Sunday, March 29, 2009

Questions Answered: The 'F' Word

This might have already been asked, but I heard from the regional airline pilot discussion board that a certain regional might be furloughing approx. 100 pilots also, mostly from the ERJ. I take it this won’t affect CRJ pilots since that airframe is not being reduced?

When a furlough happens, the airline announces a number and then simply counts up that many numbers from the bottom of the seniority list. With the recent announcement of another regional airline furloughing 75 pilots, the most junior 75 will be out of a job. There is no discretion given to what aircraft the pilot flies or what base they are assigned. If they are in the bottom 75 of the pilots on that seniority list, they will be out of a job. The regional in question will furlough all pilots affected. The might fly the CRJ, the Q400, the Brasilia or the ERJ. All will be furloughed. The airline might be reducing the fleet at the same time. Once the furlough is done, then there will likely be a displacement/vacancy bid to adjust for the reduced fleet/pilots. It will get complicated.

Airline pilots are the only profession I know of where one can work for 20 years, be furloughed and have to start back at year 1 pay again. Doctors, Lawyers, Accountants are all paid based on years of experience in the profession. Not so with pilots.

For every airline I know of, pilots pay is directly tired to their seniority with the airline that employs them and the seat they sit in. A pilot could be with the same airline for 25 years. If the pilot ends up no longer employed with that airline (furlough, fired, quit, airline managers drove the airline into the ground), if the pilot chooses to stay in this profession they start back at year 1 pay. A pilot can go from making $200,000 a year one day to making $20,000 a year the next. Seniority means a lot. I have heard stories where a single seniority number meant the difference between a Captain seat and a First Officer seat (for years!) or a job and the street. Seniority numbers are normally handed out the first day of class at an airline. They are handed out by age. The oldest person gets the first number and so on. A single day between two pilots can mean a lot down the road.

Keeping their seniority and the fear of a furlough is what keeps many pilots from changing airlines. If a pilot is on the top half of a seniority list they have pretty good job security. At my current airline I am very junior. I do have about 10% of the pilots "under" me. There would have to be a pretty big furlough announcement to cause me to hit the street.

For the last few years regional airlines have been on a hiring spree. Many regionals were hiring 'street Captains'. A 'street Captain' is a pilot hired straight into a Captain seat even though he is new to the company. This is done when there are not enough qualified First Officers to upgrade to Captain at that airline. These new Captains have the flight time and required ratings to qualify for Captain. Being a Captain right away is great, but they are taking a huge risk.

As a 'street Captain' they are lower on the seniority list than every First Officer on property. These new Captains will be the first to be furloughed if things go wrong with the airline. Also these new Captains will be the most junior Captains for years. They will get the worst schedules and generally the lowest quality of life. Over time as the First Officers already on property qualify to upgrade, these Captains will continue to slide backward in seniority. Eventually these 'Street Captains' will eventually hold enough seniority to be off reserve and have a normal line.

I happen to know a few pilots who will be furloughed at the most recent airline to announce furloughs. One of them was a student of mine. Already in the course of a year at his airline he has been displaced three times and been trained in two different aircraft. Hopefully he won't be on the street too long.

None of this was in the brochure for this job.


  1. Wow... you see i knew the airline game was bad but you made it that much more nurve raking. I'm 15 and hoping to be in the airlines someday.. . I dont know if there will ever be room for me anymore when I'm finally qualified.:(

  2. Airline hiring/furloughs go in waves. We are on the low point of the last high wave. Hiring will boom again. You're 15 now? Figure in 7 more years you will be out of college and looking for a gig. Keep an eye on hiring and catch the next wave. Keep your head up. 7 years ago NO one was hiring. Waves...

  3. I should add if the furloughed pilot is recalled to the same airline, they continue at whatever seniority they have at the time.

  4. Ian, you sound motivated enough to give it a serious try; but I recommend that you make a plan B in case that you won't make it as a pilot. (Having a college degree for a 9-5 job that pays the bills.) There are some schools that provide both a college degree and pilot certifications.
    Before embarking on the (expensive) route to become a pilot it is wise to check whether you pass all requirements to become a pilot (passing the medical tests and such...)


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