Worth Their Weight In Gold

Ray Brain explains the complexities of ‘day of ops’ aircrew scheduling and control.
In the October issue of Airports International I talked about manpower planning and the crew roster build process.  Now the published crew rosters are handed over to the crew scheduling/control (CSC) team who have the unenviable but very rewarding task of maintaining and controlling crew members on a daily basis.  With large airlines, this will involve thousands of staff.
The CSC team is usually located within the airline operations centre, which in turn will consist of representatives from the main players responsible for the daily running of the airline – operations controllers, flight dispatchers, engineering, passenger revenue/services, cargo and IT staff.
There will normally be a formal written handover from the crew planners to the CSC team on important issues relating to that particular month’s roster; this could include specially selected crew for certain flights, mandatory pilot training requirements and open time issues.  Open time will be crew positions that have not been filled at the time of roster publication and will require the CSC team to assign reserve crew.
Human Input
For all the advances made in the computerisation of day of ops crew scheduling, the day-to-day job of any CSC person is to ensure that all flights depart with the correct crew numbers.  The total number of crew members must adhere to mandatory legal regulations and, obviously, each one must be fully qualified to operate the flight.  The CSC person will also have to communicate with crew members during any operational disruption.  Having an excellent rapport with their crew, a good sense of humour and a genuine understanding of what a disruptive lifestyle an airline crew may encounter will go a long way towards being successful in this very demanding job.
Their rather daunting tasks require CSC team-members to have excellent communication and interpersonal skills.  For example, on four separate occasions in my previous company, the operating captain of the return flight on a layover from a remote port/station reported sick.
(To clarify, a remote port/station would be a destination at which it is impossible to find a qualified replacement captain to operate the next flight at short notice – meaning a considerable delay while a replacement captain was positioned, then rested, before operating the flight.  In each case, hundreds of passengers would have been delayed by many hours resulting in bad press, lost revenue and the costs of putting passengers into hotels.)
On each occasion the CSC staff on duty were informed about the sick captain and, knowing it would take many hours to position a replacement to operate the flight, decided the best option would be to try and find a qualified captain who were on vacation nearby.  Using the computer options, one was located.  After establishing he would be fully rested, he agreed to operate the flight, and a situation that could have resulted in angry and disgruntled passengers was avoided.  The travellers arrived at their destination none the wiser – thanks to the dedication of the crew controller and the captain agreeing to break his vacation.  Both received a letter from the company’s CEO expressing his gratitude.
This is an extreme example, and an exception rather than the norm, but it gives an insight into the lengths CSC staff will go to in ensuring that crew members are found outside the normal operational environment to cover flights.
Yes, good CSC staff are truly worth their weight in gold!
Planning and Day of Ops Rules
The rules an airline must follow for planning crew rosters and day of operations are known as Flight Time Limitations (FTLs) and are set by the regulatory body in the country in which the airline is based.  In the event of an incident or accident involving an aircraft, one of the first things checked will be the records of any crew members concerned to ensure that no breach of the FTLs has occurred.  Such checks would include determining whether personnel had received the correct number of days off, as well as the mandatory rest from their previous flight or duty, and that they are within the allowable flying hours for the previous seven, 14 and 28-day periods.
But what happens when there is disruption to the flying schedule caused by factors such as weather, runway closures, strikes and aircraft technical problems?  In such day of ops situations, the original planning rules can be either stretched (in terms of duty times) or contracted (crew rest periods) to help recover the flying programme.  When a crew member reports and signs on for duty, the clock starts ticking!
An example scenario could be that the engineering department has advised of a technical problem with an aircraft.  If the crew is assigned to a seven hour-long duty and FTLs show that the planned allowable maximum duty time is nine hours, then they have a two-hour buffer for the delay.  A prolonged delay will start to ‘creep’, eating deeper into the two-hour buffer.  Finally, engineering release the aircraft to service, but going ahead with the flight at this stage will put the crew 30 minutes over its nine-hour maximum duty time.  The captain will then be asked if he and his crew are prepared to use their ‘discretion’ – an industry-wide term applied to rules that allow them to increase their duty time by up to, and in exceptional circumstances, three hours over the crew’s planned nine-hour maximum duty time.
The same principle can apply to crew rest periods.  Planned rest periods can be reduced in order to keep a flight on time or operating with minimum delay.  There are also myriad other allowable situations whereby FTLs on the day of ops provide the necessary flexibility for flight disruption, but for the purpose of this article the above are two apt examples show how good the CSC team, is at co-ordinating with crew members, and getting passengers away to their destination.
A day in the life (or shift)
Arguably, the most complex part of any airline’s computer system will its day of ops CSC programmes.
Many software companies will claim their system will automatically offer instant crewing solutions in the event of disruptions usually caused by the home base airport being closed due to bad weather leaving crew and aircraft stranded which have been diverted to alternative airports.  Crew will run out of hours having exceeded their maximum duty time even after using their discretion.  Yes, the crewing system in use will answer legality and qualification issues, and they are a useful tool in helping the CSC shift to provide crew recovery solutions, but there is no magic button to press and all will be solved.
I have often heard the CSC team on shift, after receiving a new roster, say, jokingly: “Oh no, not another work of fiction.”  This is because the longer a new roster is left on the shelf before publication, like a loaf of bread it will quickly go very stale.  Rosters are a moving feast; changes happen constantly, providing situations that need to be resolved by the CSC teams.  There will be sickness, resignations, emergency vacation, failure of a qualification check and many other incidents that will require a crew member to be removed from a roster.  The question, of course, is who replaces them?  For large airlines, the answer will be that a number of crew will have been assigned as reserves for their roster period.  In other words, they have a blank roster for a whole month and it will be the CSC team’s responsibility to assign a mixture of standby duties, days off and open positions to the reserve crews.
A standby duty will allow the CSC team to call crew out at short notice to cover open positions caused by events such as those mentioned above.  The ‘dreaded’ scenario is running out of standby crew, and this is where the CSC team will again come into its own and will have to ‘find’ available crew.  This will usually require asking a crew member to fly on a day off (providing it is not a legally-required day off); pulling crew forward from a later flight, or swapping flights.  Here it is the essential people skills and professional rapport with their crew that is the key to a successful CSC shift.
Big and Small
Imagine the duty operations manager, put out the call “I Need a fresh crew”.  For a regional or narrow-bodied aircraft this would require two pilots and two to four flight attendants.  The CSC team would then contact the fresh crew members, who will quickly make their way to the airport.  But, what about a fresh crew for a Boeing 747 or Airbus A380, which require upwards of 22 to 30 crew to be contacted?  The use of specialist computer software automatically alerts crew by telephone and an Interactive Voice Response system helps to reduce the contact process time taken to call out an entire crew to just a few minutes.  Having crew members on standby at the airport is one answer and, sometimes, even a regional carrier with many flight departures, will use this very unpopular (for crew) method.