People per plane

I will be the first to admit that pilots can be pretty myopic and focus only on their own issues and causes, especially when it comes to pay and/or job advancement or security. While a few of these grumblings may be misplaced, most aren’t. A few, sometimes, just aren’t understood or realized.

I’ll give you an example. It’s a common refrain that airlines plan on X number of pilots and flight attendants—often lumped together as crews—per airframe on the property. On the low end it might be eight to nine pilots, and on the high end it might be an average of 11; the most common is 10 pilots/5 crews, and wide-body international birds might need as many as 14. But that isn’t the end of it by any stretch.

Each airplane must support the livelihoods of others whose livelihood is to support the airplane. For instance, the airline must carry a certain number of mechanics, dispatchers, fuelers, cleaners, accountants, advertising folks, et cetera, to get the job done. The more airplanes in the fleet, the more people who are needed. At the height of the bloated payrolls in the early 2000s, many airlines averaged more than 100 employees per ship. Now, that number is much lower.

Some of this is a result of contracting out certain services (which could be the topic of a number of books, let alone this blog), and some of it is a result of more efficiency, especially with regard to computing power. The most obvious example of this is the severe reductions in the number of ticket agents, thanks to the ability to check in at home or at an airport kiosk. The days of standing in a long line every time you go to the airport are over.

When I got hired at Comair, I went on a tour of the company offices. One thing that stood out as a shock to me was the bags and bags of torn ticket stubs that had to be reconciled by hand. Same with the monthly pilot payroll summary sheets. No more. Those items are totally automated, and many of those jobs were eliminated.

Likewise, we and every other airline had a staff of people whose job was to sift through lost bags and find the owners. Today, that is much easier and faster, and it requires fewer people because of the new industrywide tear-proof bag tags that are bar-coded. A scan gun can save tons of time and money when a bag is lost. If the bag tag does get separated, then it becomes much more work-intensive. Thank goodness, that’s rare.

But some things never change. Pilots still fly the airplanes, and the FARs do much to dictate the staffing of crews. Likewise with dispatchers, who are also required, and whose work days are legally limited. One dispatcher can handle a fair number of flights, so adding one airplane may or may not lead to new jobs in that department. But at some point, you will need to spread the workload. Crew schedulers, fuelers, and gate agents—actual, at-the-gate agents, not the ticket counter—are still needed as well, and are only added when the number of airplanes added to the fleet (or flights are added to the schedule) forces the workforce to be grown. Some of those skilled employees are more expensive than the non-skilled workers: mechanics, pilots, avionics techs, even the mechanics for the airport ground equipment.

The new industry average for employees per plane is now closer to 85-90. A friend at Southwest tells me that theirs is 62. Keep all this in mind when you see your ticket price. It covers a lot: employees beyond the crew; spare parts; fuel; lease payments. If you see 10 people at the airport who directly affect your flight, there are dozens more you don’t see whom you can’t travel without, just like you don’t see the new tires and fuel pumps that were put on the airplane late at night, or the facilities to store all of those parts.

I’m not always a fan of workforce efficiency improvements and the lost jobs that come with them, but it is the basis of capitalism, and all of us have a certain level of price sensitivity. After all, even I buy tickets on occasion, and I will be the first to admit that price is the most important factor. And yes, I will check in at home whenever I can.—By Chip Wright

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One Response to “People per plane”

  1. Mark Rindler says:

    On a recent UAL flight in a B-737 700/800 series as a passenger, after the doors had closed I noticed the emergency exit row seats were empty. I was informed that anyone who wanted to sit there would have to pay a $90.00 upgrade fee. I thought that was crazy, why even go through the expense of building the emergency exits in the first place as most airline accidents that required quick evacution (seconds can count) were successful when competent passengers were seated at those rows. That’s why kids can’t sit there. So upon further investigation, including a letter to UAL, surprise there, it still goes unanswered, I spoke with the FAA. They informed that there was no requirement to fill those seats as the crew has to demonstrate that it can successfully evacuate the aircraft using what they have. Good luck, with that. Three “calm” flight attendants trying to evacuate a couple of hundred scared and maybe hysterical people. All for $90.00. Hope NTSB never has t o make a recommendation to the FAA that the regs need to be changed because a few dozen people were found dead tyring to figure out how to open the emergency doors. (to the crew’s credit after my discussion, they did move some folks into those seats)

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