In our Ask a Pilot series, pilot Spencer Marker answers one of your aviation-related questions each week. See past installments here and submit your own to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hey Spencer. Do pilots have regular routes they fly?
Hey, Dave. Thanks for writing in this week. This is a question pilots and flight attendants alike get on a regular basis. The short answer is: No, we do not have regular routes. We can fly any number of routes in a given month. An airline’s mechanism to schedule pilots and flight attendants is complicated and crewmembers themselves are responsible for selecting a schedule that meets their needs every month. So, I’ll explain a little about how we are assigned the flights we operate.
Trips are single- or multi-day flight sequences assigned to a flight crewmember. Some can be as short as a single day (we call these day trips or day lines) while others can take pilots away for up to two weeks and to destinations all over the world.
Included in these trips are a series of layovers that provide accommodations for crew members on nights away from home. These may be as short as 10 hours or as long as several days, depending on the needs of the airline.
Trips can vary and a pilot often flies to a wide variety of destinations. At the company I work for, one group of pilots can work domestic flights and international flights on a single trip. Being a primarily domestic pilot, my schedule still varies in its duration and layovers from week to week.
Pilots receive their trips for the month through a process called bidding. Bidding is how pilots request a schedule based on their individual needs. This way, a pilot can receive the days off they want, the trips they would like to fly and/or the layovers they prefer. This process then awards pilots their schedules based on seniority. Essentially, senior pilots’ preferences are awarded first then so on, down the line. Selecting a schedule for the month usually occurs around the middle of the previous month; i.e. bidding for a July schedule takes place in the middle of June.
Bidding is accomplished in two ways; line bidding or preferential bidding. Line bidding occurs when the airline creates a number of pre-made schedules, or lines, for the entire upcoming month. Pilots simply choose a schedule that best fits their and their families’ needs. Senior pilots only need to select a couple of schedules, while more junior pilots pick their ideal schedule and several back-ups, in case their first choices are awarded to more senior aviators.
Preferential bidding is different from line bidding in that there are no pre-made schedules. Instead, pilots will submit their preferences into the computer. This way a custom schedule can be generated based on a pilot’s preferences.
Pilots wanting to layover in Cancun can submit that as a preference. Similarly, pilots who wish to only fly day trips (single day sequences) can submit that as a preference. Much like in line bidding, the company creates these schedules based on seniority. So while a senior pilot may end up with their perfect schedule, a newer pilot to the airline may be assigned trips that they may not want.
It is possible, if a pilot is senior enough, to work only one type of route for the month. However, this is very rare.
To sum up
Thanks for the excellent question, Dave. Your question is a great one and is probably the one I receive most often flying the line. To this day, my loved ones still wonder how I am assigned the schedule I work every month, so I hope I was able to clear up a little of the mystery of a pilot’s life at work and answer your question.
Thanks again for your question! And if you have a burning aviation question or something you would like cleared up, drop us a line at Whitney@johnnyjet.com to get your question featured in an upcoming Ask a Pilot column.