5 ways the aviation industry still surprises me

5 ways the aviation industry still surprises me

“What’s your experience in aviation?”

That’s the #1 question I get asked when talking to people in all departments of airlines, airports, and industry regulators. While I love talking about the implementations across the globe where I’ve been involved, I’ve been able to provide more value by answering a different question:

“What have you seen in other industries that we’re not doing yet?”

For decades, the manufacturing industries have relied on the principles set forth by gurus such as Dr. W. Edwards Deming, Dr. Joseph Juran, Frederick Taylor and others to achieve high-water marks in quality and efficiency in the planning-scheduling-execution continuum. These bedrock principles may – on the surface – seem like foreign concepts to someone in a purely services-driven industry such as airlines, where the human element is the producer – not a faceless, emotionless machine.

So let me introduce the top 5 surprises I have come across in shift planning and staff scheduling for aviation, and why it’s been proven time and time again that augmenting the human element with quantifiable measures helps to improve quality, efficiency, and performance – every time.

  1. Using static spreadsheets to manage an ever-changing schedule

The conversation goes something like this:

“Do you use a software application for workforce planning and employee scheduling?”

“Yes, ABC’s software.”

“Ah, so you give the output of that to the people on the ground?”

“Well, no. We export that output into spreadsheets, make changes there, and then send them out.”

“Why spreadsheets?”

“ABC software can’t give us the proper shifts – we simply can’t model all of our tasks or our local intelligence in it, so we have to adjust the shifts manually in spreadsheets.”

This type of disconnected and manual planning process severely hurts the quality of the plan. Even when the tool creates great output relative to the information it has, planners start building their own spreadsheets and use rules of thumb “to make their planning easier”.

Why does this happen? In this case, ABC software simply doesn’t have the configurability needed to account for all the corporate business rules, and accommodate localized needs. Manufacturers have – for years – demanded a fully connected supply chain running at optimized quality levels in order to maximize their cost savings, so why haven’t airlines?

Read also: Discover 5 common airline services planning mistakes that cost you money

  1. “This is how I interpret the rule, but I know my colleague sees it differently”

During the course of our implementations, we often read the union agreements ourselves to double check that no rules were missed, and to verify our interpretation of the discussions with our customer. A little while back, we encountered a convoluted rule and double checked with the organization regarding how that rule should be interpreted. As it turns out, the entire organization with the exception of just one location was interpreting the rule incorrectly! That put the organization in a real pickle: should they change throughout the organization, resulting in a big push back from all employees? Or start enforcing the incorrect rule at the one location where it was being done correctly?

Incorporate your best practices of rule interpretation into the crew scheduling tool itself, in order to help each planner make the most informed, and business-prudent decisions. Have it show the specific spots of the plan where the best practice was ignored, and what the impact was on the key performance indicators that drive your business! In many cases, we like to make this exercise into a friendly competition: challenge the planners to create the best plan for one small planning problem, and award prizes to the winners.

Spoiler alert: To achieve the best KPIs, you’ll need to adhere to the best practices!

  1. Lost without “Jimmy”

Practically every organization I’ve come across has a “Jimmy”. That’s my name for the one guy in the organization who knows everything about the planning process, the business rules and their origin, and the main issues in every crew planning level. I started using the name “Jimmy” after an implementation in logistics: the organization had recognized that Jimmy was their #1 planner, and made him responsible for getting his knowledge into our planning system.

Suddenly, every planner became as good as Jimmy: the planning system married Jimmy’s knowledge with optimization technology to propose schedules to the planners. Not only did this significantly improve the quality of planning, but it also reduced the company’s dependency on a single individual. Don’t wait for your master planner to leave or to retire! Incorporate your best tribal knowledge into a centralized staff planning system that can also help you optimize the entire planning-scheduling-execution process.

  1. “Yeah, but”

Another key question to identify is, “Who is in charge of your planning process, and what are their goals?”

In one specific case, headcount planning resulted in lengthy, heated discussions between the central planning group and the individual airport staff. The regional airport folks wanted permission to hire more, and the central planning group were motivated to run an efficient operation. The way to remove the heat from the discussion is to get rid of the “yeah, buts”, such as “there’s a lot of bad weather here”, “our airport’s layout makes us inefficient”, etc. Agreeing up front on the engagement standards and goals, and taking the regional staff through the demand building process using quantifiable performance metrics can really reduce the room for a difference of interpretation.

While the executing group is key in identifying the right business rules and the right process, after agreeing to these rules the plan should be created separately from the executing group. Build the plan, then use the strength of the executing group to adapt to necessary changes on the day of execution.  But let data drive the discussion!

  1. “I think we’re doing pretty well”

Your reports show that your crew is 73% efficient. Considering that your top planner achieves 75% efficiency, you are pretty happy about that number. However, why would you assume that 80% efficiency is not possible for that top planner… or across the board for everyone?

Assessing the value of improving the quality of your planning doesn’t stop there. Consider the time saved in creating the plans, the indirect benefits of guiding your decisions based on the business rules, the possibility of making some small changes to the overtime rules in the next union negotiations, augmenting your personnel intelligence with non-human resources and technology to optimize the equation. What could those things do for your bottom line?

Only by measuring what you’re leaving on the table, can you judge what action steps to take.

In most discussions, I’ve found that airlines know there is something to gain. There is a gut feeling that they could do better, without really knowing how to quantify it. For me personally, this is the fun part: in every competition I’ve set up between planner and optimization algorithm, the incremental improvements in performance gained through the combination of both soars into double digits.

Which of the above areas come as a surprise to you?

Drop me a comment below with your email – I’d love to hear what you’re doing today to make incremental improvements in your planning process.