Posted by: Korry | October 24, 2011

A Month in the Life (Part 2)

Last Thursday, I wrote here about three important concepts for understanding the monthly schedules of pilots: Seniority, Trips and Lines. Seniority refers to a pilot’s longevity ranking within the entire company as well as within a particular BES (Base, Equipment, Seat). Trips refer to groups of individual flights that are bundled together. And lastly, lines refer to the packaging of several trips onto one pilot’s monthly schedule.

Now that you’ve got the basics, let’s get to the meat and potatoes: bidding! You see, once upon a time there were hard lines…and then computers and high-tech software came along and changed everything!

Not long ago, most airlines, often with the assistance of the pilot union, would combine all the flying for a particular BES into trips. They would then bundle these trips together into dozens (if not hundreds) of different lines. The company would build the most efficient lines possible so that the fewest number of lines (i.e. pilots) would be needed to cover all the flying for a given month while complying with all the FAA regulations governing how many hours pilots can fly in a week/month/year. The company would then give each line a number and publish all the “pre-constructed” lines in a bid packet each month.

Unfortunately, efficient lines didn’t mean “great-for-me” lines. Some were clearly more desirable than others. So, pilots had to sift meticulously through the dozens or hundreds of lines and the corresponding trips in order to determine a specific order in which to bid all the lines (or at least enough to cover his or her seniority within the base). After the bids closed, the lines were awarded in seniority order with each pilot getting his or her most highly ranked and available line. The most senior pilot needed to bid only one line per month. Conversely, the most junior pilot would likely bid all the lines and take what was left over. In the middle, pilots would get what they wanted sometimes and other times they would not. But, it was all straightforward. Pilot by pilot. Line by line. And seniority ruled.

While the bidding process for pre-constructed lines was simple enough to understand, it wasn’t terribly efficient in reality. The company had no way to pre-block a pilot’s schedule for things such as vacation or training before the lines were awarded because there was no way to know which line would go to which pilot. Furthermore, it wasn’t efficient for pilots either. The process of sifting through the bid packets month after month was tedious and time-consuming.

Surely, there was a better way.

Enter PBS. No, not the public broadcasting service, but a Preferential Bidding System. Now, instead of bidding for specific lines, pilots can tell the computer their preferences for what types of trips to award and what types of trips to avoid. For instance, a pilot can tell the computer to avoid flying on certain days and at specific times of the day while also telling it to award trips of a certain length with a layover in a specific city that was longer than, say, 20 hours. PBS allows pilots to be as specific or as general as they wish. And instead of bidding hundreds of lines, pilots now bid ten or twenty “bid groups” with each bid group having slightly different preferences than the one before it. Bid group 1 is the “dream come true” bid. The last bid group for a pilot is the “I’ll settle for this if I absolutely have to” bid. And if the pilot isn’t general enough at the end, the computer gives him a random line…just as it would have with pre-constructed lines.

While some pilots don’t like PBS because it requires thinking a little bit like a computer programmer (and because they often make unrealistic requests given their BES seniority), I personally think this is the way to go. Instead of sifting through hundreds of pre-constructed lines, I tell the computer what kind of line I’d like and it does its best to build me a schedule that makes me happy while also making the more senior pilots (and the more junior pilots if possible) happy, too. Airlines love PBS because it is totally efficient. They can pre-set things like vacation and training on a pilot’s schedule before the bids are run and they can award all the flying even more efficiently than before.

There will always be pilots who long for pre-constructed lines, but I doubt they ever get the chance to do more than just long for them. Airlines love PBS. A sizeable number of pilots love (or at least prefer) PBS. And now that PBS is here, I’d say it’s probably here to stay!

Are you thoroughly confused? Leave a comment with your questions and I’ll do my best to clarify them. Also, you can check out Flying the Line, by the Air Line Pilots Association, for some additional information.



  1. […] 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 alone in a […]

  2. […] 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. […]

  3. […] As a First Officer, you constantly fly with different Captains, (Remember when we talked about bidding for monthly schedules?) so you’re forced to become a chameleon, meshing your personality […]

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