Playing the reserve game

In most industries, paying your dues is simply part of being a junior member of your profession. You put up with low pay, long hours and are forced to bend over for those who have been there longer than you. In aviation, paying your dues is serious business. Every guy who came before you had to suffer a little, and as a result you’re going to be suffering too.

While suffering may be blowing the whole situation out of proportion (depending on your definition of true suffering), it’s going to feel like suffering after your fifth day on the road and fifth flight for the day. I’m currently a reserve pilot, with very low seniority in my base of Chicago, meaning I generally work to fill in the gaps and pick up the scraps of flying that get left on the floor. Imagine the worst analogy you can about what is actually in a hot dog: the filling would resemble my schedule. Being on reserve means I don’t have a built “line” of flights I’ll be flying for the month, but rather days “on” and days “off.” I don’t know what I’ll be doing on my on days, but off days are mine (usually) to waste as I see fit.

Flights others didn’t want, or that come open at the last minute are what I get to ask for, and even then I’m not guaranteed to get those. One option while on reserve is to simply be available, either at the airport or within two hours of it, open and ready to fly should crew scheduling need you. The past two days I’ve had the pleasure of being on “ready reserve” at the airport itself, starting at 05:30 each morning, and ending at 13:30 each afternoon. A full eight hour day of lounging about O’Hare and eating Manchu Wok until my pants don’t fit. That is, unless my phone rings.

If you’re prepping to spend the day at the airport, be sure to bring things with you that you can fill the hours with. Daytime TV isn’t the greatest, so bring a book or a movie to take your mind off the ticking of the clock. Yesterday, I managed to keep myself occupied until it was time to work, and I typically spend my days at the airport in this fashion.

Right off the bat, at 530, after getting off the train and into the airport, I find a computer and sign in. This lets crew scheduling know that I’m there and ready to be used. It also starts the clock for my paycheck, thus why I never forget to do it. I then move on and grab some OJ and hit the crew room where I spend a little time updating my Jeppesen charts. It seems like the revisions never stop coming and we’re required to have our approach plates and enroute charts up to date every day. With the FAA cracking down on us recently I feel very motivated to stay on the ball.

By this point I’m bored as can be so I work my way down to the gym at the Hilton and try to get moving to wake myself up for the day. An hour of cardio and a little weight training later I’m a new man, and I head back up to grab a smoothie for a little post-workout boost. I meander around the United terminal for awhile, people watching and stretching my legs some more. I always try and take a few laps around the airport terminals when I’ve got time to kill- it helps keep my body in motion and my mind active.

Facing another four hours of airport appreciation time, I decide to find a corner to hang out in and work my way through a USA Today. This being the day after the election, there are plenty of articles to keep me busy. As I’m getting started on the crossword, my phone rings- it’s crew scheduling! With eager anticipation I accept the call and listen- they’re having me work a flight to Baltimore in an hour and a half, sit in Baltimore for four, then deadhead back to Chicago. If you’re doing the math here, you’ll realize that this means a long day. By the time I get on the flight back to Chicago from Baltimore, I’ll be at the twelve hour mark for the day, making this a nice fourteen hour day by the time I’m finally done. Ouch. Granted, I’ve been sitting on my hind end for the majority of it, but that doesn’t make it any more fun.

Fast forward past an uneventful and pleasant flight to BWI, I start thinking of how I could get home sooner tonight…

The only reason I’m staying in Baltimore for four hours is because my airline doesn’t have any return trips until then. United, on the other hand, has two more Chicago flights going out in that time. I start walking towards the United terminal and call crew scheduling to being hatching a plan.

Crew scheduling agrees to release me in Baltimore- meaning my work day is over and I’m no longer a pilot on the clock. I’m just a guy trying to get home, and it’s up to me to do it. United has good news- the next flight is wide open and they gladly list me as a jumpseater. Since they expect me to not have to actually ride the jumpseat in the cockpit because there are a plethora of open seats in the back of the plane, I beeline for the men’s room where I change out of my uniform and into something more appropriate for the ride home.

This is where my day looks infinitely up- it’s time to grab a refreshment! Since I’m no longer on the clock, I can act like a civilian and enjoy a soda before catching a ride home. I decide that even though I’m low man on the totem pole, I’m absolutely happy to have the job I do, and I wouldn’t trade it for (almost) anything in the world.

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Flying for an airline, whether as a pilot or flight attendant, is a very atypical employment situation. You’re not exactly grounded in many respects, for as their staffing needs change, your life changes. Prime example- displacements. A displacement is when you are moved from being based in one city to another. Being displaced is something nobody really wants to go through, especially if you live in-base. It means you get to adopt the life of a commuter, and all the crash pad and missed connection fun that entails. It isn’t the end of the world though- staffing levels will likely change and once again you’ll be moved, perhaps even home again! Lets take a look at the whole process, from blissful pre-displacement life right through accepting the reality of displacement.

It starts before you can even smell fear in the water. You should always have your preferences updated with your company, and be sure to give a lot of thought to exactly which bases and equipment choices you list. Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it! Although it was fun to list San Juan, PR flying the ATR as a choice, I don’t really want to go there so I think we’ll leave that one off the list. Give thought to how many flights a day run from your home to the base choices, and the more the merrier. Having many options on many airlines will make commuting an easier experience and may eliminate the need for a crash pad or paying for a hotel if you get stranded.

Living in Chicago, my base, has been a great experience, and making the move up to the city was the best choice I’ve made in a long time. Being from Illinois it was my first choice when given all the options, but I couldn’t hold it when I first started with the company. They assigned me Miami, but thanks to a vacancy bid I was able to get Chicago before I even got out of training, never having to spend a day in Miami. The tides turned in my favor that time, but this past month not so much. Right now there is a lot of movement at the company and with the closure of one of our bases I knew things couldn’t go too well for too long. I was right.

I counted the days until the results were posted from this months vacancy and displacement bid, and as soon as they were up I was logging on and checking them out. It looks like my good streak is over- I’m going to Miami! Although there isn’t any timeline posted as to when the change will occur, I’m going to start lining things up now so I’m prepared. Immediately finding a crash pad will have to happen- I’m not senior enough to guarantee I won’t be spending stretches on reserve, and hotels add up quickly. I know a few friends who are also being displaced as well, so a good option might be for us all to pool together on a place and save some cash.

It looks like there are eight direct flights from Chicago to Miami on my airline alone, and I know a couple other airlines make the trip as well. These days the flights are more full than ever, so even a plethora of choices doesn’t guarantee it won’t be a pain to make the trip twice a week. It will be an adjustment process getting used to making the jump back and forth, but you have to be prepared to take the good with the bad. The good? I’ll actually be more senior in Miami than I am in Chicago, so I’m closer to holding a line and I’ll have a little more choice when it comes to sitting on reserve. All told being displaced is an experience many people in an airline career will have to work through at some point or another, but it is completely manageable and often temporary.

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Surviving First Year Pay

After years of hard work and tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, you’ve finally graduated out of the flight school and into the airlines- congratulations!

Your reward for this step up? A pay cut.

Not all but many flight instructors, whom are working full-time and have a full load of students, are making more than first officers in their first year at a regional airline. As excited as you are to start jetting around the country and wearing a spiffy new uniform the reality is you are going to be scraping by for the next twelve months. Think: ramen noodles and living in mom’s basement.

This is still a great leap forward in your career and you should be happy of how far you’ve come. Follow these simple ideas from the get-go and you won’t have any problem making ends meet.

1. Make a budget.

Start with a conservative estimate of how much you’ll be raking in each month, excluding per diem. The number you come up with isn’t a goal- don’t think “gosh how can I blow this cash ASAP?” You won’t have any problem running through that small sum of money so start thinking “how can I make this last?”

Pay yourself first, either by automatically having a portion of your paycheck put into savings or investing it. If you don’t have about two plus months worth of your salary already in savings, that should be your goal. Next, think of your bills that aren’t going away each month. Student loans and rent are two big ones, with your bloated cell phone bill and media package a distant third. Items like that are where you should think about slimming down and rightsizing your budget. Can you really afford two gym memberships, a Bacon of the Month Club subscription and the biggest cable package Comcast was willing to sell you?

Making hard choices to cut the fat out of your budget will help you achieve our next goal-

2. Live within your means.

The biggest secret to doing this is to define, and accept, exactly what your means are. After pulling the money out of your budget for big bills each month, think about just how much is left over, and how far it has to go. Food, transportation, beer- the essentials all add up rapidly. For a pilot, especially on reserve, you’re never home and often don’t know how long you’ll be on the road. Each meal is snagged from an overpriced airport eatery and scarfed down between flights. This is a real source of financial hemorrhage that can be contained with a little effort. Many pilots and flight attendants are savvy brown baggers, and are willing to share their secrets to taking food from home on the road. You might also avoid gaining the dreaded first year fifteen.

There is a huge pitfall to this step that many people are guilty of running into at some point in their lives. Credit cards offer a convenient way to get what you want right now and pay for it later. Problem is, you’re living behind the financial curve and will have to work twice as hard to break even again. Your credit card is a great tool in certain situations (emergencies) but leave it at that.

3. Look for ways to cut big expenditures.

Remember that crack about your mom’s basement? That just might be less of a joke and more of your new reality.

It’s hard to think that a highly trained professional is living on a wage that forces them back home with their parents but for pilots it’s more often the norm. Your airline might shuffle you around to three different bases in one year alone, and you can’t move every time they change their mind. After you shell out for a crash pad there’s a gaping hole in your budget, and the free bed at home might be your only viable option.

Another great way to give yourself some budget breathing room is to take a look at monthly bills and payments and negotiate a lower payment. Student loans can be deferred or you can request a forbearance, reducing or delaying monthly payments. If you are paying for an apartment or crash pad try playing hardball with the landlord and see if they can’t lower your rent for the next six or twelve months. It may sound foolish to even try but you won’t know if you don’t ask.

All the financial gloom and pride swallowing you’ll endure in the first twelve months at your new job shouldn’t outshine the fact that you’ve made a huge career leap forward. Airline experience is a big boost to the resume, so no matter where you end up you’re racking up big career points. Enjoy life on the road and be open to new experiences- just keep an eye on your money.

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Commuting or: How I Learned to Hate Flying

Commuting is something millions of people endure to get from their home to work on a daily basis. It could involve hopping in the car, or catching a bus and train, for a brief period once in the morning and again in the evening. Not usually a big deal unless traffic is backed up.

When you mention the word “commuting” to a pilot, you’re likely going to be met with a disgusted look and a story about just how much of a time waster it is.

Commuting is both a curse and a blessing. It allows individuals in the airline industry the chance to live wherever they want, but may require them to give up their days off to make it into work on time. Some people don’t mind the sacrifice of a little more time spent in the jump seat if it means more time at home with their family. No matter how beneficial the whole process is for you, it definitely involves some getting used to. Here are some simple steps to take the edge off the whole situation.

1. Plan ahead.

A good pilot always has an out. If Plan A doesn’t work, Plan B will. Maybe there’s even a Plan C for double backup. When lining up flights from home to work having at least one backup plan is essential, and most likely required by your employer. Allow yourself at least two flights that will get you to work on time. Checking flight loads and weather can also help you to determine if those two flights will be enough or if you’re going to need to get creative to make your check-in time.

Maybe there are only two direct flights from your home in, say, Hartford, and work in Chicago. If they’re both oversold and you’re number fifteen on the standby list, try making the trip by routing yourself through another hub city, such as Detroit, to make it to the windy city for your trip. Getting yourself home after a trip may require this strategy as well, especially if you don’t get done until late in the day and you’re down to the last flight of the day.

2. Be realistic.

Recognize that if you’re a reserve pilot on probation, it’s probably not a good idea to try and catch the lone morning flight to base on your first day of work. Many commuters are savvy to the hotels near the airport with very cheap rates, or are realistic enough to have a crash pad. Commuting in the night before a trip, or home the day after you’re done, will require you to lay your head somewhere near the airport. Avoiding this reality altogether is impossible for many of the junior pilots and flight attendants out there. If you’re on reserve for five days and get stuck on two-day and day trips, over the course of a month you’re going to be spending upwards of a week’s worth of evenings in base.

3. Bring entertainment.

You’re going to be spending even more of your life in airports and airplanes trying to catch a ride, so give yourself something to do. Technology just keeps getting better and better, with iPads, iPhones and i-Whatevers. While not cheap, they provide hours of Angry Bird and Fruit Ninja fun. Looking for something a little cheaper and lo-tech? Bring a book.

Commuting is a great way to not uproot your family and transplant them around the country as your base changes with the frequency of a pulse. Surviving commuting is a strategy many pilots have honed but few enjoy. Prepare yourself and always have a backup plan, and you’ll survive too.

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Recurrent Training: Survival of the Fittest

Progress reports. Year-end meetings. For corporate America, these terms may be synonymous with once-a-year meetings you have with your boss to determine how well you’re doing and if you’re going to get a raise. So long as you’ve been a team player and have done your job well both should be in the bag, to some degree. In aviation there exists a very different annual weeding ceremony most pilots despise with prejudice. There are no glowing reports of how nice a job you’ve been doing over the past year, but the raise is essentially guaranteed to you.


Recurrent training and checking is a once or twice yearly undertaking that requires successful completion if you want to keep your job. Most captains will have to endure two trips to school each year while first officers only make one appearance a year. These events carry a fair amount of stress due to the fact that you must perform, for an audience, maneuvers that most of us only do during recurrent check rides. Performance maneuvers and emergencies are not normally the type of flying we’re doing with passengers on board, but we still are expected to be proficient come check ride day. It’s up to you to prepare for this joyous occasion each year, but armed with a few tools you may just be able to pull it off.


Prepare early and prepare often.


It can’t be stressed enough how not trying to cram for your oral is going to help your performance in the end. Although you may be going to ground school for a few days prior to your check ride you can’t rely on this to be enough preparation. Around a month out dust off the flash cards and systems manual and start reading over everything you’ve forgotten since last year. Any old notes you took are always a great resource, and you can take more as you work your way through the material to help retain more information. There are even creative ways to work studying into your everyday duties, cutting down on the amount of time you might spend at home with your nose in a book. Try working through single engine flows or callouts with your crew during cruise flight. Test yourself on rules and regulations during that three-hour deadhead to Miami. Incorporating studying into every day life on the line will help your understanding and make you a more prepared pilot.


Fly by the book every day.


This may seem obvious to some, while others might not get the message right off the bat. Your company most likely has a very specific set of procedures you are supposed to follow every single time you hop in one of their aircraft. These procedures govern every aspect of the flight, from preflight right through takeoff and all the way to touchdown and parking. After a few months out on the line it’s very easy to fall into what we can call “line ops.” Making adjustments to the procedures to adjust to the real world of flying is something most of us do, but it’s a habit that should be nipped in the bud for several reasons. The reason we like here is that come check ride day, you don’t have to adjust any of what you do for your audience. The check airman will be looking for company procedures, and you don’t want to be sweating trying to remember what the book tells you to do. If you’re accustomed to following your flows, callouts and checklist usage like a good little pilot then your job is only half as hard during the check ride.


Make time to study.


Outside of your job you probably have a very full life. Maybe you’ve got a litter of kids to cart around and entertain. Or perhaps you’re living the single life and you have to cram all your dates for the month into the three days you actually get off. No matter what you chose to do with your free time, you will need to make some space in your schedule for studying at home. It can be a challenge to work around life’s demands and make a quiet hour or two a day to work through all your study material. Taking the time to read through all the things you aren’t using on a daily basis will increase your level of comprehension and boost your confidence.


Most of the advice here may seem basic, but sometimes the obvious needs stating. Successful pilots have great habits in and out of the airplane, and preparation for recurrent training will test those habits. Making time in your busy schedule early on will reduce the stress of last minute studying and is a sure-fire way to improve your performance.

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Day in the Life: Part 135 Pilot

For the average American a job occupies an average of 40 hours in a week, or maybe 160 hours in a month. This includes all duties related to successful execution of a person’s position. Anything outside those eight hours a day belongs to the individual, to be disposed of in any way they please. Maybe they’ve got a couple kids, a dog, a time-consuming hobby or a boat on the lake. They might have a specific daily routine they engage in that keeps them fit, healthy and sane. Every day then enjoy some toast and eggs before hitting the gym just prior to clocking into work. Every night they clock out and come home to their family and favorite TV program before they hit the sack promptly at eleven.


Sound like a dream? Some far-away fantasy? For most pilots flying on-demand charter, be it Part 91 or Part 135, this lifestyle is a fantasy they can only dream of. Their lives consist of being on-call twenty four hours a day for days at a time, ready to hit the airport and execute a mission at moment’s notice. They could be flying people or cargo, senators or human organs, but no matter the payload they must be prepared and rested to safely command an aircraft at the drop of a hat. The unique advantages this position offer make it the choice for some pilots while others recall their days in charter flying as if they were recanting a war story. No matter your disposition, on-demand charter flying serves an important purpose in modern air travel and is necessary for many of the functions of modern society.


An average day (or night) in the life might begin with a phone call from a dispatcher around five in the afternoon. They say they’ve got an organ transplant case starting out of Atlanta, and they might need you to fly out and bring a coordinator downstate later tonight. It would be the start of a fourteen-plus hour operation involving multiple pilots in multiple aircraft, but it’s your job and you welcome the chance to fly tonight. By eight in the evening your dispatcher has a more clear idea of exactly what time your pickup at PDK will be and emails you the dispatch forms, that you print off and sign at the airport prior to your departure. You meet your co-pilot for the night and after reviewing flight plans, weather and fuel, the aircraft is pre-flighted and you both depart Augusta, GA for Atlanta around nine.


By midnight you’ve been to Atlanta, then down to Albany and Savannah, where you dropped off a team to recover organs that you’ll need to transport back to Atlanta before dawn. You catch a nap and get a late night bite at Waffle House, checking the weather and filing a few new flight plans in the interim. By four in the morning, you notice an ambulance headed your way, full of surgeons and coolers. For them the clock is ticking and you’re the next link in their chain of success. They’ve got a set of lungs and the recipient is being prepped for surgery some two hundred miles away. You and your co-pilot pull the chocks, load the bags, light the fires and float up into the night, knowing this likely won’t be the end of your shift today.


Once the lung team is safely in PDK, your dispatcher calls to inform you that the kidney team will be ready in an hour in Savannah for pick-up. Without hesitation, you make the return trip, safely completing the last leg of your job today, and earning yourself some well-deserved rest. For a twenty-something pilot who is looking to get multi-engine time and experience this might sound like a great opportunity. It certainly can be addicting and challenging, but for the more seasoned aviator who values a predictable schedule and time at home it might not be the best option. Just as we’re not all suited for every single job out there, not everybody will be suited to on-demand charter flying in the long run.


Even with the scheduling limitations, it can be the right fit for the right person. Finding an outfit in the town you live in affords you the opportunity to know you’ll never be commuting like an airline pilot. If the flight department is small and close-knit, you’ll get to know everybody like family. You’ll learn to rely on one another to get the job done and will take care of one another. This can be a quality sorely lacking at larger companies where you’re more of a number than a name.


Advancement can also be swift, if your ambition is to wear the title of chief pilot one day. Not everybody who gains employment will stick around, so if you like the place and think you’ve got a future there, a reward may be in place for you. Assuming you’ve got great interpersonal skills you can talk your way into a raise or advancement once you’ve gained the respect of your peers and elders.


For some their time flying on-demand charter is a harrowing tale they don’t want to fall back on. For others, it is the best career choice and they couldn’t think of doing anything else. It all comes down to personal preference, and finding an operator you respect and look forward to working for.


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Too Sick to Fly

When you were a kid, sick days were the best. While your peers were at school enduring math and cafeteria food, you got to spend the day in your PJ’s watching cartoons and napping. When left with a choice, what kid wouldn’t want to play hooky for a day? As you grew up and the realities of being an adult set in, the scales tipped. No longer does calling in sick mean a day of carefree Netflixing and sipping tea, but more than likely entails overcoming many obstacles on the path to being fit for flight once again.


The reality is that so long as we’re human, we’re prone to falling ill from time to time. Most likely your company has a policy for dealing with these unavoidable events and requires you to follow a contingency plan to ensure everything goes smoothly. For example, calling scheduling and letting them know as far in advance as possible that you won’t be able to make it to work the next day. This allows them to try and find someone else in the system (a reserve pilot gets your trip) to cover your flying duties with no or minimum interruption in service to the passengers. Your company may also allot each employee so many sick days per year, which are accumulated in your sick bank for each year you stay with the company. Stay within that bank of days and it usually isn’t a problem. Should you require to be absent longer than you have days accrued, you will likely have to jump through a few hoops to continue to remain out of work. The key is to have a thorough understanding of your company’s policy and do your best to play ball.


Once you do go back to work you’ll probably have to pay a visit to the chief pilot to confirm your illness. It may seem backwards to have to prove that you were indeed unfit for work when we work in an industry that requires vigilant self-policing of our fitness for flight. The frustration is understandable, but the company is giving you the third degree because they know some people call in sick when in actuality they’re not. This is just as inevitable as you actually getting sick at some point so they’re going to grill everybody regardless.


That being said, you can equip yourself with a few good tools to level the playing field and ensure your timely recovery back to work.


  1. Get a doctors note.


Although you’ll end up paying a MD to tell you you’ve got a cold and pushing fluids plus rest is the best thing for you, they can provide proof of your sniffles. Most offices will be happy to print out a letter stating that you were seen on a certain date for specific conditions. Slipping this to your employer will convince them that you weren’t on a cruise in the Bahamas for five days last week.


2. Actually follow your doctor’s advice.


It may seem obvious, but few people actually follow the advice they’re given and focus solely on resting for a few days. Life’s demands get in the way- between kids, bills, pets or whatever occupies our time there are many distractions at home to keep us from resting as we should. Another major issue could be the fact that you fall ill in base, say Chicago. You commute from Omaha. Now what?


Some companies don’t like it when they see you non-rev travelling on your sick days. It gives you one more thing to have to explain when you go back to work and means you’ll be spending more time in an airplane while you’re already ill. Trying to ride out the flu or a cold in a hotel or crash pad can be miserable and lead to a prolonged illness, so getting home is essential. You need to feel comfortable and relaxed in order to get better, two things most people don’t feel when crashing in a small apartment with eight other people.


3. Be honest with yourself and the company.


You’re going to get sick and there’s nothing you can do about that. It’s up to you to be honest and remove yourself from duty when you can’t safely operate the aircraft and give yourself enough time off to fully recuperate before returning to work. The solution may seem all too obvious, and perhaps that’s why many people continue to push through illness for work’s sake.  Push fluids, take naps. It’s up to you to take care of yourself. Your passengers are counting on you for a safe ride, so do your best to give them one.

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