand and the lack of available aircrafts. However, it’s no longer the case and the crew shortage is a global problem now. So if you are not proactive and fail to plan crews correctly in advance, you don’t have much of a choice: either cancel and delay flights or commit a breach here and there. 

- Max, hold on. What do you mean by saying "not proactive and fail to plan"? The industry has been around for years and airline crew planning with it. Does it mean it has always been like this?

- Yes, that's how things have been from the start. In fact, uncertainty is the only certainty that the industry knows today. There is intelligence showing that flight schedules now change more often than ever before. All good old methods that used to provide some sort of quality all that time are no longer viable. Airlines have changed flight routes and, in many cases, distribution by aircraft type as well. Let me remind you how it was. Roughly, 3 or 3.5 crews for 100 flight hours were required and taken as a standard. This index was adjusted a little. 

As a customer made a witty remark: "we use compass and moss to navigate." The point was that nothing really changed over years, minor index adjustments, and that's that. But Covid-19 and what happened after were a game changer, making old methods irrelevant and widening the margin of error.

-  And the reason, as you said, is the frequently changing schedule? If so, how to handle this? If you had 100 flights scheduled, and then next week you realize you have 150 flights, there's nothing you can do about it.

- I'd like to split my answer into two points. First, last minute changes are off the charts and the situation is unprecedented, because airlines have to cater to the actual demand. On top of that, the structure has changed and it keeps changing. Second, how to handle this?

Well, if you are understaffed, there are basically two options. I don't want to say that you have to break the law, more like compromise your conscience and put the crew into more extreme work conditions than you normally would. Another option is to revise your schedule, of course.

We often face a situation, when full-time pilots can't fill in, so you have to find instructors or freelancers to cover a flight. Our system enriches any existing airline crew management system and provides what-if scenario planning.

Turns out that if the crew rostering was done differently yesterday, the following day flights could do without calling for extra resources. And the interesting thing is that yesterday that following day schedule was already known. Remaking the schedule every time anything comes up is way too much, especially without any automation.

- Max, let's take a step back here. It seems that you're rushing to a week horizon. But a week is not enough to get everything ready: hire people, train flight attendants and other staff members. The problem seems to be of more strategic nature. If you're talking about staff shortages, I think it's not a good idea to look into that a week before. And rearranging crew rostering one week before the gig is not of much use. 

- Aviation here is the same as logistics – 80% of the excess costs are in the long-term horizon. It's true. If statistical methods don't – and they don't –  work in new realities, it’s time to generate a crew rostering schedule and see how many crews you need.

- So you're saying that manipulating the index is not an option anymore? Like make it 4 instead of 3.5.

- You can make it 5 or 6 and see that you don't have that many crews. To get a second opinion, ideally, you need to take an August schedule generated by your commercial service in May or even better in February and put it into crew rostering software  to do the job based on real people and see what happens. I mean how many people you will really need, with what permits, with what qualifications, etc. You will be surprised.

- Let’s try to sum it up. Rosterize system, obviously, helps. Can you share any business case? Give an example of who can use Rosterize and how.

- Let's compare horizons.  Planning for the next season means that you need to make an inventory of crews you have and compare it with the number of crews you need to implement the plan. The bigger the gap, the more concerned you should be, because this is the perfect time to do something about it.

Planning for the next month means that you take the number of available crews and try to figure out whether you can implement the current schedule or not and how much it will cost you. There also can be some gaps identified (like a dramatic staff shortage), but again, it's not too late to make small adjustments to the schedule. Alternatively, a company can simply contract another airline if unable to close those gaps with its own resources.

A week planning leaves very little room for maneuver, so we just do our best to advise how to do what you should with what you have. And if we face any gap, then we make a managerial decision on how to cope with it.  Usually, instructors or freelancers are engaged.

Rostering software helps us with decision making, as it gives information on three planning horizons. Certainly, it’s better to avoid putting your planners under overpressure. We heard that there was so much stress at one airline that its planner couldn't take it anymore and quitted.

- Losing a planner at times like this is something of a disaster for any company.

- Yeah, that was intense.