There are few jobs that serve such an important dual purpose as that of the flight attendant. Purveyors of fine service from takeoff to touchdown, and at the same time, they’re expected to calmly navigate in-flight emergencies at a moment’s notice. One part high-caliber service, one part emergency attendant. But, at the end of the day, their most important job is keeping passengers safe.
In the United States alone, there’s more than 113,000 flight attendants.
And considering the sheer number of flights that take off every day, it’s astounding to calculate the sheer numbers involved in this corner of the airline industry. At any given moment, the skies above you see many airlines criss-crossing their way across the country. On average, there are more than 70,000 daily flights. At O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, one of the world’s busiest airports, there will be more than 2,400 flight operations in one single day. While some smaller regional services can hold as little as one flight attendant, the larger domestic and International services can have teams of 4 to 6 flight attendants serving you in the sky.
Rarely do we (as passengers) account for the logistics that it takes to ensure the flight crew makes your flight. It's a constant mix of changes impacted by weather, logistics, and schedules. When they work well, passengers never notice. But there's a massive amount that happens behind-the-scenes to orchestrate this aerial scheduling dance.
Timing Is Always Up In The Air
If you ask a flight attendant what their schedule is, you’ll never get a consistent answer. Some weeks it could be working Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Another week, they could have off on Friday until a last-minute scheduling change throws that off course. Rarely does a flight attendant, if ever, have a typical “route” that they fly. Schedules are awarded after a bidding process that is based on mitigating factors like locale, demand, and flight crew seniority.
In essence, the schedule of a flight attendant is often unpredictable and defined by the constantly-shifting variables that affect the airline and travel industry -- things like weather, delayed departures, and cancellations. The call can come at any time of day or night to signal the next departure and flight attendant shift. It’s an erratic and hectic schedule without a doubt, but if you ask most flight attendants, the rewards are spending time with people and traveling to sometimes exotic destinations around the globe.
Understanding the process of how a member of the flight crew creates or edits their schedule requires a bit of vocabulary.
This is a sampling of terminology that flight crew uses to choose their schedules:
These are either the open dates a flight attendant can work, or days of the month a flight attendant may need off.
The process by which a flight attendant selects their schedule.
The old-school paper-based way of scheduling airlines. Today, many airlines are moving to a variety of online scheduling systems, but even those present challenges.
This is an example of a bid packet for Southwest Airlines from The Points Guys:
A period of elapsed time, using either Universal Coordinated or local time, which begins at midnight and ends 24 hours later at the next midnight.
Dropping a trip(s) that was on your schedule.
Flight Attendant Read File: A memorandum issued to alert to flight attendants of pertinent operational information.
An unscheduled non-revenue flight on which only crewmembers and authorized personnel or cargo are permitted on board. Yes, these flights exist and are detrimental to getting equipment, planes, and staff back.
Think of a ‘line’ as a collection of flights that string together to form a flight crew members shift. A complete line will show a flight attendant the time, place and specific dates they will be flying. The more senior a flight attendant, the more apt you will be to getting lines. In traveler parlance, a line is sort of like a route.
Similar to a pool of swappable shifts, these are trips that need to fill a flight attendant are placed into a general pool and ‘line holders’ can pick up the trips as a way to add hours to their monthly schedule. If no other flight attendants pick one up, it goes to the reserve line.
Adding hours or trips. Often done so that flight attendants can drop other trips.
Preferential Bid System (PBS)
Also known as a PBS, this is a more popular system than line-bidding, as it provides more benefit to the company by leaving fewer trips uncovered. Delta, JetBlue and Air Canada use this system, as do most airlines in Europe and Asia. PBS allows flight attendants to input a series of requests, then does its best to adhere to those requests when awarding schedules, honoring them in seniority order. This system is bound by certain built-in constraints, such as a schedule value (that is, how much the airline needs each flight attendant to work in order to cover the entire operation), language qualifications, etc. Some airlines award schedules once a month, and some (like KLM) award them on a rolling basis.
A reserve schedule is something that you can bid on one month in advance. This seniority system means newer flight attendants could end up with a reserve line which lists the days and time you will be “on reserve” for the entire month. These are the dates and times where you can be called to “duty in” and arrive to work. Attendants are typically given one or two hours to get to the airport, also known as “short call.” Because of the nature of call-ins, attendants must be close to a mobile phone.
Whether they’re printed in paper format or made available through back-end technology or even mobile interfaces, schedules are just like they sound -- the system by which flight attendants are able to see where they will work or potentially when they’ll work. Flight attendants operate in monthly blocks and bidding and selecting shifts will vary by airline.
Without a doubt, there are many layers to scheduling flight crew and the technology and tools that make it possible are changing. The challenges for airlines are navigating between older paper-based systems and discovering which newer technology works best for all the scheduling needs a particular airline has.
Recently, we talked with Mark Sachse, a Team Lead (manager) Flight Attendant working with American Airlines and learned how digital scheduling tools have helped his work and made him more productive.
- Located in Chicago at O’Hare International Airport, Mark was the first of his team to join Branch Messenger in January, 2018.
- Features used include: Schedule uploader, shift swap, communication
What is the makeup of your crew there in Chicago and can you explain your role?
We have people who come in and out from other places. I would add everyone in there but the guy in charge of the program that we’re teaching here at the base level doesn’t want to add out of base people so he has limited me. I can just add the Chicago people.
Makes it difficult because out of base people are full-time say next month, but if they want to shift anything we’re not going to know about it. Since they are not on there they won’t know to contact me.
What this is and what I am using it for is pretty much everyone in the group we started is a flight attendant for American. What we are doing is we are going to a new web-based system for trip trades and trading with open time and that sort of stuff — basically how we manage our schedules between flight attendants, to flights attendant, or flight attendant-to-company.
We are calling this system FOI — flight operation integration. We have all been hired as training specialists that are at every base from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. to kind of go over with flight attendants at a local level or as they pass through on their trip or come early or stay late after their trip to give them an overview of what is coming so that they are ready for it when we bring out our web-based training in a month or so.
How has Branch Messenger helped your team?
We wanted something — our schedule is done by corporate in Dallas and they send us our base schedule. So, they usually send us one copy and it's done.
If there are open shifts and someone picks up in Dallas, they don’t send us an updated schedule. I would like something that is real-time that we can trade shifts, put in shifts — where if Susie and Steve switch, then it’s updated so we know. Then, we’re not calling people who are on paper schedules who are not supposed to be working.
Can you explain the terminology -- like, what are bases?
Our bases are Miami, New York, Washington D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, Charlotte, St. Louis, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Phoenix. Those are the bases. That’s where our base and big hub — we still use the hub and spoke system.
We have hundreds and thousands of airports we fly in and out of. Bases are where our flight attendants and pilots originate out of. I am based out of Chicago. so every trip I am scheduled to work has to start in Chicago and end in Chicago — this is home. They can’t send me and put me somewhere else.
What does the scheduling look like these days?
Here at the base level, we have a base lead and there are a couple team leads. The base lead usually gets the schedule and there is a preliminary schedule and a finalized schedule. Once we get the finalized schedule, we can trade shifts around and if there is open shifts, we can go in and try to pick them up. sometimes, especially with future shifts, then we contact the guy in dallas and ask to pick up a schedule. They say sure, “I’ll put you down for it” and if i don’t tell the base lead here then he doesn’t know and if shaun doesn’t send out a new schedule, base lead doesn’t find out. March 10 comes around and maybe he asked someone else to fill that shift or we think that it is not just covered.
What we have been able to do so far with Branch is be able to switch shifts around — if someone picks up a shift or if they trade as shift, they are supposed to let myself or base lead know so we can fix it in the schedule.
On most days, two people at 6, two people at 8, two people at 10, and two people at noon. So we have those eight people. If someone is on the schedule and they’re not here, then perhaps we call them to make sure they are ok and see where they are at. if they answer the phone and they are asleep and switched — trying to get away from. something more up to date and easier than having to call and go in and reprint a whole new schedule.
What are the biggest hurdles to scheduling? We can imagine there are significant technical barriers to moving from paper-based systems to newer systems?
For instance, the last three months or four months, they have gone in and do your schedules manually — you’re talking roughly 300 of us system-wide. Three hundred people send in requests for schedules for a month and they have to sit there and manually go through them an build our schedules. I’ve put my request in for April and on Feb 23, I sent in my April request for days.
Even our system that we use for scheduling before, we go to this web-based system is basically a dot matrix with a flashing square and black square.
On schedules, you could be on-site at like base and on location and then also shifts for when you’re traveling to different locations?
There’s a handful of us that live and are based in Chicago. There’s a few that live in Chicago and are based elsewhere. And we have a few that, I think, just live elsewhere and have shifts here. One has two shifts in Miami and then he comes up here for four or five days and then goes back to Miami for a couple days. Then we have another person who has mixture of shifts here and then back in Philadelphia. We have another one that is a mix of Philly and Chicago as well. So, we’ve got some people that are out of base and travel days in there. If you look at the schedule the shift times are there and if you look at TAV (travel days), to the place where you are doing your shift and if you look where it says DFW or MIA or PHL than that means their shifts are at a different base. This is just for Chicago base shifts.
Have your colleagues noticed the benefits of Branch versus the other ways of scheduling?
I’ve gotten positive feedback from the people who utilize it. I’ve seen people instead of hunting for the paper copy, they whip out their phone and pull up Branch.
How Branch Helps Address Flight Attendant Pain Points
We spoke to a number of flight attendants from other cities outside Chicago and the consensus was that having a digital tool (in app or web form), that could help bridge the digital divide from the paper-based scheduling world that many airline schedules live in, the better.
For Teresa, when everything is scheduled on paper, it makes changing schedules difficult. That is a dealbreaker in an industry where schedules can change at a moment’s notice. “We use it for our local training team. Prior to branch everything was handled individually so trading assignments was tedious,” Teresa said.
Still, for others, even paper-based systems still had multiple steps that created clunky, outdated scheduling tasks. For some employees, they’d have to log in to corporate email, send a message and then that set in motion a series of manual steps. “We sent an email about when we could work, received a spreadsheet, and printed it out for everyone to see,” Kristin recalls.
One of the most difficult challenges in scheduling for the aviation industry is that you’re juggling employees who live and work across many different locations. “We have 2 shift locations, both with multiple locations. It can get confusing when people need to switch days/shift times/locations,” Caitlin told us.
For each of these flight attendants, having a digital system that puts the power of checking schedules, trading shifts, and picking up shifts in the hands of the employee, is beneficial to everyone involved. It helps reduce the manual workload that older legacy systems created, and lets flight attendants focus on the work that matters -- whether that’s training the next crop of colleagues from Chicago, or focusing on helping deliver exceptional customer service from cruising altitude. And, for others, it helps them focus on enjoying life outside of their hectic work schedules, which creates a happier, stress-free employee when they are called into their next shift. “Honestly, it has improved my quality of life because it has facilitated making schedule changes that allow me to get the days off I need and participate in things that are important in my life outside of work. I feel like I'm able to spend more time with people I care about and do more things that make me happy.”