It’s not the “Golden Age of Travel” on Pan Am but there’s a pilot shortage and the airline pilot has it pretty darned good.
If they didn’t have to put food on the table some airline pilots would do it for free. Others loathe the day they applied for an airline pilot job. It depends on your aspirations and expectations. There’s an age-old riddle that goes, “What’s the difference between a pilot and a jet engine? Answer: “A jet engine stops whining when it’s shut down.” Pilots whine; man, do they ever complain! I’m sure psychiatrists have a theory as to why. I’ve sometimes wondered if it’s because, from our earliest flying lessons, it’s drummed into us to always be on guard, always be critical, always be looking for something going wrong. Maybe something imprints on us as we become pilots that oozes into our personalities and general outlook.
You may have read books describing airline pilots that fly five days a month, have long layovers in exotic places and make more money than they could ever spend. This was maybe true back when men dressed up in suits and ties to fly, but a lot has changed since then.
Let’s look at the choices. The best flying jobs tend to be either airline or corporate. Pilots who have done both will confirm there is a world of difference between them although in both the core duty is safely moving an airplane from point “A” to “B.”
In most corporations pilots are a “one-man band.” You get the call initiating a trip. You schedule the trip. You do the flight planning. You figure out the fuel load. You meet the passengers. You brief the passengers. You load the passengers’ bags. You determine suitable airports with suitable facilities. You order the catering. You arrange ground transportation. You stock the airplane with pop, snack, and booze. You reserve hotels for the crew. When “the big guy” shuffles up to the cockpit to change the destination, you whip it all together to make it work.
Conversely, an airline pilot gets in and flies. That’s it. All those other tasks are accomplished by someone else. Some pilots love this aspect. Others do not like relinquishing the control.
When an aircraft has a mechanical problem a corporate pilot must find and initiate service. An airline pilot makes a radio call to Operations, advises them of the problem, then gets himself a cup of coffee. It’s up to Dispatch, Maintenance Control, and Crew Scheduling to solve his problem. Meanwhile, crew schedulers are watching how much time you and your crew are using even while you’re waiting for repairs. They’re monitoring your flight and duty time closely, ensuring that you do no exceed FAA limits. They may drop a leg off your schedule and tell you just to go to the hotel. Meanwhile, the corporate pilot is making sure that it appears to The Big Guy that he’s doing “due diligence” and sticking with the broken airplane which can mean some very long hours, (which are not regulated).
Another aspect of flying for the airlines is bidding your schedule. A corporate pilot may be just sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner when the phone rings and The Big Guy just decided he wants to ski in Aspen. “Sorry, hun…I’m sure the dinner is great. See you in 5 days.” An airline pilot is provided a “bid package” at monthly or bi-monthly intervals. You review all the flying lines (schedules) and pick out the ones you like best. Obviously, everybody will be wanting holidays off so those will end up going to more senior pilots. Incidentally bidding seniority is by the seat you hold. If you are #1 in seniority as a First Officer but then upgrade to Captain and your seniority among captains is #299 out of 300 captains, you might only be able to be awarded real crappy reserve lines. “Reserve” isn’t bad if you live near the city where you’re domiciled but if you commute you will sometimes spend 5 or 6 days holed up in a hotel room (or “crash pad” shared by other pilots). Even so you still have far better control of your schedule as an airline pilot.
Unlike airlines’ halcyon days when “stewardesses” wore pillbox hats and smoking was allowed on airplanes airline flying today does not guarantee a great salary. Small and medium-sized reciprocating or turboprop airlines tend to pay the worst. Medium and large jet airlines usually pay slightly better (but still poorly) for the first year or two. The pay rises steadily and after 5 or 6 years (or when upgrading to captain) it leaps and generates some very good W-2s. It is not uncommon for a new-hire first officer for a small turboprop airline to earn only $12,000 to $16,000 per year. A new-hire first officer for a medium or large major airline will typically see $21,000 to $25,000 the first year. Five or six years later the small turboprop airline pilot will be in the $30,000 to $40,000 range while the medium sized jet first officer makes $50,000 to $65,000 and a large jet airline first officer is at $80,000 to $200,000. The range for captains is roughly double. A corporate jet first officer can expect between $40,000 to $65,000 while the captain will bring home $90,000 to $154,000.1 Let me emphasize that these are only very rough numbers and are not absolute. Benefits and union contracts impact these numbers greatly. I know of one First Officer for a major jet airline who is earning $250,000! You can make big bucks right away, however. If you are willing to commute or live in Africa or Asia they are begging for pilots. A captain on even the small CL-65 regional jet can earn 200-grand if willing to work there.
You will probably be scheduled to fly between 70 and 80 hours per month (the FAA limit is 100 hours). This is usually spread out over 3 to 5 three-, four- or five-day trips every month. International flying involves less flying, longer layovers and more time off because it is more exhausting and recovery from jet lag takes a toll on crew members’ bodies.
You’ll bid your job in the same way you bid your schedule. The airline will periodically have all pilots submit what are called “standing bids.” A standing bid tells the airline what equipment you want to fly and what seat you want to occupy. Ordinarily the bigger the airplane, the more it pays. No surprise, most standing bids are for the left seat on the largest aircraft. You’ll be granted whatever equipment and seat (in order of your preferences) for which your seniority qualifies. Believe it or not, there are high seniority pilots whose first choice is to remain first officers. But if one day they decide to bid a better seat you may find your own seat and equipment choice in jeopardy and you’ll be bumped backward.
It costs a lot of money to train a pilot. If a corporate pilot goes to one of the FAA Part 142 training centers to get a type rating the cost runs $20,000 to $25,000. Airline training is even more expensive because more people are involved. During an interview at one airline, they told me their bean-counters calculated that my training costs them $50,000. It might have been baloney but I do know even dry-leasing a simulator is very expensive. This has resulted in some airlines requiring a “training contract” for new-hires. Such contracts are typically written for the amount the airline feels is their training costs. In the event that you get hired, train but then leave before a prescribed period of time (usually one or two years) you agree to pay the airline back the pro- rata amount remaining on your contract term. For instance, if you agreed to a training contract for $20,000 and the term was 2 years but you quit after 6 months, you’ll owe the company…YIKES!…fifteen grand! If they fire you it usually voids the contract but make sure you have a lawyer look it over before you sign. If at all possible it is best to try to avoid training contracts because you have no way of knowing what tomorrow may bring. What if you agree to a training contract for some scum-operator for a year but a month later you get a job offer…a really good job offer…from a big airline? Who wants to be saddled with such an encumbrance.
Flying for an airline enables you to use flight benefits. Though this sounds good on paper, it sometimes isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Flight benefits come in two varieties: on-line and off-line. On-line means you fly on your own airline. Off-line you fly on someone else. There’s a pecking order as to who gets those last few seats available for “non-rev” (non-revenue) employees. Depending on your seniority, if one seat remains available after all the paying passengers are on board, someone with higher seniority gets it. If there is a crew member non-revving because Crew Scheduling must reposition her for operational necessity, her priority is placed above yours. In fact, she may even bump a paying passenger if the airline needs her badly because a crew member illness has grounded a plane. The other thing to remember is that non-revving places you last after everyone else in boarding so sometimes you won’t find out that you can’t get on until boarding is complete. When the gate agent closes the door to the jet bridge, you lose.
You can up your status somewhat to get a seat but it comes at a cost. Airlines have interline agreements with other airlines allowing you to buy tickets at a discount. These tickets typically are ten or twenty percent of the full fare price. If the full fare price is 90 bucks your ticket will cost only $9. But sometimes there are pricey destination pairs…like $1,500. This can run into some big money for even an airline employee.
Perhaps the most usable benefit of being an airline pilot is being able to “jump seat.” This is how most pilots commute around the country to their domiciles. Technically the jump seat is a minimally-comfortable fold-out seat in the cockpit. Some airplanes have two or three depending on their size. Airlines may permit only the same number of pilots equal to a number of jump seats. For instance, a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 has one jump seat on the flight deck and usually one flight attendant jump seat in the cabin available (yes, as a pilot you are permitted to occupy a flight attendant’s jump seat). In such a case a cranky gate agent may limit the flight to only 2 jump-seaters even though the flight is not full. This is why it pays to smile and be courteous to gate agents, too. Sometimes they will “bend” the rules. The captain has ultimate authority over jump seating and if a captain is aware that a gate agent is giving a pilot a hard time, he can over- rise the gate agent. There’s a pecking order to jump seats, too. Official use of the jump seat trumps a pilot’s casual commuting so if an FAA inspector or an airline check-airmen is administering a check the jump seat won’t be available to you (unless there’s room in the passenger cabin). Following the events of September 11th you now will almost always occupy a seat in the cabin anyway instead of one in the cockpit.
Flying for the airlines is unlike any other kind of flying or job. The rhythm of the job is fast, cyclical and protective giving it a somewhat surreal aspect. Even though you might be exhausted you can’t get it out of your mind even after enjoying time-off at home. Oh, and those pilots who whine? Ask any pilot who has been furloughed, lost their medical certificate or had to retire if they miss it. For all the liabilities listed by its critics, an airline pilot’s job has just as many (if not more) assets. Most importantly it is truly a profession and provides you with the knowledge that you’re good at what you do and a feeling of confidence that comes from the respect you sense as you walk through the terminal wearing those wings.
Featured image by Austrian Airlines