For most airlines, schedules for flight crews are bid for each month. The more seniority a flight crew member has generally allows for a better schedule. Some airlines have simplified bidding using a system called Preferential Bidding System.
Preferential Bidding Systems (PBS for short) simplify the task of bidding a schedule. Flight crew members simply select various bidding options and a computer builds a schedule for them. Options include:
Line Characteristics : Commutable, Most Days Off, Late Start, Early Finish, Days of the Week off
Off Days: For specifying specific days of the month off (the 13th or 20th for example)
Pairings: Certain trips/routes/city pairs
Fly avoid or fly with: To avoid flying with a certain crew member or status (check airman for example)
There can be more or less options depending on the airline. PBS allows crew members to quickly bid each month.
My airline doesn't use PBS. My airline builds schedules (called lines) and publishes them in both paper form and online in PDF format (both are called bid packets). This can be costly as lines are built for each domicile and aircraft. There can be 500 pilots on one aircraft in a domicile. The printing and distribution cost money. Flight attendants in each domicile also get lines built just for them. Some aircraft have 1 flight attendant..some have 2 flight attendants.
Each month flight crew members pick up a bid packet and begin examining the lines. Some flight crew members like certain overnights (especially if they commute, many like to overnight in their home city....more time at home!), while others like certain trip types (2 day, 3 day or 4 day trips). Some flight crew members looks for commutable trips (being able to fly in on the first day and out on the last day) while still others want the most days off. In addition to those some want the most hours while others are looking for certain days off. Bidding can be very complicated!
The bid packets contain 60-350 lines. The number depends on the domicile, number of pilots in that domicile and the number of aircraft assigned to that domicile. Going through 350 lines could take quite a while. Some flight crew members download the bid packets and use software to sort them.
Logic goes the more senior pilots get their first choices while the most junior pilots hope for whatever is left over. To be safe pilots bid at least the number of lines equal to their seniority in that status. For example if a pilot is 20th in seniority in his status he will be at least 20 lines. Same goes for the poor soul who is number 340. He will bid 340 lines!
I grabbed my bid packet this afternoon. I finished bidding in under 3 minutes. How so? Well I am the most junior pilot in my status. Each month I get the last available line. I simply bid all the hard lines in order, then the reserve lines and finally the afternoon airport standby line. I didn't bid the morning standby line. Why not? Well if I get NONE of my other choices I will get the morning standby line anyway. Bidding all the lines blindly could be dangerous if I were more senior. I might get something that I don't really care for. Each month there are always a few flight crew members who forget to bid. These poor souls get whatever is left over.
Last summer I was lucky enough to get a few hard lines. A hard line is a set schedule of flying. I knew where I am flying, when, the crew and the overnights. Having a hard line means being able to plan a life. Being on reserve it's more tricky planning stuff with my wife. I know I work Monday-Friday this week...but will I be home? What time will I be done on Thursday? Will I be here Thursday or will I be sent out Wednesday? When time will I be done Friday? Yeah....who knows.
There is talk of my airline getting PBS. I wouldn't mind it. From what I hear from my friends that have PBS, once you set your preferences, bidding is pretty easy. Getting certain days off is also pretty easy.
Each month after bids close at my airlines pilots are given a window of time to trade trips, drop days or adjust schedules in other ways. After that window closes, scheduling builds up composite and relief lines (both made up of pieces of hard lines) to pilots who hold those types of lines. Once that period is over the remainder of the unassigned flights can be picked up as overtime by all pilots or will be flown by reserve pilots. Pretty complicated. It took me a month or three to really get bidding. I still don't "get" it fully as I haven't held a hard line for more than a month. There are many more tweaks I have never used.
Bids close Friday at noon. I should know my schedule some time that afternoon.