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Why Smart Flight Crew Members Aren’t Answering Their Phones

Overworked woman pilot wearing uniform with epaulettes holding papers in briefing room

By all accounts, this has been a particularly trying New Year at my airline. Crewing the holidays is always tough – we talked about that  – but this week has been noteworthy.

My airline put more people on reserve in January than they did in December, and all for the first week! And still, it can only be described as a Hot Mess Express out there. It’s not all about the sick list. It’s also about weather in various places wreaking havoc on flights, and – what’s new this year – a crew scheduling department that is experiencing incredibly high turnover. It seems most are new and don’t know all the rules yet. Unless they’re just evil. Just kidding. Kind of. (To be fair, there is a lot to know, and I hear their training is fast and furious.) All of this is colliding into a manning storm.

If flights aren’t delayed or canceled, they’re going out understaffed to FAA minimums with crews cobbled together from every random corner. Crew members are being called into work on days off, on short notice, only to get there and find out their pilots haven’t even left whatever city they’re coming from, etc.! This hectic scene is why smart flight attendants and pilots aren’t answering their phone right now.

Did you catch that I said “days off”? At many airlines, there’s a work clause that says your days off are your days off — unless the company is desperate. Then they can try to contact you, and if they succeed, you’re their … well, plaything. Think of it like being served court papers.

A flight attendant or pilot can be at home with feet up on the coffee table. If that phone rings and she* says, “Hello … this is she,” you could say she’s been served. That luggage will be repacked in quick time. Where it goes from there is anyone’s guess. Those reassignments can then add up like links in a chain, and planned days off can fall away like dominos.

Why would we answer? Sometimes they get you by calling from unusual numbers. Sometimes it will come in as “Unknown” or “No Caller ID.” Also, it’s not so common for scheduling to get this desperate. It has been years and years since I was called in on a day off. If I had been one of the first called in this mess, I might have answered, forgetting the situation. New Hires might answer because they’re (understandably) scared of messing up and also because they probably don’t imagine this will happen. Scheduling likes New Hires, too, because they’re often nervous about pushing back even if they suspect a rule is being broken.

We have so many scheduling rules that it’s common to become fuzzy on the ones we haven’t needed to know recently (I’m guilty!). It can be hard to have the confidence to stand your ground against a scheduler, who is supposedly an expert. This week the stories have been crazy! One guy had finished his trip and, two hours later was changing into street clothes in the bathroom of the airplane he was about to commute home on. He began hearing pages for him around the airport. A manager suggested gate agents cancel his reservation and came to the plane asking for him.

Just one problem – this is illegal. Reassignments have to be done before your duty day is officially finished. Hours after you got off the plane is definitely too late. Either the new schedulers (and the managers) didn’t know that, or they were just desperate enough to hope the flight attendant didn’t know. Another girl got called three hours after work. She was already at home, probably had a bowl of pasta and some Downton Abbey going when scheduling called and tried to demand she return to the airport.

Of course, we’re private citizens on our days off. If we’ve been drinking, for example, we’re disqualified from working (another reason to pour a glass of wine!). It’s also possible that we’re not close enough to get to the airport. In a discussion about exceptions like this, one flight attendant (we’ll call her Beth) admitted that many years ago, she answered the phone at home. When scheduling asked for Beth, she told them, “Beth’s not home” and – just to have some fun – “Beth’s out working a flight.” When they said, “No she’s not because this is scheduling and we’re calling to give her one,” she replied, “If she says she’s on a trip, she’s on a trip. Don’t you call here starting trouble.” I couldn’t help but find that funny.

Two passenger lessons can be learned from all this. One, if you’re flying right now, there’s a decent chance you’re experiencing delays. It may be frustrating, but you might be lucky you have a crew at all! Two, next time your phone rings with an unfamiliar number and your gut says, “Don’t answer it,” and your head replies, “Don’t be silly, what’s the worst that could happen?” just ask a flight attendant. She’ll tell you.

*Not discounting my many male crew colleagues, just picking a pronoun!

[Photo: Getty Images]

Comments are Closed.
Lakeviewsteve January 22, 2016

Smart to not answer their phone? If they don't want to earn money, it would be smart. It thought if they get in as many hours at the beginning of the month as possible, they would reach their maximum allowed work hours and have the rest of the month off because they became "illegal," Isn't that the case any longer?

Cedarglen January 21, 2016

This article doe NOT surprise me at all. Be SMART! What is your Quality of Life and Personal Time worth to you? Manage your telephones properly! Give your employer ONLY your land line number, change the umber if necessary. Migrate ALL other services - friends/family etc., but NEVER give it to scheduling. For a few folks, the exact reverse may work better. As a last resort, have TWO land lines at home. In the case of scheduling, do NOT use an answering machine or VM on the number that you provide to them. Think it through and pick the option that works best - For You. When you want to talk to them, you call them - and ONLY from the special, "Scheduling Line." Even one screw up and they will have captured your very private, alternate number. They are NOT fools and they are trained to record the origin of EVERY incoming call. (It is called Meta Data.) If you are already formally scheduled for reserve - and are being paid for same, you have every right to avoid them. And yes, in most cases the author is correct; if they make contact, they have you. At that point your only option is to claim to have been drinking. It works for a while, but if used too many times, it can raise some eyebrows. Good luck boys and girls and do not allow them to abuse your QOL. Good luck!!

writerguyfl January 16, 2016

I'm pretty much the opposite of the assumptions made above. I spent years working in hotels where everyone from hourly employees to the GM would come together to make sure our guests were taken care of during an unusual situation. Everything from airline strikes, local transit strikes, and blizzards. I'm probably about as accommodating as anyone when it comes to front line personnel. My issue here is with the author. Maybe it's me, but I don't think that it's appropriate to essentially "air your dirty laundry" in this manner. If you have a problem with your job, raise it with your boss, your union, and/or the corporate office. If you still need to complain, vent to your colleagues, not your customers.

weero January 15, 2016

Not answering the phone should be pretty straightforward. Multi-year training in not answering the call button will make this transition real easy.

raymaines January 15, 2016

"Oh I'm sorry, I've been drinking and I'm really pretty drunk. Please note, this conversation is being recorded?" I was a city bus driver for my working career and this comment pretty much put an end to any sort of demand from an overly aggressive dispatcher that wanted me to come to work when, in fact, I really didn't want to come to work.