Real-World Airline Crew Pairing Optimization: Customized Genetic Algorithm versus Column Generation Method

03/08/2020 ∙ by Divyam Aggarwal, et al. ∙ IIT Roorkee 4

Airline crew cost is the second-largest operating cost component and its marginal improvement may translate to millions of dollars annually. Further, it's highly constrained-combinatorial nature brings-in high impact research and commercial value. The airline crew pairing optimization problem (CPOP) is aimed at generating a set of crew pairings, covering all flights from its timetable, with minimum cost, while satisfying multiple legality constraints laid by federations, etc. Depending upon CPOP's scale, several Genetic Algorithm and Column Generation based approaches have been proposed in the literature. However, these approaches have been validated either on small-scale flight datasets (a handful of pairings) or for smaller airlines (operating-in low-demand regions) such as Turkish Airlines, etc. Their search-efficiency gets impaired drastically when scaled to the networks of bigger airlines. The contributions of this paper relate to the proposition of a customized genetic algorithm, with improved initialization and genetic operators, developed by exploiting the domain-knowledge; and its comparison with a column generation based large-scale optimizer (developed by authors). To demonstrate the utility of the above-cited contributions, a real-world test-case (839 flights), provided by GE Aviation, is used which has been extracted from the networks of larger airlines (operating up to 33000 monthly flights in the US).



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I Introduction

In the airline scheduling process (ASP), airline crew scheduling (CS) is considered as one of the most important planning activity, owing to multiple reasons. First, the crew cost is the second largest operating cost (after the fuel cost). Second, it’s optimization carries a huge potential for enormous cost savings (millions of dollars annually even with marginal improvements). Last, CS is to be performed in the presence of several complex constraints laid down by federations, labor unions, etc. in order to guarantee the safety of crew members. In the last three decades, the airline CS has received unprecedented attention from the operations research (OR) society, leading to the development of numerous CS optimization systems. Over past years, the expansion of airlines’ flight operations, to match the exponentially increasing air-travel demand, has lead to a tremendous increase in the number of flights, aircraft and crew members to be scheduled, leaving the state-of-the-practice obsolete. Hence, it is imperative to improve upon the existing optimization systems by leveraging-in the recent technological advancements, enhanced data handling capacities and speed of computations.

Airline crew scheduling is a combination of complex combinatorial optimization subproblems (NP-Complete and NP-Hard problems [1]). It is decomposed into two problems, namely, crew pairing and crew assignment problems which are solved sequentially. The former problem is aimed at generating a set of flight sequences (called a crew pairing) to cover a finite set of flight legs from an airline’s timetable in minimum cost, while satisfying several legality constraints linked to the federations’ safety rules, airline-specific regulations, labor laws, etc. The aim of the latter problem is to assign crew members to these optimal crew pairings. The scope of this paper is limited to the former problem.

In CPOP, crew pairings have to satisfy multiple legality constraints (as mentioned-above) in order to be classified as ‘operational/legal’. To solve the CPOP, it is required to develop a

legal crew pairing generation

approach in order to facilitate only legal crew pairings to the optimization phase. Depending upon the CPOP’s scale, legal pairings are generated in two ways: before the optimization phase and during the optimization phase. For each of these approaches, several optimization-based solution methodologies have been proposed in literature. These could be broadly categorized into two techniques: meta-heuristics or mathematical programming based solution approaches. Among the latter category,

Column Generation [3] is the most widely adopted technique which is proven to be successful for solving large-scale integer programs. It is an efficient search-space exploration technique which exploits the idea that the majority of variables in a large-integer program are non-basic in the optimal solution. Hence, it generates only those pairings which have a high-potential of bringing-in the associated benefits to the objective function. It is an exact method but it’s most successful heuristic implimentations, for solving CPOP, could be found in [4] & [5].

Among meta-heuristics, the most successful and widely adopted technique is the Genetic Algorithm (GA) which is population-based probabilistic-search method, inspired by the theory of evolution [6]. GAs with customized operators are known to be successful in solving a variety of combinatorial optimization problems ([7, 8]). Several GA-based CPOP solution approaches have been proposed in the literature which are broadly presented in Table I.

Literature Formulation Airline Flight Data Airlines
Instances Timetable Applicability* # Flights** # Pairings** Accessibility
[7] SCP Did not solve CPOP 11G 1,000 10,000 Public -
[9] SPP - 40R 823 43,749 Private -
[10] SCP Daily 28R 380 21,308 Private Multiple Airlines
[11] SCP Monthly 1R 2,100 11,981 Private Olympic Airways
[12] SCP Monthly 1R 710 3,308 Private Turkish Airlines
[13] - - 4R 506 11,116 Private Turkish Airlines
[14] SCP - 12R 714 43,091 Private Turkish Airlines

SCP stands for Set-Covering Problem formulation and SPP stands for Set-Partitioning Problem formulation. * Generated (#G)

or Real-world (#R) test-cases where # represents the number of test-cases being used for validation. ** The provided values are

the maximum among all the test-cases being used for validation.

TABLE I: An overview of the GA-based CPOP solution approaches from the literature

The research gap in this literature review could be recorded in two folds. First, in some of these instances, the results are obtained using a subset of the original search-space i.e. all possible legal pairings are not used ([11, 12]). Second, the other instances have been validated on the flight datasets of smaller airlines (a handful of pairings), operating in low-demand regions such as Greece, Turkey, etc. These GA-based solution approaches become obsolete when scaled to the medium-scale flight networks of bigger airlines, operating in the US. Hence, it is imperative to develop an efficient GA for optimizing such CPOPs.

In an attempt to address these limitations, the first contribution of this paper are related to the proposition of a customized Genetic Algorithm, with enhanced search-space exploration, for solving a real-world airline CPOP. This is achieved by enhancement of the initialization phase and genetic operators (crossover and feasibility-repair heuristic) using the CPOP’s domain-knowledge. With these enhancements, the proposed GA is able to generate crew pairing solutions with varying characteristics such as less number of deadhead flights, hotel nights, etc. which are amongst the key performance indicators (KPI), apart from the crew pairing cost, used by airlines for evaluating the performance of their CS. The other contribution of this paper is the comparison of the proposed GA with a column generation based large-scale airline crew pairing optimizer, referred to as CG-Optimizer, which has been developed by the authors and validated by GE Aviation. The utility of these contributions is demonstrated on a real-world medium-scale flight dataset (involving 830 flights and 430,873 legal pairings), extracted from the networks of large airlines operating in the US.

Ii Airline Crew Pairing Problem

In CPOP, the input data includes a finite set of flight schedule from the airline’s timetable, along with the pairings’ costing and legality rules. A crew pairing is a flight sequence to be flown by a crew member, beginning and ending at the same crew base. Other associated terminologies are explained with the help of a crew pairing example, shown in the Fig. 1.

Fig. 1: An example of a crew pairing beginning from crew base, DAL

In real-time operations, sometimes crew miss their flight connections due to uncertain events. As a result, they are transported to their scheduled airports either by road transportation (in case of same city airports) or by traveling as passengers in some other flights (in case of distant airports). These flights are called deadheads (Dhds). Airlines desire to minimize deadheads in their crew operations (ideally zero) in order to maximize their profits.

Ii-a Legal Crew Pairing Generation

As mentioned in Section I, it is imperative to develop a legal crew pairing generation approach in order to facilitate legal pairings to the optimization phase. In small- and medium-scale CPOPs, all legal pairings are generated explicitly before the optimization phase. The same approach is adopted in this work and a duty-network based parallel legal pairing generation algorithm [15] is used for generating all legal pairings explicitly. Interested readers are referred to [15] for an extensive review of the pairing generation literature too.

Ii-B Crew Pairing Optimization Problem

The goal of the optimization phase is to find a pairing subset from the generated set of all legal pairings in order to cover the given flights with the minimum cost possible. In literature, the CPOP is modeled either as a set-partitioning problem (SPP; each flight leg is allowed to be covered only once) or as a set-covering problem (SCP; over-coverage of flight legs i.e. deadheads are allowed). In this paper, the SCP formulation is adapted and modified to define the optimization problem for the proposed GA. It’s mathematical model is presented in Section III-G.

Iii Genetic Algorithm

This section presents a customized GA for solving medium-scale CPOPs of large airlines. For such problems, the number of legal pairings is so huge that it is intractable to consider all of them in the GA’s population. Hence, the proposed GA solves the underlying CPOP by initializing the population from smaller pairing sets and improving the population repeatedly by bringing-in new pairings from the rest of the search-space with the help of customized genetic operators. The overall procedure of the proposed GA is mentioned in lines 1-10 of the Algorithm LABEL:PseudoCode and its components are explained in the following subsections. First, the GA’s first population is initialized and afterwards, its main loop is performed in which selection, reproduction (crossover and mutation), and feasibility-repair operators are applied sequentially. In the presented work, these operators are either enhanced or replicated from algocf[htbp]     the works presented in [7, 11] & [16]. For simplicity, the generated list of all pairings is referred to as AllPairs.

Iii-a Chromosome Representation

As mentioned above, the length of each chromosome cannot be equal to the number of pairings in AllPairs list. Hence, in this work, a chromosome with 2-bits gene encoding is adapted, as shown in Fig. 2. In this chromosome structure, the first bit,

represents a binary variable corresponding to the pairing selected in the second bit,

(selected from the AllPairs). Moreover, being a single-objective optimization problem, it is desired to maintain diversity through additional means in order to prevent premature convergence. The chromosome structure, used in [16], is adopted in this work which is made up of two parts: expressed part (includes pairings that participate in evaluating the quality of the solution) and unexpressed part (includes pairings which are not part of the solution but are considered for maintaining diversity with-respect-to the expressed part). In this work, the fixed-length chromosome is used while the lengths of expressed and unexpressed parts are allowed to vary dynamically which is in contrast to the structure given in [16].

Fig. 2: Chromosome structure

Iii-B Deadhead-Minimizing Initialization Heuristic

Mostly in GAs, randomized initialization is performed for generating the initial population i.e. random bits are assigned to each gene. It is known that in the optimization algorithms, exploration is desired upfront and exploitation is desired subsequently. Hence, to support exploration initially and to save some runtime, it is important to generate a diverse as well as a reasonably good-quality initial population. In this work, an effective initialization heuristic, referred to as Dhd-minimizing Initialization Heuristic, is proposed which randomly selects pairing that brings less number of deadheads to the solution. This procedure is given in lines 12-22 of the Algorithm LABEL:PseudoCode. Though the resulting initial population is composed of reasonable good-quality feasible solutions, it also reflects a great extent of diversity.

Iii-C Selection

This operator is used for selecting the chromosomes which will become the parents for the reproduction of child chromosomes. In the proposed GA, a binary tournament selection operator is adopted in which two sets of two chromosomes, each, are formed randomly. Out of each of these sets, the parent with the best fitness value is passed on to the crossover phase.

Iii-D Crossover

Crossover phase is the transition phase in which the genetic information from the parent chromosomes is passed on to the next generation i.e. to reproduce new child chromosomes. In the literature, multiple crossover operators have been proposed such as one-point crossover, two-point crossover, uniform crossover, fusion crossover [7], etc. In the presented work, the following crossover operators are studied and compared.
Crossover1: The fusion crossover, proposed in [7]

, has been widely adopted in the CPOP’s literature and has been found to be most effective. In this crossover, probabilities, based on parents’ fitness, are used to decide the genes being passed to the child chromosome.

Crossover2: In order to improve the convergence rate, it is desired to incorporate greediness in the reproduction operators with the help of domain knowledge. One such example is proposed in [16]. With inspiration from the same work, a new crossover operator is proposed in this work for solving airline CPOPs. In this crossover, the expressed part of a child chromosome constitutes a zero deadhead solution which is made up of randomly selected pairings/columns from the parent chromosomes. The procedure for this crossover is given in lines 24-33 of the Algorithm LABEL:PseudoCode.
Both of these crossover operators are modified in order to generate two child chromosomes from two parent chromosomes by repeating the similar procedure for both of them.

Iii-E Mutation

After crossover, the mutation operator is applied to the resulting child chromosomes. The mutation operator is used to prevent the premature convergence i.e. to avoid getting stuck at local optima, by altering certain genes of the child chromosomes using some probability. In the presented work, two mutation operators are studied and compared, one is a bit-flip mutation operator, referred as Mutation1, and the other is the mutation operator proposed in [11], referred as Mutation2, which is dependent on the density of the fittest solution in the population. In Mutation1, if an gene is selected for mutation, then the is flipped from 0 to 1 or vice-versa. Whereas in Mutation2, if an gene is selected for mutation, then the is mutated from 0 to 1 with a probability equivalent to the percentage of 1s in the fittest individual and vice-versa.

Iii-F Feasibility-Repair Heuristic

After the crossover and mutation processes, the feasibility of the resulting child chromosomes is not guaranteed i.e. they may or may not cover all the given flights. Hence, a feasibility-repair heuristic is required to enforce the feasibility in the child chromosomes while at the same time it is desirable to maintain the fitness of the child chromosome during this repair. A repair heuristic, proposed in [7], is adapted in this work and is modified to involve a redundant-pairing removal step in the end. In this heuristic, a pairing with minimum quality index (given in Eq. 1) is selected for each uncovered flight leg.


The detailed procedure is given in [7]. A redundant-pairing removal step is added to this heuristic which tries to find and remove those pairings that covers the same flight legs as that of the whole solution without them. This step is explained in lines 35-41 of the Algorithm LABEL:PseudoCode.

Iii-G Fitness Evaluation

Fitness function is the objective function of the problem, and is used to evaluate the fitness value of a chromosome. In CPOP, the main objective is the minimization of the total crew pairing cost while covering all flights atleast once. Different airlines utilize different costing rules, making each fitness function unique. In this work, fitness function is given in Eq. 2 where and are the total number of pairings and flights to be covered respectively.


In order to be a feasible solution, the chromosome must satisfy the flight-coverage constraints, given in Eq. 3. In these equations, is the total cost of pairing; is the binary-decision variable which represents whether the pairing is selected in the solution () or not (); is an auxiliary binary variable which represents whether the flight is covered by pairing () or not (); and DhdPenalty is the deadhead penalty cost set by airlines.

Iii-H Population Replacement

The last step of the GA is the population replacement step where the surviving population from the parent and child chromosomes is selected to become the parent population for the next GA iteration, termed as generation. There are two main population replacement approaches: generational and steady-state approaches. In this work, generational approach is adopted in which the elitist population (best n chromosomes out of n parent and n child chromosomes are selected) is passed to the next generation.

Iv Computational Experiments

All the computational experiments in this work are performed with a real-world medium-scale test-case which includes 839 flights and a single crew base, DAL (Dallas, US). This test-case is provided by GE Aviation and has been carved out from the networks of US-based big airlines (operating upto 33000 monthly flights and upto 15 crew bases). It is found that 430,873 legal crew pairings are possible for this test-case which is enormously huge in comparison to the amount of pairings handled with GA-based approaches in the literature. In this work, all the algorithms are implemented using an alternative implementation of Python v3.6, called PyPy v3, improving the computational speeds by a great extent. All computations are performed on a HP Z640 workstation (2 X Intel Xeon Processor E5-2630v3 @2.40GHz and 8-Cores/16-Threads, enabled with multi-processing capabilities).

The parameter settings of the proposed GA, used in these experiments, are given in Table II.

Parameters Value
Population Size
Chromosome Length
Crossover Rate
Mutation Rate
TABLE II: Experimental settings of GA-parameters

It is seen that on increasing the population size, the number of GA generations may decrease but it does not affect the overall runtime because on increasing the population size, the generation time also increase. Due to different calculation times of the proposed operators, the overall runtime of the GA is selected as the termination criterion instead of the number of generations so as to carry out a fair comparison among multiple GA-runs. In [17], is proposed as the lower bound for the optimal mutation rate. With experiments, it is observed that this lower bound should be increased by a factor (3 in this work) in order to test the premature convergence. In this work, variants of GA operators are proposed which are either developed by the authors or adapted from the literature. To solve the above-mentioned test-case and similar problems, it is imperative to find the most effective combination of these operators. For this, four configurations of the GA are implemented and compared whose structure is shown in Table III.

Operators GA Configuration
Proposed Initialization Heuristic
TABLE III: Structure of GA-configurations

For each of these GA configuration, 10-runs with different random seeds (uniformly distributed between 0 and 1) are performed. The experimental results of these runs are summarized in Table 

LABEL:GAallruns and the comprative plots are shown in Fig. 3.

Runtime GAs Crew Pairing Cost (USD) # Deadheads
(sec) Best Worst Best Worst
70 GA1 2649823 57559 2494649 2710084 109545 977 1151
GA2 1417223 9380 1398427 1430115 15606 149 164
5000 GA1 980226 23091 964857 1037504 4004 35 49
GA2 1195229 225555 957832 1430115 9861 35 164
GA3 1192104 228745 949591 1430115 9861 30 164
GA4 993209 5337 987638 1001487 0904 06 21
TABLE IV: Experimental results of the GA-runs

First, the effect of the proposed deadhead-minimizing initialization heuristic is studied. For this, the best solution among the initial populations of GA1 and GA2 are compared (first two rows of Table LABEL:GAallruns). It is observed that the characteristics (number of deadheads and total cost) of the best initial solution from the GA2-runs are of reasonable high-quality in comparison to that of the GA1-runs. It is to be noted that the initialization runtime for these GA-configurations are almost equivalent because the additional time consumed by the proposed heuristic is compensated by the time required to repair the infeasibility of the solutions from random initialization. Moreover, GA2-runs leads to a better-cost crew pairing solution (best sol. among all seeds) than that from the GA1-runs. Hence, the proposed initialization heuristic is highly effective in achieving a better initial population in the same runtime. Second, the effects of the mutation operator are studied. For this, the GA-configurations, GA2 (using Mutation1) and GA3 (using Mutation2) are compared, results given in Table LABEL:GAallruns. From these results, it is observed that GA3-runs lead to a better (w.r.t. both cost and deadheads) crew pairing solution than that from the GA2-runs. However, the difference between them is marginal, equalizing the effects of both mutation operators. Hence, Mutation2 is considered in the following experiments. Third, the effects of the crossover operator are studied. For this, the GA-configurations, GA3 (using Crossover1) and GA4 (using Crossover2) are compared. From the plot of GA4 in Fig. 3, it is evident that the Crossover2, proposed in this work, is highly effective in reducing the number of deadheads to a large-extent that too in a very short runtime. However, the cost of the final crew pairing solution from GA4-runs is poorer (marginal) than that from GA3-runs. On analyzing the crew pairings of the GA4-runs’ best solution, it is found that the majority of pairings are those which covers less number of flight legs, referred as short pairings, increasing the total amount of pairings in the solution. With such large number of short-pairings, the solution becomes too rigid to allow the compact, yet large, pairings (covering a large number of flights in an efficient way) to enter the solution, hence, stopping at local optima.

As mentioned in Section I, a large-scale column generation based airline crew pairing optimizer referred to as CG-Optimizer, is used to evaluate the performance of the proposed GA-configurations. Developed by the authors, CG-Optimizer is a research output of this project which has been validated by GE Aviation. Due to commercial restrictions by the funding-sponsors, the details of CG-Optimizer could not be revealed. CG-Optimizer has been used to solve a large-scale CPOP, targeting a weekly flight schedule (containing 3202 flights, 15 crew bases, and billion legal pairings). The best-known solution of the test-case used in this work (839 flights and 1 crew base) is carved out of the solution of this bigger test-case (3202 flights and 15 crew bases) and is compared with the best solutions of the proposed GA-configurations in Table LABEL:bestSols.

Fig. 3: Characteristic plots of the GA-runs

V Conclusions and Future Work

This paper proposes an efficient GA, with improved initialization and genetic operators, to solve a real-world medium-scale CPOP (839 flights, 1 crew base, and 430873 pairings), belonging to the network of larger airlines from the US. In this GA, the dhd-minimizing initialization heuristic is highly effective in achieving a better-initial solution ( in cost, in Dhds) than the randomized initialization in almost the same runtime. On studying the effects of two widely-adopted mutation operators, it is seen that Mutation2 performs better than Mutation1 though marginally. In this GA, a dhd-minimizing crossover operator, Crossover2, is also proposed which is found to be highly effective in reducing the number of dhds (by a large extent) in short runtimes. Another contribution of this paper is the comparison of the proposed GA with a column generation based large-scale optimizer (CG-Optimizer), developed by authors to solve a large-scale CPOP (3202 flights, 15 crew bases, billion legal pairings). For the given medium-scale CPOP, it is seen that the gap between the results of CG-Optimizer and all GA-configurations is more than , making the column generation a superior method to solve medium-scale and large-scale CPOPs.

Algorithms Total Cost # Deadheads # Pairings %age Gap
(USD) (Cost)
CG-Optimizer 850303 2 142 0
GA1 964858 39 169 13.47
GA2 957833 35 172 12.65
GA3 949592 30 171 11.68
GA4 987639 09 242 16.15
TABLE V: Best crew pairing solutions of CG-Optimizer and GA-runs

In the proposed crossover, Crossover2, the greediness towards minimizing dhds is inbuilt in its construct, making the GA biased towards selecting shorter-pairings and driving the search towards local optima. Search-space expansion heuristics [18] and variable mutation rates [7] could be adapted/utilized for improving the performance of the proposed-GA. Moreover, the independent computations in GA (evaluation, etc.) could be parallelized by using the multiprocessing capabilities of the computational hardware.


The authors would like to acknowledge the invaluable support of GE Aviation team members: Saaju Paulose (Senior Manager), Arioli Arumugam (Senior Director- Data & Analytics), and Alla Rajesh (Senior Staff Data & Analytics Scientist) for providing problem definition, real-world test cases, and for sharing domain-knowledge during numerous stimulating discussions which helped the authors in successfully completing this work.


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