Flight Attendant Schedules: The Complex and Competitive Ways Employees Choose Their Routes
As a former flight attendant, the most frequently asked question on board was not “Where is the toilet?” It was, “Is this your usual route? This seemingly innocuous investigation has always elicited a deep sigh from me. The way a flight attendant chooses their schedule is nowhere near that simple.
A flight attendant’s schedule, especially in the United States, is based on a seniority auction system. The longer you stay with an airline, the more you will know where and when you are going. To further complicate matters, a flight attendant’s seniority can change every month depending on who is on leave, on training or on a special assignment. For the most junior or newer flight attendants, most airlines put them on ‘reserve’, which means they never have a say in where they go – they get sent. on a flight whenever someone else becomes ill or if the operation the team needs them on board to avoid a delay or cancellation.
For flight attendants old enough to bid on a flight schedule, there are a lot of factors they take into account when marking their preferences.
Bidding for a schedule is one of the most stressful activities for crews. Typically, an offer is made three weeks to a month in advance, so flight attendants ask themselves what days they’ll need time off next month, what events they’ve already planned, where they want to go and who they want to go to. want to go with. And they always wonder if their seniority can contain their preferences.
Additionally, flight attendants may not always be able to bid for a specific route or flight. One-way flights are incorporated into a “trip” or “twinning” of flights typically lasting one to four days. Each day can have anywhere from a flight to five or six flights before spending the night. So if someone was interested in a specific route or departure, there may be four or five other flights accompanying them, which makes it unappealing. Some airlines do not allow crews to bid on specific multi-day trips; instead, they pre-build full monthly schedules called lines and ask flight attendants to submit their most desirable line preference to “Guess I’ll do this”.
The destination and the duration of the stopover also play an important role in a program offering. For example, after a day of five flights, a 10 hour layover doesn’t feel very restful until another day of three flights. And for some, a 24-hour layover in Cancun, Mexico is the holy grail, but for others it’s rock bottom because it’s not much value in terms of compensation. (Most crew members are not paid for layover time, only for the hours the aircraft is in the air.)
Most airline auction systems allow crew members to set personal preferences such as avoiding red-eye and stopovers of less than 10 hours, crossing specific hubs or target cities, limiting the number of flights per day, what position a crew member works on the plane, and even selections such as reward stopovers in cities like Paris or Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Some even allow crew members to avoid working with specific colleagues while also allowing them to request to fly with their closest friends. Once the offers are received and the schedules assigned, the exchange period opens during which flight attendants can drop off and exchange flights with each other. It is not uncommon to offer money to entice others to take unwanted trips outside of their schedule.
Flight attendants can band together, sometimes referred to as a “cartel,” and rack up the most desirable trips in their schedules in order to barter better stopovers or better trips with their friends. “I like to make friend offers because when you’re with your friends, you can make a flight fun, wherever you go,” says Aimee LaMay, a Florida-based flight attendant. “Even though it is an unwanted destination, you are with your friends and you have time to catch up and explore.” LaMay says she tries to avoid flying to certain destinations due to constant airport delays. “I have two daughters at home and I love knowing that I’ll be home when I tell them I will. I avoid airports known for delays.