Monday, December 06, 2010


The course of a flying career may be measured in terms of one's progression between two extremes. At one end, you work your butt off for very little pay. At the other pole, you fly your choice of trips only rather occasionally and seemingly rake in the dough. In general, you do everything in your power to move from the former position to the latter, but for the most part one's career progress is a matter of time and luck.

Meanwhile, this progression is repeated on a smaller scale at the individual employers one might fly for over the course of a career, and even within individual fleets at companies with a variety of equipment. Aviation is a 24/7/365 sort of industry, and whether the unions forced its use or not, seniority is the only workable method of determining who spends Christmas with the kids and who spends it shooting ILS approaches in the snow. Consequently, one's career progression more resembles the game of chutes and ladders than one continuous incline. You start completely over at each individual company over the course of your career. Within each company, your relative seniority suffers as you bid onto larger aircraft.

This does introduce some element of control in an often out-of-control industry. You can choose whether to leave for a more lucrative job, or whether to bid for the bigger airplane or for a Captain slot. By choosing to pass those things up, you can gain more time off, more control over your schedule, and greater stability; in turn you often forfeit a larger paycheck or future career opportunities. At every step of the career you see pilots who have made this choice. There are grizzled old freight dogs flying tattered Metroliners long after they needed to. At the major airlines, there are thousands of widebody FOs who could've held a Captain slot on narrowbody equipment ages ago. At the regional airlines, there is an increasingly huge contingent of lifers who are content to keep a decent schedule and a middling paycheck rather than play "furlough roulette" at the bottom of a major airline's seniority list.

With the recent departure of 60 senior NewCo Captains flowing up to WidgetCo, I suddenly find myself in the unusual position of being quite senior; next month, I will be #25 out of around 400 pilots. I've never been senior anywhere I've worked. I was the designated mop-up guy at AEX (my first part 135 gig), couldn't even get my choice of Lance routes at Ameriflight, was only around 50% of the Q400 FOs after 3.5 years at Horizon, and wasn't an FO at NewCo long enough to enjoy the fruits of seniority. I'm not complaining, because those moves were all the right thing to do from career and personal standpoints. I have, however, become quite accustomed to reserve, working weekends and holidays, inefficient trips, and other things that go along with being junior.

Earlier this year, my company closed our Memphis base and most of the Captains, many of whom were junior to me, came to Minneapolis. I went from 55% seniority to 45% seniority in my seat over the course of a few months. That small change was like flipping a switch. I went from being able to hold only one or two weekend days a month off to holding a cushy Monday-Thursday schedule. I was able to hold efficient trips. I was able to bid a lazy 75 hours instead of an excruciating 95. I was getting 3-5 more days off every month. This was a revelation: flying can be a really nice gig! Suddenly I get why regional lifers stay put, particularly at high-paying places like Horizon.

The thing is, being senior is no guarantee that you'll stay senior, particularly at the regionals. Our seniority list is riddled with pilots who had a good gig before their last airline went belly up or fell on hard times. That's enough to put any thought of sticking around at NewCo out of my head. I'm keeping my options open, but at this point there's a decent chance I'll wind up at WidgetCo sometime next year. If that happens, I'll be tickled, but I will be very, very junior for a long time. Therefore, I'm enjoying the benefits of being senior now - starting with having the 24th through the 31st of December off, heading to Spain with Dawn and my brother, and ringing in the New Year in Barcelona.