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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Being an Airline Pilot, Week 9: Sitting Reserve

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Did you ever wonder what happens if an airline pilot gets sick, has their car break down on the way to the airport, or can't make it in for some reason? In other jobs, the other workers pick up the slack that day. One airline pilot, however, can't just decide to do the work of two people that day.

So does a planeload of passengers end up stranded at the airport because one person got the sniffles?

Nope. That's what reserves are for.

Welcome to reserve. It's a long staircase and you're at the bottom. And the escalators are out of order, rookie.
Being on reserve is where the fresh meat just out of training ends up. Once you get a line, you know what trips you'll be doing, on what days, and for how long. However, before you get there, you pay your dues by sitting reserve. Instead of knowing what you'll be doing—or even if you'll even do anything at all that day—you sit around waiting. And waiting. Aaaand waiting.

How long you'll be on reserve depends on what airline you fly for. At some, it can be a few months; at others, it can be several years. They all have one thing in common, however.

No matter if it's a few weeks or a few years, it's too long.

Pilots are different from most people. That's not news to anyone who knows a pilot (after all, my wife has been saying that for years). One of the ways we're different is that we're one of those rare lucky ducks who actually want to go to their job. Pilots want to fly. We're not good at sitting around all day wishing we were flying. (Most of us did enough of that before we got paid to do just that.)

Unfortunately, that's exactly what reserve ends up being many times: a whole day sitting around not flying, but not knowing you're not going to fly until your shift is over. Then heading back to a hotel room that you paid for yourself (unless you happen to live in base) and getting ready to do it all—or nothing at all—tomorrow.

Getting paid to sit around sounds like a pretty nice job, doesn't it? It's not. Imagine going to your job and being told you're to sit in the break room for the next 8 hours. And then the same thing the next day. And the day after that. And while you're imaging that, keep in mind all the time, money, and effort you spent to get that job in the first place, and now maybe you'll get to do that job, and maybe you won't.

It you still don't think it sounds that bad, or you just want to experience life as a brand-new airline pilot, sit in an uncomfortable chair and stare at this picture for the next 8 hours:

"So, what do you do for a living?" "This." "You watch the baggage carousel go in circles for a living?" "Exactly. I got a degree, paid almost $100,000 in plane rental and instruction costs, and spent years of my life passing 7 different FAA checkrides to sit here and make sure that carousel doesn't go anywhere. And so far it hasn't."

It may sound like you're being punished for making it all the way to this level, but in reality you actually do serve a very important purpose. If a crewmember gets sick, or gets stranded out of position due to a broken aircraft, or is going to "time out" (exceed the maximum duty hours the FAA allows), etc., you are called to step in and fly. You keep passengers lives from being disrupted by the inevitable.

If it weren't for reserves, thousands upon thousands of passengers each day would be stranded. Instead, 99% of them never know there was a problem. As a reserve, you're the reason they get home or to that important meeting or start their long-awaited vacation. You are the buffer that takes a minor scheduling burp and turns it into a non-event.

If you keep that in mind, and also keep in mind that it will eventually be over and you'll join the rest of the lineholders one day, you might be able to tolerate the long days of uncertainty. New airline pilots are often shocked at the transition. Some of them jump ship and head to a different airline, thinking that maybe things will be better somewhere else. It isn't; the grass is just as brown on the other side of the fence while you're on reserve. It gets better, but it takes patience.

To occupy my time, I spent the first few weeks getting to know every nook and cranny of Washington-Dulles. After a while, I knew the airport as well as Eero Saarinen himself. You know you're starting to become a reserve veteran when:
  • You can rank multiple different restrooms in preferential order
  • The hotel knows you by phone number
  • The information desk volunteers ask you questions about where things are
One game I created for myself to kill time was to guess where a particular flight was heading to without looking at the sign. After a while I got pretty good at being able to simply look at what the gaggle of passengers lined up in front of it was wearing, how many kids there were in line, or how the group was behaving, and usually tell where they were going. Mix of weird/trendy clothed people and people in business attire? San Francisco. Lots of strollers? Orlando. People actually having fun while standing in line? They're headed to Las Vegas and have already started partying. And so on.

Unfortunately, the game lost its appeal once I had been there long enough to have many of the flight time/destination pairs memorized. It's 5:15 p.m. and a bunch of people are lined up at D32. Seattle. It's 7:20 at D31. Denver. And so on.

One of the positive things about reserve, besides being the one who makes the difference between Little Suzie making it to grandma's house this afternoon or tomorrow morning, is that my photography skills improved from all the time I spent wandering around taking pictures. I also got to see some things I'd never seen before, like what it looks like when the "hood" is popped on a jet engine:

Here's yer problem. You were out of blinker fluid. Topped it off for you and cleaned the bugs off the windshield.
Or an interesting little bend in the otherwise-straight C/D concourse:

"Paging Captain Biv. Captain Roy G. Biv, please pick up the nearest courtesy phone."

And a terminal floor so immaculately polished you could almost fly in it:

Whoever is in charge of waxing the floors here seriously deserves a raise.

The good news is that, like all things, it eventually comes to an end. Once you get a line, quality of life improves dramatically. As I noted above, how long you're on reserve will depend on what company you're with. For me, it was 3 1/2 months, as I finished IOE on September 22nd and got a line on January 1st. That was long enough.

This post has been all about what it's like to not fly. However, I spent a lot of time actually flying while on reserve. In the next post, I have a nail-biting "so there I was" story that happened to me on a reserve trip.

See the series index here.

The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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