Seniority is Everything

I was scheduled to work a grueling 13 days last month. I got paid for all 13 days, but only worked for 8 of them. I can’t even make this stuff up…working for a major airline is just great living.

Why bother telling you? Bragging? Image crafting? Sorry, but I’m a pilot…I don’t really care much what you think. All I want is to make sure that everyone understands a critical point:

“Seniority is Everything”…

I’ll explain the mechanism I used to get my amazing June in just a moment. Before we go there though, we must discuss the fact that seniority progression at major airlines is outstanding right now…but it won’t be this rapid forever. If you join a major airline in the next 5 years (maybe even 10-ish years for some) you will enjoy unprecedented seniority progression and the ability to have Junes just like mine. If you wait, maybe to cash in on a military pilot retention bonus or chase a promotion, school, or command, you will have a vastly different career. It’ll still be a great career, but you won’t have the same access to these good deals. I don’t say this to be a jerk…it’s simple math.

I know a lot of people who are happy and fulfilled as military aviators. I’m glad for you, and I wish you continued happiness! Every military aviator needs to realize, though, that you can do almost any fulfilling pilot job in the Guard or Reserve that you can do on Active Duty…even soul-sucking staff work if that’s your thing. You can transition to the “Total Force” now, hop on this seniority-fueled good deal train, continue your honorable and hopefully, fulfilling military service, and earn a retirement. Let’s look at one of the many, many reasons why you’re far better off joining an airline now and continuing your service in the Guard or Reserves:

My company’s schedule bidding program, PBS, allows me to specify a criteria that basically says, “Award me any trip with a Line Check Airman.”

For those of you who are undereducated on commercial aviation terminology like I was just a few years ago, a Line Check Airman, or LCA, is an airline Captain who serves as a combination Instructor and Evaluator Pilot. Airlines do qualification training in simulators. You’ll take a checkride there and be awarded a new type rating. However, when you get to the line, you fly with an LCA for your first trip or two. This training event is called Operational Experience, or OE. It’s mandated by the FAA and it’s important. As good as your sim may be, there’s just no way to simulate the full scope of real-world operations in a video game. Being an LCA is a good deal. It pays extra and has other fringe benefits.

Since schedule bidding is seniority-based, the company can’t just schedule new-hires to fly with LCAs. The company is contractually required to schedule FOs to fly with each LCA through the normal, seniority-based bidding process. Then, after schedules are already released, the company schedules new-hires to fly as FOs on the trips that the LCAs were awarded through that process. If you happen to be a regular FO on that trip, this means you get a phone call where the company informs you that they’re “buying your trip.” They pay you for the trip, but you don’t have to show up for work. Yes, it’s a great deal.

But wait, there’s more!

Once you’re released, you’re free to pick up extra flying. If you need the money, or an excuse to get out of the house. You can frequently pick up an unfilled trip for premium pay. At my airline, this means you’ll essentially get paid triple to work. This is one of the ways some FOs can make $385,000 per year. It’s also how many FOs just enjoy a life of almost no work while still getting paid very well. (The strategy I chose last month.)

Since bidding is seniority-based, you have to be a fairly senior FO in your category to actually get awarded a “Fly with LCA” trip. Historically, this has been something limited to pilots who’d been at the company for years, or even decades. It’s been a unicorn that people chase for large parts of their careers. I’d been at my airline for a grand total of 29 months when I finally cashed in on this good deal.

Let that sink in for a moment. Just a little while longer…okay GO!

I was awarded four trips on my June schedule. Two of them were with LCAs. One got bought off completely, while they only bought off 2.5 days of the other one. I had to do a deadhead-only day to Cleveland, sleep in a comfortable hotel, and fly 2 legs the next day…all for 4 days of pay.

(This isn’t a good deal either that you can only find at one airline. Most, if not all airlines are contractually required to schedule this way. Don’t be fooled into making any airline your #1 choice because I told you about this one way to hack the system. Every airline has random little contact loopholes that sometimes work in your favor…and you will learn what they are no matter where you go. Choose your airline based on location, and not random contract rules.)

Being able to get good deals like this at just over 2 years with the company is simply unprecedented. We are living in an amazing time for airline hiring. If you’re eligible to leave the military and fly for the airlines anytime in the next few years, you’ll be able to get to a seniority position like mine and enjoy these truly awesome benefits. If you wait, you will miss this boat. You’ll be stuck behind the bulging rabbit carcass in the snake and will have to wait for years before you get these kinds of opportunities.

Granted, life still won’t be bad. I could have had to work 13 whole days last month. That’s still about as much time off work as most people spend at work. I wouldn’t complain about that life. Remember though that the Guard or Reserves offer you the opportunity to do everything you want to in the military while also getting better seniority and getting better deals sooner. If you plan to ever end up at the airlines, why wouldn’t you make that jump right now?

Whether you value time with your family, money, or the ability to alternate smoothly between the two as your needs change with your life circumstances, a choice to delay the start of your airline job is a choice for your entire family to sacrifice those things. You owe it to your family to show them the full extent of their sacrifices and discuss their wants and needs. Have you done this with your family?

This is just one example of the benefits of seniority. Early upgrade to Captain and priority for nonrev travel are others, but these just scratch the surface. Seniority progression is so rapid right now that it has the potential to do amazing things for your life. It won’t be that way forever though. The sooner you can get on this train, the better.

Before we go, I’ll say that this system isn’t perfect. Sometimes the system works in your favor but there’s no guarantee that your LCA will end up doing training, and you may have to fly the trip anyway. You’re obligated to be ready to go until the company calls. They try to give you advance notice, at least calling the night before. On my first trip this month I was standing in the Tampa airport employee parking lot, in uniform, about to commute to the trip when I finally got a call with the good news. I’ve heard stories of pilots showing up at the gate for a flight before being released. This trick doesn’t necessarily make it easier to plan your life. However, you’re not allowed to complain. Gift horses and such….

Even with these minor inconveniences, it’s still a pretty great deal.

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