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.


Don Hodges said...

Enjoy your perks and I hope you get to Widgetville soon. As a Widget retiree, it has been a strange ride but I would do it over in a flash. BTW Barcelona is nice at Christmas, did that in 1983 or '84, flew into Munich and rented a nice BMW, slip-slided past Innsbruck etc. Prime of life, go for it!

Anonymous said...

Congrats Sam, I am jealous, as I still have a long way to go...As you very well know, ND can somehow make time seem to slow down and drag on. Good luck getting to the widget-bearing aircraft- you may move up quicker than you think though- retirements at DAL due to the age 65 rule will multiply pretty quickly- got these numbers from an A330 f/o at DAL that I know:
2013 over 100 pilots age 65
2014 over 850 60-65
2016 over 2800 60-65
So, I guess it will be a few years, but not like a decade like this one AA guy I know who has been on reserve as an f/o for 12 years. I am flying the newco sim in two weeks- looking forward to that!
Enjoy you Christmas abroad!
From GFK-

Radu said...

Congrats on your potential move-up! I've been reading your posts for a while, and really find them informative. Other airline captain blogs are more poetic (higher FLs), but I prefer your style much more. Especially when you talk about system specific issues, or dissect airline ops. I'm hoping to get there someday too, provided the stars align. For now, I'm working on getting my CFI initial. Keep up the posting!

Adam said...

I fly a cubicle for your competition in Chicago (hint: not the one you think). I non-reved up to RST last week to visit some family on our new (at ORD at least) non-in house regional affiliate. Talking to the F/A I was shocked to learn that a ZED ticket was the only way they could get on the mainline, or even their own metal. That's a pretty raw deal and it sounds like that's what's gonna happen to you with NewCo now that Widget is spinning it off. What good are those extra days off if you can't use them to get somewhere good?

Enjoy BCN. Our Dec 31 flight out of JFK is EMPTY if you need a backup plan.


Anonymous said...

Oh the seniority game ... My dad is a 747-400 CAP for UAL. Has been with the company for over 27 years, with over 32 years as a profesional pilot (5 years flying P3's in the Navy before UAL) ... and he is on RESERVE!!

Granted he has never been happier. All international flying. Three and four pilot crews. Getting to fly one of the most sophisticated and dare I say, 'fun' aircraft's in the world. But it is crazy to think sometimes that someone with as much experience and seniority as him, is a reservist.

When you are holding that line and seniority, hold it until the line breaks ... because once you let it go, it can be so tough to get it back.

Anonymous said...

Enjoy your well-earned seniority, Sam.

paddy said...

i came across your blog by pure chance, though i suspect we have many mutual friends between your present company and amflight. it's interesting to read a regional guy's thoughts on the industry. really enjoyed your comments on the new TSA protocols as well. i honestly don't know how you guys put up with what you do on a daily basis.

besides the extremes of the seniority game, there are other options out there for aviators willing to take a road far less traveled...

Cirrocumulus said...

Why do you think "seniority is the only workable method of determining who spends Christmas with the kids"?
I've seen this said by USA pilots before but never an explanation.

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Renewed Pilot said...

Great post... congrats on your new found seniority.

I started as an engineer with an airline back in 1999. With everyone upgrading to first officer, my seniority in that seat sky-rocketed. Then, I upgraded to F/O and things slowed a bit... but, seniority still came abnormally fast. I honestly did not appreciate the rapid progression.

It all peaked on 9/10/2001. :) In this business, you never know! I hope it lasts for you.

Always enjoy reading your insights on the business. Have a nice vacation.

Tom B. said...

as everyone else has said, congratulations. I'm happy for you!

P.S. - considering a move to a pilot park ranger job in northern Minnesota (Voyageurs). If I end up there I would love to hear anything you know about good GA spots to visit in a cessna!