Saturday, October 3, 2009

And You Thought You Worked Hard

Compared to me, I imagine you do. I've said it before. Pilots, by nature, are generally a lazy lot. I certainly am. One of my first posts gave a brief description of what I do for a living. Some readers remarked how interesting they found it since most people don't know how a pilot's life works. After the day I had yesterday, I thought I'd share a bit more.

In the airlines, everything is based on seniority. How long you've worked there means everything. Pay. Scheduling. Vacation.

Captains are captains simply because they've worked there longer than first officers, but both are equally trained and qualified. Once a first officer reaches a certain seniority, and a position opens up, that pilot can upgrade to captain, which comes with a hefty pay raise. However, there is also seniority among captains and seniority among first officers, although everyone belongs to one master seniority list. In addition, an airline with multiple bases has seniority within each base. It may sound confusing, but for me it boils down to this. I'm at the bottom of the seniority list. Not the very bottom, but pretty close.

Because I lack seniority I generally don't get my choice when it comes to scheduling.

Choice? Why would I get a choice? Don't I have to work when I'm told, like people with regular jobs? Yes and no. Because airlines run 24 hour schedules all over the country, and for some, the world, they have to have a reliable system in place to make sure they have crews for all their flights. This includes flight attendants as well, and they have the same seniority system as pilots.

Every month the airline publishes the schedule for the following month. It includes all of the flying they will have, broken down into trips, which can be anywhere from one day trips, to six day trips. Most airlines further organize schedules into lines of flying, which include groups of trips and days off. These lines are then bid on by the pilots and flight attendants in seniority order. Seniority #1 gets first pick and so on down the line. By the time it gets to me there's not much left. I only have three people below me in my base.

The good thing is I live where I'm based. Many, and probably most, don't. Because we get to fly for free, and generally have several days off in a row, most people commute to their base. In these cases, they fly into town the day of, or the day before they start a trip, and then fly home when it's over. Unfortunately, this is done on their own time and dime. If they have to spend the night in a crashpad, they pay for it. Some will get a hotel room, others rent a house or apartment on a monthly basis, sharing it with many, many others. I've done both and let me tell you, nothing beats living in base.

Especially when your junior like me. After all the trips have been bid on and assigned, there are reserve lines. These are simply days on call, for pilots who didn't have the seniority to get actual trips, or who choose to bid reserve. Reserves fill in when someone gets sick, or any other reason a flight isn't covered. Where I work reserve is pretty good. I'm guaranteed at least 12 days off, and on days I don't get called, I'm simply at home. I can go out and do things if I choose, because I have to be given a minimum three hours notice before a flight.

The thing is, most of the time, I don't get called to work. I've worked for airlines where reserves work every day, but where I am now, people must not call in sick very often. By law a pilot can not fly more than 100 hours in a month. That's actual flight time, the only time we're actually paid. It doesn't include preflight preparations or anything else. Only when the plane is moving.

100 hours may not sound like a lot, but it really is. On average, most pilots fly between 75 and 85 hours per month. But on reserve, I've been averaging less than 40 hours per month. This equates to a lot of time at home. But don't worry. I get paid for 72 hours, whether I fly them or not. Anything above 72 is paid at a specific rate. So if I fly over 72 hours I make more money, but if I fly less, I'm guaranteed a 72 hour paycheck. Plus, I can volunteer to fly on my day off at 150% pay. The less I fly, the more I make when I do. So reserve at home suits me just fine. I have time to write, take care of the yard, be lazy, go to the pool or anything else.

If you're still here after all that, we now come to my point. Yesterday I told my captain I wasn't flying much on reserve. I pulled out my logbook and totaled my September flying.

"Thirty-five hours," I said.

Not to be out done, he whipped his own logbook up. He counted his much faster. "Seven."

"Good lord!" I said.

He flipped back a page. "Four hours for August."

We had a pretty good laugh, thinking of the bean counters trying to justify his salary. After a minute we calmed down and he yawned. Then he said, "What is it? Tuesday? Wednesday?"

It was the best moment of my day and I laughed as I said, "Friday."

That's one of the problems with this job. Odd hours, strange co-workers and too many hotel rooms. Now, I've woken up in the middle of the night, not realizing I was actually in my own bed. But I've never been off by more than a day. Still beats a real job.

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