Manning — It’s Not Your Texas Airline Anymore
Southwest Airlines’ success has been attributed to its superior business model, often described as “simple and straightforward with a low-cost structure.” More recently, however, with longer duty days of the aircraft themselves, longer mid-day flights, the addition and expansion of international flying and hub operations (aka Intentional Connect Opportunities or ICO), our revenue model is becoming more complex. Our basic staffing model still attempts to maintain low costs with a simple formula but it is moving away from the traditional AM and PM, two-crews-per-aircraft-per-day model.
At Southwest of the past, an AM crew would originate an aircraft and fly it for the first half the “aircraft duty day” (aircraft flow), and then hand it off to a PM crew who flew it the remainder of the aircraft flow and terminated the aircraft that night. Increasingly, this does not happen quite this cleanly due to evolving aircraft flows (the sequence of flights might not make for a convenient crew change anywhere near the midpoint of the aircraft duty day), long aircraft flows exceeding two-crew duty day and block time limitations, our pairing mix parameters requiring a return of Pilots to their specific domicile at the end of a trip, and sometimes even Duty Hour Rig (DHR)-driven aircraft swaps.
Let’s compare a 2004 era -200 aircraft flow that lends itself to AM/PM crewing versus a -700 aircraft flow from last Christmas. Here is the -200 flow. Notice that the short segments allow several opportunities to break the aircraft flow into two legal AM-PM Pilot duty periods.
Here is an increasingly typical -700 aircraft flow:
Notice how both the long first leg of the aircraft flow and especially the long mid-flow leg cause issues breaking the aircraft flow cleanly into an AM and a PM crew duty periods. This aircraft flow requires at least three crews to cover (the crew B + C could be combined into one mid-day duty period). This aircraft-flow and flight-schedule (not Pilot-schedule) -driven increase in manning per aircraft trend will become even more exacerbated in the future with even longer stage lengths reducing the number of Pilot duty period break points available in an aircraft flow, and the eventual introduction of long-haul ETOPS and red-eye flying stretching the aircraft flows practically to 24/7. It should be clear that the SWA Pilot staffing model no longer adheres to the traditional two crews per aircraft per day mantra.
How does this affect Crew Planning? Certainly, it makes it more difficult to have all pure AM and PM lines considering the need to cover the middle of aircraft flows with a third crew. This will become even more pronounced with ETOPS and red-eye started even earlier and ending even later in Herb time.
At a minimum, the long aircraft duty days drive earlier Pilot AM starts and later PM finishes especially during the peaks of summer, spring break, and the winter holidays. This can cause problems with fatigue particularly for crews that are on opposite coasts (early AM starts for West Coast crews and late PM West Coast arrivals for East Coast crews). These have been largely eliminated recently by the Fatigue Working Group’s analysis of fatigue reports (thank you to those of you who helped improve our operation by submitting them) and Crew Planning following their recommendations and avoiding building such duty periods. Longer operations across even more time zones and eventually around the clock, will require some additional flying limitations, rest requirements, and circadian shift allowances beyond those already negotiated into the contract. They will also likely require more manning for contingency Pilots, particularly reserves, to provide coverage for an even wider range of operating flight times for the airline.
So, while SWAPA does not control manning directly, we can influence the requirements for manning a safe but efficient airline using our contractual language for pairing and line construction in the schedule-planning phase. Longer aircraft duty days have already driven the manning model beyond the simple AM-PM crewing of Southwest’s past. ETOPS, 24/7 operations and our contractual duty period and pairing limits will further drive increases in manning per aircraft in the future.