The life of a pilot involves a lot of adjusting to rules and regulations that the airline has, including where they live. Airlines have several bases that act as hubs for their operations and for flights that pilots and cabin crew go on. Living and working around a base is a big adjustment, so you might be wondering if pilots get to choose this.
The answer is a bit complicated. Pilots are allowed to bid on the base that they want, but they’re not guaranteed to get their first choice. Airlines assign bases based on availability and other factors, including pilot seniority.
Here is everything you need to know about how pilots interact with their bases.
What Is a Base?
A base, sometimes called a crew domicile, is an airport that the airline uses as a permanent spot from which to launch flights and to domicile crew. Usually, this is a hub airport or a main airport from which the airline launches many different flights. Basing crew near hubs makes sense because airlines need people on call due to the frequency of flights.
However, not all airline bases are hub airports. Some airline bases are smaller airports where they park and service their aircraft. Bases differ from airports that airlines just fly to because bases are where the airplanes and crew actually spend significant time as opposed to turning around and flying home.
For airline crew, including pilots, the home base is the airport out of which they fly. Most of a pilot’s assignments will start from the base and return there, which is why the choice of base is such an important factor.
How Does Assigning Bases Work?
Most airlines have multiple bases from which they fly their planes. This helps them distribute resources such as aircraft and crew in a way that serves the most passengers. Major international airlines will even have foreign crew bases where pilots and cabin crew can rest after long-haul flights and be replaced on the return flight by a fresh local crew.
Usually, to get any assignment at an airline, companies use the bidding system. This applies to pilots wanting a base assignment as well as route assignments. Pilots will look at available options and ask for the ones that they want, knowing that they might not get their first choice.
Airlines use the bidding system for almost everything. However, pilots typically bid for a base only rarely because changing your base requires rearranging your whole life around a new location and schedule.
How Do Airlines Decide Which Pilots Get Which Base?
Most airlines use a Preferential Bidding System, or PBS, to decide which pilots get to fly which routes and work out of which base. The bidding system gives priority to pilots based on seniority. The more experience pilots have, the more likely it is that their bids for their first-choice base will be honored.
Unfortunately, that means junior pilots get saddled with less desirable bases (and flight routes) until they pay their dues to the airline. That also means that new pilots who join an airline as part of a large incoming class will get stuck on the bottom of the ladder for years. Some pilots purposefully apply to airlines they know have lots of older pilots who will retire soon to prevent getting stuck on the bottom of the seniority ladder for years.
There are a few factors that decide the desirability of a base. Even though living in a major metropolitan area seems exciting, those bases are usually among the least desirable due to the high cost of living. Other factors that make a base desirable include its connection to the rest of the country and how easy it is to commute. Young pilots often get stuck at bases in the middle of nowhere or crammed into tiny apartments in big cities to be close to a major hub.
Do Pilots Have to Live Near Their Base?
Pilots can express preferences to their airlines around the base they want to work out of, but they are not guaranteed to get their choice. However, pilots can still choose where to live. Many pilots don’t live near their base and commute from another state or even another country to work.
There are a few reasons why pilots choose to commute. Some live further away from bases due to the higher cost of living in the base city. Others live closer to their spouse’s job or don’t want to uproot their families after switching bases. Still others move for more personal reasons, such as better weather.
Luckily, commuting as a pilot is easier because they get free flights. However, pilots have to fly on standby, meaning that they can only board a plane if there are empty seats.