Staff planning - what can be learned from the experiences at Ryanair and Düsseldorf Airport

by Dr. Jörg Herbers

Generally, workforce management is considered an area that is not typically in the public eye, which makes the current pile of press reports about the difficulties of staff planning all the more surprising.

What do the Ryanair cancellations have to do with staff planning?

Ryanair Manager Michael Hickey has resigned. Following thousands of flight cancellations, the chief operations officer handed in his notice and will leave the company at the end of October. Up until the end of September, he was responsible for the pilots’ rosters as the first cancellations were announced which, according to the airline, were due to difficulties with the pilots’ annual leave.

Between November and March, it is estimated that a further 18,000 of the total 800,000 flights will be canceled. This affects almost 400,000 passengers, in addition to the 300,000 already affected.

In a statement by Ryanair Head of Communications Robin Kiely, the cancellations were caused by pilots accumulating excessive vacation days, due to the large number of flights in the summer. There were problems with vacation allocation, because of a new legal provision starting in 2018. It requires the allocation of vacation to match the calendar year. The annual vacation year at Ryanair had been from April to March. As a result, many pilots had to take vacation and were therefore not available for duty.

There is much speculation as to whether there is more to the cancellations than meets the eye. At the very least, it is astonishing that the cause of the current problems is a 2-year-old amendment to pilot guidelines. According to Markus Wahl of the pilots’ union Cockpit: “We have known for two years that vacation had to be taken this year.”

Can staff planning mistakes have such enormous consequences? Actually, Ryanair is not the only current example of far-reaching consequences of workforce management on the service offering. Passengers who flew from Düsseldorf Airport in the summer months sometimes needed a lot of patience and strong nerves - during the main vacation time in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), of all times.

What were the problems at Düsseldorf Airport?

Right on time for the start of the summer vacation in NRW, the situation at Düsseldorf Airport reached a crisis point. According to media reports, passengers were already complaining in July about the hour-long delays at security checks. The conditions were described at times as chaotic. The situation escalated in mid-September. Thousands of travelers had to wait up to an hour and a half in the security areas. The queues trailed the length and breadth of the departure terminal. Some travelers lost their temper and started swearing and pushing. “We had to assume that the situation was no longer manageable", said a spokesman for the federal police at Düsseldorf Airport.

At the beginning of September, Düsseldorf Airport had already announced that they were considering legal action against Kötter Security, the company responsible for security on behalf of the German federal police. For weeks, there had been long delays in the terminals because the security control was not adequately staffed, said the airport.

Airport CEO Thomas Schnalke adds: “The situation (...) is untenable and is extremely harmful to our company”. Improvements were always announced, but never implemented. As far as possible, the airport now wants to introduce its own replacement measures.

The trade union Verdi criticizes the lack of breaks and the strain on the deployed staff. According to Verdi, the security checks are about 70 employees short. The bottleneck is endangering the safety at Düsseldorf Airport.

The works council and Verdi are holding Kötter and the federal police responsible for the situation. The chronic staff shortage at the security checks is the result of incorrect staff planning. Subsequently, deployed staff members have to work up to six hours without a rest.

“In this job, a security officer needs a short break after two hours. Otherwise inevitable mistakes will occur. You just don’t notice them anymore”, said works council member Steffen Demuth. There is no time for a short break, especially in vacation periods. Demuth adds: “Our work is not physically strenuous, but mentally very demanding”. Due to the increased strain, the sickness rate rose to around 20% per day - from the usual figure of about 6%.

Was this caused by incorrect and late forecasts?

Verdi Trade Union Secretary Özay Tarim claims that incorrect forecasts of passenger traffic during the vacation was responsible for the situation. The federal police had adjusted the so-called control time forecast too late and made a short-term request for an extra 30 000 hours of control time, in addition to what was already planned. For a ground handling service provider, this was too late to be able to react. Tarim explains that due to the necessary security clearance and training times, new staff could only be deployed after approximately six months.

According to Managing Director Peter Lange, Kötter Aviation Security will now further optimize internal processes, in order to be able to react more quickly in the future. In addition to recruitment and training of additional security control staff, the package also contains measures to reduce sickness rates and to further digitize planning and control processes. The planning should be more transparent for everyone involved.

Not an easy situation, as the next expected peak is just around the corner. The autumn vacation in NRW starts on October 23, 2017.

What can be learned from the experiences at Ryanair and Düsseldorf Airport?

Ryanair and Kötter are two prominent examples of how sensitively service offerings can react to staff planning. This is especially true in the aviation sector because the planning of many participants has to be synchronized there. Airport, ground-handling operators and airlines (as well as federal and state police in respect of aviation security checks) depend on each other for their quality of service and operate in a highly agile environment.

Ultimately, external business drivers, that cannot be directly influenced, must be accurately forecasted and aligned with a flexible, adaptable, service offering. In order to protect employees, many regulations have to be considered. Legal requirements and organizational issues also require compliance with certain notice periods and lead times. It is imperative that the latter be taken into account in the planning process design. Otherwise, the options for a timely reaction to an unplanned development in planning assumptions are limited.

Are Ryanair and Kötter individual cases?

Those who study the press releases carefully will have determined that for some time now, reports are piling up that point to staff planning problems, to a greater or lesser degree. This includes problems in retirement homes due to low staff capacity or lack of qualifications, bottlenecks in public transport due to short-term staff shortages, or strikes in university clinics in light of poor working conditions and employee strain.

The cause of the problem must be considered on an individual basis. However, in many cases, it appears that errors are made in the timely alignment of working time requirements and working time availability. In particular, a sufficient, seasonal reserve planning and the possibility to quickly and flexibly mobilize additional staff capacity with planning fluctuations, seems to be a widespread cross-sector weakness.

Have you also experienced the consequences of faulty rostering?

This article was originally written and published in German and therefore links to sources in the German language. The original article can be read here.



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About the author

  • Dr. Jörg Herbers

    Jörg Herbers is Senior Vice President Workforce Management at Inform GmbH. He specializes in all topics related to staff planning and optimization.

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