JA: Congratulations, You Just Volunteered!

by Jason Depew, TPN Staff Writer

Do you remember that time as a young lieutenant, ensign, WO1, or 251-hr commercial pilot when your boss walked up to you and said, “Hey Emet, we need someone to show up before dawn on the upcoming holiday weekend and fly a terrible trip”?

You probably said, “Thanks for letting me know boss. I have plans, but good luck with that!”

How’d that work out for you?

Chances are, the next thing your boss said was: “I don’t care. You’re new, so…congratulations, you just volunteered!”

I definitely remember that. It sucked.

You’ve since worked your way up the ranks. You’ve proven your worth. You’ve flown combat missions in very bad places or sweated the loss of your license every day as a Line Check Airman at a regional airline flying with terrible FOs. You’ve earned the right to turn down garbage trips on weekends and holidays, and instead, enjoy as many good deals as you see fit.

Guess what: when it comes to starting over at a new airline, nobody cares. It doesn’t matter if you were a Chief Pilot or Wing Commander at your last job. When you start your new career as an airline pilot there’s a decent chance that your only job title aside from “FO” will be “plug.” As in: the person closest to the drain, weighed down by the seniority of every other pilot in the company. No piece of detritus in the entire bathtub gets through that drain without brushing softly along your chrome dome on the way down. (No complaining allowed. Not only did you volunteer for this opportunity, you probably spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars pursuing it.)

In my ongoing efforts to avoid making an airline career seem too rosy, I want to take a look at one of the worst parts of our job. In the airlines it’s called Junior Assignment (JA) or Inverse Assignment (IA.) You can probably figure out from the name that it translates to: Congratulations, you just volunteered!

The scheduling process at an airline makes the schedulers’ puck boards at a military pilot training base look like kindergarten. Our companies manage hundreds of aircraft and tens of thousands of employees to conduct thousands of flights every day. It’s impressive!

Trips at your company first get covered through a bidding process each month. About 90% of pilots get to know their next month’s schedule a few weeks in advance. These “line holders” simply show up when they’re scheduled and do their job. There’s shockingly little oversight or micromanagement, yet things still get done. (If you’re an Air Force senior leader I probably just blew your mind. Simple facts like this, and not money, are why you can’t retain people right now by the way.)

As Murphy tells us: no plan ever survives initial contact with the enemy. This holds true for the airline scheduling process as well. Weather, maintenance, illness, security issues, and more cause small detonations in the schedule of every airline every day. Airline schedulers are adept at “covering” the schedule when this happens, and each company’s pilot contract specifies the ways a scheduler can make adjustments.

If there’s some time available, a scheduler might be able to assign someone who is currently on long-call reserve. That person will have several hours to get in position and be ready to fly. (At my company it’s at least 12 hours.) If there isn’t enough time (or your company doesn’t have long-call reserve) the schedulers might have to use a pilot from their short-call reserve list. Rules vary, but if you’re on short-call you generally have about 2 hours from the time you get the phone call to be at the jet ready to go. I don’t love short-call, but it’s manageable as long as you plan for it.

Somewhere in the scheduling process, your company probably also has opportunities for pilots to pick up extra flying for extra pay. If the schedulers need a trip to be covered, they pop it into a system that most airlines call “Open Time.” Every pilot in the company can see what’s in Open Time and bid to fly those trips. You can also just put in a standing bid, with qualifiers. “I’ll fly any trip this month that has layovers in Nassau, as long as none of the show times are before 9:00 am.” (Be careful though: the more specific your criteria, the less likely a given trip will meet them.)

Schedulers will try to cover a trip at normal pay, but if it’s short notice or they’re short on reserve pilots, they will frequently award the trip at premium pay. This means double pay at my company, and I’ve seen it specified as high as triple pay at some regionals. When you learn how to play the scheduling game well, these trips can make you some amazing money.

Your schedulers probably have several other ways to cover a trip. My company’s contract requires them to exhaust all those options, in order, for every trip. However, if all else fails and they can’t find anyone who wants the trip, they turn to their (nearly) final recourse: IA (or JA at your company.)

In this case, they start calling every pilot in that category, starting at the bottom of the seniority list…hence Junior or Inverse (order) Assignment. You may not even be scheduled to work that day, but the message will be the same: Congratulations, you just volunteered!

If you’re out to make money, or you want to accrue hours to consolidate or finish probation, you may not mind getting called on an IA/JA. (IA also pays double at my company.) However, I tend to have plans any day I’m not scheduled to fly. If all else fails, I’ll go ride bikes or play Minecraft with my kids. I’m also a commuter, meaning that I have to account for a few extra hours on each end of a trip to get to or from my base. It’s very rare that I could accept an IA without causing significant logistical headaches for my wife.

Copy, Emet. IA/JA sucks. So what now? Is there any way to mitigate the threat of IA/JA?

Excellent question! The first step is being as senior as possible. This is yet another reason why I maintain that Seniority is Everything! (https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/seniority-is-everything) The best thing you can do to prevent getting called with an IA/JA is to leave your current job and join a major airline ASAP! If you stay on active duty to earn a 20-year military retirement, you’ll be more vulnerable for JA, for longer, than all your friends who left the military before you.

Another part of seniority is making sure you’re senior within your category. In the airlines, category means your position (left vs right seat,) at your base, on your particular aircraft. I just converted to a new category: NYC A220 FO. My overall seniority in the company is about 81%. That’s not a terrible place to be, but it’s nothing to write home about either. However, I’m #13/75, or 19% in my category. This means that, should the schedulers ever need to start the IA process, they’ll have to call 81% of the other pilots in my category before my phone ever rings…and there’s a pretty great chance they’ll tag some other sucker before they get to me. I could theoretically hold NYC 717 CA right now; however, I’d be #111/111. This means that I’d be the first person they called for every single IA. You can see that relative seniority is critical to Quality of Life. You must take this into account when choosing the categories you bid for, starting on Day 1 of Indoc.

Another way to mitigate the threat of an IA/JA is to choose a company with a great contract that is protected by a strong union. At my airline, I’m never obligated to answer the phone on my days off. As long as I don’t pick up, I cannot be assigned an IA. Not only is this an awesome rule, my union (ALPA) is committed to defending it. I’ve heard of companies where either this rule doesn’t exist, or it’s disregarded on a regular basis. Personally, I would never join a company like that.

Now, since we’re pilots who like to examine every possibility, let’s look at this case: what if Emet doesn’t look closely enough at his phone to see the 404 area code before answering? Once the scheduler shows that the call connected, I’m vulnerable. Is there any mitigation at that point?

The pilot answer is a classic “it depends,” with benefits and pitfalls.

My first option is to let the schedulers know that I’m “out of position.” IAs most frequently get assigned less than 2 hours before a flight is supposed to depart. Since I commute from Tampa, it’s almost impossible for me to get to my base (now NYC) to help that flight depart on time. My contract allows me to live wherever I want and commute, so I’m protected. The scheduler will probably give me an exasperated sigh and hang up to call the next pilot in line. However, they also have the option of saying, “Great, I just booked you a confirmed seat on the next thing smoking out of Tampa. We’ll see you soon!” In that case, being out of position didn’t do me any good.

But Emet, what if you weren’t at home? What if you were skiing in the Alps, your uniform is in Florida, and your trip starts at KLGA?

In this case, I’m probably good no matter what. I’d politely explain the logistical complications to the scheduler, get the same exasperated sigh, and go back to skiing. Unlike the military or some other companies, my airline has zero say in my physical location on days I’m not already scheduled to fly. (Yes, USAF. You can take your Leave Web and OSI safety briefings, and stick ‘em!)

Armed with this new knowledge, you might be tempted to make it your policy to always be on an African photo safari any time scheduling calls. This might work once. However, if you claim to be in a certain location and your scheduler books you a ticket from that location to work you’d be in big trouble if you the turned around and said, “Well actually…I’m not there either.” At my company, you can do a lot wrong, if it wasn’t intentional, and survive to fly another day. As long as you’re honest and fess up, you’re good. However, if you get caught lying to the company you’re done. I believe that you’re always better off being honest with any employer.

Another opportunity to mitigate the threat of an IA/JA is to have just cracked a beer or taken a sip of a cocktail the moment before the scheduler called. If this is the case, you’re obligated to let them know that you’re unavailable for at least the next 8 hours. Just as the company has no say in your physical location when you’re not scheduled to fly, they also have no say over your drinking habits. You could be having a Bloody Mary with breakfast in Vegas, a mimosa at brunch with your spouse, or a cold beer following an afternoon of golf. If this is the case, chances are you’re off the hook because they need someone in fewer than 8 hours. However, there’s still a chance they’ll say, “Great. We’ll see you in exactly 8 hours…hack!” In this case, you’ve not only failed to evade the bad deal, you’ve made it worse by eliminating any opportunity to drink between now and then. (Again with the honesty Emet?)

While this could, theoretically, be a valid way to get out of an IA, I don’t recommend making it your standard answer. If you always happen to be drinking every time scheduling calls, they’ll eventually take note. You don’t want the next call from that area code to be a chief pilot saying, “Emet, I care about you. Are you okay?”

You may also be able to answer an IA/JA phone call by informing the scheduler that you are sick. If you are actually sick, do this! Please, please don’t fly sick! It’s not good for you, your passengers, or (perhaps most importantly) your coworkers.

If you’re a line holder, there’s no requirement to call in sick, except as required to let the schedulers know you won’t be showing up for your next trip. Ideally, you should do this early enough that your trip can be placed into open time and picked up by a pilot who actually wants it, rather than someone on reserve. However, if you weren’t expecting to fly today, there’s no reason for you to have called in sick when scheduling called you with an IA/JA. The scheduler should sigh and let you off the hook. However, this is another situation where getting flagged as someone who chronically uses the same excuse could be bad for you. Every once in a while, a few stupid pilots at a given airline abuse their sick leave rules a little too much, and someone in management goes on a witch hunt. When that happens, don’t be the person known for having the sniffles every time the company calls.

One other catch-all that can help you avoid soaking up an IA/JA is fatigue. After the loss of Colgan Air 3407 (https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/accidentreports/pages/aar1001.aspx), the FAA published an entire regulation about pilot rest, Part 117. (https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=7fc4e6fe69deee75c9d2ffd80b47d30f&mc=true&tpl=/ecfrbrowse/Title14/14cfr117_main_02.tpl) It states very clearly: you are not allowed to accept an assignment to fly if you aren’t sufficiently rested. I can think up all kinds of factors that could play in here. Maybe a sick kid kept me up last night. Maybe I stayed up super-late bingeing the latest season of Stranger Things. Maybe I just spent all day landscaping my yard. Maybe I just went on a 15-mile run as part of my marathon training program.

The FAA doesn’t care how you became fatigued. They only care that you’re able to identify your fatigued state and that you make the correct call to not fly. Since your airline has zero input on how you live your life when not scheduled to work, they can’t complain about you being fatigued. If they call and you’re fatigued, you just say so. You don’t even need to explain why you’re fatigued. (I highly recommend you don’t!) Sigh. Click. Call next pilot. Poor scheduler.

While this may sound like the ultimate solution here, your scheduler still has the prerogative to ask, “How long will it take for you to get rested?” Your contract probably obligates you to tell them, and the range of reasonable responses starts at a few hours and could go as high as 18 or so. There’s still a chance the scheduler could assign you a trip starting as soon as that time period is up. Womp, womp.

I hope you’ve identified the trend here. While there are several situations that could help you avoid the negative effects of an unwanted IA/JA, there is no universal get-out-of-jail-free card. The truth is, IA/JA doesn’t happen all that often. Most pilots I know like money and flying enough that trips get snagged out of open time long before schedulers have to resort to extreme measures.

If I was in a position bad enough that I regularly got called for IAs, I would at least make sure that my reasons for being unable to fly varied over time. Pilots, including those in airline management, are good at recognizing patterns. I don’t want them to recognize one with me. (Unlike the military, I couldn’t even tell you the name of my direct supervisor at my airline…because it doesn’t matter. That’s how little micromanagement there is. Yes, you should be jealous.) However, I maintain that you’re almost always better off just telling it like it is (if you answer the phone at all.)

By far, the best way to mitigate this threat is to not be junior. You should take this into account when you’re bidding for a category, but also when you’re considering what airline to join. Go to https://www.airlinepilotcentral.com/ and look at the seniority progression at any airline you’re considering. Alaska Airlines is a great company, but they’re looking at no more than 77 mandatory retirements per year for the next 30 years. That suggests you’ll never gain more than 2.7% seniority per year, for your entire career, if you go there. (These numbers don’t account for the Virgin merger.) I’ve gained 19% seniority in 3 years at Delta and things only accelerate from here. American will have even better seniority progression for pilots hired in the next 5 years than Delta. If IA/JA is a headache you don’t want to deal with, then choosing the right company is critical for your Quality of Life.

While seniority progression at some airlines will be great for pilots hired in the relatively near future, that wave will eventually crest. A pilot hired at American today will have amazing progression. A pilot hired 10-15 years from now may have to spend 15-20 years as an FO. It’ll still be a great career, but it won’t even compare to someone who gets there sooner. If you have any inclination, whatsoever, toward the airlines you need to go now! If you’re in the military, take the Total Force career path. (https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/ideal-military-pilot-career-path-spelling-it-out-part-1) You can still get almost anything you could possibly want out of a military career, but you can have a seniority number at a major airline while you’re doing it. I cannot overstate the value of that position to your family’s long-term Quality of Life.

If you’re a current or aspiring regional airline pilot, focus all your efforts on gaining quality flight hours now. Don’t go to the training department, or take a management job, or drop trips to focus on your side-hustle. You need the hours and experience that will get you to a major airline ASAP. You’ll have plenty of time for all that other stuff once you get to the majors.

Junior/Inverse Assignment is one of the least desirable aspects of our career field. There are some potential ways to mitigate the threat, but none of them are guaranteed. Your best bet is to always choose to be as senior as possible. If you move quickly and choose the right category at the right company, you may never even have to hear the words, “Congratulations, you just volunteered!”