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How Does ‘Deadheading’ Work

The practice is common at most airlines.

Business Class cabin on board Air Canada’s first retrofitted A321 (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Andrew Chen)

One of the most well-known benefits awarded to flight crews is that they may travel for free on their own and, in many cases, other airlines. The ability to do so is lauded as a special perk that lets crews see more of the world on days that they are not working, and many use the opportunity to bring others with them too.

Crews are equally often asked to fly as a passenger for work. This practice, known as “deadheading,” may be used to reposition a crewmember to an outstation or another base. Crews can equally commute as a passenger from where they are based to where they live.

The Broad Rules for Traveling Crewmembers

In each case, crews often elect to wear their uniforms – they are required to on specified deadheads – to appear professional and identify themselves easily to the crews working the flight. Since they are on duty and representing their company whenever in uniform or traveling for work, there are rules that these crewmembers must comply with to remain in good standing with the company.

Most airlines will set a certain standard for how their employees should act whenever they are traveling in uniform or using their benefits. For example, commuters must arrive at their “home” airport within a certain amount of time before their shift is scheduled to start at base. Other companies require a certain number of flights to operate between arriving at the airport and when work starts at the base, and a subset of those even require a select number of those flights to be operated by the company the commuter works for.

Since crewmembers must identify themselves whenever deadheading or flying as a non-revenue passenger, such as on a commute, they must also maintain a certain amount of professionalism. They might, for example, be asked to help pick up trash at the end of the flight, particularly on company-operated aircraft. They are also instructed to be discrete while traveling on personal business, and there are usually provisions against using benefits for work unrelated to the airline.

Deadheading crewmembers, who are receiving full pay and are on duty during their deadhead, may even be asked to assist the active flight crew in emergencies if extra assistance is required. 

The Benefits of Deadheading

There are rules, however, that protect deadheading pilots while they are moving for company business. Union contracts often require, for example, that a company book its crewmembers into premium economy, business, or first class cabins while on duty. Crew members are usually allowed to board first and deplane last, allowing them extra time to settle in and collect themselves while they’re at work.

This allows deadhead pilots even more flexibility than non-revenue crewmembers on commute or going on vacation, who are usually among the last to board to ensure revenue-earning passengers fill as many seats as possible. This is why commuters need to leave so early for work; there must be time for some flights to fill before a spot opens up.

While deadheading crews are required to be in uniform, non-rev crews can decide whether to stay in uniform at their own discretion. Crews often balance staying comfortable with the extra professionalism that comes with being in uniform. Fellow crew members and passengers, after all, often treat someone differently if they are in uniform as opposed to street clothes.

However they travel, crewmembers have significant responsibility when they travel as passengers. Whether for work or leisure, traveling as a crew member brings significant responsibility. While there are rules for how crew members must carry themselves as passengers, they are also granted flexibility appropriate to their mission each time they travel.

John McDermott


  • John McDermott

    John McDermott is a student at Northwestern University. He is also a student pilot with hopes of flying for the airlines. A self-proclaimed "avgeek," John will rave about aviation at length to whoever will listen, and he is keen to call out any airplane he sees, whether or not anyone around him cares about flying at all. John previously worked as a Journalist and Editor-In-Chief at Aeronautics Online Aviation News and Media. In his spare time, John enjoys running, photography, and watching planes approach Chicago O'Hare from over Lake Michigan.

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