Your ticket was expensive and your plane crowded, but at least you took off on time

Is there an upside to the fact that the airline industry is struggling? Perhaps you can feel smug knowing that the CEOs of legacy carriers will probably be taking home six-figure bonuses this year, instead of the usual seven or eight digit haul (“Ha, greedy bastards finally got what they deserve,” you might say to yourself).

But all you smiling, glass-half-full folks out there can take comfort in this: airlines have the highest on-time percentages they’ve had in a long, long time. According to USAToday, 86% of all flights were on time during the month of October. That is compared to 78% during the same month of 2007.

A plane is considered on time if it reaches its destination within 15 minutes of its scheduled arrival time. I assume they mean less than 15 minutes later than scheduled; although I’m sure there is the odd person out there who might be put off by arriving 15 minutes early.

So look on the bright side of air travel. You may have to spend more for your ticket and your plane is bound to be crowded and, perhaps, noisy. But at least you have a good chance of getting where you are going on time.

Cockpit Chronicles: How pilots choose their schedules

Today’s flight was a turn (out and back in the same day) from Boston to Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. The airplane was a 767, which is always nice to fly. We’re able to fly either the 757 or the 767 using the same procedures and training. I think most pilots prefer flying the 767 versus the 757. It’s something we don’t see as often and it handles differently — a little like going from a Honda’s power steering (the 757) to a Cadillac (the 767).

We had some snow pass through Boston a few hours before departure but the airplane was already de-iced and ready to go by the time we arrived. Since the flight time was over 8 hours for the day, we had a relief co-pilot (FB) on board. Tom was the FB, which meant he would typically do the walk around inspection while I did the interior preflight. I stayed nice and warm while loading the FMS (flight computer that stored our flight plan and works similar to a GPS) and checking the equipment.

The flight down to Santo Domingo went without a hitch. We talked a bit about what trips everyone would be flying in March. For most pilots, there are two dates around the middle of the month that are almost like Christmas. The first is the day our bid sheets come out and the second is the day we get our schedule for the next month. A bid sheet is a print out of every possible schedule we can fly. It shows the trips and the days you’ll be flying them. You simply arrange your preferences in the order you want to fly them and hope someone more senior doesn’t pick the schedule that you’re hoping for.

For those pilots flying the 757 and the 767 internationally from Boston, there are 27 different schedules we can choose that fly four different kinds of trips:

  • Turns (one-day trips) – to Saint Thomas, Santo Domingo or Aruba. These high time trips give you the most days off.
  • A three-day Barbados – not much flight time, which means you’ll fly more days in a month, but the full day on the beach on the second day makes up for that.
  • The two-day London – a high time trip that most pilots prefer.
  • The three-day Panama City and Caracas – that departs very early the first day and gets back after midnight on the third day.

These trips change every couple of months, which is why the bid sheet is eagerly awaited every month. Even though there aren’t many different destinations to choose from, I can’t remember a time when we’ve had so many quality trips. I’d be thrilled to hold any of the first three trips above. The Panama City and Caracas layovers tend to go junior, meaning the pilots with the least amount of seniority usually fly there. Even after 15 years at the company, I’m relatively ‘junior’ on the list, with 4/5ths of the other co-pilots above me. The first six pilots usually choose the London flights, and the Caribbean turns where you’re home every night are usually the next most popular.

If you’re at the bottom 20%, you’re likely to find yourself on reserve, which is like being ‘on call.’ If someone calls in sick, the company will call you to fly. Usually you find out what you’ll be doing the day before. Reserve pilots usually fly less often than a scheduled pilot would and they get paid a flat 90% of a full schedule.

I’ve been lucky enough to hold a line for the last six months straight, but I was awarded a reserve schedule for next month. Hopefully I’ll get called out for a NY or Miami based trip (they often run short of pilots there) to someplace we don’t fly to from Boston.

We go to training every nine months, and I’m scheduled to go down for five days of training next month. Of course I’ll be writing about that.

As we approached Santo Domingo today, we had our usual challenge in understanding the controllers there. The tower controller was especially difficult to understand. Since the runway is closed for repairs, we’re landing on what was formerly the taxiway. Because of this, we had to turn around on the runway to taxi back to the gate. After our runway “U-turn” we were looking straight at a Cessna Caravan a few hundred feet off the ground heading toward us. The Caravan pilot obviously saw us, and I’m sure he just continued his approach until it became completely obvious that the controller’s plan wasn’t going to work. He went around and lined up again for landing a few minutes later.

Maybe I’ll bid around flying to Santo Domingo for a while. With just a little more seniority I should be able to reliably hold the Panama City/Caracas trips. And once you get a schedule, you are free to trade around, which is how I’ve been able to fly to London and Barbados on occasion.

With your seniority number deciding what trips you fly, what base you fly from, when your vacation occurs and, most importantly, when you will upgrade to captain, you can imagine just how important this number is to pilots. It’s so important, in fact, that it can even hold up an airline’s merger plans.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on each of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston.