In my previous article, A Month in the Life of a Line Holder, I briefly touched upon the subject of pilot contract work rules and rigs. Several readers reached out to me after reading that article and asked if I would write an article dedicated to the subject. Ask and you shall receive. In this article we’ll take a deeper dive into the nebulous world of airline pilot contracts to shed some light on what work rules and rigs are, and why they are directly proportional to your quality of life as an airline pilot.
For those who missed my … Line Holder article, or if you just want a refresh, all my articles can be found on my blog at www.cockpit2cockpit.com/blog/. As a quick recap, work rules and rigs are very important to quality of life as an airline pilot because 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. The … Line Holder article taught you how to speak “airline lingo” so you could keep up with conversations among airline pilots. In this article, I will help you learn a little more airline lingo so you can speak it without too much of an accent.
What is a Rig?
You may have heard airline pilots discuss certain “rigs” in their contract. Just what exactly are these rigs? I thought the airlines were about flying airplanes. Aren’t rigs something used in the trucking industry? In airline lingo, a rig is a protection written into the pilot contract to provide additional compensation under certain conditions. These conditions are designed to make your quality of life better by ensuring you are adequately compensated for working longer shifts, being away from home more, etc. The best way to understand rigs is to look at some of the more common rigs contained in airline pilot contracts.
One common rig is called Duty Period Minimum (DPM). DPM is the minimum amount the airline can pay you for one duty period. A pilot duty period begins at scheduled report time. Report time is the time you must show up at the airport for the start of a trip or at the gate on subsequent days of the trip when away from your base. Duty period ends when you clear customs or 30 minutes after block in time, whichever is later? As an example, a DPM rig may stipulate that a pilot will be paid a minimum of 4.5 hours credit per duty period. Without the DPM rig, the airline could, for example, schedule you to fly what we call a “turn.” A turn means you are scheduled to fly from your domicile to another airport and then back to domicile. In the Air Force, we called that an “out-and-back.” Let’s say that each leg of the turn was only 1.0 hours of block time. Without the DPM rig, that turn would only credit 2.0 hours total – not nearly worth losing a day away from your family, especially if you’re a commuter. With DPM, the minimum the airline can pay you for that same duty period would be 4.5 hours credit. If you actually fly more than 4.5 hours block time, you would get paid for the amount of block time actually flown. Sounds a little more reasonable right?
Duty Hour Ratio (DHR or “duty rig”) is another common rig. This rig is designed to ensure you are adequately compensated for working a longer than normal day. Let’s look at an example of how DHR works. An example DHR rig might require that a pilot will be paid the higher of block time flown or 0.7 hours credit for each hour on duty within a duty period. Let’s say, for instance, that you’re scheduled to fly three legs on the first day of your trip with 2.0 hour block time per leg and a three hour airport sit between each leg. You reported at 0500 (an hour prior to your first block out time) and your duty day ends at 1830. Your total scheduled duty period is 13.5 hours. Without DHR protection, you would only be paid 6.0 hours block time for that duty period. However with the DHR rig, you’ll be paid a minimum of 9.45 hours credit (13.5 hours x 0.7 credit per hour) or the actual block time flown, whichever is greater.
Average Daily Guarantee (ADG) is the minimum the pilot will be paid per day during a trip. For instance, the pilot contract might provide an ADG rig stating that a pilot will be paid a minimum of 6.0 hours credit per day of a trip. Therefore, a three-day trip would pay a minimum of 18.0 hours credit. Without the ADG rig, the airline could, for instance, schedule you to fly a three-day trip where you don’t fly at all on the second day and only fly 2.0 hours on the other two days; therefore the trip might only pay 4.0 credit hours for a three-day trip. Sometimes I don’t mind a long overnight in a cool place like Boston or San Diego, but it’s not worth giving up 14 hours of credit! Now you can start to see how important contract language is to protecting your quality of life.
Trip Hour Ratio (THR or “trip rig”) is a rig designed to keep the airline from building a trip that is excessively long. For instance, the contract may state that a pilot will be paid a minimum of 1.0 hours credit for every three hours away from domicile (from report time at the start of the trip to release time at the end of the trip). My airline tends to schedule such that I’m either on an AM trip or a PM trip. However, what if they had my trip start as an AM with an 0500 report time on day one, but end as a PM with a 2200 release time on day three? Without the THR rig, the trip could pay as little as 18.0 hours credit (due to the ADG rig mentioned above), however, in this case the THR rig would pay a minimum of 21.66 hours credit (65 hours away from domicile divided by 3). If I actually flew more than 21.66 hours of block time (extremely unlikely), then it would pay the actual block time flown.
Hopefully you can see how these rigs are designed to make sure the airline doesn’t abuse your schedule. If they do, they will have to pay you more, therefore the airline is incentivized to build more efficient pilot schedules because airlines are all about their bottom line. After fuel, labor is the second highest cost so the airline will try to keep their labor costs as low as possible by scheduling in a way that keeps costs down and your quality of life up!
Work rules are another important part of the equation with respect to contract language and your quality of life. Work rules encompass a large spectrum of circumstances covering commuter policy to jury duty and everything in between. Let’s take a look at some of the more common pilot contract work rules.
One of the most important work rules is the minimum monthly line guarantee. This is the minimum amount of credit hours the airline agrees to pay you each month. Major airline’s monthly line guarantees seems to vary between about 70 hours and 85 hours credit. At many airlines, it’s difficult to achieve much more than the minimum guarantee during slower flying months, so it’s important to know how much you can expect to make each month as a minimum.
Some airlines also have a maximum amount of credit they will pay each month. For instance, the airline may limit your monthly pay to a maximum of 85 hours credit. If you fly over that amount, the excess credit gets stored in a bank that you can use later. Let’s say you earn 95 hours of credit in August, but you only earn the minimum monthly guarantee of 75 hours credit in September. You will get paid only 85 hours credit for August and the excess ten hours credit will go into your bank. You could then choose to cash in your banked credit in September to bring your pay up from 75 hours to 85 hours credit. You may also choose to hang on to those banked hours for the future. American Airlines imposes a maximum monthly credit during certain months of the year. Delta Air Lines has an optional credit bank system that allows you to (but does not mandate you to) bank any hours flown over 80 in a month, to be used at your discretion later. Many Delta pilots choose to bank hours during their first year to be cashed in later in their career at much higher pay rates.
Work rules related to vacation time are big considerations. Both the amount of vacation time earned through longevity at the airline and the amount that vacation time pay are spelled out in the contract and can vary greatly from one airline to another. Additionally, some airlines build your scheduled line around the vacation, while others allow you to bid lines that overlap your vacation week then drop any trips with pay that touch your vacation weeks (potentially providing for more time off and extra pay).
One of the greatest joys about being an airline pilot is all the time off. This too, is contractually dictated. Contract work rules will dictate the minimum number of days off per month. Major airline pilot contracts vary but generally offer between 12-15 days off per month. This does not preclude you from volunteering to work a few extra days each month to increase your monthly salary if you so choose.
Commuter policy is also an important set of work rules if you plan to be a commuter. Commuter policy determines when a missed report-for-duty counts as a no-show (trip pulled without pay and possible additional disciplinary punishments). An example commuter policy might mandate that the pilot have one option on the employee’s own airline or two options on other airlines that are scheduled to arrive in domicile one hour prior to report time. If the pilot can show that the required options were available but still was unable to make report time due to factors beyond their control (weather, maintenance, etc.), the trip will not be counted as a no-show. In that case, the airline would probably deadhead the pilot to a location where they could catch up with their scheduled trip with no penalty.
What if you’re fatigued and can’t safely continue a trip? As pilots, we always have the right to call “uncle” in the name of safety. However, how you get paid for that trip once you make the “fatigued” call is based on your pilot contract. A good pilot contract should guarantee the original trip credit even if you call in fatigued. Of course, there is a trust factor involved between the pilot and the company and any suspected abuse of the system would likely be investigated.
Another very important set of work rules, called “schedule quality” rules, dictates how your airline may build trips and lines. The FAA minimum rest period between flight duty periods is ten hours and the cumulative flight duty period within a week is limited to 60 hours. Imagine if there were no language in your contract to prevent the airline from scheduling every trip with just the FAA minimums. You would be one worn out pilot at the end of those trips. Contract work rules are what prevent the airline from abusing you in that way.
Some of the other work rules common to a pilot contract may include, but are not limited to: holiday pay, jury duty pay, mandatory drug testing pay, engine run or aircraft reposition pay, redeye override pay, deadhead pay, and training pay. The devil, as they say, is in the details.
Not every airline has each of these rig protections and work rules. If you are targeting an airline and not sure what kind of quality of life language and protections are included in their current pilot contract, it’s best to ask a friend who works there or ask your questions on The Pilot Network Facebook group. Chances are if you have a question, there are many other pilots who have the same question.
One of the best sources I’ve found for comparisons of airline rigs and work rules is here in Aero Crew News (aerocrewnews.com). Each issue there are a sections named Mainline Grid and Regional Grid that provide detailed information of airline pay, work rules, rigs, and other useful comparison information. It may not always 100% up-to-date, but it’s the closest thing I’ve found besides reading each airline’s pilot contract. (For the record, I would rather choke on broken glass.) Best of all, subscribing to Aero Crew News is absolutely free! Another source for airline contract comparisons, although not as detailed but also useful, is Airline Pilot Central (airlinepilotcentral.com). The website allows you to search individual airlines with a pretty good big-picture summary of pay, current news, and contracts.
When an airline pilot contract is up for renegotiation, it’s your pilot union’s job to negotiate for better benefits and work rules based on the input they receive from the pilot group leading up to negotiations. Therefore, it’s very important to provide your union guidance on your desires for contract improvements.
I have only been actively monitoring this industry for less than five years now, but in that time, just about every major airline has gone through a contract negotiation. It is my opinion that certain airlines have focused too much on increased pay to the detriment of improvements in rigs and work rules. The results have been pilot groups that have been fairly happy in the immediate aftermath of negotiations, only to wind up fairy disgruntled within a year or two because they realize that increased pay alone does not equal increased quality of life.
There are many factors to consider when choosing the airline that you want to work with for the rest of your career. Location and pay/benefits are probably among your top ranked factors, followed closely by culture, and equipment (aircraft types). I recommend that once you’ve narrowed choices down to your top three, based on those important factors, work rules and rigs should be among your tertiary tiebreaker considerations. The Cockpit to Cockpit Support Package contains an Airline Comparison Spreadsheet to help you rank order your airline choices using a point system that weighs the factors you determine are most important to you and your family. Visit cockpit2cockpit.com for more blogs like this one and additional information on how to make a successful airline transition. ACN