Around the Pattern

Ramblings about flying for fun and profit.

Category: Professional Flying (Page 2 of 23)

Airline Pilot Seniority

You have probably heard that seniority is everything in the airline pilot business (or flight attendants, for that matter). Climbing the airline seniority ladder.An airline pilot’s date of hire with his company determines how he will live throughout his airline career. It’s probably one of the few professions where your ability to do your job has very little to do with your advancement.

You are given a seniority number based upon your date of hire and your age in relation to the other individuals in your new-hire class. The older you are the higher your seniority within the class.

Seniority begins to effect your progress immediately – the check rides during training will be scheduled by seniority unless there are circumstances that delay your training ( mx, sickness, etc.).

Once you finish training the seniority number really kicks in.  When position vacancies are announced they are filled by your recorded preferences – in company seniority order. Each month you bid for your monthly schedule – by your seniority in your airplane, seat and base. When you get your vacation days each year (and how many you get) is based on your seniority.

The seniority number you receive when you start training will be adjusted up a few times each year as pilots retire or otherwise leave the airline. The only time you will lose seniority is in a merger – depending upon the way that the merging of the two pilot groups is accomplished. Since seniority determines so much of a pilot’s life the merging of that list is a very big deal. There are lots of ill feeling lying just below the surface with the Delta and ex-Northwest pilots. I am aware of one set of brothers, one ex-Northwest the other hired at Delta 6-months after he started at Northwest. The Delta brother is now about 1000 numbers senior to the  ex-Northwest brother as a result of the way that the lists were merged. Yes, there are hard feelings there. I was competing for positions with pilots hired two years after me.

The only time that seniority takes a back seat is when a pilot seeks a position as something other than a line pilot. Positions such as simulator instructor or training management or a management pilot position such as chief pilot would be in this category. These positions often require personal interviews and a subjective evaluation by the interviewer of whether or not the individual will ‘fit in’ or follow the company line.

Seniority can be used to fly a lot or to not fly at all. If you are senior in your position you have the ability to bid virtually any trip that you want. If you live near your assigned base and don’t want to fly at all, you can bid a reserve schedule and sit at home on call. Some airlines allow senior pilots to ‘pass’ on a trip assignment as long as a more junior pilot is on call to take the trip. A commenter for a different article on this site mentioned a pilot he knew who did something like this – never flying a trip and maintaining landing currency by going to the simulator every 90 days.

Seniority certainly takes politics and favoritism out of the picture. Does it place the best pilots in the left seat? Not always. Oh, the pilots are all competent and qualified. Seniority won’t save you if you attempt to upgrade to a higher position and don’t possess the flying or management skills to run the aircraft and crew. Blood pressures go up and jobs are on the line when check rides are involved – especially the captain check.

Unless a merger is encountered you will be able to predict with almost certainty where you will be at any given point in your career. The marketing department (who really runs the airline) can screw up your plans by closing and opening pilot bases and moving aircraft bases around the country, but seniority is almost a constant.

I lived with the seniority system for 22 years and always felt that I was in control of my career until the past two years. Mergers do that to you.

Cockpit Experience

One of my readers (Craig) posted a comment recently that contains questions or comments that could generate probably a half dozen articles. Pilot thumbs up. Thanks!

We’ve all heard of the changes to go into effect soon requiring a minimum of 1500 hours of experience before a pilot can fly as an airline pilot (captain or first officer). This is Congress’ knee-jerk reaction to the Colgan crash in 2009 – after all, they had to do something, right? (H.R. 5900: Airline safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010)

Experience is never a bad thing (unless it’s a bad experience). In order to be an airline captain you have always had to hold an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. The minimum experience required to qualify for the ATP certificate is 1500 hours of flight time, so these Congressionally mandated rules are directed at the first officer position.

Is this going to make airline flying safer? I doubt it – at least not for several years. There are all sorts of arguments about ‘good’ hours versus time-filling hours and whether or not an extra 1000 hours in the local pattern flying a C-172 is going to make a difference. I personally would rather see the requirement be for a 500-hour crew-environment simulator course in a multi-engine turbine – but that’s just me. (I can hear the cheers from SimCom and Flight Safety.) Yeah, I know…who’s going to pay for it? My feeling is that at some point the airlines are going to have their own ab initio training programs.

When the flight experience portion of H.R. 5900 goes into effect in 2013 all airline pilots, whether they are captains or first officers, will have to possess an ATP certificate. That means that all of the current under-hour pilots already on airline seniority lists will have to obtain the extra hours and then pass the appropriate written and flight evaluations or their jobs will be in jeopardy. Looking at the way regional airlines work their crews it will probably take 2-3 years for a newly hired 300-hour commercial, instrument-rated pilot to meet the new requirements. If the projected increase in mainline flying materializes and when the  new crew rest rules go into effect (the same congressional mandate) there could be a lot of pressure on the regionals to find pilots as the majors siphon off the more experienced regional plots to meet their requirements.

Will this new flying hour rule effect the major airlines? Not unless the ‘perfect storm’ I just mentioned materializes. When you look at the requirements that the majors have for submitting an employment application you will see the need for a particular rating or hour requirement or possibly a college degree of some sort. The reality is that those minimums may qualify you for  an interview but until there is a bona fide  pilot shortage my guess is that it will probably take close to double the minimums to actually get an interview and then be offered a job. This is why you rarely hear the outcry of lack of flying experience when a major airline has an accident/incident.  But what about the new airline captain or first officer at the major airlines – they don’t have experience in the plane they’re flying. Very true. Their training programs take care of that problem.

Northwest Airlines was a very regimented, standardized airline. Their training programs taught you to perform pre-flights, instrument approaches and maneuvers is a set manner that would be duplicated every time. Both pilots knew what to expect from the other in virtually any circumstance. Standardization was drilled into you during the procedural and simulator phases of training. The flight training phase required a minimum of six flight legs be completed with an instructor in the other seat. A line check completed that phase of training. (If this was training for a first-time captain with the airline, the line check was accomplished by an FAA examiner.) Then all of this training was set into your memory with a requirement to obtain 100 hours of operating experience in the next 90 days. If that requirement was not met you were sent back to the simulator for another evaluation and the 100-hour requirement was started over from zero. There was an additional requirement that while you were in this 100-hour phase you could not fly with a pilot in the other seat who did not have at least 100 hours of experience. If you were a new captain you were required to make all of the take-offs and landings during that 100 hours.

Are similar training programs in place at other airlines? I don’t know. I’ve never flown for a regional and have never trained at another major airline (even after the merger of Northwest and Delta my training in the Airbus A-330 was conducted under the Northwest program using Northwest instructors).

Could that 2009 accident have been prevented – absolutely. Any number of links in the accident chain could have been removed. Would requiring the copilot to have 1500 hours of experience have made a difference? Maybe. Would more experience in the aircraft type have made a difference? Maybe. Would a better training program have made a difference? Maybe.  We can’t go back in time, make a change and see if the outcome is affected. Wouldn’t that be nice.

Pilot Crash Pads – Nothing New

There has been quite a discussioncat nap going on over at AvWeb concerning the current series of reports being aired by ABC.  The FAA Administrator has even weighed in on the subject.

The Crash-Pad Experience

It has been a bit over 20 years since I started working for Northwest Airlines, but I can still remember those first few years. The pay during the initial training phase was abysmal even for a major airline – even below the first year pay rate. An ex-flight attendant was arranging lodging for trainees by contracting with apartment complexes to rent unfurnished 2-bedroom units and then renting furniture to put in the units. It was a pretty good deal and splitting the rent 4 ways made the costs bearable. After finishing training I moved into a large house owned by the same individual. There had to be 25 beds located throughout the place. There were almost a dozen people continually in residence since most of us were just out of training and sitting reserve (on call). I moved out of there after about 3 months – just after the police came around looking for the owner. Something about not paying a few bills.

My next ‘pad’ was in another apartment complex. It was a 2-bedroom unit shared with 4 other pilots. I bounced around several of these places for the first 2-3 years with the airline. I finally made it into a commuter pad in a complex across the street from the Mall of America. This place had been in operation since the complex had been built in the 1960s.  I stayed there as a member until the complex was torn down – a result of the north-south runway being built at KMSP.

We had four to six pilots in that unit – two bedrooms with two beds in each. It was rare that we had more pilots than beds for a night since all but one of us were holding a set schedule by then, but it did happen. The last guy to arrive got the living room sofa. I stayed  at this crash pad for about 15 years, even when I was senior enough to hold an international schedule with one trip a month. It was just more comfortable having a familiar place to go. When the light rail system went into operation with it’s terminals at the airport and the Mall you could ride it rather than getting a cab or incurring the costs with keeping a commuter car parked at the airport.

When the complex was torn down I started using a hotel room. I always commuted to my assigned base the day before a trip was to leave. I just didn’t want the added stress of trying to commute the same day as a trip started – especially when that first leg was 10-12 hours long.  Living on the west coast and flying out of the central time zone usually made that same-day commute impossible anyway.

The Situation Now

The first-year pay rate for a First Officer at one major airline is a bit over $56/hr no matter what airplane is being flown. The second year rate for a  mainline jet (DC-9/MD-88) raises that rate to about $76/hr. If the pilot is on reserve the guarantee is 70 hours of flight pay per month. (If you fly more hours you will get higher pay.)  Subtract from that amount all of our usual taxes and you get about 35-45,000 a year. Then subtract union dues, insurance premiums, education loans, flight school loans, car payments, etc., etc. The exposé that was run referred to regional airline pilots – who are paid a fraction of the pay rate of the major airlines. Do you still wonder why entry-level pilots are using crash pads and lounges to get some sleep?

Yes, there’s nothing that says you can’t move to where you are based and live there – if you can afford to move your belongings to the new location and set up a home. There are reasons why certain domiciles are junior (the pilot bases with the lowest seniority pilots). Those places either have too high a cost of living or they are in locations where you wouldn’t want to live unless you grew up there.

One of the few remaining perks of being an airline crew member is the ability to live where you want without much regard to where your flying is based. Commuting to work in another part of the country adds a day or two to each trip that you fly, but it gives needed stability to your family.

The media is in the business of selling papers and commercial time. They will sensationalize whatever they can if it will accomplish that goal. The use of crash pads and sleeping lounges to catch some needed rest is not going to change. There will still be five-flight days that start early and finish late. And the long work day will be followed by a 10-hour layover that starts when the aircraft door opens that night to off-load the passengers and stops when it closes for the next morning’s flight. There will still be pilots commuting across the country to go to work so that their families can live in a stable location that they an afford.

Pilot crash pads will always be part of the ‘airline pilot experience’. The only difference that you will find is the quality of the quarters. And that is directly related to the level of experience (read pay rate) of the pilots occupying them.

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