Galley Gossip: A question about being a flight attendant on reserve

Dear Heather,

I am intrigued by reserve. Must you queue up each day?

Have fun but be safe,


Dear Geno,

You are correct, we do queue up each day on reserve. Today I’m # 61 on the reserve list. Because there are 34 other flight attendants who are good to work four days in a row, like me, I’ve just made an appointment with Alice – master of hair. But now that the weather channel is reporting ice in Dallas, even though I’m based in New York, I’m getting a little nervous about my appointment with Alice today. When one airport is affected by weather, all the airports will eventually be affected by weather. Trips will cancel and crews will go illegal and that’s when my phone will ring.

RESERVE – Reserve flight attendants do not have a line (schedule of trips). On reserve we bid for days off only. When we don’t have a day off we remain on-call. The company can (and will) assign us a trip at any time of day (or night) with at least two hours time to get to the airport. Reserve duty is much like being an on-call doctor in that we must stay within a manageable radius of our base (mine covers three airports – JFK, LGA and EWR) and there are no late nights out and absolutely no alcohol, since you can (and will) be called out to work any time of day and night. I remember one night having a quiet evening at home with a movie and Chinese take out. The food had not even arrived to my apartment and I was already leaving for a trip to London! There’s no warning, no lead time, and no excuses. You just have to zip up your bag and go!

On the days we are good to work we have a four hour window to call in and retrieve our assignments for the following day. Because there are only so many available trips each day, not every flight attendant on-call will get one. Flight attendants who are not assigned a trip will be awarded a number. This number is based on the hours the flight attendant has flown during the month. The flight attendant with the least amount of hours is assigned the lowest number and will be called out first if a trip comes up.

While a high number on the reserve list is always a relief to a flight attendant who did not get awarded a trip, a flight attendant who is just about to go to bed, that flight attendant may still get a call in the middle of the night from crew schedule to fly. Here’s why…

LEGALITIES – While layovers can be as short as eight hours (no less), a flight attendant is guaranteed 12 hours off between trips. That means some flight attendants will not be legal to fly until a certain time the following day. For instance, # 5 on the reserve list may get called out first to work a trip because # 1- 4 are not legal to work until noon.

NUMBER OF DAYS ON-CALL – A flight attendant will usually be on-call for five to six days in a row, and then the flight attendant will have anywhere from two to five days off, depending on the line the flight attendant was awarded. Because not everyone has days off at the same time, some flight attendants are good to work one day while others are good for four days. That means if # 1 on the reserve list is only good to work one day, but a two-day trip pops up in the computer, the trip will be assigned to the first flight attendant on the list who is legal to work the trip, and that could be #10 on the reserve list.

EQUIPMENT – The airline I work for has several different types of aircraft and each flight attendant is trained to work on the equipment they fly, but not all flight attendants are trained to work on all the equipment. At least that’s how it is at my airline. For instance, the airline I work for has six different types of aircraft. I’m only trained to work on four of those airplanes. If I’m #1 on the reserve list, but a three-day, 737 trip pops up, which is an airplane I’m not trained to work on, I’ll be skipped over and the trip will go to the first 737 qualified flight attendant who is good to work the two-day trip, a flight attendant who is also legal for the departure time.

I know, I know, it’s all very confusing, which is why flight attendants have a tendency to be on edge when they’re on reserve, why they go to sleep with their cell phones right beside the bed, why they have a tendency to jump five feet into the air and curse whenever the phone rings, and why they have no life. This is why reserve sucks. And this is why I commute from Los Angeles (where I live) to New York (where I work), even though I am on reserve this month.

Last week I went to bed # 28 on the reserve list and got called out in the middle of the night to cover an early morning departure to Los Angeles out of Newark. There were a lot of sick calls that night. Three nights ago I was # 2 on the reserve list and couldn’t fall asleep because I spent the entire night tossing and turning, dreading the unavoidable call. Trust me, there’s nothing worse than hearing, “Crew schedule calling for flight attendant Poole,” in the middle of the night. So imagine my surprise when I awoke to the sun shining through my window, not a ringing cell phone. Of course by five o’clock that same day I was on the airplane and headed to Las Vegas.

“You’re not trained on the 737!” my husband just exclaimed when I read him this post over the phone. He’s in Los Angeles and I’m in New York.

“No!” I told him, and then I went on to explain why. Ya see, as long as I’m on reserve I’m not going to get trained on another aircraft. No way. Not unless I’m forced to. I’m going to sit in my crashpad and let someone else work the twenty hour, three-day, 737 trip, while I wait for a cush twelve hour, two-day, 767 trip to Los Angeles. Hey, that’s just me.

Thanks for the question, Geno. If you, or anyone else, have another question email me at

Heather Poole

Photo courtesy of Frak-tal (man sleeping) and volliem (hand holding phone) – from