Airlines pay their pilots and flight attendants to fly. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Schedules are drastically altered around certain holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas. Flights are added, flights are dropped, and schedules are heavily modified. It’s common for crews to spend two nights in some cities when the service is reduced or the equipment that is used to operate the flight is up- or downsized.
The result of this is an enormous amount of deadheading, which is the practice of having crews ride in the cabin with the passengers. It’s never an ideal solution, because the seats are taken out of inventory and can’t be sold. Worse, sometimes the seats have already been sold and passengers have to be bumped, which is never a pleasant outcome for anyone.
Deadheading also is expensive because the crew has to be paid, though some airlines only pay half or three-quarters for time spent dead-heading. Still, it’s an expense, and it adds up. Further, there is also the ramification of FAR Part 117. In days past, the time spent dead-heading did not punish the airline with regards to flight hours lost. Now, deadheading is treated the same as flying when it comes to time spent at work and on duty, so the airlines have to be careful how the dead-heads are scheduled; productivity is lost.
It’s also a headache for gate agents, and it can become one for other crews. Often, certain dead events are considered critical, and if a crew is coming in late from one flight, another may have to be delayed while waiting for the DH crew to show. I’ve been on both ends of this sort of deal, and it’s not a lot of fun. Airlines opt for the DH plan because (on paper) it can save them money to DH crews around versus paying for extra hotels.
On a similar note, a lot of DHs are created by charters. In the regional jet world, NCAA basketball and baseball charters are fairly common because the 50-seat airplane is a perfect match. Often, a crew will DH into the city where the airplane will be (often on the airplane to be used for the charter) and then fly all night moving a basketball team around. When it works out the way it’s supposed to, the airplane winds up back in the same city in which it started, and the crew eventually does a DH home (usually after a rest period in a hotel). While these trips can cost a company some money on paper, those costs are built into the bill for the charter, and charters are very lucrative.
Holiday DHs are just an unfortunate fact of life for everyone. But, as the running joke goes, deadheading is about as easy as the job gets.—Chip Wright