Parts per airplane

Any business that uses aircraft tends to deal in some sort of ratio, either consciously or unconsciously. For example, one statistic that often gets lost in the shuffle is the number of employees per airplane. When the airlines were living high on the hog prior to September 11, it was not unusual to see ratios of more than one hundred employees per airplane. That included pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, dispatchers, accountants, ticket agents, marketing people, etc., all the way down to the office cleaning staff. Some of those jobs are indirectly related to the size of the fleet (such as that office cleaning staff), while others are directly related.

In the last decade, the number of employees per airframe has dropped dramatically thanks to increases in efficiencies, contracting out some jobs, and eliminating others. Ticketing kiosks and at home check-in capabilities have almost eliminated the need for ticket agents, and reservationists have been reduced to a skeleton staff by the increasing use of websites to sell and book tickets. Airlines have also, for better or worse, outsourced much of their maintenance. Southwest, long the model for efficiency, has fewer than 70 per airplane, which is still substantially better than the competition.

Jobs on or handling the aircraft are driven entirely by the number of airplanes on the property. Most airlines, for example, staff airplanes with somewhere between nine and 10 pilots per “narrow body” airframe. This takes into account the typical schedule at the company, vacations, the average number of sick days used, training, reserve staffing complement, and whatever in-house fudge factor is thrown in for good measure. If the airframe is a “wide body,” such as a Boeing 767, Airbus A340, or Boeing 747 that flies long-haul or international flights, then the number of pilot jobs created climbs to an average of 14 per ship. A few airlines claim to staff based on projected block hours to be flown, but in the end, the people-to-airplane ratio is pretty accurate.

Similar ratios exist for other employee groups, such as flight attendants, dispatchers and crew schedulers. Corporate operators often use a similar concept, though it may not be as readily apparent until there are several aircraft on the property. However, the numbers may change depending on whether or not the pilot(s) operate more than one type of equipment. Likewise, pilots that also work as mechanics will reduce the ranks of employees. Flight schools too tend to have a rough correlation between employees and airplanes.

As the airlines begin to realign themselves to the changing economy, which includes new deliveries and retirements (both people and airplanes), it bears watching the fleet counts to see what their needs will be in the coming months and years. Because, remember, in the end, the numbers don’t lie.

–Chip Wright