April 22, 2013
A common question that laypeople ask airline pilots is “What route do you fly?” The perception seems to be that we go to work and fly to the same place every time. It can be true for certain individuals, usually pilots who have enough seniority to get their pick of schedules. I knew a Washington-based American Airlines pilot who used to bid for day trips (no overnight) from Dulles to Dallas-Fort Worth and return. Another pilot (at Delta) flew JFK to Nice, France almost exclusively. He told me he made 48 crossings of the Atlantic in one year, and 44 of them were to Nice.
But for most of us, we bid for our monthly schedule and get whatever can be cobbled together from the leftover trips not selected by the more senior pilots. And if there aren’t enough trips to go around, or if the trips available are undesirable, a pilot can bid or be assigned to be on Reserve for the month. I’ve found myself in that situation for the past few months.
It’s all driven by the pilot’s seniority within his category, i.e. base/equipment/seat. For example, a pilot might be quite senior flying as a co-pilot in the MD-88 based in New York, but if he chooses to upgrade to Captain or just switch to a larger aircraft, his relative seniority within that new category will probably be lower and his ability to control his schedule (and quality of life) will be reduced.
My current situation was not caused by any change that I opted for. I’m just a casualty of reduced flying for my category and a lower relative seniority as other, more senior pilots bid into this plane and home base. The erosion in my bidding power has been apparent for some time now. A few years ago I was flying only international trips, which were all easily commutable from my home in D.C. to my base in New York. Many of these destinations have been switched over to other equipment (Airbus 330 and Boeing 747), leaving my category with fewer trips overall and a larger concentration of domestic trips.
So what’s it like being an “on-call” pilot? A Reserve pilot actually gets a schedule, listing the days that he is on call. The other days are off, just like a regular pilot who holds a line. The responsibility of the Reserve pilot is company-specific, and is spelled out in whatever working agreement the pilot group has with the company. In my case, I have two different situations: “Long Call” and “Short Call.”
Long Call is the default status, and means that I have 12 hours to report for duty if the company calls me. That’s a pretty long time, and it means I can sit at home in D.C., knowing I can make it to New York within 12 hours (driving if I have to). Occasionally, the company will call and assign me Short Call. In that case, I have about two hours to report for duty if Crew Scheduling calls. I can’t do that sitting at home in D.C., so I head to New York to be there in case I’m needed.
How often a Reserve pilot gets called is really a function of the staffing for the airplane type. Keeping the right ratio of pilots to planes is a challenge. Marketing people decide which airplanes serve which cities and how many flights they make, while other planners in the company have to try to get the staffing right for the airplane. Changing the number of pilots on a particular type of plane can’t be done overnight, so for some months we have an abundance of pilots, while at other times we operate with barely adequate staffing. (Note: a company like Southwest, with one type of airplane, doesn’t have this issue.) If you’re sitting Reserve on a category that is thinly staffed, you can expect lots of calls to head to the airport to replace a pilot who has called in sick or is otherwise unavailable.
I’ve been in the other situation lately (i.e. well staffed) and I’ve flown very little in the last few months. Don’t worry, I still get paid (ok, I knew you weren’t worried). We get paid a minimum number of hours whether they use us or not. That number is a little less than if we could bid an actual schedule, but in my case I haven’t flown anywhere near that number, so I guess you could say it’s a good deal. Except that I’d rather fly.
Being a Reserve pilot means never knowing where you might be from one day to the next. Since being on Reserve over the past several months, I’ve been to Stockholm, Mexico City, Cancun, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Phoenix, Kansas City and Miami. So when someone asks me “What route do you fly?”, I just say “I never know until the phone rings.”
October 24, 2011
I’m right in the middle of studying to renew my flight instructor certificate, and thought I’d take a break to explain why. I became a CFI (Certificated Flight Instructor) back in 1980; one of the main motivations at that time was to find a way to build flying time without paying for every hour out of my own pocket. It’s a time-honored tradition.
Other pilot certificates, such as the private pilot license, commercial license or Airline Transport Pilot, have no expiration date. Once you earn them, you never have to repeat all that training. It is true that to exercise the privileges of your private pilot license you must be within two years of a Biennial Flight Review (BFR), but there’s no check ride involved.
The CFI has an expiration date printed right on it. Every two years, the holder of the certificate must apply for renewal. If it lapses, even by one day, the only way to get a new one is to repeat the entire course of training and a check ride. For an active flight instructor, renewal is just a matter of stopping by the FAA office and showing a record of the number of pilots you’ve trained (assuming they passed their check rides).
But I’m not an active instructor. I haven’t taught a student from scratch for almost 20 years. I used to give occasional instrument competency checks to instrument rated pilots, but I haven’t even done that in the last five years. My option is to complete a refresher course, either by attending a live weekend seminar (24 hours of classroom time) or by completing an on-line course of study and tests. I’m in the process of completing the on-line course, and just took a break to write this.
Why go to the trouble to renew a certificate I don’t use? The bottom line is that I just worked too hard to get it. Besides the basic CFI, I also added the instrument instructor and multi-engine instructor ratings. In the flying world, you’ll often seen this certificate represented as CFIIME (Certificated Flight Instructor, Instrument, Multi-Engine). Plus, truth be told, it’s really not a bad idea to occasionally review the basic elements of teaching and learning. I’m kind of enjoying it and soon I’ll have a new certificate, with an expiration of 10-31-13.
November 24, 2010
I live in a suburb of Washington, D.C., and heavy rush hour traffic is a common source of complaint around here. Downtown office workers often have drives that are routinely in excess of an hour and sometimes far longer.
A long commute is a fact of life for a large percentage of airline pilots and flight attendants. I used to have a seven-mile drive to the airport, and I didn’t know how good I had it. It was a mere 30 minutes from walking out my front door to signing in on the crew room computer. I flew with guys who commuted in from Chicago or Miami or the west coast (one guy lived in Peru!) and I always felt bad for them when we ended a trip. Chances are I’d be back home before they even boarded their flight home. Living at my domicile easily saved me half a day of travel on either end of a trip.
That’s all changed for me now. I currently fly out of New York, but I still live in northern Virginia. My commute to work isn’t bad as airline commutes go, but it still adds a minimum of three hours on both sides of a trip (and that’s if I cut it close at the beginning or just get lucky with schedules at the end). I don’t usually cut it that close when going to work — being late is really frowned upon in this profession.
On one occasion I took a 6:30 a.m. flight even though I didn’t have to be in New York until 5 p.m. That’s because every flight that day was overbooked except that first early morning flight, and I couldn’t take a chance. Another time there was a winter storm warning for the day of my trip, so I went to work a day early and got a hotel room (at my expense).
Just yesterday I felt like I struck gold. The last flight of my trip was scheduled to get in at 2:50 p.m. and I planned to commute on the next flight home, which was at 6:30. But we arrived twenty minutes early, which made it possible for me to just barely catch the 2:50 flight home, saving me three hours and forty minutes. So sweet!
You may wonder why anyone would put himself in this situation. Why not just move to the city you fly out of? It’s certainly something to consider, and many pilots do just that. For me it’s just a personal preference. I grew up in the D.C. area and I have family here (three brothers, parents) and many friends. I like it here.
At my previous airline we had pilots based in Boston, and that base was closing. The pilots were moved to New York, Cincinnati or Washington, and the junior guys did not get their choice of base. Not long after, the New York base closed and now those pilots were forced to go to Cincinnati or Washington. Within a year, the Cincinnati base closed too, and everyone had to come back to Washington.
How practical would it have been to actually move your residence each time one of these bases closed? (Answer: not at all) Although this example is extreme, many pilots get “involuntarily displaced” at some point in their flying career.
The one thing we’ve got going for us is that we don’t make this commute five days a week. It’s probably more like five times a month, and that makes it a little easier to take. If I had to do it daily, I’d move for sure.