What routes?

“What routes do you fly?”

I get that question all the time, and at one time I could actually provide a pretty specific answer, but no more. The days of pilots flying a particular “line” or “route,” like the old airmail pilots and early airline pilots are pretty much over in the domestic arena.

I used to fly a lot of inter-Florida flights, especially in the winter when it was cold up north. But even those flights didn’t fit the specific definition of a route. They were just a series of flights that originated in my home domicile of Cincinnati and went south (usually for five days) for a bunch of legs in Florida before returning home.

These days, airline marketers figure out what flights are best flown by what airplanes, from the 747 on down to whatever regional aircraft fly under contract for the name brand. In my case, that’s Delta. Once the marketing folks assign a city-pair to an airplane—there are myriad factors that influence that particular decision, from runway length to the size of the cargo hold, to historic load factors, and to even the cost of fuel at a given airport—the information is forwarded on to a different department that is responsible for building the trips. In the case of the regional carriers, a computer file that contains all of the city-pairs, flight times, frequencies, and desired equipment gauge is sent to the regional partner.

The folks at that airline then input that information into their own computer system, which is programmed to take into account the specific FAR and union contractual issues (no small affair) affecting that particular operation. The program then produces one or more solutions that could allow the carrier to meet its schedule obligations.

Some of the variables that are considered are trips of a certain length, from one to four days (sometimes more); minimum rest issues; producing trips that allow for same-day commuting on one or both ends of the trip for pilots and/or flight attendants that commute to work; and layovers in specific cities that allow for the airline to operate either the assigned last flight in or a morning originator going out. Seasonal jetstream activity is also considered so that the flight times are realistic. The list goes on and on, to include aircraft maintenance schedules and charter operations. Needless to say, it is a complex process, and when it is done, not everyone will like the results.

Usually, one of the unions will have the ability to reject the trip mix, or perhaps request a re-run or a chance to massage the schedule somehow to minimize any negative quality-of-life issues. How all of this was done before the advent of the modern computer I do not want to know, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of by-guess-and-by-golly was involved.

Once the trips are produced, the pilots and flight attendants get to bid on the ones they want. More often, it is not a particular “route” that they bid for so much as it is trip productivity, which means flying as much as possible in as few days as possible, combined with commutability and desired days off.

Sometimes there happen to be certain layovers that are preferable, such as a trip to your home town, which would allow you to sleep in your own bed, or maybe a trip to a vacation destination that would allow some time to play tourist or lay out on the beach on the company’s dime. I often bid trips that allow me to visit my parents in Baltimore or my sister in Albany, NY.

One thing you quickly learn are the cities with the best (and worst) hotels, restaurants, etc. “Routes” don’t really exist, because so often you fly three to five legs a day, and sometimes more (my record is eight). Seniority rules, and you get what you can hold…or what others don’t want.

To the extent that “routes” exist, they might within a geographic region or to certain hubs, but the days of Ernie Gann flying the AM-21 route are gone, except for some international operations. Besides, it’s more fun to mix up the flying and to start the day in, say, Key West, and end it several legs later in Boston. I guess in that case, I could tell you that my ‘route’ was I-95.

–Chip Wright