What Overambitious Airline Planning Has To Do With Crew Shortages And What Can Be Done To Make Things Better
The real reasons behind crew shortages we have been seeing over the last few months run much deeper than those associated with the pandemic. In what follows, we will focus on a fundamentally important but commonly misunderstood root cause of crewing problems: the disconnect between strategy and operations.
Indeed, much has been written and said about this disconnect, but rarely — if ever — about how it is experienced by crew members.
The following real-life story will get you closer to understanding the causes of this disconnect from a crewing perspective, as well as its consequences on the business and its core values.
Following the strategic decision to expand to new destinations and outnumber competitors, the airline operating an extensive international network with 9 aircraft types and versions and multiple crew bases started to experience a number of hard-to-explain operational issues. Crewing rapidly became the most frequently reported reason for flight disruptions. At the height of peak season, operational disruptions reached a critical level. Flight cancellations, long delays and numerous passenger complaints attracted lots of media attention.
Despite the best efforts of people on the operational side, there were no signs of improvement. From the overall planning perspective, what was happening made little sense — the average number of crew members per aircraft was consistently higher compared to main competitors. The director of Crew Planning was asked for a detailed explanation. Knowing that people involved in crew planning and rostering were experienced professionals doing their best to cope with the influx of schedule changes, he initiated a review aimed at identifying the true reasons behind these problems.
The analysis revealed a chaotic state in the Crewing Department where staff were barely able to cope with the volume of operational changes they faced. The following are some of the findings based on this analysis:
People in the Operations Control Centre, and in particular crewing, were struggling to cope with constant schedule changes. Routes added to already highly utilised aircraft increased the pressure. This appeared to be both the cause and also the consequence of numerous other problems, especially those associated with unscheduled aircraft maintenance and ground operations in the hands of outsourced service providers. The impact on passengers raised the highest concerns.
Here are a few facts to give a sense of the true scale of the problem:
· Flying times of flight deck crew were well below legal maximums (53% of maximum utilisation)
· Crew duty times were closer to legal maximums than flying times (70 % of maximum utilisation for flight deck crew and 61% for cabin crew)
· 60% of duty times for flight deck crew and slightly less for cabin crew were spent on the ground
· Out-of-base activities on long-haul routes were mostly related to crew days off (55% of total out-of-base activities), and standby duties (35% of total), with 67% of these activities located at two airports on long haul routes
· Deadhead and positioning activities increased dramatically, resulting in high cost of air and ground crew transfer and hotel accommodation.
As a consequence, crew shortages caused delays on 42 flights within one month. Average flight delay times reached 5 hours, the longest being 20 hours. On several busiest routes, fewer than 30% of flights operated on time.
Further insights revealed that delays and cancellations reported as caused by crew were often a consequence of unscheduled aircraft maintenance — mostly due to insufficient stocks of spare parts (following cost cutting measures), shortened schedule buffers and frequent technology glitches.
It became obvious that the nature of the problem stretched outside of the crew planning department. One of the pilots commented on the findings:
“If you don’t have enough crew members to cover for disruptions, flights and passengers are going to be disrupted. To make this even clearer: aircrew do not cause disruptions. Management needs to take responsibility. It looks like we are being punished for mistakes made at the top. They’d better come and see what’s happening here.”
In search for a solution, attempts were made to engage other areas of the business — discouraging outcomes. People in the Scheduling Department were too busy with numerous other issues and tried to avoid ‘unnecessary’ work. Similarly preoccupied with their own problems, people from Network Planning were reluctant to get involved in ‘crewing problems’ (not in their job description), while airline strategists were focused on ensuring further expansion without getting bogged down in ‘operational details’.
Among the biggest concerns was that no one in the entire organisation was responsible for listening, learning, understanding, and mobilising collective action toward alleviating cross-functional problems of this nature. There was no one to answer questions on the impact of these issues on costs, service quality, passenger experience, and ultimately profit — even as they grew out of control.
Involving senior leadership proved not to be an option. They were too busy getting balance sheets in order and waiting to see what other airlines would do. There was no one to call for action to ease the pressure so obviously caused by overplanning.
As a result, problems continued to accumulate. Operational performance deteriorated further, so much so that the executives finally decided to take things more seriously. Even then, none of the senior executives were directly involved in coordinating action to tackle systemic issues misclassified as purely operational problems. Collective approach to resolving issues of a systemic nature was not part of management practice within the company.
Sensing that the airline is facing another year of unexpectedly high costs, the board decided to soothe the financial pain through another wave of pay cuts and layoffs. This was justified by the fact that crew expenses in financial reports were among the highest operating costs — on roughly equal footing with fuel. This failed to take into account that problems resulting from pilot shortages can themselves lead to significant financial losses.
What was not taken seriously enough was that some of the most experienced pilots and cabin crew had already left the company, with many more set to follow. This was mainly because of an organisational culture that impacted their professional and private lives adversely and deeply.
This story probably reads like it may have unfolded in recent months. However, it took place 20 years ago. Sadly, the basic premise has remained unchanged.
The story is about the ignorance of cross-functional dependencies, about how much they contribute to loss-making strategies, creating a culture of disconnect and discontent where common purpose and core values are palpably absent. Where experts don’t have a voice, hence ability to resolve cross-functional issues as they arise. Where relatively simple techniques and practices that support effective cross-functional collaboration are not a consideration.
This story is meant to inspire action, to help airlines become better connected from within.
The reduction in airline activity caused by the pandemic has created the opportunity to shift collective perception of the role of planning and strategy, with focus on leaning towards emergent, context-related problems. This requires us to rise above the constraints of existing organisational structures and management practices, and engage collective intelligence when making decisions that require constant adjustments in a continuously changing environment.
You can find more about what it takes to lay the foundations for a more adaptable, resilient organisation, conscious of complexities and its own capabilities to face forthcoming challenges in my article The Connected Airline. If you are looking for more inspiration or are ready to take action, whatever your position in the industry, you can find more details on my website Astute Aviation Consulting.
The more of us stand up, lead and connect, the better we will shake up the status quo, and get closer to what is possible.