Recovering Crews, Accommodating Customers

By Chunhua Gao and Ramakrishna Thiruveedhi

Should Airlines Use Passenger Seats To Move Crew During Disruptions?

Crew-schedule disruptions are unavoidable during an airline’s day of operations. Deadheading crewmembers as passengers to their next destination is a common practice in crew recovery. However, deadheading uses passenger seats that are in high demand during disruptions. Recent events have put this practice under the microscope, and critics have urged airlines to consider alternate options. A study was conducted to evaluate the impact of using deadheads and ground transportation on an airline’s overall capability of serving passengers.

During disruptions, an operations control center is forced to reroute passengers and crew on a modified schedule. Deadheading crewmembers as passengers is common during this process. In recent years, airlines have flown with relatively higher percentages of seats filled. As a result, when a disruption occurs, airlines have few, if any, excess seats and are faced with the problem of using the seats for rerouting both passengers and crew.

During disruptions, repositioning crew is widely used in combination with other tactics such as swapping operating flights between crew and calling in reserve crews. There are several benefits of repositioning crew in addition to satisfying an airline’s objective of serving passengers.

Why Reposition The Crew?

Moving from one airport to another (repositioning) allows crewmembers to operate flights at a different airport than they were originally assigned. This is important when crewmembers cannot operate their original schedule and need to continue their trip to the next flight or base airport. This is also essential for reserve crewmembers who are typically located at base stations to operate flights at other airports.

Without crew repositioning, passengers on some flights would be stranded, waiting for the crew to arrive from another airport. At a crew-base airport, this can be handled using reserve crew to some extent; however, it becomes challenging at other airports.

When there is no crew available, the crew-scheduling team proactively communicates the situation to the operations control center and the flight is cancelled. As a result, additional cancellations may occur, which can cascade across portions of the network. Repositioning reroutes crewmembers and provides many options to cover the flights and minimize the possibility for additional cancellations.

Deadheading On Own Airline

Repositioning crew using an airline’s own seats is one of the most economic recovery options. Using this approach, the airline has complete control over seat availability and can effectively manage the booking process. However, the deadhead flight may be full or even overbooked. In addition, this option is not always available when the airline does not operate a direct flight between the affected airports.

Ground Transportation

Ground transportation can be used between any two airports that are close in proximity. Travel times between the airports are usually in the range of 30 minutes to three hours. The service can be extremely flexible — available any time on demand (taxi) or can have a published schedule (train timetable).

Since an airline is unlikely to operate direct flights between two neighboring airports, a brief taxi ride is much easier than flying a minimum of two flights between these airports. This becomes especially important when one of the airports is a crew base.

WHEN A FLIGHT IS CANCELLED THAT WAS EXPECTED TO RETURN THE CREW TO ITS BASE, THE CREW CAN BE DEADHEADED ON A LATER FLIGHT AS A PASSENGER.

GROUND TRANSPORTATION BETWEEN NEIGHBORING AIRPORTS CAN BE THE BEST OPTION FOR REPOSITIONING CREW.

AN AIRLINE MAY ALSO CHOOSE TO USE AN ALTERNATE AIRLINE TO DEADHEAD ITS CREW, WHICH MAY RETURN THE CREW MORE QUICKLY, BUT IT CAN ALSO BE COST PROHIBITIVE.

Deadheading On Other Airlines

Flying on another airline may be an option to reposition the crew. While it may be expensive and time-consuming to book a ticket on another airline, it can be extremely efficient if the other airline has ideal connection times between the desired airports. A partner airline may also be willing to cooperate to make the booking process easy and economical. However, uncertainty on flight status and seat availability is a major concern, and airlines use this option with discretion.

Crew Repositioning Benefits

With recent events of seats being taken away from passengers, the practice of deadheading crewmembers has been closely scrutinized. While industry experts have explained the reasons behind this practice, critics have argued that an airline must be able to find other ways to match crews with flights (for example using reserve crews) before affecting passengers.

To help airlines solve this problem, Sabre conducted a study to evaluate this practice on a typical North American network using its crew-recovery solver. Based on an array of disruptions of varying magnitudes, its operations research team measured the advantages of deadheads and ground transports when seeking the optimum crew-recovery outcome.

Airlines generally avoid using another airline, therefore, that option was excluded for the purpose of the study. The deadheads available include all operating flights (omitting cancelled flights). The team allowed unlimited seats for deadheading on these flights and measured the benefits per seat used. It also used ground transports of varying lengths, with most of them taking less than two hours.

DURING DISRUPTIONS, AIRLINES REROUTE AIRCRAFT WHILE MAKING SCHEDULE DECISIONS. CREW AND PASSENGER SCHEDULING TEAMS RECEIVE THE MODIFIED SCHEDULE AND MAKE THE CHANGES ON CREW ROSTERS AND PASSENGER ITINERARIES.

Deadheading Only

Two strategies were compared in the study. The first strategy involved using all options except repositioning (using reserve crew, swapping flights, etc.) The second strategy included deadheads. For each disruption scenario, the team measured seats required for deadheading crew and compared the additional number of flights operated by repositioned crew and the number of additional passengers served on these flights. The sizeable difference between the number of deadhead seats taken by crew and the additional passenger seats served by these crew demonstrates the advantages of crew repositioning.

It was observed that for every seat used by crew (flight deck and cabin crew), an average of 18 additional passengers could be served as a result. Moreover, additional crew were recovered, resulting in fewer disruptions in the following days.

USING DEADHEAD AS A REPOSITIONING TACTIC, MORE CREW CAN BE RECOVERED AND MORE FLIGHTS CAN BE OPERATED. MORE PASSENGERS CAN BE SERVED ON FLIGHTS THAT WOULD OTHERWISE BE CANCELLED. EVEN THOUGH REPOSITIONED CREW WILL USE A CERTAIN NUMBER OF PASSENGER SEATS, THE RATIO OF ADDITIONAL PASSENGERS SERVED TO THE NUMBER OF SEATS USED BY CREW IS FROM 13:1 TO 22:1.

USING BOTH DEADHEAD AND GROUND TRANSPORTATION, THERE ARE EVEN MORE OPTIONS TO MOVE CREW AROUND AN AIRLINE’S NETWORK. HENCE, COMPARED TO USING DEADHEAD ALONE, EVEN MORE CREW CAN BE RECOVERED AND FLIGHTS CAN BE OPERATED WHILE USING FEWER DEADHEAD SEATS. AS A RESULT, A HIGHER RATIO OF ADDITIONAL PASSENGERS SERVED TO THE NUMBER OF SEATS USED BY CREW CAN BE OBTAINED.

Deadheading And Ground Transportation

To measure the value of adding ground transportation, two strategies were compared during the study. The first strategy used all options except repositioning. The second strategy used both deadheading and ground transportation.

The results of the study showed that for every seat used by crew (flight deck and cabin crew), an average of 25 additional passengers could be served as a result. These benefits are clearly better than using deadheading alone. The superior outcome was a result of having more options due to ground transportation. Furthermore, additional crew can be recovered using a combination of deadheading and ground transportation.

In a separate experiment, using ground transportation alone produced some benefits, but they were not significant enough when compared to deadheading only or deadheading combined with ground transportation.

Crew Repositioning Solution

There are two primary challenges in using repositioning during recovery – computational complexity and legality/operability.

1. While it is possible to reposition crews manually, it is difficult to evaluate the numerous possible combinations for crew and determine the best solution, especially when both deadheading and ground transports are being considered. Ground transportation with flexible scheduling (typically a taxi) can be available anytime. With this flexibility, generally the number of ground-transportation options available are 10 times greater than the deadhead options. The combination of these options, along with all the opportunities to swap flights, makes the crew-recovery problem extremely difficult to solve. Using the latest techniques in operations research, Sabre AirCentre Recovery Manager (Crew) is able to intelligently and quickly solve the most difficult crew-recovery problems.

2. Many airlines consider repositioning to fall within crew management; however, they prefer to have better control on the location and magnitude of repositioning to keep it practical. Recovery Manager (Crew) supports legal and operational requirements on all three types of repositioning. Using the tool, airline analysts can determine the relative costs of using their own airline to deadhead crew, using another airline for deadheading purposes and using ground transportation. Parameters can also be set to determine if repositioning should occur at the beginning, middle or end of a duty, as well as the number of consecutive repositioning segments. To limit the usage of seats on flights for deadheading, the maximum number of seats available for crew can be specified by analysts.

Crew Recovery While Satisfying Customers

From a business perspective, deadheading crew may outweigh displacing customers. However, airlines must also keep their customers’ best interests at the forefront. Rather than all or nothing, there is a fine balance between satisfying customers while, at the same time, getting the operation back on track.

With the right strategies, tools and processes in place, airlines can easily reaccommodate passengers while getting crewmembers to the right places to recover the schedule more quickly and reduce the impact to the entire operation. Ground-transportation options enhance this effect even more because they free up more seats for passengers. So when properly managed, disruption recovery can be a win for an airline, its crew and its passengers.