A 100 Knot Tailwind, with Continuous Light Chop…Occasional Moderate

by Jason Depew, TPN Staff Writer

I know what you’re thinking…this is a Delta guy’s primer on how to start every radio call to ATC. That’d be a waste of time here though. My company spends the entirety of the first 7 hours of Indoc on “chop reporting procedures” and you can’t get an employee ID or a parking pass until you demonstrate proficiency. We’re here to discuss something more universal. Specifically:

Landing a job at a major airline is a lifetime-level achievement. It’s like winning the lottery. If you live intelligently, this job will give you more time than ever with your family, while setting you up for financial freedom. This job is something to be thankful for and taken advantage of (in the best possible connotation)! It’s not something to cast aside lightly.

This job is the 100kt tailwind in the title of this article. Would you give up that boost to avoid a little chop? Hell no! Personally, I’d need to be taking a pretty decent beating before giving up a tailwind that good…especially if it’s leg 3 or 4 of the day and I’m headed to a good layover. So, how does this analogy play out for airline jobs? We have to ask ourselves:

Is it okay to leave a job at one major airline for a job at a different company? If so, at what point is the loss of money or seniority out-weighted by the benefits of making the switch?

In Part 2 (https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/give-a-hoot-dont-commute-part-2-1876209) of my argument against commuting I said:

“In our industry, seniority is everything. We hate the idea of moving from one company to another and ‘losing’ a bunch of seniority in the process. I wouldn’t do this on a whim; however, I assert that there’s nothing wrong with giving up a good job at a good company if you have a confirmed job at a new good company in a place your entire family will enjoy without you having to commute.”

This doesn’t have to just be about commuting though. I am shocked at how many pilots I know who adopt the philosophy of, “I’m going to apply to all the major airlines and go with the first one that calls.”

An airline career is probably 20-30 years long. That’s as long as many marriages! Would you even consider “I’m going to propose to a few different people and marry the first one who says ‘Yes?’” Talk about a recipe for disaster! I don’t recommend approaching marriage or an airline job hunt from a position of desperation.

Still, we have to account for some practicality here. If you want to fly for a major airline, you have to commit to leaving the regionals or the military at some point. It gets increasingly difficult to go back the further you get from this point. I don’t think many of us would spend much time debating between letting our kids go hungry and working at an airline that isn’t our #1 choice.

However, if you can get hired by one major airline, you’re probably competitive at the others. In fact, by completing training and getting experience as a Part 121 airline pilot flying a big jet, you’re making yourself more competitive for jobs at those other airlines every day. If you’d rather be at another airline, there’s no reason to not keep your application for that company updated and live.

Maybe you decide you don’t like passengers and you’d rather fly boxes. Maybe you decide that you don’t love domestic stuff and you want to maximize your chances of long-haul international flying. Maybe you just decide that your company’s culture or work rules just aren’t for you. Or, as we’ve already mentioned, maybe you’re commuting at your current company, but could end that commute forever by working for a different airline. These are all valid reasons to conside a move.

This probably sounds like a longshot to you because it’s not common. Just because it isn’t common doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen though! There was a United pilot in my Indoc class at Delta. I got assigned to mentor a Delta new hire who ended up going to another company. A friend of mine had training dates at Delta, but now flies for Southwest. I’ve heard many stories of people not showing up at training at almost every major airline because they ended up taking a better offer elsewhere.

The biggest barrier to this mindset is the seniority system. In most other industries, your pay and benefits are negotiated during the hiring process. In theory, they are based on your skills and experience…the mythical meritocracy. There’s a fascinating school of thought right now that says you can maximize your lifetime income by changing jobs every two years or less. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/cameronkeng/2014/06/22/employees-that-stay-in-companies-longer-than-2-years-get-paid-50-less/#51b89357e07f) Airlines don’t work that way.

I get a lot of email/PM inquiries from TPN members on this topic. One military aviator recently asked me how bids for base and aircraft changes are awarded in the airlines. “Are they merit-based?” My answer, after I stopped chuckling, was “Almost nothing in this industry is merit-based.” Almost everything that matters about your career depends on when you started working at your airline, how many active pilots started working there before you, and (to a lesser extent) how many active pilots started working there after you. You’re welcome to bid for whatever you want, but you won’t get it until everyone ahead of (senior to) you has had their pick.

To some pilots, this will be demoralizing. If you are a competent, hard-working, effective person (or just a champion suck-up) you may be used to getting good deals ahead of more senior peers. However, I like the seniority system. It’s based on cold, simple math. It can’t be cheated. I’ve seen too many systems purporting to be merit-based while they promote people for reasons other than merit…or for having “merit” in all the wrong areas. (Ahem, USAF.) In a seniority-based system, there’s no stress…no reason to get worked up about anything. You know exactly how long it’ll be until you get your chance. Just sit back and enjoy what you’re doing until the math works for you to move on. Easy peasy.

This system makes the choice to switch from one airline to another look like a losing proposition on the surface. It certainly wouldn’t make sense to leave a major airline after 20 or 25 years to start all over again. What about 15 years though? What about 10…or 5 or 2?

Instead of just offering some generic conjectures, I decided to attempt an analytical approach to this question. After all, airline pay scales and upcoming retirement numbers are generally public knowledge. So, let’s take a look at some specific scenarios. We’ll look at the difference between staying at one company, and moving to another company. We’ll focus on lifetime earnings and seniority progression. To keep things as even as possible, we’ll look at seniority position as a percentage of pilots in the company.

Assumptions/Disclaimers:

  1. We’re going to help keep things simple by only looking at flight pay, and 401k match. Other factors like per diem, profit sharing, etc. vary a lot depending on where you work and how many hours you fly. Realize that the numbers I generate here are unrealistic low-end estimates for comparison purposes only.
  2. We’ll assume that you only fly the reserve guarantee for each given airline, and that you don’t pick up any extra flying for regular or premium pay. At most companies, only the bottom 10% or so of pilots are on reserve. The 90% who are line holders tend to fly at least 5-10 more hours per month than reserve pilots. Again, this is an extremely unrealistic low-end estimate. Your ability to work more at a given company (by being single and/or not commuting) could affect your numbers.
  3. We’re not going to assume any adjustments for inflation or pay raises. We have pretty good numbers for 2018 & 2019, so we’ll base our calculations on those values assuming that any increases will be roughly equal across the industry.
  4. We’ll assume that a pilot always starts in a given company’s lowest-paying category and then follows a roughly-equivalent career progression at each airline.
  5. Unless otherwise noted, all of this data comes from https://www.airlinepilotcentral.com/. I’ve found their information to be reliable and current, though I won’t vouch for it 100%.
  6. We’re only accounting for mandatory age-65 retirements. From what I’ve seen, most companies are exceeding these numbers by 10-20% due to medical retirements or people just quitting early. So, hopefully, we’ll all enjoy better seniority progression than what I show here in all cases.

Fair enough? Good. Let’s look at example #1:

A pilot named Shawshank is from Houston. His family owns land on a fly-in airpark in a top-rated school district. He could build a house on the runway, build a Velocity XL-5 in his hangar (http://www.velocityaircraft.com/airplane-models-xl5.html,) and fly the WB-57 for NASA out of Ellington Field as his side-hustle. (https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/soside-hustles) After a few months of waiting, Delta was the only company that called him for an interview. He can either commute to Atlanta forever or buy a cookie-cutter house in a subdivision in Peachtree City…far away from his great deal in Houston. Whomp, whomp!

Then, out of the blue, United calls and offers him a job. Should he move? What will it cost him?

For starters, here’s what his career progression could look like at Delta:

(Delta has 14,500 pilots, a 16% 401k contribution, and a 75 hr reserve guarantee.)

Granted, this is a pretty conservative career progression. Captain upgrade is attainable in as few as 3 years right now, and I expect that figure to eventually drop closer to the 4 months it was about a year ago. Still, this shows a pretty awesome career. $6.3M in career earnings and that assumes zero investment gains for 25 years.

I assume a similar career progression for United. This next chart shows earnings and seniority progression side-by-side for Delta and United, then shows what things look like if Shawshank abandons Delta for United at the 1-, 3-, and 5-year points. (The portions that remain highlighted in Red are his progression still at Delta before he makes the jump.)

The basic difference between these two options is only $200K in total career earnings. That difference is insignificant for our purposes. (It’s certainly a lot less than it costs to say in the military for an extra year!) (http://www.aviationbull.com/2017/mar/28/what-will-year-cost-me) This $200K-ish number could probably shift a million dollars in either direction if you use different assumptions for career progression, and depending on how much a pilot at each company works. So, according to our assumptions, working at Delta vs. United is a wash for overall career compensation.

It’s worth noting that, under our assumptions, a pilot starting at Delta today will never get better than about 22% seniority, while a pilot at United can reach as high as 16%. This means that United has more retirements in proportion to the size of its pilot group in the future than Delta. This 22% vs 16% isn’t a huge difference, but it’s something. It could mean an extra year as a B777 captain at the end of your career.

Next, assuming all else is equal, leaving Delta after one year roughly doubles the disparity in Shawshank’s career earnings if he hadn’t moved. While that sounds like a lot, it’s less than 10% of his lifetime earnings. If you can’t live an amazing life on $5.9M, then you can’t live an amazing life on $6.3M either.

It’s interesting to note that spending a year at Delta before United only costs Shawshank 3% seniority at the end of his career. Again, that’s not much of a hit to never commute again.

So, would you be willing to give up $452K and 3% seniority to switch from commuting to living in base, live in your family’s dream location, and pick up an awesome side-hustle (www.pilotsidehustle.com)?

$452K is a lot of money, but I’d take this deal in a heartbeat based solely on the Quality of Life improvements! (And honestly, a moderately industrious pilot could probably make up that $452K by picking up extra flying once he or she lives in base.)

The 3-year case is a little tougher. The difference in career earnings is almost $800K. That feels like a lot more money! This is also enough delay that Shawshank’s seniority will never catch up to where it would have been at Delta. It doesn’t lag by too much, 24% vs 22% in the last year, but it’s a cost to consider. Would you give up this much for Quality of Life?

The 5-year case only feels incrementally worse to me. Yes, the difference in earnings is over $1M and Shawshank never even makes it into the top third of the company for seniority. (He lags the seniority he would have had at Delta by anywhere from 12% to 25% for his entire career.) However, it’s still a pretty amazing career. Would this be worth the trade?

While you start ruminating on those questions, let’s look at another scenario:

A different pilot, named Katinka, flew KC-10s and C-5s in the Air Force. More than a dozen of her friends went to FedEx, and she got a CJO from them right away. FedEx is the industry leader in cargo and universally respected. It’s pay is outstanding. How could she not take the job, right?

The problem is that Katinka fell in love with Seattle and owns a gorgeous house there. Her best options are long commutes to Memphis or Anchorage. She got to fly a variety of missions and instructed a lot in the states with the Air Force, but she’s finding that she doesn’t love constant back-of-the-clock flying at FedEx. She saw the world flying for Air Mobility Command and is starting to realize that she doesn’t love traveling overseas for work. She’d rather fly domestic trips for work and use long vacations for any overseas travel.

As it turns out, Alaska called Katinka shortly after she started at FedEx. Alaska is a great airline. It always wins the #1 spot among US airlines in evaluations from companies like JD Power. It does a ton of Hawaii flying, and just expanded its network by merging with Virgin America. Most importantly, Alaska has a huge hub in Seattle. Katinka could get the kind of flying she wants with them, work for a great company, and live at home. But should she give up a coveted job at FedEx to work for Alaska? Let’s look at the same type of comparison for Katinka’s situation:

(I assumed some International and Ultra Long Haul pay at FedEx for portions of Katinka’s career. These are pretty hefty overrides and I think it makes the comparison more realistic. Also, this chart does my best to combine the seniority lists of Alaska and Virgin. They’re not integrated on APC yet.)

On the surface, the money situation here doesn’t look that different than our last example. FedEx pays almost $400K more on the side-by-side comparison in this spreadsheet, but changing assumptions or doing some extra flying could make this little more than a rounding error.

However, look at the difference in seniority! Even after its merger, Alaska is a small company with far fewer retirements over the next 25 years. Katinka’s seniority at Alaska would keep pace with FedEx for a few years, but she’d never get better than 38%, even if she’d started at Alaska. She’ll hit that point at Year 16 at FedEx. This effect gets magnified as time goes on. If she stays at FedEx for five years before switching, her seniority never even breaks 50% at Alaska!

If we take a moment to look at the money side, it seems about the same as the Delta/United situation. If she only waits a few years to switch, the difference in lifetime compensation isn’t drastic. Delaying five years will cost Katinka $1M. That’s a lot of money, but I’ll match my earlier assertion: if you can’t enjoy life on $5.2M, then you can’t enjoy life with $6.2M either.

So, should Katinka give up that much seniority to end her commute?

It probably helps that Alaska only has two types of aircraft. It’s not like she’ll need to chase a seat in a fancy widebody to reach the top of her company’s pay scale. (She’s not after widebody flying anyway.) She’ll probably be able to upgrade to Captain, but she’ll have to wait longer to do it, be willing to stay on reserve longer to hold the days off she wants, and she’ll never have the type of control over her schedule that she’d get at FedEx. (I assumed that she upgraded in Year 9 at both companies.)

However, she’ll be living at home in an awesome location. She’ll still make millions of dollars over her career, working for a great company. I’m not presenting this to give anyone a definitive answer. I think each of us has a situation unique enough that it has to be considered individually. However, I feel that a pilot like Katinka could make this switch, even after 5 years at FedEx, and still have an outstanding airline career. She shouldn’t arbitrarily refuse to consider Alaska’s offer because she’ll lose a few years of seniority.

Just for fun, let’s take a unique look at one last situation. We’ll look at it in both directions. Farva is married to a smart, talented woman who waited for 11 years of living in many of the nowherevilles of our country to start putting her MBA to good use. Farva got hired by American right after leaving the Navy and started in Dallas where his wife got a good job and started progressing in her career. Then Disney called. They offered her a management position in Orlando at The Park. It’s a great company and she’s always wanted to live there. Farva has two choices: 1) Move to Orlando and commute to Miami (yuck!) or use some contacts to get a very good shot at a job at JetBlue. He could be based in Orlando and not commute while his wife gets to work at her dream job. Should he do it? Here’s our chart:

(APC doesn’t have good retirement numbers for JetBlue. I used what I could find here: https://www.airlinepilotforums.com/jetblue/104720-jetblue-attrition-number-year.html. It only went through 2033, so I assumed an arbitrary number after that point.)

These two companies offer very different career paths. Right off the bat, American pays $1M more in lifetime earnings than JetBlue. Switching to JetBlue only increases that difference-to a value of nearly $1.7M for waiting 5 years to switch. Your family will have to take that cost into account when considering a switch like this.

If you think that’s a big disparity, look at the difference between seniority progression at these two companies. A pilot hired by JetBlue today will never do better than 37%, according to our numbers. However, an American pilot will reach 5% seniority overall. Across our industry, American has the most upcoming retirements. They will offer the best seniority progression for any company switch for the foreseeable future. However, going from them to JetBlue isn’t much of a hit. Even waiting a full five years, it looks like switching to JetBlue only changes top seniority from 37% to 42%. If the money were equal, I wouldn’t bat an eyelash at such a small seniority hit. However, combining that with a cost of $1.7M might be another story.

It will cost Farva a lot to end his commute and give his wife her dream job. It might still be worth it though. Now you have some numbers to do the math-based comparison.

As promised, let’s turn this comparison around, just for grins. Let’s say that Farva had started at JetBlue and is in Orlando, but wants to get to Miami so his wife can instead take a job working for the Dolphins. Here’s what things look like if he makes this jump:

This situation is very different. Since American pays more overall and has better seniority progression, the move from JetBlue to American is a no-brainer at Years 1 and 3. It isn’t until the Year 5 case things get even. In this case, you finally lose some money in lifetime earnings by switching from JetBlue to American. Granted, it’s only $7,647 while we’ve been considering $200K a rounding error. However, it’s something. We also note that Farva’s top seniority position in this case is 34%, only slightly better than the 37% he’d have had at JetBlue. This is about as close as things get to breaking even in our comparisons. At this point, Farva should make his decision based entirely on things other than money or seniority if he gets the offer to leave JetBlue for American at Year 5.

I took this case one step further, assuming that Farva didn’t get a call from American until he’d been at JetBlue for 10 years. In this case, I think there’s finally a pretty solid argument for not switching. The crest of American’s massive retirement wave has already passed and things slow down significantly. Farva’s seniority only progresses at about 1/3 the pace it would have if he’d started at American initially. He’ll max-out at a pitiful 64% at the company…far worse than he would have had at JetBlue. His career earnings will be $600K lower than they would have been if he’d stayed at JetBlue.

So, is it too late for Farva to make the jump in this case? Although it’s clear-cut from some angles, I say it’s still a solid “it depends.” If Mrs. Farva has always wanted to work for the Dolphins, or her pay and benefits are just amazing, it might still be worth going. What is the mini-Farva situation for school/sports/activities? Will Miami give them better options than they have now? (We look at many of those considerations in the series that starts here: https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/airline-comparison-part-1.)

As a point of reference, my father-in-law had to switch airlines, against his will. He was working for Eastern Airlines when they went bankrupt. After a couple terrible years, he got hired by American. It was later in his career than ideal, but he was happy to have a job. He progressed in his new company but spent far more time as a Flight Engineer and First Officer than anyone would want to. He finished as a Captain-qualified pilot on the B777, though most of his flying on it was as a First Officer. While I’m sure he would have preferred the pace of career progression many of us will have access to, he still loved his career. He was happy traveling the world. Steak and wine in Buenos Aires tastes the same whether you rode in the left seat or the right seat to get there. In fact, unless your Captain is a jerk, the FO should at least be drinking that wine for free. (Supposedly, a great steak is cheap enough in BA that only the most stingy of Captains would even dream of not covering the entire dinner.)

This job let Captain Bailey provide for his family and give them a stable life. He’s happily retired and never has to worry about money again. He sacrificed a little prestige by staying longer as an FO, but I think he’s happy with the way things went. I think you can be too if you decide to switch companies later in your career.

Now, before we go, let’s consider a couple practicalities.

First, don’t work without a net! Don’t leave one company before you’re sure of your spot at the next one. For me, this would ideally mean I can bid days off at my old company to attend Indoc at my new company, and I don’t give notice until I have a new ID card. This might not always be practical, but I advocate waiting as long as it makes sense to finalize things with your old company.

With that, don’t do something shady like take sick leave from your old company to go to an interview. Bid the days off, drop a trip, or move your vacation to cover it. We work in a very small industry, and social media makes it increasingly difficult to keep a secret. You never know how word can get back to your chief pilot that you put your company in a tough spot to interview somewhere else.

Finally, when you do give notice at your old company, don’t burn things down as you’re leaving. Go to your chief pilot in person to let him or her know. Be thankful for the chance to work there and explain, tactfully, why your new company is a better choice for your family. Hopefully, nothing falls through at your new company. Even if things go smoothly, you never know when you’ll need to call back to your old airline to get help transferring your 401K, your Known Crewmember credentials, your training records, or something else.

Giving up seniority at one company to move to another isn’t common in our industry, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing. You and your family will be far better-off working and living in the right place, than if you try to make a bad situation fit for years on end. Don’t be afraid to keep your applications open. Run the numbers and see how things will work out for you. I think most cases will show that you don’t lose much by switching. You could have everything to gain.

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