As I wrote this, American Airlines was dealing with a crisis of its own making. Due to a computer glitch, they had a scenario in which more than 15,000 flights might not have been staffed between December 17 and January 1—one of the most important travel periods of the year. How, you might ask, does this happen?

Every airline has some form of trip trading, drops, pickups, et cetera, that pilots and flight attendants can use to adjust their schedule when the monthly lines come out. Some airlines are more flexible than others, but all have rules, policies and procedures in place to ensure adequate staffing.

Each airline defines “adequate” differently, and what one company feels would be a razor-thin or negative staffing model might be one that another embraces. Generally speaking, the models are based on known assumptions as well as a few guesses. Companies will use historical data to figure out how many employees are likely to call out sick, how many of those sick calls will come from line holders versus reserves, how many will run into issues with commuting, and how many extras are needed based on potential bad weather. There is also a bit of plain guessing involved.

As long as the computer software shows that staffing will be sufficient, a fair amount of leeway will be given in schedule modifications. Crews can drop, add, and trade based on the rules in a particular union contract. I don’t know all of the details involved in the American fiasco, but somewhere a human being screwed up, and those flights suddenly were understaffed by at least one pilot.

Every union contract has language in it that deals with scheduling snafus after the schedules are awarded, and generally the company has to eat the mistake. This situation, however, is different. Nobody can afford to have thousands, or even hundreds, of flights get cancelled over Christmas. It’s in the best interest of both sides to work out a deal that entices pilots to pick up as much of the flying as possible. Some won’t, as they may never have been off for Christmas or are certain they won’t be home for Christmas next year. But many will come in, especially if a monetary incentive is offered.

This story is a big deal because of the scope of the problem and the time of year, but it’s by no means unique or unheard of. I was at Comair in 2005 when the scheduling software failed, and more than 1,100 flights were cancelled (also over Christmas). I’ve also seen other issues come up that threatened scheduling integrity, and I’ve learned that the software that handles all of this is incredibly complex, and sometimes, a problem comes up because of a hole in the code that simply needed the right circumstances to become known.

I’m sure American will power through this, but it’s a lesson all can learn from: Take nothing for granted, and when it comes to the holidays, always ask for them off. You just never know when something will work in your favor.—Chip Wright