Friday, July 27, 2012

Moving to the left seat, choosing when to upgrade to Captain

Back in 2007 when I was a CFI all my CFI buddies were talking about which airline had the fastest upgrade. Some had 2 year upgrades, others had 10 year upgrades while a handful were hiring "Street Captains".

Upgrades times are somewhat meaningless. I will attempt to explain why.

Lets Assume I am at an airline with 1000 pilots. The airline started with 0 pilots in 1992 and hired 50 pilots a year every year. No one ever quit, died or retired. There are 4 different bases...two are big and two are small.

The bases are:

New York - JFK - 250 total pilots - Most junior Captain is seniority number 540

Austin - AUS - 200 total pilots -  Most Junior Captain is seniority number- 398

Milwaukee - MKE - 250 total pilots - Most Junior Captain is seniority number- 560

San Francisco - SFO 300 total pilots - Most Junior Captain is seniority number - 380

The there are 500 Captains and 500 First Officers (in reality there are normally more Captains than First Officers, but for purposes of my example an even split).

One would ASSUME the top 500 pilots are all Captains. That would be wrong.

When a pilot is near the top of the First Officers in their status life is very good. The pilot has the exact schedule they want, they have all Holidays off and work more or less whenever they want to work.

This is true for top Captains and top First Officers.

At every airline there are senior bases and junior bases. The more desirable to city...the more senior the base. For most airlines New York area bases are junior as the cost of living is very high. Bases in the south are generally more senior as they cost of living is lower and the weather is nicer.

For my example I live in Austin and am the top First Officer. I am loving life. My seniority number is 530. I can hold Captain, but only in JFK or MKE. I'd be a junior Captain, commuting and working weekends and holidays. My pay would go from $45 to $70 an hour or roughly from $42,000 a year to $67,000 a year. I have zero desire to upgrade right now as I like my quality of life. I'm holding out to hold Captain in Austin.

The most junior Captain in Austin is number 398....a 2000 hire. That Captain could be a senior Captain in JFK or MKE...but again likely stays in Austin for quality of life.

End of my over simplified example.

I mentioned the term "Street Captain". When an airline expands rapidly there might not be enough First Officers who are qualified to be a Captain. In these situations airlines will hire a pilot straight to the left seat. The pilot is still junior to the most junior First Officer as far as company seniority, but they are indeed a Captain.

The "Street Captain" will have the lowest seniority for all Captains. Eventually the First Officers will upgrade and be above the "Street Captain" on the Captain seniority list.

It's risky being a "Street Captain" as they will have none of the perks of being senior....for a long time as they are still the most junior pilots at the company. Every First Officer that upgrades will go in above the "Street Captain". Most people who get hired as "Street Captains" do it for the PIC time to go on to a better airline.

Seniority is very complicated. Some First Officers never upgrade. There are a few First Officers at my airline that are in the top 15% of the total pilot group. I met one and he said he has  a very successful side business. Flying is his hobby. He picks his own schedule and does his real job on his days off. He's been holding 18 days off for years. He's topped out on pay, but is content with it.

I doubt I will upgrade at the first chance as I value quality of life over pay. I am in the second most senior base at my airline. I will likely wait it out until I can upgrade in base.  There are many who are single and value pay over quality of life. On the same note there are several who live in JFK and will upgrade before I slide over to the left seat.

Upgrading is more than better pay and a fourth stripe. Being a Captain means being responsible for every life on board the plane. The Captain is the go to person when issues come up. It's a lot of responsibility.

I know I wasn't ready to be a Captain after my first year...or even my second year.

During my 1st three years I was taking it all in and adding bulk to my buckets of knowledge, experience and skill. Don't get me wrong I could take charge if needed in an emergency, but I don't think I was ready to be a Captain.

Now I am approaching the end of my 5th year at my airline. I've flown with just about every type of Captain out there. I've learned something from all of them...good and bad. There hasn't been a flight yet that I haven't learned something about flying, being a Captain or the profession in general.

I've gone over this posting several times in an attempt to make it flow and make sense. Still looks confusing....which is okay...because working at an airline and dealing with seniority is confusing.



  1. Thanks, Geek.  In my view, the above is one of your very best posts.  While most (non-pilot)readers probably understand the basics of the industry's senority system, we may have missed some of the important parts about 'in-base' senority etc.  And yes, I've always sort of wondered about the acquisition, use and fate of "Street Captains."  You've explained that very well.  As for when to upgrade and what kind of line one might hold, you make some excellent points about QOL vs. money.  And that, of course, is an extremely personal choice.  Given the general tone of most of your posts, you clearly value the QOL part (days at home with Mrs. Geek and Mini Geek) and waiting your turn for the in-base upgrade shounds like the best choice - for you.  An outstanding post!  Thanks.

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