Tuesday, February 22, 2005

On being junior whipping boy

Some wag once remarked that an airline pilot's life is based on sex, seniority, and salary, in that order. Based on that, my life really sucks right now - at least in two of those categories! For a pilot, seniority determines the schedule you fly, your job security, and for my airline's first officers, your pay bracket.

My airline currently has 690 first officers. Of those, I am number 671...only 19 from the bottom. Furthermore, I am dead last in my aircraft, thanks to my being the youngest pilot in my indoc class last April. Airline pilots use a seniority based bidding system to determine their schedule, so being most junior means that I take whatever line (schedule) is left over after the 80 other MegaWhacker first officers have had their pick. I think the system is fair, but it does mean your quality of life is directly linked to how quickly the company hires pilots after they hire you - that is, how quickly you advance in seniority. In my case, I was hired last April - and the company hired nobody more into my airplane until last month. Those four new pilots won't be below me until the month after they finish training.

Obviously, not all lines are created equal. Some have weekends and/or holidays off; for others, your weekend is Tuesday and Wednesday. The number of days off typically varies. Some lines, known as regular lines, tell you exactly which trips you'll be going on - where you'll be staying, when you get home, etc. Reserve lines, which typically go junior, consist only of days off, and days you are on reserve (on call). On your reserve days, you must be able to be at the airport within 90 minutes of a call from crew scheduling. At my airline, the on-call period will be 4:30AM-6:30PM ("AM Reserve") or 10:30AM-Midnight ("PM Reserve"). There are also several lines containing airport reserve. As the name implies, this consists of sitting at the airport, ready to go with 5 minutes' notice, for a period of 8 hours. To many pilots, airport reserve is the ninth circle of hell. I actually don't mind it.

Junior pilots on reserve get used and abused at many airlines. Our pilots have a fairly good contract that helps prevent the worst abuse, although it's not unknown for crew scheduling to ignore certain provisions of the contract. I actually don't mind reserve that much - it helps that I live near the Portland base - but the fact that crew scheduling can change your trip at will, and sometimes does so multiple times in a few hours, can get a little maddening. Don't count on being home at 2PM on Sunday just because that's what your trip says - you could very well end up getting home at 10PM on Tuesday, so pack accordingly!

At certain airlines - particularly regionals that are not unionized or do not have a strong contract - junior pilots are often forced to fly on their days off, a practice known as junior manning or drafting. At [ABC Co], the contract makes a senior pilot just as likely to get drafted as a junior pilot, and typically crew scheduling gives pilots the option of accepting or refusing the trip ("Hey, got an open trip we need filled. Would you mind flying today? It's a premium pay trip!"). Because of the way our pay is structured, premium pay (150%, all above and beyond min guarantee pay) is worth more to pilots who don't fly much on reserve. Until recently, I had my name on the voluntary "draft me!" board at crew scheduling. Yeah, I'm a glutton for punishment!

Having your "weekend" fall during the weekday isn't all bad. For example, there are some great lift ticket deals on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Today, I'm going skiing at Mt. Hood Meadows from 1PM-9PM for $10. Try scoring that on your Saturday off!