PBS: Ending Co-Pairing, Again?

Written by John Carlos Metidieri

AFA Alternate Member to the Joint PBS Committee

 I have said it before.  I’ll say it again.  I like flying with the same pilots throughout each pairing.  I enjoy getting to know my crew and going out to dinner together while away on an overnight assignment.  I do not particularly like traveling to and from hotels on my own.  I am not a fan of waking up in the morning only to discover that I could have slept another couple of hours because my outbound pilots arrived into the overnight late thus requiring additional rest.

There are quite a few things, though, that I dislike even more than not being co-paired with pilots.  I do not enjoy lines barely built to 75 hours with only 11 or 12 days off when more hours of pay are necessary to maintain my personal standard of living.  I do not enjoy excessively long overnights in the middle of nowhere.  I do not like pairings built that hinder commutability.  I do not enjoy seeing fellow flight attendants sent back to reserves who are above the 20th percentile of seniority in their respective bases when many others who are junior to them are holding lines.

            By now, most of you have seen the bid results across the system for the month of September.  We are no longer co-paired with our pilots on any aircraft type.  The pairings constructed for flight attendants were dramatically improved in credit value.  It was far easier for PBS to reach 75 hours of flying for our workforce.  We were able to see with great ease where the ability to hold lines of flying ended at each domicile.  With rare exceptions, flight attendants awarded reserve saw no one junior to them holding lines of flying.

What is the process for creating pairings?

The first thing that needs to be understood by all flight attendants is that envoy Air, Inc. receives a fixed number of hours per month from American Airlines.  These hours are given to us in the form of a basket of flights.  From these hours, the crew planning department constructs pairings.  A few of the many things crew planners must consider are the numbers of pilots and flight attendants available to fly the flights assigned to our company.

Generally speaking, during times of overstaffing, we will see pairings of low credit value.  To create pairings otherwise during overstaffing would result in fewer available pairings.  As mentioned earlier, the number of hours received from American Airlines each month is fixed.  When crew planners allocate more hours into each pairing, it results in fewer pairings.  If too few pairings exist, it would cause the operation to have an excessive number of reserves.  One would think the company would enjoy such a situation.  This is not the case, though, when there are too many crewmembers on reserve who are still being paid their contractual guarantees even as they actually fly only a fraction of the guaranteed hours per month.  The company also loses by absorbing quasi-fixed labor costs per crewmember (costs that are the same regardless of the actual productivity of each employee such as healthcare, training, taxes, etc.).  The result for these crewmembers is a loss of per diem which many count upon as part of our income.

During times of understaffing, we will generally see pairings with higher credit values.  The operation needs the available crewmembers to cover as much of the flying as possible while simultaneously leaving enough crewmembers on reserve status to cover flying that becomes open as a result of absenteeism.  If weak pairings (those with low credit value) were created during times of understaffing, the flying would be spread out over such a large percentage of the workforce that the operation would have insufficient reserves.  The negative impact upon crewmembers would be the need for crew schedulers to extend and/or junior-man crewmembers into additional flying with abnormally high frequency.

Why does the company build low credit pairings when we don’t have enough Pilots?

            Contrary to popular belief, we presently have too many pilots for the hours being given to us by American Airlines!  While American Airlines continues to return additional flying to us as a direct result of our performance versus that of our competitors not owned by American Airlines Group, the fact remains that we do not have enough hours to create healthy pairings to be apportioned amongst our pilots without creating waste (hours paid even when not actually flown by the employees receiving payment).  The company’s top priority is to return a profit on the investment of the shareholders.  A situation where too many pilots are being paid for hours not flown is counterproductive to that business objective.  While the company is actually paying pilots for hours not flown at the present time, it is minimizing losses by spreading the flying as much as possible over their guarantee through low credit value pairings.  Contractually, the pilots are guaranteed 72 hours per month.  We, on the other hand, are guaranteed 75 hours per month.

Building pairings for lines worth well over 72 hours means more hours will be flown by fewer pilots holding lines.  This results in an excessive number of pilots on reserve status sitting at home being paid their contractual guarantees even though they will likely not fly 72 hours each month.  Building pairings for lines worth less than 72 hours simply transfers losses from excessive reserves flying too few hours to pilots holding lines flying too few hours while still being paid for 72 hours.  The ideal pairings from a business standpoint are those which allow for the construction of lines as close to 72 hours as possible for our pilots.

Under normal circumstances, the company would likely furlough the excessive pilots in our workforce or utilize other measures which would make our pilots less likely to return to active service when called upon to do so.  The introduction of the Embraer 175 into our fleet later this year along with the fact that it is difficult for the regional airline industry to attract and retain qualified applicants serves to make furloughs very unwise for the operation.  The company wishes to retain as many qualified pilots as possible and also wishes to minimize losses on paid hours not actually flown.

How does the pilot staffing issue affect me as a flight attendant?

            When we are co-paired with our pilots, we are flying the pairings constructed with their staffing complications in mind.  The company has a contractual right to build lines for flight attendants worth 75 hours.  In other words, PBS was being forced to construct lines reaching a 75 hour threshold from pairings designed to reach 72 hours while we were co-paired.  We are contractually guaranteed to no less than 11 days off per month.  Our union’s leaders are not interested in changing this contractual requirement simply to satisfy the staffing requirements of another workforce.

            The results of the pilot staffing situation have been nothing short of disastrous for flight attendants over the past several months.  It has affected flight attendants wishing to bid for as many days off as possible because low credit value pairings require additional workdays to reach 75 hours.  Impacted to an even worse extent were flight attendants between the 20th and 40th percentiles of bidding seniority at their respective bases.  As PBS assigned pairings to construct lines worth 75 hours, the remaining pairings (which are a direct result of how senior bidders have bid) were too often not worth enough to reach 75 hours.  As a result, flight attendants who were not legal and available to accept flying worth 75 hours were awarded reserve.

            Over 90 percent of the flying built for pilots was included in four day pairings.  The negative impact on the more junior flight attendants is that after the PBS system makes its best effort to assign 75 hours in five different pairings, the flight attendant is already up to 20 workdays.  Depending on the number of days in a given bid month, the PBS system had 0 to 1 day to try assigning over the 75 hour threshold since we are contractually guaranteed to 11 days off.  Since day trips were scarce, PBS was unable to reach the 75 hour credit window for many flight attendants who were awarded reserve.

How does ending co-pairing benefit me as a flight attendant?

            Pilots represent a far higher labor cost to the company than do our flight attendants.  Pairings are built primarily with the company’s staffing and cost needs in mind.  Now that we are no longer co-paired with our pilots, the crew planners are now granted the freedom that is necessary to construct pairings tailored more closely to the wishes of our flight attendants!  While still a work in progress, we saw exciting improvements in the September bid results!  We saw the creation of many lines of flying with well over 11 minimum days off that are required by our labor agreement.  Arguably the most important improvement is the distribution of those awarded line of flying and those awarded reserves.

            This is all a result of the high value pairings that were created specifically for us.  This is especially true of the CRJ pairings which were worth nearly 5 ½ hours of average daily credit!  The company has decided to restructure the crew planning department so that crew planners can be wholly committed to the planning of either the pilot or flight attendant workforces.  This also enables crew planners to limit their knowledge to one labor agreement.  We are pleased to announce that the CRJ crew planner largely responsible for the immensely improved performance of PBS through higher credit value pairings has been assigned to the flight attendant workforce and will now be building the flight attendant pairings for both fleet types for the foreseeable future.

 Will we ever see co-pairing again in the future?

            A variety of factors give the company confidence that the ending of co-pairing will not be as problematic as it was in the previous attempt.  The company is confident that it is prepared to repair the operation in an expeditious manner should there be an operational meltdown as a result of irregularities impacting the operation.  The company also believes that the simplified domicile structure of our operation will better facilitate the end of co-pairing.  The company has committed to ensuring that crews going in and out of Mexican overnight assignments will be co-paired.

            On our part, we are pleased that the company has worked with our Master Executive Council (MEC) as a result of how badly the construction of pairings in the past has disrupted the lives of our flight attendants and thus the operation as well.  Allowing flight attendants to have pairings actually meant to enable PBS to easily reach the 75 hour threshold while the company sorts out staffing issues with its pilots is a huge step in the right direction.  Should we see the day again when pairings built for pilots will still enable PBS to easily reach a 75 hour threshold while also maintaining variety in pairings, we will certainly engage the company in discussions to resume co-pairing.  In the meantime, it is important for us all to realize that the ending of co-pairing was done in the best interest of our flight attendants.  The proof of improvement is in the September bid results.  With the CRJ crew planner now committed entirely to the flight attendant workforce on both equipment types, we suspect that the October bid runs will yield even better results.

            As always, the Master Executive Council is fully committed to representing the will of the flight attendants just as it is also to the mission of educating our flight attendants when the membership has tough decisions to make.  Until the pairings built for pilots are worth enough hours to build lines of flying worth at least 75 hours, we unfortunately cannot have both high credit value pairings and a co-paired operation.  The MEC looks forward to hearing from you any feedback with respect to the construction of pairings.