The Schedule of Pilots, With Focus on the Majors

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Pilots for the major airlines fly from 10 days to as many as 20 short days per month, depending upon their seniority and the type of equipment they fly.

In most cases, the pilots have a 75- to 85-hour maximum that can be flown each month. This does not necessarily mean actual flight hours, but may include credit time. For example, in most cases pilots are awarded one hour of flight time for each two hours on duty when this "credit time" exceeds that duty period's actual flight time. Actual flight time for any one month could be as low as 55 hours, but with the credit time the pilot would reach the maximum of 75 hours. The ratio of flight pay for on-duty time and trip time (time away from home) is called duty rig and trip rig, respectively. Trip rigs usually are paid at a ratio of 1:3 or 1:4, so that you are paid for one hour of flight pay for every three or four hours you are away from your domicile. Duty rig, on the other hand, is paid at the ratio of 1:2, i.e., you are paid for one hour of flight time for every two hours on duty (must be in uniform and at the airport).

In addition to flight time, you are given expense pay or "per diem" for every hour you are away from home. On the average, major airlines pay approximately $1.50 per hour per diem. Per diem is tax-free and represents between $360 and $480 each month on top of your base salary.

A typical work schedule includes flying 80 hours a month (block-to-block: push-back from the gate to pull-up at the gate). This represents about 10 to 20 days of flying a month, for an average of 15 working days. The total hours on duty will be close to 160 hours a month, and the time spent away from home will range from 240 to 320 hours a month. "Hard time" represents actual flight time and taxi time (time it takes for the aircraft to get to the active runway for takeoff and back to the gate after touchdown).

Normally, the pilots who are on reserve (on call) are allowed 10 or 12 days free of duty each month. Pilots on reserve usually come from the bottom of the seniority list, but not exclusively, and are allowed to use portable beepers in order to meet the requirements for being on call. Reserve pilots usually are on 24-hour call (in some cases only 12 or 13 hours) and usually are required to be within one to two hours from the airport.

A comparative note: Pilots for major and national airlines fly longer legs, probably averaging at least two hours or more, whereas pilots with regional carriers will fly short hops, usually less than one hour in length, but will do several flights per day. With all of the major airlines, time free of duty is generous, and job conditions are excellent.


Seniority is not a merit promotion system; it is a time-in-service system. Your seniority number will become one of the most important numbers in your career. Usually, it is established by date of hire or by the date that you complete your training. Normally, the oldest pilot in each class is assigned the lowest seniority number.

Your seniority will determine several things: bidding for vacation, for monthly trip schedules, for higher status (such as first officer or captain), for domicile, and so on. Your number will change as pilots above you leave the company. For example, if you are hired as number 2,000 for the company and 200 pilots above you retire, you would then move up to 1,800. You cannot enhance your seniority number by superior performance or by knowing the "right people." Your date of hire is permanent, and you will normally carry it with you for the rest of your career. A rare and controversial exception to permanency of seniority number can arise with merging airlines or after extended furlough periods.

One of the most important functions of your seniority number comes into play when a company decides to furlough. When this happens, company management starts at the bottom of the seniority list with its furloughing and moves up until the pilot groups are reduced to the size needed to operate the desired reduced schedule.

Such variables as airline financial health, union representation, the management track record of a carrier, and quality of life underscore the need for careful selection of an employer. If you get disgusted and leave, or if you are laid off, you will have to start all over at the bottom of the seniority list of your new employer. And even if you are merely furloughed because the airline for which you fly could not weather a recession other than by reducing its schedules and payroll, you may suffer the economic consequences of a period of scrambling for enough income to pay the bills until recalled. Then, too, there is the possibility that your airline employer will never recover sufficiently to place you back on its active pilot rolls.

The lesson: Research your potential career goal employer well.
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