As commercial airline pilots, we play a pivotal role in ensuring the safety and efficiency of air travel. Our work schedules are a critical aspect of our profession, impacting not only our performance and the safety of passengers and crew, but also our health and home life.
How airline pilot schedules work is a widely misunderstood topic. I consistently get asked questions about it by people inside & outside the industry. This article will help clear up some common myths about pilot schedules, and shed some insight on exactly how commercial pilot scheduling works across a variety of airlines and countries. I’ll also discuss the types of work schedules, legal regulations, and the pros and cons of commercial pilot schedules. There’s also a real life airline pilots roster explained!
Commercial Pilot Work Schedules; Fixed schedules, Flexible Schedules, Reserve Schedules.
Commercial airline pilots operate on a variety of work schedules, which can be broadly categorised as fixed, flexible and reserve schedules.
Fixed schedules provide pilots with a predictable routine, often allowing them to have a more stable work-life balance. In my UK based short haul airline, we operate a 5-4-5-3 fixed pattern. This compromises of 5 days on, 4 days off, followed by 5 days on, 3 days off. This pattern repeats continuously so pilots on a fixed pattern can tell which days they will & won’t be working for in 25 years from now if they wished to!
Flexible schedules on the other hand are more erratic and can often lead to a more difficult work-life balance. With flexible schedules, you often don’t know which days you’ll be working next month until the month before, sometimes even 2 weeks before (depending in which airline you’re with). Often there will be a set number days of work you’ll be given in that month, but they may not be given on consecutive days.
Reserve Schedules are also called standby schedules. These tend to be private jet flight crew, as they need to be ready to go anywhere at the click of the boss’ fingers. Charter companies will also often use reserve schedules as they often don’t know when their services will be required until short notice. The pilots will usually get paid to essentially be on standby, but be within a certain travel time of the airport.
Some major airlines make their pilots on fixed patters complete a small period each year on a ‘reserve schedule’, this could be 1 month every 12, and it gives the airline greater flexibility if they always have a few pilots on reserve.
At most UK airlines, junior pilots tend to start on flexible schedules. As you gain flight hours and get promoted, senior pilots will be offered a fixed schedule. In the UK and United States, both regional airlines and major airlines offer fixed and flexible schedules, but it’s very airline dependant.
Real example of a commercial airline pilots work schedule
Below is a real example of a full time short-haul commercial airline pilot schedule for a major airline in the UK.
Let me walk you through it;
D/O = Day Off
ESBY = Early Standby. You can get called between the times displayed to operate a flight at any time that day.
FTDG = Fatigued. In this case, the pilot went fatigued on a flying day due to the demands of that block of work.
Each working day will have a duty on it. The check in time is first time displayed, with the check out time at the end of each flight. The check in time is 1 hour before flight departure time, and the check out time is 30 minutes after landing time. This gives the pilot an hour before takeoff to check the flight plans and weather conditions. It also allows 30 minutes after to disembark the passengers and be off duty.
At the bottom you have ‘block’ hours for that day (chocks off to chocks on – same as flight hours) and ‘duty’ hours (check in to check out).
Hopefully this gives you an idea of how relentless pilot schedules can be, and the large difference between block/flight, and duty hours!
The schedule above is relatively rare in the the pilot has most weekends clear of duty. This is a lucky month! As the pattern progresses into the next month, it’s likely the pilot will have just one weekend off.
Short-Haul Pilots vs Long-Haul Pilots
Although still capped at the same flying and duty hour restrictions, the monthly schedule will look very different. Long Haul pilots will often have 4 or 5 trips per month, potentially spanning a few days each trip, with just 1 flight each side of 4-day trips. Short Hauler pilots can have up-to 6 flights each day, often with no time off down-route, usually returning to home base. Read more about stopovers and how long pilots spend in each place in our post here.
One significant challenge for long haul pilots is dealing with jet lag and time zone changes. Long-haul flights frequently involve long flights crossing multiple time zones, which can disrupt circadian rhythms and result in increased fatigue. Coping with these challenges is part of a pilot’s job, and airlines provide training and resources to help them manage the effects of jet lag.
Part Time Airline Pilots schedule
Pilots can indeed work on part time schedules in both the fixed wing and rotary world.Examples of part time options available in major airlines based in the UK include 75% and 50% options. On a 50% option, you can either work a normal full time roster in the Summer, then be off all Winter, or you can work 2 weeks on 2 weeks off all year round,
Part time is a great way for pilots to get some work-life balance back, which not giving up on their career. Unfortunately it can be notoriously hard in some airlines to go part time. In the UK, the Government have a Flexible Working Agreement which companies must adhere to. Applying for part time through this scheme is a great way of increasing your chances of success!
Does Airline Pilot Seniority Help?
It depends on whether the Airline has a seniority based system.
Most Airlines now offer some sort of referencing bidding system to its pilots, whereby a pilot can select a preference early or late duties, certain days off (on a flexible roster) and even specific flights to be on. These all go into a large computer programme.
Some airlines also have seniority based systems. In these airlines, the most senior pilot will get all their bids every month. This means the most senior pilots can essentially design their own roster. British Airways is an example of this. Unfortunately this leaves the most junior pilots with the worst trips and potentially years of slogging it before they can get a half decent roster.
Other airlines do away with the seniority based way of bidding, and it’s an equal playing field. This allows more junior pilots the ability to occasionally get the duties and days they want, however the most senior pilots may get frustrated that they have less autonomy over their lives
In my experience, the bidding system is good but it’s not the be all and end all. I often don’t get what I bid for but it’s nice to know it’s sometimes taken into account
How does pilot vacation time work?
I’ll do a whole blog piece on this but essentially vacation is also often based on a bidding system. Again, it can be seniority based or a free for all, depending on your airline. Either way, you’ll usually have to ‘bid’ for your leave well over a year in advance.
Legal Regulations and Rest Periods
The three main aviation bodies FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) and EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) each have their own strict guidelines on pilot duty and rest time to maintain safety in the skies. These regulations are vital to protect both the pilots and the passengers, as otherwise airlines will likely push pilots past their limits in the name of maximising profit, therefore causing severe fatigue. Fatigue can severely compromise a pilot’s performance, potentially endangering lives (Read more about pilot fatigue and the dangers in ‘Do Pilots Fly Tired’).
Airlines are required by law to adhere to these regulations, and they often employ their own complex fatigue risk management systems to monitor and manage pilot fatigue. As well as these laws, pilot unions such as BALPA or IPA will have their own scheduling agreements that the airlines must also adhere to (as a professional pilot you’ll want to know these inside & out as the crewing departments will sometimes push their luck – See our post here for more tips on being a new First Officer & dealing with crewing etc). These systems use a combination of scientific research and real-time data to ensure that pilots are fit to fly, even when dealing with challenging schedules and time zone changes.
Important to note;
Flight hours are hours from chocks on to chocks off.
Duty hours are from when you pass through airport security to when you leave.
A high level guide to legal hours for commercial airline pilots;
- The maximum amount of flying hours in a colander year is 900 (12 consecutive months is 1000)
- 100 flight hours of flight time in any 28 consecutive days
CAP 371 also stipulates a few more limits regarding duty hours;
- 60 duty hours in any 7 consecutive days (UK & US)
- 95 hours in any 14 consecutive days (110 duty hours in any 14 consecutive days in America)
- 190 hours in any 28 consecutive days (UK & US)
Each Aviation body will have its own legal ‘Minimum Rest’ period that pilots must have between duties. A little like the tachograph rules for lorry drivers.
The CAA in the UK dictates a minimum rest period of 12 hours when operating in the UK, meaning 12 hours from when you leave the airport at the end of a duty, to when you can legally begin your next duty. (although they can reduce this if you’re operating out of base).
How do the airlines build the schedules?
Gone are the days where a human being sits down with a spreadsheet and works out which pilots will be flying which duties, and you could slip Peggy a fiver if you wanted your roster a certain way. Airline pilot schedules are now created by computer programmes. These programmes will be regularly inspected by the Aviation governing body. The rules, regulations, required routings and pilots bidding preferences are fed into the system, the system then spits out thousands of rosters built to ensure compliance with these regulations and to optimise their crew’s efficiency.
Airlines still have entire crewing departments who work extremely hard, however it’s more about managing the computer system during last minute changed and unforeseen events.
The Pros and Cons of Pilot Work Schedules
Pilot work schedules come with a set of advantages and disadvantages.
Fixed schedules can offer a semblance of work-life balance, allowing pilots to plan their personal lives more effectively. They may have regular days off and be able to predict their work hours. Their days on however can be extremely demanding, with long, fatiguing antisocial hours. Although days off may be regular, it’s common that those days off will be in the week and not on the weekends when you want to be off. Social connection can be tough when you have your days off in the week when all your family or friends are at work and unavailable. You then have to work weekends at anti-social hours so are unavailable to see anyone. Often, when you do get a weekend off you’re so exhausted from the block of work before that social plans are the last thing you feel like!
Flexible schedules can also be demanding and lead to disruptions in personal life and family commitments. Although an airline transport pilot on a flexible schedule may have more autonomy in being able to bid for certain days off, there’s far less predictability and it can lead to an unstable life.
With reserve or standby rosters, whilst getting paid to be on standby can be great, it often means you can’t commit to any solid outside plans. If you do, there’s a chance you’ll have to bail last minute and leave the other person hanging.
Whichever schedule you go for, the irregular hours and last-minute changes can be challenging, especially for those with families.
A unique aspect of this profession is that pilots often get extended time off between blocks of duties. As a whole, they probably get more time off than the normal 9-5 worker, giving them more free time and the opportunity to travel or pursue hobbies and side businesses.
In conclusion, building work schedules for commercial pilots is a very complexed task, with rules, regulations and many other intricacies to consider. There are different types of schedules that pilots can be on; Fixed, flexible and reserve. They can also be full time or part time. Airlines can also choose to operate on a seniority based system or not. The scheduling will change depending on both the airline worked for, and the country regulating the schedules.
Overall, airlines need to strike a delicate balance between safety, regulatory compliance, and the well-being of pilots. It’s a demanding profession and it’s imperative that pilots schedules do not leave them feeling fatigues in order to keep air travel safe and accessible for everyone worldwide.
Do airline pilots always fly to the same place?
No. For short haul pilots, often each day will be a different destination. For long haul, each trip will be different. The only real caveat is if you’re in a very small airline with few destinations, or are extremely senior and bid for the same destination each month.
Do airline pilots choose which flights they operate?
Pilots can usually ‘bid’ for flights, but the likelihood of them getting it depends if the airline has a seniority-based line bid system and where the pilot is in it. For First Officers or new pilots, this will be hard.
Do you get better schedules as a Captain
In a seniority based airline, potentially. In a non seniority based airline, nope.
How Do Airline Pilot Vacation Days Work?
This is usually done by a bidding system. Again, it often depends on your place in the seniority list. Bids for the next year will usually have to be placed at the start of the year before. This can be a challenge as most people don’t know when their friends or families will be able to take their holiday that far in advance.