A perfect roster: Airline’s objectives and Crew needs

Same Rosters but different needs.

A perfect roster for a crew member should surely include the granting of the submitted requests and preferences and also have a good balance between number of flight hours and on duty days against off days according to the flight time limitation regulation given by the airline and, most important, by the civil aviation authority.

When I was a child I remember my mother waking up very early in the morning, around 06.30, starting preparing for work and returning back home around 18.00. This happened from January until December from Monday to Friday for her last 35 years. Her life rhythm was surprisingly regular and so was mine. Now she is retired and she enjoys her free time travelling and sleeping until late, while I’m grown up.

But since the beginning of my experience in the airlines aviation business I always wondered what should be the point of view of a pilot´s son: he ignores when and at what time his parent will depart next week and when he will be back home. A pilot’s working hours depend on his roster, which changes every week and every month.

The roster is a delicate and sensitive thing for a crew member, especially regarding personal and family needs. The roster sheet or the more contemporary “interactive duty plan” (retrievable via smartphone or tablet) is something a crew member can´t wait to receive around the end of the month with a bit of suspense and apprehension.

Will I get my requested holidays? Will I get the requested off day for my wife´s birthday or that flight on which my parents are flying on? Those are only some examples of questions a crew member usually awaits an answer before receiving the roster sheet. Sometimes those questions get negative responses and the crew member has to accept the response.

A perfect roster for a crew member should surely include the granting of the submitted requests and preferences and also have a good balance between number of flight hours and on duty days against off days according to the flight time limitation regulation given by the airline and, most important, by the civil aviation authority.

So let´s imagine the crew planner has granted all requests and provided a balanced roster: Is this roster “perfect”? Well not really yet because another important thing should be considered to make a crew member really happy:  I am talking about the roster preferences.

Are you an early bird? Do you like to sleep until late in the morning? Do you prefer east destinations instead of west destinations?  What about night duties?  As much consecutives days as possible?  This is what is usually intended for roster preferences and is mostly related to personal behavior or personal needs (e.g. you may like to have a preference for late duties in order to be able to bring your children to school in the morning). 

So, are we closer to a “perfect roster”? Let´s examine the situation:
The crew planner has granted all requests, has ensured balanced flight hours, days off and on duty days and not to forget, has considered crew member´s preferences. I would say that, yes, it’s a perfect roster and the only thing still outstanding is, technically speaking, to publish the roster and make it official.

“Dear crew planner, please let´s make it official… What? We have to make changes? Why?”
The flight with the crew member’s parents on board is already assigned to another crew member with higher seniority. It’s not possible to assign the day off for the wife´s birthday due to crew member shortage on that particular day and the flight hours need to be increased this month so the crew member will get less days off than expected.

What remained of the original situation is practically nothing. Of course, this example is slightly exaggerated, but it’s a typical example of what could happen during the so called “roster assignment phase” at an airline.  And the interesting thing is that from a numeric point of view the outcome is acceptable because all flight activities and all other mandatory activities will be completely planned and assigned.

As a primary objective a crew planning department in fact must guarantee the coverage of flight activities and the equal distribution of flight hours and destinations to all crew members. In addition, right amount of reserves need to be allocated properly during the month.  Requested holidays, days off, training activities and other mandatory activities also need to be considered during this process.

How to best balance crew members’ personal needs with the airline’s primary objectives? I made the experience that many airlines are resorting to automatic optimizer tools in order to solve this situation. “There are airlines that are able to reach 5.30 hours flight time per flight duty day in Europe for short haul” says Andreas Söhlke, optimizer solutions Product Manager and in Lufthansa Systems since 2001. “When optimizers are used” he continues, “the solutions for the single planning steps are already very close to optimality. But there is a lot of potential in a more holistic view of the airline. So the departments have to integrate much more to really increase the productivity at the day of operations. For example, integrating the crew pairing construction with the aircraft rotations can save about 2% in crew days and at the same time reduce the number of aircraft changes significantly. More and automated feedback from the operations can be used to optimize buffer and standby times in the planning stage. In assignment, the costs that can be reduced are e.g. overtime payment and depending on the airline also hotel and transportation costs. But in assignment, the crew satisfaction is also important”, and he is absolutely right I would add!

Well, after a long discussion with Andreas, we agreed on the fact that for an airline a roster should be as much efficient as safety and regulations allow. On the other side, a crew member should get the requested time free of duty when they want and do the flights he or she prefers. My recommendation: Put everything together, shake well with an optimizer and check the result.

And you, dear readers, for whom are you rooting for?