For new airline pilots, the first year is one with a very steep learning curve. There are myriad new rules, policies, procedures and regulations to learn. On top of all that, you must learn the systems of your new airplane and how to safely fly it. Once you get out on the line, you get to learn the the day-to-day grind of being a pilot, with all of the benefits and pitfalls included therein.
One of the concepts that you are introduced to right away is that of your “probationary year.” In essence, it works like this: Because nearly every airline is unionized, the collective bargaining agreements (contracts) include a grievance process for the pilots to contest certain decisions, including terminations. It usually involves some sort of arbitration process that varies from company to company, but the principle is the same in that the union can fight back if it believes that a pilot was improperly disciplined.
There is one exception, and that is the probationary pilot. Every airline puts new-hire pilots on probation for a period of time, usually 12 months, but a few use six months. When you are on probation, you can be terminated at any time, for any reason, with no recourse.
The intention of the probationary process is for the company to see how the pilot fits in with new co-workers and the work environment. This isn’t to suggest that someone is following you everywhere you go or measuring the length of your pant cuffs above your shoes. Far from it. All that the airline asks is that you keep your nose clean. It’s often said that the best relationship a pilot can have with the chief pilot is no relationship at all. In other words, if the CP doesn’t know who you are, it means you haven’t been in trouble, and that’s good.
Most of the time, there are only three ways you’re going to get in trouble. The first is via another work group, such as the gate agents or flight attendants. The second is through your fellow pilots, i.e., the captains with whom you fly. The third possibility for an early ticket out the door is poor performance in training—in this case, recurrent training. A number of airlines will deliberately schedule new hire pilots for their first recurrent checkride at least a month before their probationary period is up. That way, if the pilot isn’t up to snuff, he or she can be terminated “without cause.”
It’s important to understand, though, that the company will offer retraining or help in nearly every case (even seasoned veterans make mistakes). To get yourself terminated means you showed up totally unprepared or acted inappropriately during training. In my 18 years of airline flying, I’ve never known a pilot who was terminated during the first recurrent training event…but we all worry about it!
While companies will not hesitate to rid themselves of a “problem child” who is on probation, termination is not the first choice. They’ve already made in an investment in you, and they want to see it pay off. However, if the behavior in question is severe enough, or if there is ample reason to question the maturity or judgment of the pilot involved, you can count on turning in your badge.
A few examples of pilots getting terminated early include drinking; theft (one pilot at a previous carrier took the window shades out of the plane and used them in his car—and they had the company name silk-screened on them. The CP wrote down the license plate, and the rest is history); excessive sick calls and/or no-shows; and sexual harassment. All of these are extreme behaviors, and no company would tolerate them.
Probation is a rite of passage for all of us. Fortunately, 99 percent of pilots have no problem at any time during their careers, including in the first year. Those who do generally don’t belong in the front of an airplane in the first place.—Chip Wright