My company just finished a bid window for positions in various airplanes in various bases throughout the company. This can be a confusing process, so here’s a brief explanation of how it works.

Airlines have to look at various factors when it comes to determining how many pilots it needs and where it needs them. The easiest variable to predict is retirement, since it’s fixed at 65 years of age. After that, the airline has to look at the projected flying (referred to as “block hours”) that it needs to cover. This can be either short term or it can be long term, which might go out 12 to 18 months. There will be some variation that isn’t predicted, but most of the forecasting is fairly accurate, based on previous travel data, as well as known demand going forward.

Things get complicated when there will be a mix of fleet types involved, and a decision needs to be made to commit to one type of airplane. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes the expense drives the equation.

For instance, when Continental and United merged, the airline had to decide how to split the narrow-body flying between the United Airbus fleet and the CAL 737 fleet. Eventually, the decision was made to limit the ‘Bus to domestic and over-land flying only, and the 737 would fly all of the small narrow-body over-water routes. This was important, because it meant that the company could take all of the over-water equipment out of the Airbus, simplify maintenance procedures, crew training, et cetera. However, it also changed the way the airplanes would be allocated, which would mean a shift in staffing at most bases.

When something negative happens, a displacement occurs. That could be an airplane being retired from service, a base closure, a fleet transfer, or a furlough. Those pilots will follow established procedures to determine where they will wind up next.

When something positive happens, positions open up and pilots can bid. Usually, pilots who have been displaced get first dibs on a new position, but not always. The company can usually announce certain openings with a fair amount of certainty, but there is always an element of the unknown. For instance, if 10 new airplanes are being delivered, that is usually 100 new positions. However, pilots may opt to transfer, retire early, or use various mechanisms in a contract to bid for something, but to delay training.

Some of the guesswork is taken out because the company can look at previous bid runs to see what the pilot behavior is most likely to be. Again, this can be done fairly accurately, but not always. When a company is doing a lot of hiring, it can’t always predict the behavior of junior pilots. For this and other reasons, there are usually mandatory freeze periods after training in a new airplane. Typically, a pilot in new equipment has to wait 24 months before changing equipment or seats.

Movement is based on seniority, but when a number of freezes are holding senior pilots back, junior pilots can sneak in the back door to get a seat they may not have otherwise been able to hold. The common adage is simple: Don’t bid it if you don’t want it, because you just might get it!—Chip Wright