A Month in the Life of a “Line Holder”

Evolution of an Airline Pilot’s Monthly Schedule

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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 by our Air Force Reserve pilots, many of whom were also airline pilots. At that time, my understanding of the airline pilot world was so limited, they may 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 a lot of unfamiliar terms, like bidding, sitting reserves, being a line holder, block time, open time, and other ancient Chinese proverbs of which you have a vague understanding 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. We are pilots after all, and pilots need lots of pictures to keep their attention. If I could turn this into a pop-up book I would, but my origami skills aren’t that good. To help you see how all those mysterious airline terms are used in action, I will use examples from my actual airline schedule of January, 2018. I will 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 to follow. At some point during the current month, airline pilots “bid” their line for the next 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 (times vary from airline to airline) but for our purposes, we’ll use two hours. 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 from 12- to 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 will last 12 to14 hours during which you must answer the phone if the company calls. 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 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, 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.

Before we jump into our real-world example in the evolution of an airline pilot’s monthly schedule, there are a couple of building blocks we need to define. The first is “block time.” In Part 121, scheduled airline flying, you start being paid when the aircraft “blocks out” or pushes back from the gate. You stop getting paid when you “block in” or when you park back at 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 (three hours), and your hourly rate is $100/hour, then you will earn $300 for that flight at “straight time.”

Moreover, the airlines 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 (time and a half). However, if you are non-voluntarily reassigned to fly overtime, that’s called “junior assigned” (JA), which pays twice your hourly rate. The airline pays premium or JA as extra block “credit” time. For example, if my hourly rate as a second year first officer (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. As we work our way through the examples to follow, this is important to understand because I will often refer to my monthly block “credit” time, often much higher than the actual block time flown.

There are myriad other airline pilot contract rules that affect compensation called “duty rigs.” When you hear pilots talk about “work rules” at each airline, the duty rigs are an important part of those work rules. For instance, a duty 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 the 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 addressed 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 still needs 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) 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 may be.

Ok, enough crawling…it’s time to walk.

Background

First, I need to give you perspective on my particular airline situation. I’ve been at my airline for two and a half 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 (captain or 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 the sake of simplicity. My airline is a bit unique in that it has a more complex system of compensation that results in about 14% more block credit per actual block hours 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 are paid, while block time is what you actually flew.

Bidding

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 to give you a deeper understanding of the different methods used to improve the original schedule.

Figure 1. Original Bid Line

Figure 1. Original bid award line

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 and domicile are bidding more senior than I. Our bids are due on the ninth of the month for the following month. The bid awards are released on the tenth 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 (two of those days were overlapping into the February 1 and 2, for 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 that are at available to 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 1 and 2 flying will be reflected in February’s block credit total, not January’s, another reason I don’t like monthly overlap. The monthly block credit time was a little lower than normal because January is one of our slower flying months of the year. I like to average about 110 block credits 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 TFP through trading into higher paying (more “productive”) trips and picking up open time, hopefully at premium (1.5x).

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 (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 by 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.

Figure 2. January schedule after line improvement

Figure 2. January schedule after line improvement

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 3 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 the best laid plans of mice and men. Instead, I spent the whole week down with a nasty flu. I’m fairly certain that it was those good people of Boston using their reverse hex, dark-voodoo magic on me for wishing a blizzard on them. That’ll learn me!

Figure 3

Figure 3. 

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!t¢#-slap. Also, I had been watching the premium open time awards throughout the month and noticed they were going to pilots more senior than I. So, I wimped-out and just picked up a decent 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 this point I’m 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, January 6 and Sunday, January 28.

Figure 4

Figure 4. 

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 notifications if a trip appears in either system that matches the customized parameters each pilot establishes, but you have to act quickly! In figure 4, you can see how I used that notification system to trade my January 28 three-day trip to a slightly lower paying January 29 three-day trip. Essentially, I sacrificed 0.4 block credit time to gain a Sunday off on January 28.

Summary

Figure 5. Final Schedule

Figure 5. Final schedule

Let’s review the 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 January 6. 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 such that all my flying was executed (and 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. 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 month1

I don’t want to give the wrong impression because 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 until you’re very senior. However, the flexibility afforded as a line holder is pretty amazing, even for 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 you’re senior enough to hold a line in that aircraft. It’s all about choices.

I hope this article has helped demystify some of the terminology and misunderstandings you may have had 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 with the company. In the Air Force, we have 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. ACN

SOURCEAero Crew News, March 2018
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Marc Himelhoch
LT COL MARC Himelhoch, USAF (Ret), is a pilot with over 5000 hours of flight time. He grew up in Clearwater, Florida, where he met his wife, Missy Shorey. He graduated with honors from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, earning a masters degree in aeronautical science. In 1995, Marc joined the US Air Force as a second lieutenant. He served as a T-37, T-6A, and F-16 instructor pilot and as an F-16 higher-headquarters evaluator pilot. He logged nearly three hundred combat flight hours and flew in Operations SOUTHERN WATCH, NORTHERN WATCH, JOINT GUARDIAN, NOBLE EAGLE, and IRAQI FREEDOM. In 2014, Lt Col Himelhoch retired and became a commercial airline pilot. Marc interviewed with and received conditional job offers from Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, and XOJET. Marc is now a pilot with Southwest Airlines. He and Missy live in Dallas, Texas.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Marc as another retired USAF aviator considering jumping back into the cockpit that was very informative… thanx for taking the time.

    • Hi Bryan,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I wrote the book Cockpit to Cockpit to help ease the transition stress for military aviators making an airline transition.

      There is no better time to jump back in than right now. It’s an exciting time in the industry with all the hiring going on. Most of my military friends who lost there currency were picked up by a major airline after less than six months at a regional. Rip the Band-Aid off and gitter’ done!

      Blue Skies,
      Marc

  2. Marc,
    Thank you very much for an extremely informative and interesting article. I am about to enter the wacky world of airline flying after a career in a non-flying profession. Your article was very helpful in helping me begin to learn the lingo of trip scheduling. Now how about a follow up article on trip rigs, duty rigs, and other non 18 wheeler rigs?☺️
    Mahesh

    • Hi Mahesh, welcome to the airline world. It can really be a great job if you play it right. I’m happy to hear you found the article helpful. I will definitely consider doing a follow up article on rigs, but first I need to get smarter on them myself:)

      Blue Skies,
      Marc

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