We get asked this question all the time. What is an airline pilot’s schedule like? In this article, we’ll help you understand this question more in detail.
A career as an airline pilot provides many unique opportunities such as the ability to travel to varied destinations, see parts of the world you may otherwise never come across, and work with a variety of people to safely and comfortably get customers to their destinations.
When it comes to the benefits that attract pilots to the airline lifestyle and keep them there for a career, few would rank higher than the schedules.
Given the huge variety of methods and systems for pilots to build and adjust their schedules, a pilot’s familiarity with his or her company’s particularities can have a major impact on their quality of life. If you’re considering becoming an airline pilot, this article will help you understand the basics of what a pilot’s schedule looks like.
What Factors Determine an Airline Pilot’s Schedule?
Regulations, the FAA, and Company Contracts
When it comes to schedules for US-based pilots, the foundation for everyone at an airline operating under 14 CFR Part 121 (the regulations that govern the flying of “scheduled air carriers”) is a basic set of rules established and enforced by the Federal Aviation Administration.
These ‘regs’ lay out limitations on maximum flight time amounts a pilot can fly in a certain time period. In addition, in 2014 the FAA established new regulations governing rest requirements and duty limitations under 14 CFR Part 117.
Finally, with a few exceptions, all US airline pilot groups are represented by a pilots’ union.
Unions negotiate contracts with their respective airlines known as collective bargaining agreements, or CBAs, which may establish further limits on schedules but in no case can be less restrictive than the FAA’s basic regulations.
Bidding and Seniority
Generally speaking, pilot schedules are organized on an approximately monthly basis and usually around a month prior a pilot will “bid” for his or her schedule using their company system. Bidding is based on a pilot’s seniority which is their position in relation to other pilots in the same base/aircraft/seat position (such as a group of New York City-based Airbus A220 First Officers).
Seniority ensures a pilot who has been employed longer will have first choice of schedules over a newer, more junior pilot.
Some airlines utilize line bidding where a pilot selects a “line” – an entire month’s worth of flying and days off while others utilize a preferential bidding system (PBS), such as NavBlue, where pilots elect certain preferences (weekends off, less morning flying, overnights in a certain city, etc.).
After all, pilots complete their preferences in a computer system that generates schedules. Major airlines utilizing line bidding include Allegiant Air and Alaska Airlines, while users of PBS include Delta Air Lines and jetBlue.
An Average Trip
When a pilot gets his or her schedule, they then know what to expect for the upcoming bid period. While the preferences of a pilot’s flying are as numerous as the pilots themselves, the type of flying available will heavily depend on the base and aircraft (commonly known as equipment) the pilot is assigned.
For example, United Airlines has a Boeing 757/767 base in Newark, New Jersey which mainly does flights to and from the US east coast to Europe. An Alaska Airlines Airbus A320 pilot based in Los Angeles may vary from flying short flights up and down the west coast to flying transcontinental flights to the east coast.
Flying can vary wildly from a regional airline pilot at Skywest or Air Wisconsin who may fly five to six short legs a day compared to a heavy jet pilot at FedEx or American Airlines who may fly a single 10-15 hour flight than spend a day or two overseas before returning.
Most airlines offer trips that vary between one and four days with overnights ranging from as short as 10 to over 48 hours. These trips will be broken up by days off, again ranging from few to many depending on the particular airline, contract, and line of flying.
Reserve Schedules and Utilization
While the schedules serve as the playbook for the month, in reality, many factors affect the ability of an airline to complete their flying as planned. Pilots may call in sick, fatigued, or be otherwise unavailable; airplanes occasionally have maintenance issues; or weather can delay or cancel flights leaving their associated crews stranded.
To cover these types of issues, all airlines utilize a certain number of their pilots for “reserve” duty. While reserve pilots still are guaranteed certain days off, this duty tends to be assigned to very junior pilots who are otherwise unable to hold a line of flying and is sometimes seen as unattractive due to the unpredictability of the schedule.
Reserve at major airlines is normally broken into two groups: short call, where the pilot must be able to show within 2-3 hours of being notified, and long call, where the pilot must respond within 12-14 hours.
Some of the regional airlines also utilize ready reserve, where a pilot sits at the airport for a shorter period (four to eight hours) to provide last-minute coverage. Depending on the airline, staffing levels, and month, a reserve pilot may fly very little or fly as much as a regular ‘line pilot’.
How Schedules Impact a Pilot’s Pay
As mentioned above, the FAA sets certain maximum limits for flying time. Companies design scheduled lines to remain well clear of these limits, leading to most companies targeting monthly flying schedules that average around 70 hours per pilot.
This is known as “minimum monthly guarantee” and is a quick way for pilots to estimate their pay as a basic function of hours multiplied by hourly pay rate. Many factors can cause take-home pay to exceed this amount and vary heavily depending on the airline and their CBA, if applicable.
Reserve pilots frequently receive a higher minimum guarantee to compensate for the lack of additional pay that comes with scheduled flying.
If you want to dive into pilot pay, even more, be sure to check out our article on airline pilot salaries.
The Bottom Line
Schedules are a major aspect of a pilot’s quality of life and a pilot considering applying at an airline should certainly perform their due diligence and research the scheduling practices of their target company. Once hired, being thoroughly familiar with the rules and agreements governing scheduling can ensure a pilot is both safe and legal while maximizing their personal goals of flying or time at home.
Schedules and the associated flexibility can vary wildly, and having the knowledge of their company can help a pilot to have a happier and more productive career.