Airline pilots, while maneuvering their aircraft, also navigate individual and unique career pathways. At AirlinePilot.life, the online forum’s creator, Chris Carey, and fellow airline pilot mentors get many questions from aspiring professional pilots and trainees about charting this flight plan. How do new hires go from reserve duty to flying a wide-body airliner on international routes, for example? The key to succeeding is gaining seniority and using it wisely, Carey says, because seniority yields opportunities. “The longest serving pilot is the most senior, and the most recently hired is last on the list,” he explains. “Throughout your career, as pilots retire before you and new pilots are hired after you, you move up.”
Here are five key career points where seniority plays the dominant role:
Bidding — Pilots choose their aircraft, schedules and bases by bidding. Airlines periodically post vacancies to fill captain or first officer positions at various domiciles. “That’s when pilots get to say, ‘I want to fly a 737 out of San Francisco,’ or ‘it’s time for me to move up and fly a 767 out of Newark,’” says Carey. Airlines also post in advance the unassigned monthly flight schedules, and pilots can bid the schedules they prefer. Alternatively, airlines may offer “preferential bidding,” giving pilots high flexibility in customizing their schedules. Less senior pilots typically fly the least desirable schedules. As one captain put it, “they’ll see a lot of Chicago and Newark in the winter.”
Equipment assignment — The bigger the aircraft, the bigger the paycheck. Seniority provides chances to change the aircraft a pilot flies — perhaps to a newer or larger airframe, which many pilots welcome. “The theory is, as pilots are producing more revenue by carrying more people, and have more responsibility for life and property, they should be compensated more for it,” says Carey. “So, a 747 captain makes much more than an Embraer 145 captain.”
Domiciles — A pilot’s domicile, or crew base, is where each trip, or series of scheduled flights, begins and ends. Domiciles are usually hub airports, but may be outstations where aircraft are positioned overnight. An airline pilot can live anywhere, “as long as they show up to their base on time,” Carey notes, but as a former commuter himself, “I always recommend pilots live near their base.” Otherwise they typically must travel to and from base via sometimes scarcely available airline seats, eroding their time off. As with all else, domicile assignments are awarded by seniority.
Upgrading to captain — Advancing from first officer to captain is a milestone in any airline pilot’s career. Pride and pay are both greater in the left seat. As Carey notes, “The pay rate for a first officer is about 60 percent of a captain’s pay rate, so it’s obviously more lucrative to be a captain.” Nonetheless, “you don’t have to upgrade to captain,” he says. A first officer may choose to wait for an opening on a different aircraft or use their status as a senior first officer to design exactly the schedule they want. The choice comes with seniority.
Line vs. reserve — Most airline pilots are line pilots with set flight schedules, but about ten percent are reserve pilots — backup crews with no schedules, available as needed during set blocks of time. “It’s like being on standby,” Carey says. “You’re waiting for a call because somebody phoned in sick, a crew timed out,” or other reasons. “These pilots end up going wherever the company assigns them to.” Reserve pilots are guaranteed a minimum number of flight hours but typically don’t fly as much as line pilots. While some pilots choose to be on reserve status, it’s usually avoided by pilots with the requisite seniority.
The best way to gain seniority, Carey and other airline pilot career experts say, is to start early. Carey notes his flight school, ATP, can take a trainee to the right seat of a regional airliner in about two years, and in another five or less they’ll likely advance to a major airline, where seniority starts accruing from day one.
“Enjoy what you’re flying as a pilot,” Carey advises, citing his own example. “For years I flew internationally, all over Europe and South America, but I decided I enjoyed domestic flying more. So, I bid back to the 737, which is a domestic airplane, where I have much more seniority and I’m able to get the schedules I want for particular days off. I went smaller for a better quality of life,” the airline captain says. “It’s a classic example of using seniority in a non-linear fashion.”