A Month in the Life of a "Line Holder"...Evolution of an Airline Pilot's Monthly Schedule
What does it mean to be a “line holder” in the airlines? On my last active duty air force assignment, that was a term I heard thrown around a lot along with various other “airline speak” terminology from our Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) pilots, many of whom were also airline pilots. At that time, my understanding of the airline pilot world was so limited, they might as well have been speaking Mandarin Chinese; it would have sounded about the same to me.
Those of you who may be considering a second flying career as an airline pilot are probably in the same boat I was in not too many years ago. You hear or read about a lot of unfamiliar terms like bidding, sitting reserves, being a line holder, block time, open time, and other ancient Chinese proverbs that you have a vague understanding of but wish you could comprehend more in depth. Wait no more my friends, much like the FAA; Cockpit to Cockpit is here to help.
In this article, I will first give you the basic definitions or building blocks you will need to wrap your brain around what follows next. Then, like any good instructor pilot, I will walk you through an example, complete with illustrations, because we are pilots after all, and pilots need lots of pictures to keep their attention. If I could turn this article into a pop-up book I would…but my origami skills aren’t that good. The example I will use is my actual airline schedule from January 2018 and it will help you see how all those mysterious airline terms are used in action as I walk you through a month in the life of an airline pilot’s schedule.
The Building Blocks
Let’s begin by understanding what a “line” is to an airline pilot. You’ve probably heard airline pilots refer to their line for the month. Quite simply, a “line” is just a monthly schedule. There are reserve lines and “hard” lines; I will explain both in the paragraphs below. Airline pilots “bid” their line for the next month at some point during the current month and lines are awarded based on seniority. More on bidding in a moment.
You’ve probably heard airline pilots talk about “sitting reserves.” Think of reserves as sitting alert, something most of us have done in the military. You know which days of the month you’re working, but you have no idea if, or where you will fly on those days. Typically you’re on “short call” reserve of two-hour telephone standby (the time varies from one airline to the next). From the time the company calls you with a trip notification, you have two hours to get to the airport. Some airlines also have “long call” reserve of anywhere between 12-24 hour telephone standby.
A typical reserve block will last three to six days and each day you’ll have specific hours that you’re on call. Typically a reserve shift (one day within your three to six day reserve block) will last 12-14 hours during which time you must answer the phone if the company calls you. At the end of your shift, you will be “released” into crew rest. Once you’re released they can’t touch you until the start of your next reserve shift the following day. At most airlines, each day of reserves pays a contractually set minimum amount regardless of whether you fly or not. If you get called to fly, you’ll get paid the greater of the contractual daily minimum or the amount of time flown that day. Reserve lines are generally awarded to junior pilots in each aircraft, seat (Captain or First Officer), and domicile. As you gain more seniority, eventually you’ll be able to hold a flying line, also called a “hard” line versus a reserve line.
A hard line contains all your flying trips for the month. There is much more predictability with a hard line because you know all the details of each trip. You will know what time you need to report to the airport to start each trip, what time the trip is scheduled to return to domicile on the last day, how much the trip pays, the name and seniority number of the captain you’re scheduled to fly with, and the planned flying schedule for each day including city pairs and overnight hotel information. If you are a commuter, life gets much better once you can hold a hard line because at worst you’ll only need to pay for a hotel room or crash pad for the night before your trip begins and/or the night it returns to domicile. Pilots who commute to sit reserves have to pay for their hotel/crash pad for every night they spend in domicile during that reserve block, which could be the entire reserve block if you don’t get called to fly.
Before we jump into our real world example in the evolution of an airline pilot’s monthly schedule, there are a couple more building blocks we need to define. The first is called block time. In Part 121, scheduled airline flying, you start getting paid when the aircraft “blocks out” or pushes back off the gate. You stop getting paid when you “block in” or when you park back on the gate at your destination. The time between blocking out and blocking in is called your block time for that flight. So if your block time for that flight was 3.0, and your hourly rate is $100/hour (you will quickly be making more than this hourly rate at a major airline but I’m trying to keep the math pilot-friendly), then you will earn $300 for that flight at “straight time”.
However, the airlines also pay “premium time” trips for various scenarios. You can think of premium time as working overtime in a normal job. At my airline, you can volunteer for a premium time trip and it pays 1.5 times your hourly rate. However, if you get non-voluntarily reassigned to fly overtime, that’s called Junior Assigned (JA), and pays 2.0 times your hourly rate. The airline pays premium or JA as extra block “credit” time. For example, if my hourly rate at as a second year FO is $100/hour, then an hour of premium time flown shows up on my pay stub as 1.5 credit block hours instead of one hour paid at $150. The amount I get paid is the same, but it’s expressed in extra “credit” block hours at my normal hourly rate. This is important to understand as we work our way through the examples to follow because I will often refer to my monthly block “credit” time, which is often much higher than the actual block time flown.
There are a myriad of other airline pilot contract rules that affect compensation called rigs. When you hear pilots talk about “work rules” at each airline, the rigs are an important part of those work rules. For instance, a rig might mandate the minimum block credit time a pilot will be awarded for each day away from domicile. Work rules and rigs are very important to quality of life at an airline as they determine how much you are protected from the company taking advantage of loopholes in the contract to work you more and/or pay you less. However, the rigs are beyond the scope of this article so we won’t be covering those here.
One more building block and then we’ll start putting all this new foreign language training into practice, I promise. I discussed that there are opportunities to work overtime at premium pay. At my airline, those opportunities are called “open time.” Open time is extra flying the company has available that they still need pilots to fly. They allow pilots to bid on the open time trips. There are open time trips available to be bid for the next month, the next week, the next day, or sometimes short notice open time opportunities pop up that are available within a couple hours of the trip start time. You can bid open time at straight time (regular per-hour pay rate) or premium time (time and a half). In general, open time awards are based on seniority; the most senior pilot bidding that trip wins. However, the company will always award a straight time bid over premium bids. So if I’m the only pilot bidding the trip at straight time, and everyone else bids at premium, I should be awarded that trip regardless of how senior the premium bidders were.
Ok, enough crawling…it’s time to walk.
First, I need to give you perspective on my particular airline situation. I’ve been at my airline for 2.5 years and I’m a first Officer (FO) on third year pay. I’m a line-holder, living in domicile so I don’t commute. I’m retired air force so I don’t get to fly the cool stuff anymore, but neither do I have to split my time between two jobs (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I’m at 81% seniority (19% from the bottom) among all pilots at my airline, but I’m at 62% seniority among FOs in my aircraft and domicile. Why does that matter? It matters, because when I bid my monthly schedule, vacation weeks, etc., I’m only competing with the other pilots in the same aircraft, seat (FO), and domicile.
I also want to mention that although I am using “block time” in my example below, my airline actually doesn’t pay based on block time, but I will speak in terms of block time for simplicity sake. We are a little bit unique in that we have a more complex system of compensation that results in about 14% more block credit per actual block hour flown. I only mention this, because when you look at my block credit at the end of the month in the following example, it will look like I worked much harder than I actually did and I don’t want to take credit where credit is not due (unless it’s block credit…wink, wink). Remember that block credit is what you get paid, while block time is what you actually flew.
The best way to explain all that we have learned up to this point is to walk you through an actual example. In the following example, I will walk you through all the changes to my January 2018 schedule starting with my monthly bid and ending with the final product showing what I actually flew and how much credit time I earned for the month. Along the way, I hope to demonstrate just how flexible an airline schedule can be and give you a deeper understanding of the different methods used to improve the original schedule.
Figure 1 shows my originally awarded bid line for January 2018. Recall that my seniority in domicile is 62%, meaning that 58% of the FOs in my aircraft/domicile are bidding more senior than me. Our bids are due on the 9th of the month for the following month. The bid awards are released on the 10th of the month. At my airline, our bidding process allows us to see the details of every line available, and then rank order our preferred line choices from 1 to XXX. In this case, I was awarded my 177th choice. Not bad, considering my place in life.
In the upper right corner of Figure 1, you can see that my original bid line paid 89.26 block credit time and had me working 14 days (2 of those days were overlap into the 1st and 2nd of February so only 12 days total in January). I liked that it was a PM schedule line. In my experience, PM trips are more desirable and therefore easier to trade with other pilots. I didn’t like that I was scheduled to fly two weekends during the month, I prefer weekday flying so I can be with my family on the weekends. I didn’t like that I was scheduled for a four day trip, I prefer three day trips or less. I didn’t like the monthly overlap because it limits my ability to bid in February. I also didn’t like the overall block credit time for the month. So my goals for the month were as follows:
1. Minimize weekend flying
2. Give away or trade the four-day trip down to a two or three-day trip
3. Trade the end of the month overlap trip at least two days back to keep the whole trip within the month of January
4. Increase the overall block credit time for the month from 89.26 to 110 minimum
I would try to do all that using a few tools at our disposal as airline pilots. The first method is by giving away, picking up, or trading trips with other pilots. The second method is by trading trips with the company using the line improvement trade system. The last method at my disposal is to pick up extra open time flying from the company.
One of the reasons the monthly block credit time was originally so low is because two of the days from my overlap trip are not reflected in the January monthly total. The Feb 1st and 2nd flying will be reflected in February block credit total, not January. That’s another reason I don’t like monthly overlap. Another reason the monthly block credit time was a little lower than normal is because January is one of our slower flying months of the year. I like to average about 110 block credit per month as a goal and in 2017 I actually averaged 117.5 per month. So my last goal was to increase my monthly block credit to at least 110.0 through trading into higher paying (more “productive”) trips and picking up open time, hopefully at premium (time and a half).
Let the Games Begin
Our line improvement trade system window opens on the 25th of each month for trades in the following month. Prior to that window opening (and after), there is opportunity to give away, pick up, or trade with other pilots in any domicile. I was able to make one pilot trade for January prior to the line improvement window. I traded a four- day trip that paid 27.6 block credit time (Jan 22-25) down to a two-day trip that paid 14.85 (Jan 22-23). You can see this trade in figure 2.
This was an unusual trade request from the pilot I traded with because in a “normal” flying month with lots of flying available, pilots usually try to trade down to fewer days of flying with the intent of picking up open time at premium instead. But this being January, all bets are off. It was also a bit of a risk on my part since it brought my total block credit for the month down to just 76.51, working just 10 days in January. However, I fully intended to make it up in open time even if I had to pick up straight pay open time instead of premium.
Confused yet? Hang with me; the fun is just getting started.
In figure 2, you can also see my schedule after the line improvement trade window opened. Our line improvement trade system allows us to trade our trips with the company’s trips that still need pilots. Note in the upper right corner of Figure 2 that monthly block credit time increased to 91.03 and at this point I’m again scheduled to work 12 days in January because I was able to accomplish one of my goals; I traded away the monthly overlap trip for a three-day trip January 28-30. That whole trip is now flown and paid within the month of January. Additionally, I was able to accomplish another of my goals to minimize weekend flying by trading my weekend three-day trip (originally Jan. 12-14) to a weekday trip the following week (now Jan 17-19).
Also notice that at this point I now have an entire week off from January 7-14. In the past I have used opportunities like this to grab the wife and jet off (non-revenue of course) to some exotic location for a spontaneous getaway. However, since my monthly total was still significantly lower than my goal, my plan was to play the open time game and pray for a huge blizzard in the Northeast (sorry Boston) so the flying schedule would fall apart providing me tons of open time opportunities. Well you know what they say about best laid plans of mice and men, instead I spent the whole week down with a nasty flu. I’m fairly certain that was the good people of Boston using their reverse hex dark-voodoo magic on me for wishing a blizzard on them. That’ll learn me!
In Figure 3, there are actually two changes shown but for the sake of brevity, I’m showing them both in the same picture. Remember that four-day trip (Jan 22-25) that I traded down to a two-day trip (Jan 22-23). Well, that left me with a nice open window January 24-26 to pick up some weekday flying. My original plan was to wait until that week and play the open time game but the last time I did that the people of Boston gave me a BVR (beyond visual range) b!#$% slap. Also, I had been watching the premium open time awards throughout the month and noticed they were going to pilots more senior than me. So I wimped out and just picked up a descent paying three-day trip that another pilot was giving away. The other change is that I found a better paying trip on the same days in the line improvement trade system to exchange with my trip on January 28-30. With those two moves you can see that my total block credit for the month is now 118.79 and at that point I was scheduled to work 15 total days in January. A quick review of my original goals for the month will reveal that I have now accomplished every goal except that I have two days of weekend flying, Saturday the 6th and Sunday the 28th.
Our union developed a nice little text notification tool, allowing us to set up parameters for the pilot trade and line improvement systems that will send instant text notification if a trip appears in either system that matches the customized parameters each pilot establishes…but you have to act quick! In Figure 4, you can see how I used that notification system to trade my Jan 28th three-day trip to a slightly lower paying January 29th three-day trip. Essentially, I sacrificed 0.4 block credit time to gain a Sunday off on the 28th.
So let’s review our goals from the bid until the final schedule flown for the month of January to see how it evolved and improved. The first goal was to minimize weekend flying. As you can see in Figure 5, I only flew one weekend day on the 6th of January. Not bad at all considering my seniority level. The second goal was to get rid of the four-day trip from the bid line. In the end, all my trips were three-day trips or less...check! The third goal was to trade the last trip of the month that overlapped into the first two days of February with a trip where all my flying would occur (and be paid) in the month of January. As you can see in Figure 5, that goal was also accomplished. Finally, the fourth goal was to increase the overall block credit for the month from the original 89.26 up to something closer to 110. You can see that goal was exceeded with a final block credit of 118.59. My actual block time flown for the month was 92.1. I worked 15 days and spent nine nights away from home during the month. I would call that a pretty successful month!
I don’t want to give the wrong impression, not every month works out that well. You will work some holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries, especially the first few years. You may not get to use your vacation weeks in the months you would prefer to use them until you’re very senior. However, as you can see, the flexibility afforded as a line holder is pretty amazing…even a fairly junior line holder. Of course the seniority outlook, scheduling systems, and work rules are different at every airline and it’s largely dependent on your domicile, aircraft, and seat position. As a general rule of thumb, if you choose a wide body aircraft as a junior FO, you will be on reserves a lot longer and it will be a long time before your senior enough to hold a line in that aircraft. It’s all about choices.
I hope this article helped de-mystify some of the terminology and rumors you may have heard about how the airline pilot schedule thing works. Hopefully, your vocabulary and reading comprehension of airline pilot linguistics has improved after reading this. The schedule of an airline pilot, especially a line holder, is always a work in progress. It’s a continuous cycle of trades with other pilots and the company. In the air force we had a saying, “Flexibility is the key to airpower.” I would say it’s also the key to an airline pilot’s monthly schedule. As long as you remain flexible, you can earn a nice salary, and still have plenty of time off for family and friends. If you’re ready to start learning how to succeed in your airline transition, visit www.cockpit2cockpit.com.