Meet the BALPA Schedulers
As part of our Flight Safety team, BALPA employs two Scheduling Specialists, Simon Roberts and Ian White, to work closely with Company Councils and the companies to ensure rosters are fair and to help stamp out fatigue. We caught up with them to talk about what day-to-day life looks like for them and the current challenges they’re facing…
Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to work in scheduling?
Simon: I started at Dan-air in the late 80s in the crewing department, staying there until British Airways took over, having been part of the transition team along with Ian. After this, I went to Monarch for a summer season and then took a break from airlines to work outside of aviation, which included scheduling crew for Eurostar. Following this, I joined GB Airways as Crew Scheduling Manager and was there until easyJet took over in 2008, which is when I joined BALPA.
Ian: I started my career with Dan-air in the late 70s and was mainly involved in the support of Crew Scheduling with the design and implementation of integrated operational systems. When Dan-air were taken over by BA I, like Simon, was part of the team who stayed behind to make sure it was a seamless transition. I then joined Virgin Atlantic as a rostering officer, which I hadn’t done before but thoroughly enjoyed the chance to work on long-haul rosters. Eventually, I spent five years as the Head of Crew Scheduling, which involved working with BALPA and Unite as scheduling agreements evolved.
What does a typical day look like for a BALPA Scheduling Specialist?
Simon: It really is diverse. I could be in the office helping an individual member one day, then out and about with a Company Council somewhere in the UK the next. This role can be intense and is very variable.
We also get involved in FTL-related campaigns. The largest one really being the ‘Wake Up’ campaign, in which BALPA opposed the European Aviation Safety Agency’s Flight Time Limitations (EASA FTLs). We spent a huge amount of time dissecting the regulations and identifying areas that we felt were insufficient. This information was then used within the campaign to highlight the key issues to MPs and the membership alike.
Ian: It is definitely variable. Last week I was with Virgin on Monday, Flybe on Tuesday, BMI on Thursday and West Atlantic on Friday, so four completely different operations, long-haul operator to cargo. Sometimes you do feel like you have to ‘take one chip out and put a new one in’. There are also different levels of sophistication in the scheduling and roster practices. Some of the smaller airlines probably take up more of our time as they haven’t always got the expertise in house, so look to us for help.
We’ve also become quite heavily involved appearing as expert witnesses in employment tribunals and even a High Court case against Jet2. That particular case took an awful lot of time and as with anything legal, there is so much that can go wrong. The case was around whether rostering forms part of pay, hours and holiday. We lost initially but we appealed and in November last year we took the case to the High Court of Appeal, all three judges agreed with us and overturned the initial verdict.
Your role quite often sees you spanning your work across two departments; flight safety and industrial. How do you manage bouncing between these two areas?
Simon: It can be quite difficult. Where we find companies looking for loopholes, or grey areas, in the regulation, that’s when we have to go down a technical route seeking clarification from the CAA or EASA. We try to protect and mitigate bad practice from a flight safety perspective and then if this is unsuccessful we may have to look for a solution with our colleagues in the industrial team.
Ian: We do get involved in a lot of industrial issues, but we’ve also recently been with various Company Councils running ‘fatigue days’ with the company, reps and members. It’s important these days are approached from a flight safety perspective and not an industrial one and this is what encourages the companies to let us host them. We’ve done them in a fair few airlines now and we think they do work.
Simon: These ‘fatigue days’ also cross over with other members of the Flight Safety team, such as Head of Flight Safety, Dr Rob Hunter; Human Factors Scientist, Claire Coombes and Biomathematical Modeller, Andy Whale who are BALPA’s in-house expertise on fatigue. Where we find a problem in the way a rule is being adopted by an operator, we’re able to discuss it in-house and decide whether we need to look at it from a legal angle, flight safety angle, industrial angle, and so on; we may only be a small team but I feel we have considerable capability.
FTLs came in at the beginning of last year, has your job changed since then?
Simon: With the new rules starting to ‘bed in’ we’re now finding the airlines are trying to find ‘efficiencies’ in the rules, so we need to be fleet of foot to make sure we stay on top of this. We can’t have bad practices trending across airlines. Some airlines see pilots as expensive commodities and they want to ‘sweat that asset’ as much as they can. We need to be there to challenge this.
Ian: The old rules were pretty prescriptive and even then, operators were using these limits as targets. What’s happening now under EASA which is less prescriptive, is that we are seeing this happening more and more. We’re told by operators ‘it’s EASA-compliant’ and while it is, it needs to be underpinned by really intelligent and sensible fatigue management, and that’s where and why we’ve got to keep our eye on the ball.