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It's Time to Say Goodbye to Scheduling Air Traffic Controllers in Excel

Updated: Nov 9, 2022

Can you imagine life before the spreadsheets? In fact, because spreadsheets are so entrenched in our everyday work, it can be hard to recognize when it is time to phase them out and adopt a new approach that can help us navigate the complex times that we are living.

Although spreadsheets scheduling is so common across all industries and working environments, it doesn't mean it is a good thing. And this is especially relevant in highly regulated industries like Air Traffic Control, where the rostering method must provide a high degree of flexibility and resilience. In this article, we will analyze the main caveats of Excel-based rostering for Air Traffic Controllers and see what solutions we have at hand to finally put spreadsheets scheduling to a long-needed sleep.

1. It's impossible to build the optimum ATCO schedule in Excel

According to an old article in Forbes, Excel might be the most dangerous software on the planet. From security flaws to lack of data validation and integrity, Excel has them all. Although it allows everyone to implement their own data integrity checks using macros and scripting, the complexity it brings far outweighs the gains. There's a time and a place where you might afford to make a manual mistake. It's not the case when doing the roster for Air Traffic Controllers, where the shift schedule must comply with different work regulations, fatigue management requirements, employee licenses needed to control different sectors, traffic levels and other unforeseen disruptions.

Building a roster that satisfies all ATCO scheduling constraints requires the evaluation of tens of millions of possible combinations for a team with just a few employees. When using a spreadsheet, the most we can do is to follow a fixed, repetitive shift cycle and rotate all employees according to it. That falls far behind any decent workforce scheduling optimization that can be automated using a rostering platform.

2. Adapting Excel schedules to changes is a nightmare

Planning managers spend hundreds of hours each year making schedules in Excel to be compatible with all work regulations and different legislation. If they are required to make a change in their schedule, it drags them to a halt, it requires deleting old cells, adding new cells, switching colors, which is very prone to error. Bulk changes waste additional hours of their already very misused time.

Excel scheduling lacks the possibility to adapt to unexpected changes in schedule, for example, if an ATCO becomes ill and unable to do their shift. Rescheduling an ATCO without messing up the whole schedule is not an easy task in Excel.

3. Fine-tuning schedules in Excel is a pain for everyone

Excel templates are helpful, but it can take a lot of time and energy to customize them. Learning Excel is hard and it takes a lot of time to tweak an Excel template into the format that you want. It would be much more efficient to use online employee scheduling software that does the heavy lifting for you, compared to tweaking your Excel template weekly. And this is without considering different scheduling constraints that must be accommodated in the roster - minimum rest time between shifts, fair workload distribution, taking staff working preferences into account and hundreds of other parameters. How do you do that using only spreadsheets?

The secret to building the optimum employee schedule for Air Traffic Controllers is using a rostering automation platform. In this era of digitization, there is no other way around it. Spreadsheets can only offer so much, and they're time-consuming to build, edit and maintain. SkyRoster, on the other hand, can manage all these moving pieces much faster and more reliably. All constraints are analyzed with each new change, planning conflicts are detected automatically and the Planning Managers are assisted by intelligent scheduling algorithms in taking the best decisions.

Moreover, in Excel, there's an inability to find the most appropriate staff member for the job. In ATC rostering, this detail is critical, as we must assign shifts only to ATCOs with valid licenses to control certain sectors.

4. Sharing Excel schedules with employees is difficult

Employee scheduling is a bigger, more complicated topic than what Excel can handle regarding the collaborative aspect of the rostering process, as well. The entire spreadsheets-based scheduling process is slow and it doesn't encourage feedback loops. First, you have to go through the tedious process of printing the schedule and making it available to every employee. Then you have to get your employees to acknowledge the receipt by signing the paper file or by another offline form of agreement. Finally, your schedules are not easily editable, meaning if you need to make any changes, you have to re-do the whole process all over again. Employee scheduling is about much more than simply assigning shifts to different cells in a spreadsheet, but unfortunately, that is almost all that Excel can handle.

When employees cannot share their schedules easily, it can be a major inconvenience. The process of entering employee schedules in Excel is not only time-consuming but also has a high chance of error. To solve this issue, an automated scheduling platform allows you to enter, update, and distribute your employees’ schedules in a simple and efficient manner. Re-adapting the schedule is simple and secure, with the platform running multiple data integrity checks for each change. Sharing the roster is as simple as clicking the Publish button. With each new update, all employees are notified automatically and will see their shifts in real-time, on their mobile device.

5. Excel cannot manage shift swapping easily

With a lot of effort and patience, you managed to do a perfectly balanced shift schedule in Excel. Now, it's time to print a few tens or hundreds of copies of this schedule and hand one to every employee. Two days after the schedule is out, you receive a shift swap request from two employees. How do we handle this in Excel? Well, we would need to get the approval for the swap from both employees, then we would need to make the modifications to the Excel roster. Of course, this would not be over. For every modification of the Excel schedule, we would need to re-print tens or hundreds of copies of the roster once again and redistribute them to our employees. We can definitely do better!

An automated rostering platform is able to handle shift swap workflows much more easily. Each employee can request a shift swapping with a press of a button. If it is approved by the second employee, the system requests the final approval from the Planning Manager. Once the shift swapping is approved, it is automatically displayed in all rosters across the platform, instantly.

6. Tracking working hours is a mess

When the shift schedule is done in Excel, then the worked hours and overtime must be computed separately by the Planning Manager, crossing his fingers that no mistakes were made. Even if the computation is correct, a mistake can appear when the data is moved from file to file or when it is forwarded to the payroll department.

Even this process becomes much easier and secure with SkyRoster. Using its automated reporting, you won’t need to spend countless hours calculating payroll. You won’t need to go through reports or overtime checks. The software automatically prepares a payroll report once the roster is published. These reports can then be forwarded to the payroll department or external providers.

7. Excel schedules are hard to follow on mobile devices

Let's face it. Reading a spreadsheet on your phone is not an enjoyable task. But, in today's digital world, you spend a great deal of your day on your phone. Wouldn't it be nice to have access to your staff schedule right on your mobile device?

With SkyRoster, you have a scheduling platform in your pocket. And it provides much more benefits than Excel does, but in a real-time application that can be accessed from anywhere via your phone or computer. The SkyRoster platform allows staff to check their schedules and request time off via web and mobile apps. Each change is saved instantly and synced across the platform, so you no longer have to trouble about whether or not you have the latest copy. And, most importantly, you'll never have to worry about an employee saying they didn't know they were scheduled again. SkyRoster is flexible, easy to use, and always within reach on your phone.

While this list of reasons is far from being comprehensive, it details the most important ones, those that are worth being analyzed by every Air Navigation Service Provider. If only a small, marginal improvement can be done in at least a few of those points, then why postpone it?

It's time to put Excel scheduling in ATC to sleep once and for all. The safety of our skies depends on the well-being of our Air Traffic Controllers. Their well-being is directly correlated with their long-term shift schedule quality. Can we afford to leave this up to Excel?

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