It’s no secret that, in aviation, the captain gets the big bucks and the first offcer gets—well, usually a whole lot less. Further, the pay discrepancy is magnified even more in smaller equipment.

By that I mean, the smaller the aircraft, the worse the FO pay is. When Beech 1900s ruled the commuter skies, top FO pay often did not go above $20-24 a flight hour; captains could top out at $40-plus at the right company. While there is still a noticeable discrepancy in pay even on the heavy iron, for the FO it isn’t nearly as significant an issue. Good luck find anyone who feels sympathy for the person who’s earning the top FO pay on a Delta ($160) or a United ($130) 747.

At the regionals, FO pay tops out in the ballpark of $45-$48 an hour, depending on whether  the RJ in question seats 50 or 70, and that top pay is usually in the eighth year of service, give or take. An equivalent captain is making $70 an hour, or close to it.

Given the financial incentive, should one upgrade as soon as possible? Well, that depends….

There are three issues that are hard to ignore: money, PIC time, and seniority unknowns.

Considering that so many pilots make such a huge investment in their careers, there is often a strong urge—if not need—to upgrade just so that the bills can be paid, or at least paid more easily (a problem made worse with student loans and/or credit card debt). You may just want to go from an apartment to a house or get a better car. Family issues factor in as well, especially if young kids are running around your house.

Pilot-in-command (PIC) time is probably as much of a motivator as anything, especially at the regional level. At the majors, most FOs have plenty of PIC time in their logbooks from previous jobs, and unless they are planning to switch carriers, the need for PIC time doesn’t usually enter the equation. Besides, PIC time is unusual in that its value doesn’t really change over time. While there is a difference between turboprop versus turbo-jet PIC, it’s not a major issue, and all another carrier wants to see is that you have exercised the responsibilities of the position without having an incident or an accident.

If you want to move on from a regional or a commuter, PIC time becomes a huge focus, because it takes so long to get it. Depending on who you want to fly for, you will need at least 1,000 hours and often 1,500 or more. Every leg you fly will help chip away at that goal.

Seniority is another issue that must be considered. It’s possible that a bid will open up that you can hold for whatever reason. Maybe guys just senior to you are finally getting the left seat, or maybe a spot will open up in the most junior, undesirable domicile. But seniority is not always hard and fast. With almost every upgrade class, you will notice that the slots don’t fill just based on seniority. You may see a few where a junior pilot unexpectedly gets the coveted captain position. Often, what happens is that pilots may have other reasons that prevent them from bidding a class. Remember, training is almost as long as new-hire training—at least three weeks, if not four or more, depending on sim and line check airman availability. Pilots may gamble and skip a class because of family commitments, weddings, vacations, et cetera. Or, they may be married such that the money isn’t an issue and they decide to wait for quality of life.

But skipping a class is a gamble for two reasons. First, if the upgrades suddenly stop, you may have to wait years for another chance. When things are slow, airlines wait longer than they should to upgrade captains because of the cost. Second, you may think you can hold a bid that is more to your liking, only to find out that some of those senior hold-outs are now taking the first available class. I’ve seen both issues really hit people, the first example being the more common.

To use my own company, for example, we had a very junior and less-than-desirable domicile at John F. Kennedy International. The main hub was a far more optimal place to be based for a number of reasons. JFK simply had way too much that was not in its favor: It’s expensive, delays were a huge issue, the commute can be difficult, the airspace is challenging, and did I mention that it’s expensive? That’s especially true if you are on reserve.

A number of our FOs who had the seniority to upgrade chose not to, opting instead for quality of life. They wanted to avoid reserve as a captain, and figured they’d wait until they could hold a regular line with a predictable schedule. Further, many did not want to commute. So…they waited.

When the economy hit the skids, so did their advancement. Yes, they were home more. Yes, they had more days off. Yes, they spent more time with their families. But, they topped out on the FO pay scale, and they did not get that coveted PIC time, and now many of them are having great difficulty moving on because they can’t differentiate themselves from other applicants. They face the risk of having to go to another regional, or overseas, in order to advance their career (these tend to be pilots who do not want to move overseas). While the most junior captains often lived a life of misery on reserve, they continued to add PIC time to their logbooks, and recruiters admire the resilience of someone who is willing to sacrifice so much to get their dream job. Believe me, at some point, upgrading is not about the money.

Deciding when to upgrade is a personal choice. You have to be emotionally mature to handle the responsibility. You need to have not only the skills, but also the confidence to use those skills along with good judgment. You need to be able to admit when you need help, as well as when you have made a mistake. If you have not had a chance to fly a lot in various weather conditions, then you need to get that experience in dealing with thunderstorms, icing, and everything in between.

In the future, you will be required to have 1,000 hours in the right seat before upgrading. In today’s environment, that’s a given, but as we begin to see the pipeline to the majors open, there was a built-in risk of seeing very junior and very inexperienced FOs begin to move into the left seat. The new rules will help minimize that.

Upgrading is not as easy as it seems. Quality of life on reserve (if you can’t hold a line) or even as a junior line-holder takes a big hit. It can be as much of an adjustment for the family as it is for the pilot. The new responsibility can be intimidating. When I upgraded, I went for being home 12-16 days a month to being home for six, and it was a jolt for my wife. I had to work holidays again, and I missed a lot of family events. We didn’t have kids, but she did get pregnant, and she had to handle most of that on her own.

But the rewards are many, and the personal growth is very rewarding. When, and if, you are ready, make the leap.—Chip Wright