What, exactly, is “dead-heading?”
Dead-heading is simple: It is a pilot who is traveling as a part of an assignment to get where he needs to be. Sometimes dead-heads (DHs) are built into trips, but more often it is a last minute development. For pilots who are not on reserve, DHs frequently result from a trip being modified due to a mechanical problem with one or more airplanes, or from bad weather that has triggered some cancellations, or from a crewmember calling in sick somewhere in the system. The most frequent cause of non-reserve DHs is probably the weather.
Airlines over the years have gotten extremely good at proactively cancelling a large number of flights based on the projected impact of various weather events (especially hurricanes and snow storms). They then draft a plan to have aircraft in place to recover on the backside of a storm. Because this can often mean repositioning a large number of planes as a result of a hurricane or a snow-storm, crews will be DH’d into or out of the cities where the equipment is stored. Once the aircraft are in position and the new schedule is determined, it is up to the Crew Schedulers to find and relocate the crews. The order and fashion in which they do this is dictated by a combination of the various union contracts and the FARs, and it is far more complicated than it sounds.
Reserve pilots that are DHing are doing so for the same reasons as those not on reserve, the difference being that reserves will DH a lot more. Reserves can cover flying in more than one base, so they can—and often do—spend a lot of time DHing from one base to another to complete their assignments. The frustrating part of DHing on reserve is trying to figure out the rationale or reason to some of the assignments. However, trying to do so often produces no more than a headache.
When you see a pilot walk up to a gate-house full of people at the last minute and walk on to the plane while the agents are trying to determine who will get bumped, it is almost always a pilot on a DH assignment. While it can be frustrating to watch, even if you do get your seat, just remember that your next flight might only get out because that pilot is where he needs to be.
Don’t confuse DHing with operating a ferry flight. The pilot on a DH is simply a non-paying passenger. The pilot on a ferry flight is actually flying an empty airplane from one city to another. The only passengers are usually the flight attendant(s) and perhaps a mechanic or other company personnel. Operating a ferry flight affects daily and weekly flight time limits while DHing only comes into play when calculating duty time limits.