By Alex Osleger

Last summer, a technical problem with a crew scheduling and tracking system for one of American Airlines Group’s subsidiaries – Dayton, Ohio-headquartered PSA Airlines – led to more than 2,000 cancelled flights. The issue began on June 14 with a computer bug that caused PSA to cancel all of its flights to and from Charlotte, N.C.

Once the airline stabilized its system on June 19, an American Airlines spokesperson said, “Team members have been working nonstop to reposition crews.”

While there are numerous elements required to rebuild the lines of flying in the wake of an event like the PSA Airlines glitch, among the most important is filling planes with crews.

It’s almost always a manual, time-consuming grind.

Typically, airlines’ crew scheduling departments bear the brunt of the effort by putting out phone calls to pilots, even if the airline makes use of an app like Crew Life to help disseminate scheduling information.

To fill, say, 30 flights, assuming a four-person crew, there’s a minimum of 120 calls to make.

With a major U.S. airline flying an international route, finding a crew for each plane could take six or more calls (i.e., a captain, first officer, and four or more flight attendants).

Compounding the challenge is the fact that a scheduler would have to make these calls and then wait for crew members to call back, delaying the process further.

As the outbound calls pile up, the phone lines inevitably become tied up, which creates problems for crew members trying to return messages and accept schedules.

According to a December 2018 Department of Transportation report, just over 10% of all delayed U.S. flights resulted from air carrier delays or late-arriving aircraft.

Embedded in the statistic for air carrier delays are crew problems.

Several years ago, the U.S. General Accounting Office examined statistics from 11 airlines and found that approximately 3% of flights were delayed due to challenges scheduling crews.

According to the GAO, airline stakeholders say the category of late-arriving aircraft delay “effectively masks the underlying cause,” which can be crew schedules.

The GAO reported that to reduce delays and cancellations attributable to crew scheduling issues airlines have taken steps such as “adding time to flight schedules,” “using reserve crews,” and “positioning crews in anticipation of expected weather.”

Nowhere in these government reports do the authors mention airlines automating trip coverage.

That’s because when regular operations become irregular operations (IROPS), airlines overwhelmingly rely on a manual process to address trip coverage.

Imagine the scheduling challenges if, say, O’Hare International Airport or Denver International Airport shut down for the better part of a day.

When Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson closed due to an 11-hour-long power outage in December 2017, Delta Air Lines alone had to cancel more than 1,000 flights.

As part of that crew recovery process, airlines’ operations controllers had to manually assign new crew itineraries with a combination of original crews, standby crews and reserve crews. 

Airlines still grappling with finding crews and filling flights by hand

In spite of this and other incidents, the industry hasn’t widely deployed a fully automated trip coverage system, a way of automating the process of finding and contacting those employees eligible and available to staff the flight deck. The cost of not having such a system ranges from ferrying aircraft to new locations to delaying or cancelling flights.

There are, of course, crew management and planning systems like AIMS and AD OPT’s Altitude Rostering that put out the monthly schedule, some of which offer crews preconstructed and preferred bidding methods.

And there are tools, like Sabre Recovery Manager, that help crew schedulers rebound from network disruptions.

But these software tools do not automate the calls that create the bottleneck for finding available flight crews. And as an airline crew scheduling department receives sick calls or word of an IROP, phone calls and stacks of paper pile up for crew schedulers or trackers to plow through.

As the scenarios become more complex and calls mount, it becomes physically impossible to keep up and airlines begin weighing options for which flights are acceptable to delay or cancel.

One company that says it has developed a solution for automating trip coverage is ARCOS LLC.

The company’s ARCOS Ascend platform claims to reduce the amount of time it takes crew schedulers to find available flight crews. The system, says ARCOS, integrates with airlines’ scheduling systems to create rosters and then uses proprietary algorithms to contact flight crews who are available for pending trips in the order prescribed by labor agreements.

Automated trip coverage systems could also factor in rank, seniority and FAR Part 117 when contacting crews. In fact, if the airline industry fully automated trip coverage to expedite the time it takes to find and confirm an available crew, it could reduce the time of a flight delay or even turn what could be a cancelled flight into a delayed flight.

Imagine in the wake of an IROP having even just a few less cancelled and delayed flights and what that might mean for load factor.  

Let’s say New York City gets hits with a Nor’easter. In this scenario, a carrier would call its Systems Operation Center (SOC) and tell employees to delay or even cancel flights in and out of LaGuardia, and the carrier (like the rest of the airlines) would begin their pull downs and dictate the pull downs to the regional carriers.

To help the carrier decide when it could resume service, crew schedulers would launch an automated trip coverage system to find available flight crews.

Assuming one of the carrier’s 737-9s has 179 seats and an average one-way ticket is $160 for a two-hour trip, preventing just one cancellation could translate into nearly $30,000 in gross revenue.

For a 50-seat RJ, that might equal $8,000 saved in gross revenue.

In another scenario, let’s assume an airline loses 80 flights and the rebound will be a day or so later; the airline has 80 aircraft siting on the ground. With today’s manual trip-coverage process, the airline might recoup 45 of those 80 flights.

Each IROP is different, of course, and an airline’s SOC can’t know what will happen definitively. But with a fully automated trip coverage platform in place, those 45 recovered flights could add up to 70, 75 or even 80.

The revenue stream begins flowing thanks to automation cutting down the time to rebuild the airline and putting crews back, in the cockpit.

Benefits beyond IROP

Automating trip coverage plays a role in more than IROP, though. Imagine the operations team getting a sick call from a pilot and the scheduler having to find a replacement by the typical manual process.

If the scheduler can’t find coverage from the reserves, then he or she has to call pilots who have a scheduled day off.

With an automated system, a director of crew scheduling could account for any union agreements, while blanketing the available pool with a call for help.

With a speedy response from an available reserve, the schedulers could reduce a potential flight delay or even prevent a cancelled flight.

With the analytical and mobile technologies on the market today, directors of operations, SOC vice presidents and directors of crew scheduling owe it to their airline coworkers, crews and passengers to modernize and streamline trip coverage.E