Following news today, that planned strike action by rail workers on the four days after Easter weekend has been called off at the last minute after a court injunction, commuters throughout the UK will no doubt be breathing a sigh of relief. Although the rail companies will share in that relief, there will have been quite a bit of work done behind closed doors this week preparing for the planned action. In this week’s Figure It Out, we’ve considered the decisions that companies have to make when faced with strike action and some of the strategies they employ. A key activity for any organisation that provides services to the public is scheduling shifts in order to meet demand for these services, whilst considering a number of constraints related to supply, for example, maximum shift length and holiday conditions. Operational Research (OR) modelling is frequently used to support this decision making and it is likely that OR methodologies were behind a lot of the work done this week to figure out which services to run during the strike. The industrial action that was planned for next week would have hit commuters hard, as it was due to take place from Tuesday to Friday inclusive between 6am and 10am and then again between 6pm and 10pm. We took a look at how each rail company handled this and found that there were several different approaches employed. East Coast Trains, for example, planned to run a full service until 4.30pm and a reduced service from 4.30pm – 6.30pm but they were not going to run any trains after 6.30pm during the strike. Virgin Trains, however, planned to run a reduced service but would have continued to run during the strike hours. It appears therefore that East Coast trains used a model with the condition that it will try to run as full a service as possible for as long as possible, making sure workers that were striking during the evening rush hour would cover the non-strike hours and non-striking workers would cover the morning rush hour. Virgin’s model however appeared to be focused on running trains during the rush hour, even if it meant running a reduced service all day. In order to figure out which strategy is best would require some customer analysis. We can assume that both companies used customer profiling as part of their models in some way but we don’t know who used it best; if most of East Coast’s customers travel before 6.30pm and their morning and afternoon services are usually well utilised and if Virgin’s customers mostly travel at peak times, then both companies will have satisfied the majority of their customers. And what about BA? As you will have no doubt seen on the news or been affected by yourself, BA Cabin crew staff went on strike for 3 and 4 days from March 20th to 22nd and March 27th to 30th respectively. Between March 20th and 22nd 1,100 of the 1,950 flights scheduled were cancelled. 70% of short-haul flights and 40% of long-haul flights were cancelled from Heathrow, with 50% of flights to New York (JFK) being cancelled.

Source: BA website (Cancellations in flights due to take off or land before 1600GMT (Total flights scheduled in brackets) on March 22) So did BA adopt a strategy to reduce the impact of the strikes? Most probably, with a greater percentage of short-haul flights cancelled over long-haul, one would like to think that they wanted to give passengers more of a chance of getting a replacement flight – what with more airlines and more flights operating short-haul trips. Or maybe it was just that other staff who took the place of cabin crew fancied a trip somewhere more exotic and further away. Is this the first time BA may have had to adopt a strategy to deal with strikes? Probably not, in August 2005 all flights from Heathrow were ‘grounded’ in support of 600 sacked catering staff, leaving 75,000 passengers stranded. Only time will tell whether BA’s strategy has helped minimise the impact of the strikes, both on the number of people affected and its long-term reputation. I for one will be looking for alternatives to BA next time I fly. So whether it’s trains or planes, there’s no doubt that OR is involved in helping companies deal with industrial action. Now all we have to do is figure out how to use it to figure out how to pick the journey that won’t get cancelled, let us know if you have any suggestions…! .