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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.