When I got the call that I had been hired by Comair (actually, I had to call them, but that’s a different story), I was originally asked if I could be in class in less than a week. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll be there tomorrow if I have to be.” Then about an hour later, I got a call from the same gal to tell me that my class date had been moved back. Over the next several days, more calls, and more changes, to the point where I was finally being placed in class about a month later than planned. I just shrugged my shoulders and figured that the extra time at home would be nice, not to mention the ability to help all of my students either finish up or transition seamlessly to a new instructor.
But one of my students, who was a flight attendant for USAir (as the company was still then known), told me I had really screwed up–that I was an idiot. This young lady, normally as sweet as her southern accent indicated, glared at me in a way that was decidedly uncomfortable. “Seniority,” she informed me, “is everything.” Little did I know.
My first lesson in just what that meant came during the first week of class, when pilots were jockeying for position in the airplane (the Brasilia [more senior] versus the Saab) or domicile of their choice (Cincinnati versus Orlando [more senior]). Most airlines, mine included, assign seniority within a class based on age, though some get creative and use the last two digits of your social security number or some other less obvious methodology. I was right in the middle, and I was initially assigned the Brasilia in Cincinnati. I was able to trade that slot for one in Orlando with another pilot who was from Cincinnati and wanted to stay near home. When I got hired, I was number 856, and for two weeks, I was the most junior pilot on the list (our hire dates were not assigned until we finished training, and the Saab drivers were two weeks behind us because of to a lack of simulator time).
As time went by, I began to realize that seniority really and truly “is everything.” I got hired on the front end of a huge wave of pilots in the regional ranks as the majors were experiencing a lot of attrition and growth. For the first time in history, the majority of major airline pilot hires were civilians, and they came from regional carriers; Comair lost a huge percentage of its pilots because we had the largest fleet of RJs, which made our pilots a hot commodity.
My seniority began to improve. I started on reserve, and worked Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Super Bowl Sunday my first year. Soon, though, I got off reserve, got better trips, held the days off I wanted, and was able to get whatever week of vacation I wanted. I was able to hold the holidays off.
My next exposure to the importance of seniority came two years after I was hired. The company was phasing out the Brasilia, but still needed captains. It was forced to “junior man,” which means that the company had to force pilots—starting with the junior-most eligible and qualified first officer—to be captains. I missed getting the JM–by…one…number.
Two and a half short years after getting hired, I bid over to the left seat of the jet as captain. As a junior captain, I was back on reserve, and back to having my schedule and my life determined by the whims and fancies of those senior to me. I worked holidays again while my wife visited family. The phone rang at all hours of the night. I did maintenance and ferry flights. But within a year, I was line-holder again, off reserve…until we went on strike. When we came back, I was back on reserve for several more months as the airline restored service not just once, but twice, as we were shut down again by 9/11.
By mid-2002, I was truly living the dream. I worked Tuesday through Thursday, with the occasional Monday or Friday thrown in for good measure. I have not worked a major holiday in more than 10 years. I got paid well, and thoroughly enjoyed my job. Several times I was able to fly into a new city the first week we served it. Life was grand.
The last five years, though, have been a challenge. At first, growth stagnated. Then, because of bankruptcy at our corporate parent, rising fuel prices, and old airplanes (see my earlier posts “The Challenge of a Profit” and “50 Seat Economics”) the airline began to get smaller, and we have had to furlough pilots. Orlando closed—and re-opened and closed again—and JFK opened. It too has since closed, and Detroit is now open. By the end of 2012, we will be down to 44 planes, having shrunk by 75 percent from our peak. I currently hold seniority number 322. By the end of 2012, my number will be in the 270-280 range, maybe 300, and our Cincinnati hub is in jeopardy of closing.
“Seniority is everything.”
Those words have a whole new meaning for me. Had I put up a fight in 1996 and pushed to get into that initial class to which I was assigned, I would have moved up roughly 100 numbers (20 pilots in class a week over five weeks). Why is that so important? Because when the shuffling is done, after 15 years of service, I will be demoted to first officer. Being an FO again is something I can handle. What won’t be so easy is this: I will lose sixty-plus percent of my pay, and there will be no raises, as the FO pay scale tops out after eight years of service. In order for me to hold on to my current position, even on reserve, at least 20 captains senior to me will have to quit. I’m not sure it will happen. If the company shrinks even more—if it gets rid of the balance of the 50-seat RJs that are currently scheduled to stay—I will be furloughed.
Seniority, my friends, is everything. So, for that matter, is juniority.–Chip Wright