Are airline flight crews scheduled individually or as a unit?

Modern airliners require two people to operate – a Captain and First Officer. Does the captain always work with the same FO or are they just random chance who they’re working with on any particular flight? Do airlines consider the interpersonal chemistry among their crews when assigning flights?

I’m not a pilot, but as I understand how airline crew scheduling works pilots and flight attendants “bid” for the schedule they want, with the ones with the most seniority getting first pick and the ones with the least seniority getting whatever’s left. As such I would think it’s pretty much chance who they end up working with. I read a blog post once by a pilot explaining better how all this works; I’ll try to find it and report back.

A guy I went to school with flies the big Boeings like 747s on international routes for QANTAS. I had lunch with him a couple of years ago when he was on a layover in San Francisco and asked him about this.

He told me that, for the most part, they are scheduled individually based on their requested schedule and routes, and their seniority, as suggested by WildaBeast. He said that there are other pilots that he’s flown with on a number of occasions, but despite the fact that he’s been with the airline for over 15 years, it’s still quite common for him to enter the cockpit and sit next to someone that he’s never seen before.

I think this is the blog post I was thinking of, where he touches on it, although it’s not a really detailed explanation:

When he was a first officer, my brother-in-law always bid for the short-haul, bottom of the barrel routes that would get him back home to his family that the evening. As he racked up seniority he ended up having many more hours under his belt than most of the captains he flew with.

I’ve heard that was the reason “Sully” was still flying a mere A320 on domestic routes when at his age surely he had enough seniority to fly long haul international routes if he wanted to – he wanted a schedule that would get him back home to his family in the evening. Apparently the pilots with the highest seniority can set their schedules to be basically like a nine to five job if they want.

To answer some broad questions first. Are pilots paired together long term (months/years)? No, not unless it is a tiny company with just two pilots. Does rostering account for interpersonal relationships when rostering? Not to my knowledge although it may be possible with extreme cases. Ideally, good recruiting techniques and adherence to SOPs should mean that all pilots largely fit with the company culture and anyone can fly with anyone else.

The bidding for schedules doesn’t really answer the OP. You might bid for a trip and get it and another pilot has bid for the same trip and also gets it, then for the duration of the trip you are flying together. But you may not fly again with that pilot for months or years if ever. Where I work, a long haul trip might be 10 days from Auckland through LA to London and back all with the same crew of pilots.

This is typically how it would work for an international trip where there is no reason or opportunity for the crew to swap out mid trip. It gets a bit murky on domestic ops with multiple sectors per day.

As a short haul FO, the trips I can bid on don’t necessarily match the trips the captains can bid on. For example I recently flew Wellington - Nadi (Fiji) - Christchurch, layover in Christchurch, then Christchurch - Wellington - Christchurch - Auckland - Wellington. The captain I flew to Nadi with continued back to Wellington without the Christchurch layover and I had a different captain for my second day of flying.

In extreme cases you can fly four or even five sectors in one day all in different aircraft with different pilots and different cabin crew. However, most of the time I would at least have the same captain for one day / duty.

A bit about seniority and bidding. It is true that some bidding systems are completely dominated by seniority, in this case senior pilots “write their own roster” and the rest pick up the cribs and drabs. The system our company uses is just “seniority biased” and it tries to satisfy as many pilot’s bids as possible. This means that if a very senior pilot has a lot of bids “satisfied” they may lose out on one or more bids to a less senior pilot because the system is trying to satisfy as many as it can.

From my son: At his former regional airline, you were allowed to veto a very small number of pilots when bidding, as in “I’d rather have a worse schedule than fly with this guy.” According to him, it wasn’t a good career move to have a large list, nor to be the guy on everyone else’s list. There were no guidelines on what the “very small number” should be. In his case, he kept it at zero, and flew regularly with a very unpopular pilot. He said the guy was extremely abrasive, but a skilled pilot. His take was he’d take asshole over incompetent any day.

It seems to me that fixed teams would not be good for safety. Teams that work together for a long time can develop bad habits, like overlooking shortcuts in procedures that are supposed to insure safety.

The OP asked about “scheduling”, but another facet would be crew duty time. And again, the answer is “no” - duty time is individually based. However, some wrinkles can develop there as well.

Flight crews “duty on” when they report to their base or out-station, or begin some other form of work assignment. While on a trip together, airline crews would generally duty on simultaneously. But if there is a crew swap for some reason, each person could have a different starting points, and therefore differing amounts of duty time left in the day. (There are also duty limits per week, per month etc in the airline world, but let’s keep it simple and think about single days for now).

So when I was an airline guy I occasionally saw complicated logistics develop because a captain or FO did not have the same duty time as their partner that day. This might happen because one of them was called in from reserve or any number of other reasons.

In my current gig as a charter guy we are subject to very similar, but not identical, rules. However, crew swaps and varying logistics are more common. It’s not unusual for me to fly a plane, then get on an airliner, arrive and go fly another plane. My duty time would have started prior to flight #1, but if I’m meeting a different pilot at plane #2 they might have a completely different duty-on time.

Of course, we can only fly if BOTH pilots are within legal duty times. It can get complex.

I used to be friends with an American Airlines pilot (we’ve since gone our separate ways). Captain Doug had enough seniority that he could take any flight he wanted. He chose Chicago to Toronto, quite possibly the most boring flight on AA’s schedule. Got him home to see his kids each night.

Can two captains ever operate a flight? Or will the flight be canceled if there is no first officer available?

Let’s say the only two qualified pilots available for assignment are both captains and there is no first officer available, can they operate a flight together?

I actually just got finished reading a book written by a pilot. Apparently , the only real difference between the captain and the first officer is that the captain is in command of the aircraft. The author hated when people referred to “pilot” and 'copilot" as they’re both fully qualified pilots, and the first officer might even have more experience than the captain, since airlines usually promote based on seniority within the company. So it doesn’t seem that the airline would cancel a flight if they had to fly with two captains, although someone would have to designate one of them as being in charge. Unless of course the airline would rather cancel than pay a captain to perform a first officer role.

This OP pinged a memory. One of something I’d read a long time ago. It took me a couple of false starts to find it.

The book in question was the 1967 tell all, “Coffee, Tea, or Me”, a memoir of a stewardess from the days when flying was sophisticated. The book is very dated but mildly entertaining.

The paragraph I remembered read as follows:

“There was a time when a crew could stay together as a working unit. The airline allowed the captain, first officer, flight engineer, navigator and stewardesses to bid as a unit for various trips and it wasn’t uncommon to find a congenial group flying together for a year or more.
But those days are over. And, ironically, the change was brought about by ex-stewardesses who married captains as the result of this cozy situation”.

The narrator then describes how ex-stewardesses formed social organizations and were able to pressure the airlines into changing the policy. Because some of them remembered how they had met their already married husbands.

I have no idea how true this is, and it was a LONG time ago.

I was recently on a Southwest Airlines flight where the head flight attendant told the passengers that the captain was her husband. I wondered if that relationship developed before or during their working lives.

Thank you everyone for the discussion about crew rostering (a new term for me). The process described seems like such a lonely way to live. You don’t have the opportunity to develop any history or shared experiences with your coworkers. I like sharing stories about my kids with those I work with and I like hearing about their families. How tedious it must be to begin every story with “Yeah, I’ve got two kids, a girl and a boy, …” How do airline employees develop friendships?

Yep, happens all the time. What can’t happen is two first officers flying together.

To answer Drum God’s question, it depends on the size of the airline. When I worked at a small regional, everyone in our base city knew everyone else. When you work for a larger airline, it may be very unusual to fly with someone you know.

But as somebody mentioned, that’s actually good for safety. Our training is predicated on the idea that we are going to sit down in a cockpit with someone we’ve never met before. So it’s highly standardized. Like, REALLY standardized. Because there have been a few high profile accidents that resulted partially from the fact that the crew flew together all the time and got into bad habits together.

This even happened at my airline. A crew at another base who had high seniority usually bid together (at a small airline that could work) and they committed a fairly serious error in procedure. Nobody got hurt, but it was a big enough deal that the company got very upset and had safety meetings at all the other bases to make sure it never happened again. It’s strange to say, but a fairly new first officer in that situation would probably have been more likely to say something and prevent it from going bad.

That’s a good consequence of the major changes we’ve made in aviation in the last thirty or so years, called Crew Resource Management. In the old days, captain were gods and first officers were supposed to sit down, shut up and not touch anything unless they were specifically told to do so. Now it’s 180 degrees the other way - crews are supposed to challenge each other when they go off standardization. This has been a really successful change in the culture.

Besides what other have said above, another situation is where you have a captain who has just qualified on a new aircraft on his or her check ride. As I understand it the airline will actually put a more senior captain in the “first officer” role with the new captain, to observe the new captain as sort of a final test to confirm that he or she has learned the plane well enough to be put in charge of it.

Airline employees have a joke that many of them contract “AIDS” – Aviation Induced Divorce Syndrome. Which of course alludes to just how hard it is to maintain relationships when you’re away from home all the time. I imagine in a lot of cases their friends are other airline employees, the people who work at the hotels they stay at, frequent flyers… kind of like Del in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

A friend of mine was a First Officer on a small regional airline. He stayed as the most senior FO to be able to name his schedule because he has a special needs kid and needed to be home on a regular schedule. If he became a Captain, he’d have to be the bottom of seniority for a while. He’d often fly with younger and less experienced captains.

This depends on company policy. My old company had a special qualification for captains to fly in the right (FO’s) seat and new captains weren’t allowed to do it until they’d been flying as captains for a year. Ironic because they had only just been FOs so would have known the right seat far better than the left. After a year they had to do some simulator flying from the right seat with engine failures etc, even then they could crew the right seat but weren’t allowed to fly the takeoff or landing.

My girlfriend has been with me as FO and captain then FO again through three companies. There are a few other “husband and wife teams” at my current airline, including pilot / pilot, cabin crew / cabin crew, and pilot / cabin crew. One couple are both A320 captains and share one roster with each of them working for two weeks at a time.

It is kind of odd. The place I work is not super huge, 1200 pilots spread over three fleets, but there are some captains I’ve flown with several times and lots who I haven’t flown with at all.

That is the check ride. For mine it was four sectors with a check captain in the FO seat then four sectors with a real FO and the check captain in the jump seat.