Aircraft IT OPS Issue 60: Summer 2024

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Aircraft IT OPS Issue 60: Summer 2024 Cover

Articles

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WHITE PAPER: Better crew planning and communication

Author: Laura Blank, Product Manager, OffBlock

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Laura Blank, Product Manager, OffBlock introduces a small solution that can have a large impact on crew retention while improving processes and costs

Crew management and planning is a very complex process for an airline with a range of considerations to take into account in order to determine who will fly where, on which aircraft and at which time. Rules about crew flying times have to be considered and, no matter how well the plan has been constructed, things do change. People fall sick, a delayed flight can mean that the crew have not enough time to fly the return trip, aircraft can fail or outside influences can throw the plan off course so that it needs to be remade, which means roster changes, and then communicated to all of those involved. That’s where, often, any re-planning goes awry. However, in this article, we’re going to focus on a crew planning tool designed to also tackle that issue of communication.

CREW MANAGEMENT AND PLANNING

The first think to recognize is that crew planners and managers have to manage a vast amount of data, often with a high degree of urgency, taking into account relationships and safety standards. In addition to that, while there is a wide group of tools and processes that they can use, those tools and processes are mostly fragmented and not smooth to use at all. There is still a lot of manual work involved with follow-ups, emails and many calls, which can be reduced. They also must often work with legacy systems, online browsers, online tools… it all adds up to a bad user experience to get to what they want. The core product of crew planning is the Crew Planning Tool, not the Crew App which is just a side issue for crew managers and planners. But for us at OffBlock, the Crew App is the main product that we work on every day.

The private life of crew members must be considered as well in terms of data protection and roster sharing in order to avoid a vast distribution of sensitive data. OffBlock combines the data protection requirements of the airline with the need of crews to share parts of their schedule with their friends & family. This raises not just crew satisfaction, but also the level of trust between the airline, the crew planning department and the crews.

The airline’s intention is to make their processes as safe as possible but, if that becomes too complicated and slow, people will use unsecure tools and shortcuts to share their data. The airline than actually accomplishes the opposite of what their intention was and in the worst case might even get sued by employees for not protecting their private data well enough.

THE VALUE OF OFFBLOCK

We built OffBlock firstly from the crews’ perspective and secondly from the airline’s perspective. Crews are able to find everything in one place and at the right time; for example, dead head tickets, weather information, delays on inbound flights, gate changes, hotel, layovers, etc. They also have crew information, aircraft and briefing information, documents etc. We provide an enjoyable user interface and a swift user experience. The advantage for the crew planning side is that they get the feedback they need faster, smoothly and automatically, and they don’t need to chase up information. The advantage on the airline’s side at a higher level is that it supports crew satisfaction and retention if their everyday life of administration & communication is greatly simplified.  Plus, there is a reduction of the risk for delays or cancellations of flights.

OffBlock also enhances the efficiency of crew management and planning. One way in which it does this is with the possibility of change acknowledgements as well as the reduction in numbers of emails and calls in cases of roster changes; we can also trigger automated calls in the case of changes plus, we reduce the crunch times, for example with calls on standbys via asynchronous communication. With asynchronous communication, it’s not necessary for people on each end of the communication to talk at the same time; so, crew planning can send out information and the crews can view that whenever they want because it’s all up-to-date on the app and available as well offline. Then they can acknowledge the information or give their feedback which will be automatically transferred back to crew planning.

There is also the automation of low-level repetitive tasks which enhances efficiency as well as minimizing manual errors. Of course, if you type dozens of emails there could be errors; you might miss off a crew member or type information that is not needed or wrong information, you might miss calling one crew member. This is all reduced by automated acknowledgements and automated sending of information to the right people at the right time.

REDUCING COSTS

The main way in which we can reduce costs is through the reduction and avoidance of delays and cancellations of flights as well as, through leaner and faster processes, and the avoidance of some internal process costs. There is also the reduction of crew planning staff numbers in general and savings on internal IT resources. These are all factors that have to be taken into account when considering whether to ‘make-or-buy’; to decide whether to make it yourselves or buy an existing product such as OffBlock. Also, we work with many different airlines, so the experience and the input across those airlines brings a value that we can use to save time and money. In the end, all airlines have to deal with the “same but different” issues and we can help to solve them by leveraging the collective knowledge of all of our customers.

IMPROVED COMMUNICATION

OffBlock can push information to crew members instead of them having to pull the information from the source. Pushing information is a big step forward with which we have established a high level of actuality. Also, the aggregation of information from different sources/databases is also a huge step forward; crew members do not have to check in various places for the latest information because we aggregate them from those sources to one single point of information. (figure 1 below)

There are different levels of acknowledgement for different types of communication. For example, if a hotel change is sent to a crew member; they do not have to confirm that they have read it but they will have been informed that something has changed and can mark it as ‘read’. And there are sensitive notifications like roster changes which recipients have to acknowledge and confirm back to crew management.  We make this process easy and trackable.

Communication gets a lot easier with instant messaging functions and with the direct exchange of information in a well-designed App like OffBlock. At the moment, the information might be in web applications viewed on a smartphone screen where you have to pinch and move the content around in order to read it; it’s not very convenient to work that way but it’s an everyday problem. Sometimes several times a day and, in itself, an everyday stress factor for crew members who already have demanding jobs. It’s very important for airlines and crews to improve their communications process between crew planning and flight crews. We couldn’t believe when we looked into it, how many manual and old-fashioned processes, tools and databases are still in place; even things like faxes…

On top of that, there is the reality of a new generation of digital natives who are so used to smartphones and so used to instant access to everything that it’s really hard for them to deal with a situation where they have to wait for information. For instance, a pilot on standby, waiting to be notified of their next flight, has to constantly log in on their smartphone to keep up with the notifications whereas, with OffBlock, the information will be sent to them, instantly and without them needing to look for it. People are used to WhatsApp and similar instant processes, so they regard constantly having to look for information as further stress. Older generations can handle that because they learned to wait. On the serious side of that, it’s very important to have tools that make lives easier for everyone.

IMPROVING CREW LIFE

As already stated above, OffBlock offers the reduction of unnecessary stress, especially in standby situations, because the solution is integrated into airlines’ established data handling systems and processes. That means that crews can use their smartphones. Also, the fact that information is pushed to crew members, from one source, rather than them having to pull it, from a number of different sources, is a major factor in crew satisfaction. It simplifies the handling of rosters, the simple checking of the roster to know what is on today, tomorrow and the month ahead. Less training is required regarding the software whereas, if they have a wide spread of tools and different sources for information, they have to watch a training video for every tool. With OffBlock which is constantly improved and with new features, there no training needed for crew members. And the login is convenient and secure via face ID or fingerprint. The reduction of unnecessary complexity is a major contributor to crew satisfaction.

And, on the social side, crew members will want to share their roster with colleagues and friends to find common off-days, to find mutual layovers as well as to better plan their private life with their wife or husband if they are also able to see the roster.

IMPLEMENTATION AND INTEGRATION

There is a super short ramp up time for OffBlock with its plug & play capability. We can literally connect to any crew planning and airline system. (figure 2 below)

We have recently established interfaces to Leon Software, a crew planning tool for business aviation, and to C Teleport, a crew travel platform for airlines to book deadhead flights and hotel stays. We are as well connected to REDifly, a crew planning. platform. And we have a partnership with EasyMemoryItem, a training tool for pilots to prepare for flights and their regulatory courses.  Another benefit of using OffBlock is, that if the airline might change internal planning tools, OffBlock can just connect to those tools and the front-end OffBlock for the crews stays the same.

Small tools like OffBlock can make a huge impact. Many airlines underestimate the importance of crew satisfaction. The more satisfied the crew is, the more satisfied the customers are. There is tough competition on the market, there are plenty of alternative airlines and the ones that are better will succeed – on the passengers- and crew-side. Most of the airlines however are too busy to improve during their running business and this is what we want to emphasize: small tools can make a huge impact.

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