The flight to Denver was going well enough. Light chop in the clouds at three-three-oh and only an hour and a half before we got to the front range of the Rockies.
Today's cockpit conversation wasn't about the ride or the destination, though. It was about next month and our holiday schedules. The line-of-time bid results came out just before we pushed back and we've spent a lot of time this leg trying to sharp-shoot our December schedules.
"It looks hopeless to me," said Jim, my copilot for the next three days.
"I got line 79, which has a four-day starting on the 23rd. Not a bad trip -- it has a 30-hour Portland, Oreg., Christmas layover. The trouble is that my family will be on the east coast and I got little kids. No chance of everybody going with me.
"Even if I try to bid a move-up to a line with all-nighters, the best I could do would be to get in at 6 a.m. on Christmas morning."
I could feel this guy's pain. Out of 25 years of airline Christmases, I've been away from home for 19 of them. The worst one was a 48-hour Christmas layover in Augusta, Ga., a very long time ago. It still hurts to think about it. Two little ankle-biters at home in Chicago, and I didn't see them until the 27th.
Some time during the first half of preceding month you take part in an "initial bid." That is when you bid a "line of time," which is nothing more than trips and days off listed along the "line" of a month. The lines are numbered for your convenience.
Usually, the first two-thirds of a seniority list on a particular airplane can hold a regular line. Then you have the "reserve lines." These are lines of days that you'll be "on reserve" or on-call in case somebody gets sick or has a reroute. Your days off are on the line as well, and when you are bidding a reserve line you are giving your choices for those days off. If you are on reserve on Christmas day you can pretty much count on them calling you out for a trip.
The number one guy or gal on the seniority list gets what he or she wants first. Then the second person does, and so on. Because people bid schedules for reasons all their own, you can never really tell which choice you're gonna get -- unless you are number one, and then there is no suspense.
I'm about number 50 in my position out of 200. Normally, I get my fifth or sixth choice. This is because I don't mind working weekends or starting early in the day. Also, the fact that I don't commute to work helps.
It isn't over after the initial bid for a schedule. We have a thing called "move ups." When a pilot has a vacation or training, the part of their schedule that falls on those days becomes a move up. Other pilots can bid for those move ups and hopefully improve their schedule. Their schedule, in turn, becomes another move up for an even more junior pilot to covet and bid on. There are about six more steps before your schedule is cast in stone for the next month but it would take days to even begin to explain it.
All these intricacies of bidding and scheduling have led to more than one pilot becoming a sort of jailhouse lawyer. Once you've spent a year or more on the job and have shot yourself in the foot a few times on your schedule, you get to know how to work the system pretty well -- especially if you are junior, and most especially if Christmas is coming up.
Flying Christmas is part of the job and we all have to do it, but it doesn't make it any less painful when you look at your December schedule and realize you don't have the seniority horsepower to get it off. That is when the excitement of going junior on a bigger airplane loses its luster.
There are three ways to handle a Christmas trip when it comes to scheduling, and one totally bad idea. The bad idea, of course, is to plan on sicking out of your Christmas odyssey. Only the baddest of the bad do that, and if you value your rep., you'll show up sick for that trip and make them send you home or to the hospital.
The first way to handle Christmas is to bid your line of time around it. This leads to some big questions. Do you want Christmas Eve off, or Christmas Day off, or what? You will have to have super-seniority to get the whole December 24-25-26 combination off. Some guys do manage that, but you'll probably have to be in the top 10 to pull it off. That leads you to the next step.
Get as close to Christmas as you can without touching it. If you bid a line that has you getting home Christmas Eve night, for example, you are gambling that the weather is going to be okay that night and you won't get rerouted into Christmas morning.
Remember: Even though the company could call out another crew to cover the Christmas morning part, if they are out of reserves, the chances of anybody who isn't on reserve picking up the phone is the square root of negative one -- an imaginary number.
The third technique is to bid to fly on Christmas day but to pick the time the trip goes out. You could bid an evening sign-in or a late-afternoon one. After all, in households with little kids, the whole thing is more or less over by noon anyway, right? Take a good look at the afternoon or evening report time. If you're flying one leg to a decently long layover, I'd go for it. If not, I'd give it a pass. You don't want to be up 'till midnight on Christmas Eve, get up at 4 a.m. to watch your little darlings tear open the packages and then fly until 2 a.m. the next morning.
The paradox of the whole thing is that when you get older and more senior like me, your kids are either grown or are teenagers and don't care if you are home. That is when you'll be able to get the whole holiday off.
"Yep," said Jim, "It looks like I'll be spending a very long time in Portland this Christmas. I've got a sister in Seattle. I guess I'll rent a car and drive up to see her family."
That's not a bad idea. Flying on Christmas isn't the worst thing that can happen to an airline pilot's career. There are thousands out there on furlough this month who would gladly fly Christmas if their airlines would only call them back.
Also, pilots aren't the only people working away from home on the big holiday. Between the military and the police and even doctors on-call in hospitals there are a lot of people pulling a shift on the 25th.
Maybe my memories are jaded because it has been seven or eight years since I've flown on Christmas, and with my increasing age and dwindling seniority number it is unlikely I'll fly on another Yule, but some of my best trips were Christmas trips.
First of all, you can pretty much wear anything you want in terms of your uniform. Go ahead and wear that gaudy holiday tie. What can they do to you, make you fly Christmas?
Food, food, food will be a big player on any holiday trip. Don't eat things the passengers give you because -- let's face it -- it is still the terrorist season. There is no reason, though, for you not to bake those cookies in the plane's galley. You should also plan on carrying candy -- lots of candy.
The first Christmas you'll fly for the airline is during your probationary year and you are just happy to be there. On your first year flying Christmas as a junior captain, you are stoked because you are a captain.
If you are the captain, plan on buying everybody on your crew Christmas Dinner. Go to a nice place -- assuming you can find a nice place that is open.
The day before Christmas and the day after will be absolutely crazy at the airport. Christmas Day is a big yawn. Most airlines cancel quite a number of their flights on Christmas Day. That explains Jim's 30-hour layover. A long Christmas-day layover can be the loneliest day you'll ever spend on the airline. This is the day to splurge and rent that car if you are within a few hundred miles of somebody close to you. Consider the cost mental R & R.
I've gone to bowl games on Christmas, and attended shows; and on the bad Christmas layovers like the Augusta one I mentioned earlier, I have spent the whole day watching television.
Flight attendants have holiday public address announcements and songs. For example, there must be a dozen "Jingle Bells" pre-pushback safety briefings out there, as well as a hundred "Rudolph" rip-offs that they sing to our captive audience, the passengers.
The flight attendants bring mistletoe sometimes and always wear various decorations on their uniforms. The younger ones fly Christmas and most of them don't have kids yet so they still look on Christmas trips as an adventure.
"All in all, I guess there are a lot worse things I could do than fly on Christmas," Jim said. "For example, I could be flying combat missions on Christmas, or not flying at all."
We all try to put a good face on a tough situation. Nobody wants to be away from family on a holiday, and yet somebody always has to do it. There are worse places to be than in the cockpit of a jet on the 25th of the last month of the year, but on that day it is hard to imagine where that place would be.