How do airline staff book their holidays?
After the recent issues Ryanair has faced over pilot shortages due to holiday allocation, it’s unsurprising that people are curious about how airline staff book their holidays. For most people who work in an office and who can book time off with very little notice, it’s a fascinating concept.
James Smith* can shed some light on the secretive nature of booking holidays in the aviation industry. After being trained as a pilot by British Airways in the 1970s, he worked for Dan-Air until 1992 when the company merged with BA. He retired in 2014.
How many holidays did pilots get?
It’s different for every airline employee, but it changed throughout my career. Initially, it was four weeks, then it was upped to six weeks.
This seems like a huge amount of time, but we worked through Bank Holidays and the Christmas period, so the extra days make up for that.
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How did airline staff book their holiday?
We filled out paper forms six months in advance. We were only allowed to book time off in week-long blocks – and British Airways’ ‘week’ started on a Saturday so all time off started then.
Holiday allocation all depended on a points-based system which favoured seniority if more than one pilot had the same number of points. The pilots with the most points got the prime time off which everyone wanted, such as during school holidays. The more junior staff with fewer points got the scraps. Christmas was more complicated as it had its own points-based system.
Senior pilots benefited by getting the trips that returned early on Christmas Day, whereas junior pilots would find themselves at one of the less popular destinations. It’s not like working in an office where you can book a day off with only a few days’ notice – the process is much more rigid!
We had to book our holidays by faxing a form into our HR team – this was still happening in 2014, when I retired! I think they may have an app now. A lot of people struggled to fill out the forms, as they looked very complex if you were new – knowledgeable colleagues helped them to fill them out.
You put in your first choice, and then as many choices as you could below that first choice. So if you wanted two weeks off at the start of June, you’d put them down first, and then you could apply to have two weeks off in the middle of June, and so on.
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How often could pilots and airline staff book holidays?
You could book leave twice a year and a duty free week twice a year. You booked your summer leave in October, and your winter leave in April.
When did airline staff know if their holiday time had been ‘accepted’?
It normally took about two months to find out to find if the weeks you’d asked for had been given to you – and there were no guarantees, no matter how senior you were.
What did pilots and cabin crew do if they wanted to swap their holiday time?
Once your holiday was allocated, it was set in stone. There was a lot of ‘holiday swapping’ on the airline internet forums – airline staff would go to their airline’s board, then write something like, ‘I’ve got time off booked from June 7-13 – looking to swap this for May 20 – 26.’ It was a game of luck but it paid off for many people.
How did airlines officially ‘swap’ the leave between two employees?
Once the two people had agreed, they both spoke to their managers, and the time off was swapped. The managers at BA tended to be pretty reasonable as long as you gave them a few weeks’ warning.
What happened if airline staff missed the deadline to book holiday time off?
If you forgot to book it or missed the deadline, you’d be allocated ‘random’ holiday time. It was normally time off which was quite unpopular, when not many people wanted to go away.
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How much time could you book off in one go?
The minimum time off for pilots was one week, and you could book up to three weeks off (including and chancing the allocation of a duty free week that joined onto your allocated leave). A three-week holiday would consist of two weeks of leave, plus a ‘duty free’ week joined onto it.
Most people normally booked two weeks, so if you wanted three weeks off, it was a bit trickier, and that’s where the chancing comes in – it was a lottery-based points system.
I never managed to get three weeks off in a row in the 22 years that I worked for BA. The odds were just too slim.
If you wanted to take all your holiday in one go, you could try to string six weeks together – but that’s when things started getting incredibly complex.
You couldn’t arrange to take a single day off, or a couple of days. It was a week or nothing!
What’s an airline ‘duty free’ week?
It’s a Heathrow thing; Gatwick just gave airline staff three weeks of leave for some reason. I believe it got its name to make it distinct from regular leave.
Put simply, it’s a week free of duty that you can work if you want to. You can’t be forced by the company to work, it’s your own choice – so it’s there if you want some time off, but if not, you can work through it and receive your normal pay.
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Did you have to take all of your holiday?
Well, airline staff are legally required to take time off – it’s compulsory, as specified by the CAA. However, as I mentioned, the third week of holiday you can book off during the two booking periods is called a ‘duty-free’ week – airline staff can ‘sell it back’ to the airline, and work through it.
Do you recommend that airline staff take advantage of free flights?
It’s a game of luck. I ended up not using my free staff travel as it nearly always resulted in a mishap – for example, I tried to fly back from the Channel Islands with my family. We got up at 3am to take the flight and we got to the airport at 5am – and from that point, all the flights were too busy for us all to fly. We were in the airport for 12 hours until we resorted to getting the midnight ferry back to the mainland. Another time we all managed to get on a flight, but my wife and I and our two young children were all seated apart.
I knew one pilot who had to fly back from Singapore to the UK before returning to work – there were no free seats on any flights going home, and he was worried about getting back in time, so he had to pay £15,000 for he and his wife to fly home in first class with another airline as they were the only tickets available!
I think taking advantage of staff travel is great for singletons or couples – people who can be a little more flexible. If you’ve got young children to fly with, it can be a bit of a stressful gamble!
When were you expected to arrive back in the UK before your shift started again?
Most airlines want staff back in the country and ready to go about 2-3 days before they’re due to fly again – especially if they’re likely to have suffered jetlag on the way back.
What happened if pilots missed a shift due to being late back after a delayed flight?
You’d get a disciplinary. Unfortunately, it’s not like an office job – there was no leeway or sympathy if you couldn’t get back on time and you missed work. It was up to us to get back on time.
What did you do if you had to call in sick?
British Airways were very decent when it came to calling in sick – I can’t speak for other airlines. I called in as soon as possible, and they always trusted that I was genuinely sick. You’d need to provide a doctors certificate after seven days off, but I think most employers need that.
British Airways didn’t want you flying if you were poorly – it wouldn’t be safe.
Do airline staff get compassionate leave?
I can’t speak for any other airlines, but British Airways were brilliant when staff had a crisis. One Christmas I had to fly back early from Houston – my father was ill. BA flew me straight back home to be with him. Another pilot had to fly the return leg, as I would’ve been too upset to fly.
British Airways always have a member of staff called a Duty Flight Crew Manager on the ground at Heathrow or Gatwick – if we’re in the air and something happens, they’ll fight our corner until we can talk to our colleagues on the ground. Sometimes they wouldn’t tell a crew member if something really bad had happened – for example, if a spouse was ill – because often the quickest way to get back to the UK was to allow them to fly back without knowing. They’d then be met by a member of staff in the UK who would tell them the news.
If someone was told the bad news abroad, they’d be judged unfit to fly – and if a member of staff couldn’t cover for them, they’d be forced to remain in a foreign country unless they booked a flight home.
Do you think that pilots and cabin crew get enough holiday?
In my opinion, people are too scared to say they’re too tired to fly at some of the budget airlines. I do worry about pilot fatigue. And with new European regulations, they’ll be legally obliged to work even longer hours. The CAA stipulates that pilots can work from 12-14 hours, but that can legally be extended by three hours. The new regulations can add another two hours on top of that.
I was always given enough holiday with BA, but I do wonder about the implications of working airline staff to the maximum day in and day out. However, that’s just my interpretation of the industry, and shouldn’t be taken as gospel.