How airlines keep flights moving when the operation doesn’t go as planned.

Pilots walking down a concourse with bags in-hand.
Photo: Yiuchueng I Shutterstock 

You are an airline passenger, and your multi-flight day has gone from bad to worse. Your first flight was delayed, and you’re further hindered at your airline’s hub due to weather. You just heard an announcement that the pilots for your next flight have timed out, and the airline is “trying to find a new crew.” Crew schedulers are feverishly looking for a way to resolve the issue plaguing your flight, and their best option might be to call on reserve pilots. Let’s discuss what a reserve pilot is and how their schedules work.

Line Holders and Reserve Schedules

Most pilots are “line holders.” This means the entire month’s flying has been pre-determined and placed on a crew member’s schedule. Pilots are free to edit or add flying if their scheduling department allows, but line holders know how their monthly schedules will look unless they are reassigned during a trip. On the other hand, reserve pilots know which days they will be on reserve for that month’s schedule, but they can’t know with certainty if they will be called to work on any reserve days. A pilot (or flight attendant) with a reserve schedule might have 15 days when they are on duty and fly every one of those days, or they might not fly at all. It depends on scheduling needs, the weather, and the number of colleagues on reserve.

The hustle and bustle of a crowded airport terminal.

Photo: I Shutterstock

Types of Reserve Schedules

Reserve schedules vary significantly depending on the airline and the contract that the union has negotiated on behalf of the pilots. Some airlines require their reserve pilots to be available within a specific call-out time. This time can be as short as two hours and as long as 18 hours, otherwise known as “long-call reserve.” A pilot on a shorter call-out time is obligated to be in their domicile city. In contrast, a long-call reserve pilot would be able to commute in after receiving a work notification since they have the additional time required to make at least two “good faith attempts” to commute to work (being at the airport in time to catch two flights to work is the industry standard in the US for commuting policies).

Some airlines staff reserve schedules with “ready reserve,” also known as “airport standby.” The implication is relatively clear—a few pilots must be at the airport ready to operate a flight, generally within a 30-minute timeframe. Many airlines do not use this method of scheduling reserve pilots because it has been negotiated out of the pilot’s contracts or because their operations do not necessitate such staffing. Ready reserves are viewed by schedulers as the last line of defense and are used only if call-out reserves would not be able to get to the airport in time to work the flight.

A snowy day that might require a reserve crew to be used if the weather causes significant delays.

Photo: Bodorka I Shutterstock

Being a reserve crew member with a call-out schedule requires careful consideration of daily tasks, particularly if the call-out time is short. Reserve pilots will go shopping, drop kids off at school, or head out for a lunch meeting with a suitcase in the car and their uniform in the backseat. If a pilot commutes from a distant city, they are likely responsible for covering the cost of hotels in-base if they are not called to work. Therefore, line holding or long call reserve schedules are much better suited for commuting crew members.

Hopefully this provides some insight into the staffing regulations that airlines use to ensure flights depart. If your crew “times out,” you very well may be flown by reserve pilots. Airlines are massive and complex operations, and reserve pilots and flight attendants are a stop-gap implemented to keep things moving, even if the flight is a touch late.


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