Ilze Straute is in charge of flight deck and cabin crew rostering at airBaltic. This means that she works out the schedules of more than 500 airBaltic pilots and flight attendants from almost 30 different countries. Some might wonder how Ilze manages to cope with such a heavy work load, but her determination, optimism and positive outlook on life make her job look like a pleasant walk in the park.

Baltic Outlook’s traditional first question: how did you come to work at airBaltic?

Before joining the airline, I worked as a quality director at the DPD courier company. After a while, I felt the need for additional challenges and decided that it would be good if I could find employment in a large and established company in Latvia. Eventually, I saw an airBaltic advertisement for a vacancy in ground operations and decided to apply. However, I was unexpectedly offered the chance to submit my candidacy for a different position – that of crew planning manager. Although I felt that I wasn’t entirely suitable for the job, I followed my intuition and applied anyway. Now almost eight years have passed since I began working in that position. If in one of my previous places of employment I’d felt that I had exhausted my potential for further growth after five years, then here the work is so interesting and exciting that I can’t imagine doing anything else, at least not at this point in my life.

What does your work position entail?

Planning in my department is divided into four segments: the next budget year, the next month, the current month and operational planning. My duty is to set up a strategic plan, or a plan of the airline’s necessary human resources for all of the following year. Together with the personnel department and the airBaltic Training Centre, we have to predict how many people might leave the airline, how many new employees we might hire, and take many different factors into account that affect the planning of our flights. For example, we need to provide career growth opportunities for our pilots and flight attendants in accordance with a transparent system that everyone understands. It’s a bit easier for us to fill flight attendant vacancies, as a sufficient number of people apply for these positions right here in Latvia. However, we do have to recruit airplane pilots from outside of Latvia as well. That involves deciding how many foreign pilots we will attempt to hire and how many of our own co-pilots we will train to increase their qualifications. We use special optimisation software programmes that help us a great deal. For example, when we write out a flight plan, the programme calculates the volume of work that a single person can do in one day, which helps us to arrive at a plan and a budget for the following year.

How do the other future planning segments work?

The next phase that my colleagues implement is the planning of a monthly work schedule. The pilots and flight attendants receive this schedule on the 20th of each month for the following month. This planning process is made more complicated by the fact that each employee can make six requests per month, be they for days off or for specific flights. Of course, it’s hard to fulfil everybody’s requests. Some people might have to go pick up their kids after school, others might have to get married, and still others might be going through a divorce. Fortunately, nobody has had to remain unmarried due to their flight schedules! [Laughs.] Once the schedule has been published, the dispatchers begin the mediumterm planning. That includes last-minute changes such as the types of aircraft that will be used or staff scheduling switches that crew members have arranged amongst themselves. Dispatchers are also responsible for the final planning phase, which involves planning the flights for today and tomorrow and making sure that they are all properly staffed.

Judging from the impression created by Hollywood films, flight crews have dream jobs: breakfast in London, a weekend in Barcelona and dinner in Paris. What is a work day really like for the pilots and flight attendants at airBaltic?

With few exceptions, we fly only within Europe, which is why most flight crews have one or two flights per day and return home either that same evening or the following day. This means that they usually explore other parts of the world on weekends or during their holidays. If our planes get dispatched to conduct flights elsewhere in cooperation with other airlines, then that plane’s crew members stay in the city to which they have been assigned. This was the case last year for airBaltic planes that were sent to Beirut, Milan and Pisa.

What is the hardest thing about your job?

The hardest thing is my ability to empathise with our employees’ requests to be on particular flights, to take a day off or to begin a holiday on a particular date. For example, a young mother might not have anybody else who can take her child home from kindergarten. Someone else might be looking forward to going on a long-planned vacation, where everything has been reserved and paid for in advance. Looking at each individual situation, I sometimes have to make some very painful decisions. On the other hand, we can’t base our flight schedule only on the preferences of our staff, especially if we have requests coming from 500 different people, each with their own needs and desires. I can’t favour one person over another, as that would be neither honest nor professional. I have to concentrate on the big picture and not on individual employees. It’s impossible for me to make everybody entirely happy about their assigned schedules, but with 500 colleagues’ work plans to draw up, I try to set up the most optimal scheme from a more distanced and overall point of view.

Since February 1, the number of hours flown by pilots and flight attendants has been subject to completely new regulations. What changes have been introduced and why?

The new regulations are designed to reduce fatigue for all of our flight crew members. Our priority has always been safety, and these measures are meant to decrease the risk of pilots and flight attendants being tired during flights. If a flight crew has worked during the night, for example, then it is assigned a sufficiently long rest period to ensure complete recovery. Here we also use the most advanced software programs to estimate the fatigue level of each flight crew member before every flight. In that way, we hope to ensure that our employees continue to deliver great service and that flight safety is not compromised in any way. 

What do you do to combat fatigue?

I have adapted an Oriental outlook on things, which makes my daily life and my work much easier. I am convinced that every person we meet and every situation we experience can teach us something. If we don’t learn the lesson, then we will get tired because we will be fruitlessly flapping our wings like moths against a window. But if in the daily rush of things we take the time to stop and listen to our inner voice, listen to others and examine the situation at hand, then we will arrive at the right solution. God gives us that which we need and not that which we want. I recently returned from my third vacation in China. I’ve started to learn Chinese and to gradually understand what people tell me on the street. I can say simple phrases, but I still have to work on my pronunciation, because the locals seem to have quite a lot of problems understanding me! [Laughs.] I really enjoy travelling and try to go somewhere at least twice a year. My favourite places to visit are still China and Nepal. BO