How do airlines schedule which flight attendants and pilots work on what flights?
If you think a computer might handle the bulk of this work, you might be right — at least at most airlines. But at Hawaiian Airlines, this process is mostly done by humans. And with so many employees living in so many places, as well as federal regulations governing how much flight crews can work, it’s a complicated process.
Luckily we have Brad O’Handley, senior director of crew planning and scheduling for Hawaiian, who was kind enough to explain to L.A. Airspace how it all works. Below is our interview, which we conducted via email. ( If you’d like to read my other chats with airline employees, check out earlier Q&As with Southwest Airlines flight dispatcher Mark Johnson and low-cost carrier flight attendant Kara Mulder.)
Brian Sumers: How might you explain your job to someone who does not know much about the airline industry?
Brad O’Handley: Crew schedulers are responsible for staffing all flights in accordance with the Federal Air Regulations (FARs), applicable collective bargaining agreements and company policy. In general, these rules limit the amount of time a crewmember can remain on duty and set minimum requirements for rest to ensure that crew members are not fatigued when operating their flights. We are also responsible for confirming that hotels and ground transportation to and from the hotels have been secured for crewmembers who will be laying over at an out-of-state destination.
Sumers: What are the factors that go into which crew gets what schedule? I think seniority is one of them. But are there others?
O’Handley: Scheduling is a monthly process that begins with the crew planning team. Every month, crews bid for their preferred flight schedule for the following month. These bids are granted based on the crewmember’s qualifications and seniority within that qualification set. For instance, pilots are qualified to operate only one aircraft type and one position on that aircraft (i.e., Captain or First Officer) at a time. Flight Attendants are qualified to operate all aircraft types but may have a qualification for a designated position on a specified flight (e.g., language position).
Once each individual crewmember’s monthly schedule has been awarded, it is then the crew schedulers’ responsibility to manage close-in schedule changes and ensure that all flights are fully-staffed. Schedules change for many reasons (e.g., crew member illness, mechanical delays, weather delays, crewmembers modifying their schedules as permitted by their collective bargaining agreements) – and it is our job to monitor these changes and make the necessary modifications to affected crew member flight schedules.
Sumers: What’s the most challenging part of the job?
O’Handley: Our job is like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle every day. We try to accommodate everyone’s personal requests to afford them their most preferred schedule, while working with a variety of uncontrollable and sometimes conflicting variables. Adequate staffing is key; without it, the process can become very challenging.
Sumers: I would imagine that many people think your job is actually done only by computer. How much of the process requires the human element?
O’Handley: In actuality, many of our current crew scheduling processes are manual. However we are working on automating a number of these over the coming months. We do have reports that allow us to quickly and efficiently collect critical information; but, these reports still need to be interpreted and then applied. Our department is currently responsible for the schedules of our more than 1,600 flight attendants and 600 pilots at our bases in Honolulu and Los Angeles.
Sumers: What’s your favorite part of the job?
My favorite part of working for Hawaiian has definitely been the people. On any given day you are interacting with different departments and over the years have built relationships with most of them. The work can be stressful at times, but with the support of co-workers and cooperative crews the work gets done.
What happens when flights are canceled for bad weather or mechanical issues? How do you generally reschedule the crews?
We work hand in hand with our System Operations Center to proactively identify potential delays and cancellations, and receive timely and concise information to optimize crew usage during unforeseen issues like bad weather or mechanical delays. This allows us to make informative, real-time crew scheduling decisions to operate a reliable and safe operation for our passengers.