Career progression. It’s a huge point of discussion among pilots. But what is it, and what exactly does it mean? It depends on the carrier.
At an airline like Southwest or Alaska, which only flies one kind of airplane, career progression means something entirely different than it does at a carrier that flies multiple fleets. The same principle holds true at the regionals.
At a carrier like Delta or FedEx, career progression generally refers to movement both up the seniority list and up the pay scale. Most airlines pay the same rate for new hires, no matter what equipment they fly. But from Year 2 on, pay usually reflects the size of the airplane, given that larger airplanes produce more revenue, and hence can pay more.
Pilots generally want to maximize salary first, with schedules and quality of life following in importance. In order for that to happen, a couple of pieces need to fall into place.
First, retirement of more senior pilots has to occur in order to open up positions on larger equipment. Second, hiring needs to occur. More specifically, there can’t be any shrinkage or stagnation of the pilot group as those retirements take place. Third, overall fleet growth can significantly help. This is a key part of the equation at single-fleet airlines, because a first officer can become a captain simply by virtue of growth—even if the seniority list consists of relatively young pilots.
This is how I was able to become a captain at Comair in less than three years. In fact, over my 16 years there, I only moved up 500 total numbers because the average age was so low.
The last piece of the puzzle at a multi-fleet airline is the contractual freeze. Every airline incurs a freeze when you bid from one position to another in order to minimize training cycles and get a return on the investment of training you in a new airplane. Those freezes are generally two years, and usually there are substantial roadblocks to bidding backwards.
But not every airline works the same way with regard to pay. It’s becoming more common to have pay “bands,” in which groups of similarly sized aircraft pay the same. United pays the same on the 737, A320, and smaller 757 fleets. The 747, 777, 787, and A350 all pay the same as well. This is designed to take away the incentive to bid up based on pay, and encourage the pilot to bid based on other factors, such as schedule or preferred domiciles. UPS is a prime example; it pays all captains and first officers the same rate no matter the equipment.
To use United as an example, the airline operates the A320, B737, 757/767, 747, 777, and 787, and will add the A350 in a couple of years. To fly all of them as a first officer while complying with the two-year freeze would take a minimum of 14 years.
But career progression is as much choice and preference as anything else. Most pilots want to fly the best schedule their seniority can hold in the domicile that best suits them—which might be because they live there or because it makes for the easiest commute. There are almost always opportunities to make extra pay that can often make up for the difference in the pay rates from one airplane to another, so pilots will bid fairly selectively. It’s not uncommon to see a first officer fly his or her first airplane for several years, then move on to a wide body for a couple years, with possibly a mid-range aircraft thrown in if the stars align. When the opportunity to fly as a captain comes up, the re-evaluation process starts over. As tempting as the money is, the schedule matters as well. Remember, seniority determines your domicile, the trips you can fly, and the weeks of vacation you can hold. Learning a new airplane is a stressful experience for any pilot, and the training process can be fairly lengthy, which affects the family life.
The same process holds at the regionals. The difference, however, is that regional pilots tend to bid much more aggressively because of the low first officer pay and because everyone is jockeying to get their pilot-in-command time to move on. Very few pilots go the regionals with the intention of staying.
Progression is an individual definition as much as anything. Often, being able to fly the schedule you want is more important than the increase in pay you might see on a larger airplane. But eventually, assuming your seniority can hold something bigger, the increase in pay becomes too much to ignore.—Chip Wright