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Career Pilot: What is 'reserve'?

Rite of passage has its ups and downs

If you’re new to or considering the airlines as a career, one of the things you’ll hear is that you want to get “off reserve” or “get a line” as quickly as possible. What does this mean, and why is it unique to the airlines?

January Advanced PilotEvery airline has pilots and flight attendants who are on reserve status. These folks are almost always the junior among their ranks—that is, they are the most recently hired. There are two main differences between being a line-holder and being on reserve.

A line-holder fits most preconceived notions about what the airline lifestyle is like: That pilot has a schedule each month, made up of trips (some airlines call them pairings or rotations) that range in length—usually from one day (an “out-and-back”) to four. In some cases, the trips may exceed a week, but that is rare, and usually occurs only on international schedules.

Reserve pilots are called in to cover trips that are not staffed because of a sick call, family emergencies, a weather disruption, or some other reason that the original pilot can’t complete the assignment. Pilots on reserve are assigned their days off for the month, and they usually have no flying on their schedules as the month starts. These pilots are required to be available by telephone on their assigned reserve days. Reserve rules have evolved over time so that instead of a requirement to be ready to go to the airport 24 hours a day, reserves have a window of time during which they must answer the phone each day. Outside of that window, they have no obligation to the company.

Thanks to FAR Part 117 and the emphasis on pilot rest, most airlines have adopted both a long-call (LC) reserve and a short-call (SC) reserve. Pilots on LC may be on call for a 24-hour period, but when scheduling calls, they are immediately released from duty and put on rest for a particular assignment. To make sure there are no duty/rest conflicts, the assigned rest period is usually 12 to 13 hours. LC is often highly coveted, as it allows you to live a normal life, and commute if necessary.

SC, on the other hand, is traditional reserve duty. You are typically on the clock for a certain amount of time each day (no longer than 14 hours). If the phone rings, you must answer it—and you can expect to be required to report to work in two hours or less. This can put a major crimp on your lifestyle. It means that you must be close to home, or keep your uniform and bags in your car. If you commute, it means being at your duty base, usually in a crash pad.

This is the kind of reserve that most pilots dread. The schedule is unpredictable, and the end of a one-day trip may just be the beginning of six days of flying (the regionals are notorious for this). For pilots who commute while on reserve, longer trips are great (the company is paying for the hotel), but the uncertainty wears on you. Further, being on reserve means lugging around a week’s worth of clothes every time, whereas a line-holder can just pack for the duration of the trip.

The other major downside to reserve is the pay. The guaranteed pay for a reserve is usually in the range of 75 hours a month. A line-holder usually can count on at least 80 to 85 hours of pay, not to mention more days off. In theory, there are ways to make more money, but the airlines have mastered the art of minimizing those expenses.

Every airline handles reserves differently. Done right, reserve isn’t bad, and senior pilots will bid it to enjoy a slow month or to ensure they get certain days off. In the better reserve systems, the pilots can go into the open flying list and choose the trips they will fly, giving their schedule a sense of certainty (again, this is great for planning a commute).

However, done poorly, reserve life can be miserable, and most pilots live for the day that they are off reserve status. Time spent on reserve is directly related to how much hiring the airline is doing. If you happen to be on reserve during a hiring slowdown, take a deep breath, because you could be in for a bit of a rocky road. Because newer pilots tend to be on reserve more, hiring and growth are the quickest avenues to getting your first line.

Reserve is a rite of passage—dues that must be paid. But once you’re comfortably off reserve, you can put it in the rear-view mirror, with your own horror stories to share.

Chip Wright

Chip Wright is an airline pilot and frequent contributor to AOPA publications.

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