Changing Course along an Airline Career Path

It's not always a straight line from A to B.

Airline Career Course
An Arrow, a Navajo, an Embraer and a Boeing: some of the airplanes the author flew over the course of his early career.Illustration by Tim Barker

I'll admit it: I'm a fiend for change. I thoroughly agree that variety is the spice of life, and when things get too stagnant, I tend to shake them up whether they really need it or not. Perhaps you sensed this in my September column: My wife and I had a really nice, comfortable life in Minnesota, and then we sold everything and bought a 42-foot Tayana sailboat named Windbird to try on the sea-gypsy life for a few years. It's not that I necessarily dislike boredom; I've just never really sat still long enough to try it on for size. Considering this, it's probably no coincidence that I chose aviation as my profession, for there are few career paths that are so variable from day to day or as unpredictably circuitous over the long run.

I have long advised potential pilots that those who place much value on stability should think twice about making aviation their livelihoods. However, the reverse is also true: Those with naturally flexible dispositions will find it a major advantage when beginning a professional piloting career. There have been a number of times in my own life where a willingness to change things up has saved me a lot of futility and frustration, and I have found the same to be true of many of my pilot friends. I think this is a ­concept worth exploring, because it runs counter to both the conservative pilot personality and conventional aviation career wisdom. Remember, after all, that this industry’s most sacrosanct institution — the seniority system — incentivizes picking one path and sticking with it through thick and thin, for better or worse.

I’ve always found it interesting that so much in aviation is determined by seniority. The system had its ­genesis in a more stable era before airline deregulation, but it has endured and even spread in the tumultuous 40 years since. Originally established by unionized major airlines, ­seniority has become the standard at every U.S. national and ­regional carrier, unionized or not, as well as most Part 135 outfits, fractional operations, and even some corporate flight departments. The reason is twofold: First, aviation is a 24/7/365 kind of industry, meaning someone has to fly that zero-dark-thirty departure on Christmas morning, and pilots are much more willing to do so early in their careers if they know that someday they’ll be free of such obligations. Second, if length of service is not the standard in determining the orders of the rosters, equipment assignments and upgrades, then inevitably cronyism and ­willingness to “move iron” become the determining factors. In aviation, however, this isn’t a great measure of a valuable employee. Good pilots refuse to fly sick, won’t take an illegally broken airplane, and may require more fuel in marginal weather. These are all “unproductive” decisions but, nevertheless, contribute to the company’s bottom line in the long run through the maintenance of a strong safety culture. The seniority system helps ensure that pilots aren’t penalized for making safe decisions.

Today’s winner may well be tomorrow’s goat. You’ll inevitably have limited information while picking your path. And so, you may find yourself stuck along the way, perhaps with some seniority and a decent quality of life but your career stagnating due to factors beyond your control.

So seniority is here to stay, and it will inevitably be a huge factor in a new pilot’s career trajectory. And yet, I argue that one cannot become a slave to it. Here’s why: Most pilots, when first starting out, have an end goal in mind. Maybe it’s a major airline, maybe it’s a cargo carrier, or maybe it’s a fractional or Fortune 500 flight department. The most lucrative jobs have pretty lofty requirements, which are generally achieved by advancing through a succession of underpaid jobs in the lower rungs of the industry: flight schools, on-demand operators and regional airlines, for example. The problem is that the bottom half of the aviation industry is currently going through a period of great instability (ironically enough, partially due to the finally stable major airlines hiring many of its pilots). Today’s winner may well be tomorrow’s goat. You’ll inevitably have limited information while picking your path. And so, you may find yourself stuck along the way, perhaps with some seniority and a decent quality of life but your career stagnating due to factors beyond your control.

I’ve been there several times myself. In the fall of 2001, I was flight instructing at the University of North ­Dakota while completing my senior year of studies when the ­airplanes hit the World Trade Center. Instantly, all the airlines were furloughing, and UND accepted ­numerous ­recent graduates back into its instructor ranks. Meanwhile, a number of students dropped out of the aviation program and new starts plummeted. Suddenly, nobody was getting much flight time or income. This turn of events plus the prospect of another North Dakota winter spurred me into action: The day I finished classes, I drove straight to Southern California and took a job instructing at a busy Part 61 school that didn’t pay as well as UND but afforded much more flight time.

A year later, I was flying Navajos for a mom-and-pop Part 134-and-a-half cargo operation that was perpetually on the edge of bankruptcy, with a single client that was likewise marginally solvent. More than once my boss instructed me to stash the airplane somewhere inconspicuous and await his call to confirm that a particularly critical check had cleared before taking off. Then they started losing routes and decided to furlough the ­junior pilot. It seemed like a good time to move along, so I asked them to furlough me instead, releasing me from my one-year training bond. I was hired almost immediately at Ameriflight, the reputable Part 135 behemoth just down the road in Burbank.

Leaving those two jobs were easy decisions; ­however, leaving Horizon Air after three and a half years was much more difficult. Horizon Air was a well-run airline with ­conservative management; it flew modern equipment, maintained it well, invested a lot of money in modern technology, and treated its employees well. All these things made it a great place to work, but they were disadvantages in a viciously competitive regional airline industry in which low cost trumped all other considerations. This was demonstrated when Horizon lost its Frontier JetExpress contract three years into a supposed 12-year deal. The reason wasn’t lack of performance — it was because we kept hitting all our operational targets, each of which triggered expensive performance bonuses.

This was the beginning of a long decline that eventually saw Horizon sell its CRJ-700 jets and Dash-8-200 turboprops, replaced with a much smaller number of ­Bombardier Q400s. By 2008, the airline was furloughing pilots. Had I stayed, I would have (barely) survived the furlough but stagnated as a junior first officer for more than a decade. The writing was on the wall by the spring of 2007, and I decided I had to get out. But how? I didn’t have the turbine pilot-in-command time needed to move up to a national or major airline.

My point here isn’t to say you should merrily flit from employer to employer with every little cough of the industry. If you choose well and are blessed with good luck, you may only have to work for two employers before landing that dream job.

Initially, I chose to take a one-year leave of absence from Horizon to go fly Fairchild Metroliners for Ameriflight. Shortly before the leave took effect, though, I got a fateful call from Compass Airlines. I had applied to Compass months earlier and then promptly forgot about it. It was a brand-new airline, the bastard child of the Northwest ­Airlines bankruptcy. The pay wasn’t nearly as good as Horizon’s — but with ultralow startup costs, it was destined to grow by leaps and bounds. Additionally, I would be based in my hometown of Minneapolis. I went to the interview and was offered the job; Dawn immediately hunted down a math-teacher position in a good Minnesota school district, and we put our Portland house up for sale. It was a sudden and dramatic change to our lives, but it ended up being the best decision of my career. I upgraded to captain within six months and got qualified for a major airline job many years earlier than if I had stayed at Horizon.

I’ve been fortunate: Most of my moves have been by choice, and I’ve never been involuntarily furloughed. Many of my colleagues at Compass were not so lucky; the majority of the airline’s growth and hiring took place while the rest of the industry was handing out pink slips. I once went down the seniority list and counted 28 former airlines just among the pilots I knew. Many had been furloughed two or even three times. As a new captain, I flew with a number of FOs who came from ATA Airlines when it folded. Several were former captains with 20,000-plus hours in 727s, 757s and DC-10s. Talk about humbling. I’d look over at those wizened old pros sitting in the right seat of a regional jet for $19 an hour and see a potential version of myself in 30 years. If you’re not flexible now, well, this industry has a way of limbering you right up.

My point here isn’t to say you should merrily flit from employer to employer with every little cough of the industry. If you choose well and are blessed with good luck, you may only have to work for two employers before landing that dream job. My experience was fairly typical of the turbulent post-9/11 era, but I’m happy to say those days appear to be behind us. A greater degree of flexibility will help you choose the right path in the first place, and if things don’t quite work out as planned, you should not hesitate to make a course correction. Aviation is not for passive people who just let things happen to them. Take charge of your career, and you will be happier than those who feel cheated by circumstance.