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Life on Reserve

Being on call means never knowing where you'll fly from one day to the next.

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Photo: Oliver Pohlmann

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.”

About Steve Satre
Steve Satre

Steve Satre got his pilot’s license in 1977 and became a full-time commercial pilot in 1993. He currently flies the Boeing 757/767 on both international and domestic routes. The opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the views of his employer or the Smithsonian Institution.

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