How is workforce optimization software helping airports address staff scheduling challenges?

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For airports, effectively managing workforce complexities and operational demands, while meeting airline and passenger needs, is imperative. The aviation industry has a long history of adapting to unforeseen events. Major disruptions such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the financial crisis of 2007-2009 and the current COVID-19 pandemic place additional urgency on airports’ ability to carry out long-term workforce planning and day-of-ops adjustments. To better forecast, adjust and coordinate manpower requirements, airports are turning to optimization software.

The workforce landscape
A 2018 ACI study reports that in 2017 US airports employed 11.5 million people with an associated payroll of over US$428bn and an economic output that exceeded US$1.4tn. Some US airports have especially large employee counts, such as Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International with 63,000 workers and Los Angeles International with 59,000 workers.

While most employees at an airport work for private companies such as airlines, contractors and concessionaires, others work for the federal government or the municipality owning the airport. Despite their different mandates, all need to manage staff effectively to keep operations seamless and passengers satisfied.

Long-term planning for operational roles can be challenging when vacation plans, employee preferences, service level agreements and possible disruptions need to be considered. Workers’ positions need to be adequately staffed and coordinated, and operations must remain agile and profitable. Schedulers traditionally create work rosters manually in spreadsheets. This method is error-prone and becomes more cumbersome as operations become more complex. Spreadsheets need human manipulation to adjust for new circumstances. They are not conducive to managing complex and unexpected changes in real time or capable of optimizing work schedules. Additionally, they don’t accommodate employees’ requests for work schedule changes via mobile portals.

Optimizing the workforce schedule
Here’s an example of how optimization software effectively manages rosters. A major airport services organization previously used spreadsheets to plan and adjust work shifts for ramp workers. On the day of operations, workers’ clock-in and clock-out times were captured but could not be automatically reconciled for work evaluation or payroll. This is important because the company needed to account for actually worked versus planned hours. Also, adjusting work shift schedules for sick leave, vacation requests, holidays and shift changes was time consuming.

On the ramp, dispatchers previously scheduled only a set number of six workers or a multiple of six workers to load or unload an aircraft. This often resulted in crew sizes being too big or too small. After deploying a workforce management solution, the company was able to dynamically optimize work shift schedules. It factors in sick leaves, vacation requests, holidays and shift changes and reconciles employees’ time and attendance data with the actual hours worked. This information is then shared with the company’s payroll system. Through the solution’s powerful optimizers, real-time allocation of airport resources was achieved.

With this solution in place, a core team of four (or for bigger aircraft, up to 12 additional staff members) is dispatched to a plane and can be expanded in real time with additional staff. A team of 200 cross-trained ramp workers are on standby to work, where and when needed. They receive automated task allocations on their mobile devices and can accept assignments and then update their assignment status. The dispatcher manages by exception and only intervenes when necessary.

Critical performance features
Workforce management in the dynamic airport environment is a highly complex process which is differentiated by each entity’s governance, agreements, government and industry regulations, and corporate culture. Workforce management software accommodates these criteria and optimizes business outcomes based on a company’s preferences.

Today’s most advanced workforce management solutions offer critical performance features, such as the ability to:

  • Use daily working time demand planning scenarios based on business needs, which are accurate to the minute and updated in real time;
  • Provide vacation planning functionality to capture, verify and automatically approve vacation requests, while considering minimum staffing requirements;
  • Offer automated schedule creation and publication, while supporting all planning strategies, such as fixed shift patterns, free rosters, working time flexibility, employee participation, use of external service providers, and combined and multi-stage procedures;
  • Categorize and manage absences (all day/part of day), while automatically checking the effects on service level agreements;
  • Inform employees about schedule changes, while continuously monitoring planned and actual deviations;
  • Communicate each employee’s deployment data via a mobile employee portal;
  • Classify and aggregate working time, payroll, accounting, timesheet data processing and corrections, and working time evaluations, etc.;
  • Create reporting sheets and dashboards; and
  • Change business requirements easily without programming efforts.

Given today’s fluid air transportation sector and airports’ heightened need for greater agility, it is understandable why they are turning to solutions that optimize their most important asset – their workforce.

Going forward, planning also will need to be prioritized as the airlines look to resume new schedules. Making basic assumptions that address ‘what if’ scenarios will be essential. Sophisticated planning solutions that apply various evaluation criteria (i.e., expected seat load factor, number of employees needed on the ground and in the aircraft, service level agreements, etc.) based on key performance indicators will facilitate effective planning and enable airlines to resume operations.

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