What is a pilot’s schedule like?

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There’s almost no such thing as a typical schedule. In a given month, one pilot might spend ten days on the road logging sixty hours in the air; another pilot might be gone for twenty days, with ninety hours aloft. That’s a big range, because seniority has enormous impact on where and when we fly, and because schedules are very flexible.

Every thirty days, around the middle of the month, we bid our preferences for the following month: where we’d like to fly, which days we’d like to be off, which insufferable colleagues we hope to avoid, etc. A top-of-the-list pilot might be assigned a single, thirteen-day trip to Asia worth seventy pay hours; a bottom-dweller might get a long series of two- and three-day domestic trips scattered throughout the month. And if we hate what we get, it’s always changeable. We can swap, drop, and trade with other pilots, even on short notice.

A lot of people assume pilots are assigned to specific destinations and fly there all the time. One of the more amusing questions I often get is: “What’s your route?” Seniority permitting, it’s possible to visit the same place over and over, if that’s what you want, but normally it’s a mixed bag. As I type this, my month ahead has scheduled layovers in Las Vegas, Madrid, Los Angeles, and São Paulo, totaling seventy-six pay hours and fourteen days away from home. Not bad, though I’m hoping to dump that Vegas trip for something better…we’ll see.

Those at the terribly bottom ar allotted to on-call “reserve” standing. A reserve pilot has designated days off and receives a flat minimum pay rate for the month, but his or her workdays are a blank slate. The pilot needs to be within a stipulated number of hours from the airport—anywhere from two to twelve, and it can change day to day. When someone gets sick, or is at bay in Chicago as a result of a blizzard, the reserve pilot goes to figure.

The phone might ring at 2:00 a.m., and you’re on the way to Sweden or Brazil—or to Omaha or Dallas. Among the challenges of life on reserve is learning how to pack. What to put in the suitcase when you don’t know if your next destination will be tropical or freezing cold? (Answer: everything.)

At most carriers, cockpit crews are paired together for as long as a particular assignment lasts. If I’ve got four different trips on my schedule for the month, I’ll fly with four different captains. Some airlines, though, use a different bidding system in which captains and copilots are matched up for the entire month.

And, just as there’s no such thing as a typical schedule, there’s no such thing as a typical layover. Domestic overnights can be as short as nine or ten hours. Overseas, it’s usually a minimum of twenty-four hours, though forty-eight or even seventy-two hours aren’t unheard of. I’ve spent up to five full days on a layover. On longer trips, crew-members will occasionally bring along family members (see travel perks).

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