Taking Care of Bidness
Schedules for flight crewmembers at my airline are divided into 35 day "bid periods." Your schedule during that particular bid is determined in advance through a seniority-bases system known as "bidding." Because it happens only once every 5 weeks and there are rather limited opportunities to change your schedule later on, many crewmembers put significant time and energy into bidding.
About 20 days before the start of each bid, the company publishes and distributes bid packets to all the crewmembers. There is one bid packet for each pilot seat and domicile ("PDX Megawhacker FO," "DEN BarbieJet Captain," etc), plus one packet per domicile for flight attendants which covers all equipment types based at that domicile. The bid packets contain coded descriptions of every schedule and the trips they consist of. The number of schedules (or "lines") is roughly equal to the number of persons covered by that trip packet.
An example of a single line ("Line 710") is shown below. The numbers on the first row are dates (10 Sept - 14 Oct); the second row gives the corresponding day of the week. If any day has an asterisk under it, that is a day off. If it has letters under it, it's a working day, with each three letter indentifier signifying the layover. The number above the first layover of each trip is the trip number, which is used to look up that trip's schedule later in the bid packet. On 12 Sept, for example, this line has Trip 605, which is a four day trip with layovers in GEG (Spokane), FCA (Kalispell), and HLN (Helena). The last day says PDX because this trip is flown by Portland based pilots.
Line 710 is an example of a regular line, which makes up 2/3 to 3/4 of the lines. With regular lines, you know your exact schedule in advance. Regular lines have between 14 and 18 days off per bid. There are also a number of reserve lines, such as Line 770 shown below. This shows days off and reserve days. Reserve lines will have AM or PM airport reserve, AM or PM home reserve, or some combination thereof. Line 770 is 100% AM home reserve ("RA"), which means that the reserve pilot must be contactible and within 90 minutes of the airport from 4:30am to 6:30pm on each RA day. All reserve lines have 12 days off per bid.
The rest of the available lines are composite. The number of composite lines varies every bid, and may contain assigned trips, reserve days, or both. The thing is, you don't know what it will be when you bid for it. It's built for you after it is awarded, so it's a bit of a crapshoot. Still, if the alternative is a reserve line or a crappy regular line, composite lines can be worth a shot. I don't have anywhere near the seniority required to hold a weekends off regular line, but I've had weekends off with a composite line.
Once you've perused the lines and decided which ones you like, you bid for them online during Bid Week. You do this by listing the lines you want in order of preference. When Bid Week closes, the crew planners go down the list of crewmembers in order of seniority and award them the first line on their list that's not already taken. Obviously, by the time they get to the most junior crewmembers, there's not much left - typically the weekday-off reserve lines and undesirable regular lines. The final schedule is published about a week before that bid opens.
I'm currently only about a third of the way up the PDX MegaWhacker FO list, so I'm pretty limited in what I can get. My usual technique is to find the lines I like and list them in order of preference. After that, I'll either bid composite or bid the remaining regular lines in sequential order. I only bid composite if it appears that I'll be in the most senior 1/3 of composite line holders - otherwise, I'm usually better off taking a junior regular line.
Different crewmembers look for different things when bidding. Many look for weekends off; others focus on getting specific days off for family events, etc. If specific days don't matter, some people bid for lines with the most time off. Commuters usually bid around trips that have convenient show and release times for commuting. A few people bid for trips that have layovers they like. A few senior people even intentionally bid reserve so they can have more time to work on projects at home.
So what do I bid for? It depends. My wife is a schoolteacher so she has a pretty set M-F schedule, but getting weekends off is difficult at my seniority. If I can get even partial weekends off with a regular line I'll try for that, otherwise I might bid composite. If I'm REALLY desperate I'll just bite the bullet and bid a senior reserve line. During summertime Dawn doesn't work, so weekends are meaningless. During ski season, it's nice to have weekdays off - the resorts are less crowded and the skiing is cheaper. A few times, I've bid for otherwise crappy lines because they had quite a few days off in a row. That's how I took two short trips to the Netherlands earlier this year.
The biggest mistake you can make is forgetting to bid. If that happens, you automatically go to the bottom of the list and get whatever is left over. Many a senior pilot has spend a painful month back on reserve after they forgot to bid. I almost forgot to bid last month - I was in Europe - and remembered with just enough time to enter all lines sequentially without looking at them. I got lucky and got a rather decent line with Th/Fr/Sa off. This month I was awarded a composite line for the first time in several bids, but I won't know exactly what's on it until final schedules come out this weekend.