Posted by: Korry | October 20, 2011

A Month in the Life (Part 1)

It’s the middle of the month and that can mean only one thing for a pilot: it’s bid award time! What’s a bid award? In short, it’s the publication of a pilot’s schedule for the following month. Questions about the schedule/lifestyle of a pilot are some of the most frequently asked questions I receive (among others found here). So I figured this would be a great time to provide some insights into how pilots get their schedules and what those schedules look like. My hope is that this will give you a good feel for what it’s like to live the life of a pilot.

Since this issue is far too complicated to break down into just one blog, I’ll split it into two parts. Today I’ll explain two things: trips and lines. On Monday, I’ll dig deeper into the specifics of bidding each month and how it has changed substantially in recent years.

Before we do any of that, however, we need to clearly understand the importance of a pilot’s number.

You see, a pilot’s life is completely controlled by his or her seniority number. Everything from the quality of trips to the number of days off to vacation to which airplane a pilot can hold and whether a pilot is a captain or a first officer is dependent upon senority. There are two main types of seniority: system seniority and base/domicile seniority.

System seniority is pretty simple: take all the pilots at the company and rank them 1 through whatever with the most senior pilot being number one and the most junior pilot being at the bottom. This is really important during downtimes because most airlines furlough pilots in inverse seniority order.

Base seniority is seniority within a particular subgroup. At my company, we classify pilots in three ways: Base/Domicile (which airport you fly out of), Equipment (which specific type of plane you fly since you can only be certified on one plane at a time…for example Boeing 737 or Airbus 330) and Seat (captain or first officer). Lump those together and you get BES. Seniority within a given BES is what really matters month to month.

Each month, the company takes all of the flying and packages different flights into bundles. We will call these bundles “trips” for our purposes. It should be noted, however, that some companies may refer to these bundles as sequences or pairings. Trips can be various lengths ranging from the norm of one to four days to the extreme of 8 or more days. Some trips start early while others start late. Some may have short overnights at an airport hotel while others are longer and are more likely to be downtown. Different pilots prefer different types of trips for different reasons, so significant time is spent each month analyzing trips to find the ones that you find most appealing. And even then, seniority within a BES will determine whether a pilot can hold these trips or not.

Here’s an example of a four-day trip with layovers in Chicago (ORD), Anchorage (ANC), and Las Vegas (LAS): 

Example of a Trip

This trip shows lots of useful information including departure and destination airports, specific flight numbers (edited out in this example), departure and arrival times, duty times, overnights, hotels, transportation companies, etc. In this example, this four-day trip departs day one at 6:30am, gets back on day four at 10:35pm, and would pay a credit (CR) and block (BLK) time of 21 hours, 48 minutes. Pilots are paid hourly for the time they are in the plane and away from the gate. That means that they (and the flight attendents) don’t get paid for time spent preflighting, boarding or deplaning…not to mention delays or downtime in airports (affectionately known as “airport appreciation”). The last number of note on the example above is the TAFB, or time away from base. In this example, the pilots would be away from home consecutively for 89 hours and 20 minutes.

Once the company splits all the flying into trips, it then combines several trips and packages them into one pilot’s monthly schedule like this:

Example of a Line

Not too surprisingly, pilots call a schedule like this a “line” because it is a month of flying organized in the form of a line. In this example, the numbers at the top are the days of the month. Asterisks represent a day off. The three-letter airport identifier represents where the trip finishes each day. For example, the first trip of the month is a two-day trip to Seattle (SEA) on the 5th that ends in New York City (NYC) on the second day.

Now that we understand that individual flights are combined to make trips…and that individual trips are combined to make lines, we no have to ask how those trips and lines are assigned…and that’s where the real fun begins. But that’s the topic for next time!

Still confused? Leave a comment with your question about trips and lines and I’ll do my best to answer them.



  1. How do you pack for all those different climates?! 🙂

    • That’s a great question. It gets particularly tricky in the winter time when you have to lug around your uniform blazer, overcoat and then a coat for the overnight. I guess you just get really efficient at packing and only take what’s absolutely necessary. The real fun begins when you’re scheduled to go…let’s say…to Florida but then a winter storms cancels your flight and you get reassigned to do Chicago or someplace cold. Somehow it all works out.

  2. […] Thursday, I wrote here about three important concepts for understanding the monthly schedules of pilots: Seniority, […]

  3. […] With computer-based preferential bidding systems like the ones I wrote about here and here, pilots are lucky if they fly together on two or three trips in an entire career let […]

  4. […] stops traveling–even on holidays. Getting holidays off as a pilot tends to take years of seniority, especially for the big holidays. I’m just thankful that this year, unlike the past several […]

  5. […] the past few weeks, I’ve taken a look at seniority, bidding and schedules, but I haven’t given too much insight into what goes on during a single trip. Well, a while […]

  6. […] this our “Line Oriented Evaluation” because it is modeled after a real flight on the line. Both days start with a two-hour briefing with a flight instructor. Then we get in “the […]

  7. […] is giving up accumulated seniority as a First Officer. As we’ve talked about before, seniority is everything. From monthly bidding to vacation, seniority determines everything. Would you rather […]

  8. […] a reasonably senior First Officer and thus able to enjoy the benefits that seniority provides (monthly schedules, vacation, etc.) give up that relative seniority for a 30-50% pay raise, the satisfaction of being […]

  9. […] you travel for a living, you definitely don’t think about all the places you go. One trip leads to the next. One overnight blends with the next. And before you know it, you speak as […]

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