Tag: Delta

Regional pilot bonuses

If there was ever any doubt about the need for pilots, or the need to try and retain pilots, those doubts have been squarely put to rest.

In August, Piedmont, PSA, and Envoy, all of whom fly under the American Airlines banner, announced significant retention bonuses. All captains are to receive $30,000 immediately, first officers will receive $30,000 when they upgrade, all pilots who stick around for the flow to American will receive $70,000, and there will also be $50,000 biannual bonuses available, with the details to be announced.

This is a blatant admission that the pipeline of pilots is drying up. It might also be an admission of sorts by American Airlines that pilots are not sticking around to get the promised flow to the American mainline. While I don’t have the details about how this program will work, or what the catches are, this indicates that the adage that “money talks” is going to be put to a test.

For example, how long will an upgrading FO have to stay to receive and keep the $30,000 bonus? What if that FO decides to bid back to the right seat for personal reasons? What is the structure of the biannual bonus? And, perhaps most important to so many of the pilots at the three airlines: how long do they have to realistically wait to get a shot at American? If the wait is too long, the problem is not going to be solved, as those pilots who are experienced and marketable will apply to Delta, United, Southwest, et al. If I am in management at American Airlines Group, I would be trying to figure out what to say to get them to stay.

It remains to be seen whether Delta and/or United will feel compelled to do something similar. Make no mistake that while the pilots in question are flying RJs, these bonuses are approved and maybe even initiated by management, since they pay the bills. It is clear that they see a shortage on the horizon.

I recently had a pilot from American on one of my flights, and while this wasn’t yet public knowledge, the overall need for pilots is, and we were discussing the state of the industry going forward. Every major airline will tell you that they all have the same 4,000 to 5,000 who are viable candidates in their pool of applicants. What makes this such a challenge is that, for the first time ever, multiple carriers are trying to hire at least 1,000 pilots a year. Delta, United, Southwest all would love to train more than that, and JetBlue is not far behind. UPS, FedEx and the Amazon contractors (Southern and Atlas) all need experienced pilots. While the pay at Southern and Atlas is still below where it should be, there is reason for optimism that the pilots are on the verge of a new contract that will dramatically increase compensation.

It doesn’t take much to see that four airlines hiring 1,000 pilots each will quickly deplete the current pool of available talent. It’s important to realize that these aren’t just pie-in-the-sky numbers either. While the pandemic is not over, travel demand has rebounded, and people are ready to move. Airlines responded to the downturn by offering early retirement packages that helped avoid furloughs. Retirements are not going to slow down, and every carrier is ordering airplanes that will result in a net growth of their fleets. They wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t have confidence that the business would be there. In fact, in 2022, United will be taking a new airplane every three days. It’s been decades since the majors have seen that kind of movement.

This is going to create an incredible series of opportunities, but it will also put great strains on each company’s training centers. There will be positions open as instructors, evaluators, course content creators, and more. Recruiters will also be in demand. New and more airplanes will also open up opportunities for mechanics, which is another area of great staffing concern. But for us as pilots, this represents an opportunity to try as many different types of flying as you might care to experience. Ultra long haul, cargo, wide body, narrow body, charters, Boeing versus Airbus…it is all on the table. Some pilots will bid aggressively and fly every plane in the fleet, and others will find a niche and settle in for the long haul in one seat or one fleet. You certainly won’t starve.

I am curious to see the gotchas of the American Airlines Group deal with its subsidiaries, but I do think it is indicative of the state of an industry that needs to work hard to make learning to fly more accessible, more affordable, and more attractive. Let’s hope that this is just the beginning!—Chip Wright

The hiring boom is back

The pandemic may not be over, but it’s clear that people are no longer going to be as willing to lock themselves at home anymore. They want to get out, and they want to travel.

This summer has seen a major boomerang in travel demand that has strained all segments of the travel industry. In some places, getting a rental car will cost upwards of $800 per day for the cheapest car. In many places, restaurants are still struggling to reopen. And at airports, the airlines are bursting at the seams as they have gone from the extreme of parking airplanes wherever they could find a runway to land them, to suddenly scrambling for the most important of all assets: employees.

Virtually every airline did something to reduce their payrolls, and the pilot ranks were no exception. Some, however, may have gone too far. The early retirement offers and long-term leaves of absences that so many took left gaping holes in the staffing models of several carriers. It’s one thing at an company like Southwest or Spirit, where the fleet consists of one model and training can be spooled up pretty quickly, but it’s an entirely different animal at an airline like Delta or American, which fly multiple fleets, and the training has to be done in some kind of a logical sequence in order to properly rebalance the staffing numbers. The same holds true for the regionals.

Most of the domestic flying has returned, and if it isn’t back in full, most cities have had at least some of their service restored. Airplanes are full and ticket prices are increasing, both of which are good. But the impending pilot shortage that was kicking in only months ago is now very much back front and center. United Airlines has recently announced some massive aircraft orders, and while some of them will be replacement aircraft, much of it will be growth, which will necessitate more pilots. In a recently closed bid, United began to kick-start its recovery, and the airline is now hiring almost 50 pilots a week indefinitely. The bid that just closed will trigger at least a thousand training events, hundreds of which will go to pilots not yet on the property. Similar events will happen throughout the industry.

The majors all share one concern: They have a pool of what they consider to be qualified, acceptable pilots that sits at around 5,000 applicants, but that pool is pretty much the same at each carrier, since most pilots apply to multiple airlines. To use United’s projected hiring needs, that pool would be gone in two years. Obviously, some of it will be refilled with fresh applicants as they become competitive and apply, but it’s still a harsh reality that needs to be dealt with in some form.

For job applicants, this is all great news. The world has been through an event unlike anything we have ever seen, and while the work still must continue, the determination to take control of our own lives again is beginning to generate hiring cycles, which will create more economic activity and jobs. If a career as a pilot of any kind is your dream, there is no better time than the present. —Chip Wright

Airline-owned flight schools

United Airlines recently announced that it has purchased a flight school in order to train its own future pilots. This isn’t a new concept. Lufthansa has been doing this for years in Arizona, and Comair, the since-shuttered Delta Connection carrier, ran its own Academy in Florida for well over a decade. It was incredibly successful. An overwhelming majority of Comair pilots came from the Academy, which was sold a few years after Delta purchased the airline.

Is United’s move the beginning of a trend? It’s too soon to say, but it’s an idea that shouldn’t be ignored. While part of the goal is obviously to make money, the main motivator is for the airline to be able to exercise quality control over pilot trainees while introducing them to the airlines’ way of operation. When the Comair Academy was in existence, the manuals, checklists, procedures, et cetera, all mimicked the airline, and common sense says that the same will happen again. From day one, students will get used to using an airline dispatch process, maintenance write-up procedures, and the like. While a number of large schools already do this, in this case, it will be done to mirror the mother ship.

Getting their eyes on students from the beginning allows the airline to study their progression in both skill and maturity, as well as to try and determine if the student is cut out of the airline lifestyle. Bad habits can be avoided, good habits instilled, and solid decision-making skills developed. Those that show promise will be noticed, and may find themselves with an inside track to more desirable job openings at the airline in management, training, or other departments.

Other major aviation colleges and universities are working with airline partners to tailor curricula to suit the needs of their partner companies. The risk for the airlines in these partnerships is that the student may opt for a different carrier because of myriad reasons. When an airline owns its own school, it has a chance to choose the students and also embed them in the culture of the parent brand, thus making a defection much less likely, though a few will undoubtedly occur.

I can’t say for certain that this will be the beginning of a trend, but I would be more surprised if it doesn’t. The market for pilots is tight, and all of the airlines are competing for the same individuals. The sooner that a carrier can get that individual under their umbrella, the better. It becomes one less position that needs to be filled later, and being able to program that individual from the beginning is a huge advantage.—Chip Wright

The major airline hiring wave has begun

In the last 18 months, airline hiring has begun to pick up. The majors are hiring steadily, and United alone has announced a need for 1,300 pilots in fewer than two years. American and Delta are also actively hiring. None of this is news.

But, changes are afoot.

Historically, the majors have tried to hire as many pilots as possible who have a lot of FAR Part 121 pilot-in-command (PIC) time. With the advent of the regional jet, the premium moved to turbojet/turbine PIC (TPIC). Further, the airlines made it clear that they wanted a few other items on your resume: a four-year degree was “preferred,” even though it was silently required, and service as a check airman, simulator instructor, chief pilot, or some other work beyond flying the line was a big help. Those qualifications still move you to the front of the line, so to speak.

But the majors are beginning to place a bit less emphasis now on PIC or TPIC time. It still helps to have it, but it isn’t the deal-breaker it used to be. The majors have realized that the recession, the downturn in the airlines, and the change in the mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65 has created a large pool of regional airline first officers who, through no fault of their own, did not have the opportunity to upgrade and gain experience as a captain. Further, they recognize that many of these FOs are good pilots and good people who will make excellent employees.

For years, jetBlue has been aggressive in hiring FOs, but the legacy carriers have been much less flexible. That isn’t to say that they didn’t do it, because they did. They just didn’t do it much. That may be starting to change. Longtime FOs are beginning to get interviewed and hired, which is great news. The requirement for the four-year degree has not been relaxed and isn’t likely to be soon, and it also helps to have a record of volunteerism or social activity on your resume. In fact, for an FO to stand out, it’s even more important to do what you can to boost your resume.

What this also means is that RJ captains can’t count on being the only ones to get calls for an interview. The competition for good jobs is heating up, and it’s quite possible that both pilots on an RJ flight deck on a Friday will be interviewing for the same job on a Monday. It’s been a long time since that’s happened. For pilots who are just entering the industry, it means that they don’t necessarily need to bank on a long period of stagnation like pilots did in the 2007-2012 time frame. There is, indeed, hope.

Pilots who have been captains are still at an obvious advantage, and a regional FO should still take an upgrade ASAP if one opens. But the tide is turning, and classes need to be filled. The long-awaited retirement boon at the majors is here, it’s happening, and it’s real. Also real are the opportunities for regional FOs to go to their airline of choice. Attending job fairs is still important, and so is networking. In fact, maybe more so than ever, a network of contacts can make a big difference in getting the job of choice. But for that network to help, you need to get those applications filled out and keep them up to date.—Chip Wright

When do you upgrade?

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

Some meandering thoughts

It doesn’t take long in any industry, I suppose, to notice certain trends and oddities. My wife is a teacher, and the stories she has of parents and students are enough to make you shake your head. Put together, they are somewhere between a riotous TV sitcom and pure Shakespearean tragedy. My father was an attorney, and the tales of idiocy that he would bring home would make you question the entire human condition.

Being a pilot isn’t any different. I was recently reminded of this when it comes to tourists, especially those from other countries. As a little background, I am huge baseball fan, but not just of the modern game. I love the history, of reading about the great players of years gone by that I never got to see. Of particular interest to me several years ago was the period of integration and the “Wait til next year” era of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Bums, as you may know, had an era of remarkable success on the field, but like Cinderella going to the dance, they just couldn’t beat the clock. Instead, they were beaten consistently in the World Series by the Yankees…until 1955, when they won their only title before moving to LA.

As a fan of the history of the game, I own two Brooklyn Dodgers hats with the distinctive “B” on the front.

On a bus ride recently from the hotel to the airport in Detroit, I saw a young lady from Japan. Delta has a large presence in the Asian country, and a large number of Japanese folks travel through DTW. Many are business travelers (especially for Toyota), and others are tourists. The Japanese tourists are as easy to pick out as it gets: They take pictures of everything! The airport, the airplane, the pilots (me included), sites that catch their attention, food, and anything with Mickey Mouse. Further, they keep detailed logs about everything they’ve seen, and they do so with the seriousness of a student studying for finals. Sometimes, I think we both need to take a lesson from each other…

As for the young gal on the bus, she was wearing a pink and black baseball cap. As many Americans do—and I don’t know why they do this, so if you can explain it to me, please do—the bill of the cap was still flat, and it still had the various this-is-a-new-hat stickers on it. And it had the unmistakable and distinctive “B” of the Dodgers. I didn’t get a chance to speak with her, so I don’t know if she thought it was a Red Sox cap, or if she just got it because she liked it. But it was yet another indicator of just how much the rest of the world looks to Americans for inspiration, style (they do this at their own risk), social norms (ditto), and the ability to make of yourself what you can. This young lady may have been an avid baseball fan herself—the Japanese love the game and have produced a number of exceptional major leaguers, including some signed by the (LA) Dodgers.

I’ve flown with so many foreign-born pilots that I’ve lost count, but the common message that they have is that no other country affords the aviation freedom and opportunity that the United States does, and we do it cheaper than they do. I was struck too by the realization that, in this country, we need to do everything we can to keep that dream alive not just for other nationals, but for ourselves and our kids. She, after all, was counting on a pilot most likely born in the United States to take her home. And we are counting on being able to do that in the future, as well as bringing her back to spend her money in the U.S.—be it at Disney World, a baseball game, or a hat store.

But I still don’t know why she was wearing those stickers…so keep flying, so we can get her back here and ask her.–By Chip Wright

The number two radio

I’ve been asked before what we do with the second radio on airliners, so I’m here to tell you (this assumes an aircraft with two required radios and a backup). Are you ready? It depends….

If the airplane is equipped with ACARS (Aircraft Crew Alerting and Reporting System, sort of an in-flight email/fax system), most of the time you will monitor 121.5. If the airplane is not ACARS equipped, or if the ACARS is out of service, the procedures will vary a bit from company to company, but most of the time, you will monitor a designated company radio frequency.

Since my airline flies for Delta, we monitor the Atlanta Radio network. That way Delta can spy on us, plus it saves having to build our own network nationwide, which would make it harder for Delta to spy on us. We have available to us a map that shows what frequency we are supposed to use in a given area. There are approximately eight or nine airborne sections of the United States, plus a few each in Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, et cetera. Because the FARs require that an airline be capable of contacting any airplane at any time, crews must monitor a designated company frequency or have functional alternative, such as ACARS.

There are also a number of locations where dial-up ground frequencies are available.

Our network is guaranteed to work above a certain altitude, again, per the FARs.

As for when the number two radio is used, well, this is the “it depends” area. We can use the company frequency for a number of things: calling for weather updates, advising the company of a hold or delay or a diversion, discussing maintenance issues with the dispatcher or mechanic, passenger service issues, or any number of emergencies or critical events. It can be a little disconcerting to hear a full-blown emergency in progress, especially if you happen to be on the same ATC frequency as the crew that is in distress. But it’s also good to see how others handle certain situations to compare to your own methodology.

Company radio is only supposed to be used for company, flight-specific information, but it isn’t unusual for someone to request football scores or election results. Occasionally, a pair of pilots will recognize each others’ voice on the ATC frequency, and they will switch an air-to-air frequency on the number two radio to chat for a couple of minutes. Not exactly what’s supposed to be done, but it is never for very long, and for the most part it’s no-harm, no-foul.

Closer to the airport, each station has its own frequency, similar to an FBO. Crews will call “in range” anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes out, workload permitting. This is an opportunity to verify the gate and relay any specific needs, which might be mundane (bags of ice) to the more important customer needs (wheelchairs). It’s also a chance to give a station a heads up on any potential delays or issues for the outbound flight.

In short, the number two radio is often used exactly as you use it today in general aviation. With two pilots–especially when something is going wrong–it can be your most valuable asset. In fact, the FARs require at least two functioning primary radios, so if one of them fails, you aren’t going anywhere. It’s that important.–Chip Wright