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Piloting the System

Explorer C

During my commute to and from work, the question that I am most often asked is “what is your schedule like?”  It’s a great question and there is much more behind the answer than you might think.
While my particular schedule is usually trips that take me away from my Oakland base for three or four days during the week, Southwest has pilot trips that last anywhere from one day to four days, and these trips operate every day of the week.  Some are early morning trips and others take place late in the evening.  Above is a copy of my most recent schedule, to give an example of what a “typical” trip looks like for me.  This particular one is a four-day trip with overnight stops in Austin, Denver and Albany.  See if you can guess the other cities I stopped in using the airport codes.
Let’s take a look at what goes behind the mammoth task of scheduling nearly 6,000 pilots every month: Each of our pilots is assigned one of eight bases:  Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Oakland, Orlando or Phoenix.  We have the ability to choose whichever base we prefer, but our seniority with Southwest (based on our date of hire) dictates what base we are given.  We can also live anywhere we want to and commute to work, but we’ll save that discussion for a future blog entry.
Within each base, a monthly schedule comes out with enough choices for each pilot in the base, with each schedule resembling a monthly calendar.  Each of us figures out which of the schedules we prefer over the other ones, and bid accordingly.  Some pilots choose their schedules based on what cities they want to fly into to see family and friends or to take in the sights.  Others choose schedules based more on certain days of the week off.  Among other types of choices to make, we are also given the option of choosing to fly earlier in the day or later in the evening, so early birds and night owls alike can be choosy.  Once our choices have been made for the month, we bid accordingly and are awarded our monthly schedule based on our seniority and how it falls in line with the choices of pilots senior to us in our base. 

You might think that the process stops there but often, it doesn’t.  Once we are given our monthly schedules, we have the ability to “fine tune” our month by trading our trips with one another or with trips that Southwest still needs to cover.  Trips that remained uncovered are then assigned to pilots who have a “reserve” schedule, meaning they are on call.

Confused yet?

Well, imagine the process of planning and implementing schedules for almost 6,000 pilots!  Our Planning and Scheduling Departments do a phenomenal job of these tasks on a monthly basis.  I think it’s great that while Southwest gives our customers the “freedom to move about the country” with low fares and great destinations, we also give our pilots the freedom to be flexible with our schedules.

I welcome your comments and your questions.  Who knows, maybe your question will be my next story!