By Jason Depew, TPN staff writer
Most airlines are hiring right now, and that is great news for all of us! If you want a job that offers the potential to make millions of dollars while enjoying great Quality of Life (QOL) over the next 20-30 years, you’ve got it. Although some pilots have had some difficulty getting hired, experienced military pilots are generally competitive for most of the major airlines.
Some of us have even had the welcome problem of getting job offers from multiple companies. How is: “How do I choose between these three great companies?” for a first-world problem?
I know many pilots who say something like, “I’m going to apply everywhere and take the first offer I get.”
I think this is generally a terrible plan! It’s a choice to live your life by fear…usually fear that you’ll leave the military and have to go a few months without a steady income to support an over-inflated lifestyle. With even just a little effort toward planning ahead and saving, you can inoculate yourself from this life-ruining fear. With just a little more effort and a better perspective, you can break free of financial slavery and live a much better life overall. (Look for more on this topic in the future.)
The 6 P’s aside, I’ve gotten quite a few requests lately to do a side-by-side comparison of the major US airlines…along the lines of my Logbook Battle Royale. “Great idea!” I thought. “I have buddies at most major US airlines. This gives me an excuse to call each one up, chat for an hour or so, and put out another popular article.” I compiled a set of questions, and did several of those interviews. (Thanks to the friends who helped out!)
I’d like to be able to tell you that there’s a giant, sortable chart at the bottom of this article where you can compare every little aspect of life at each major airline. Sadly though, I can’t.
Through the interviews I’ve done so far, I’ve decided two important things:
The specifics in each airline’s contract are so different that you can’t really do an apples-to-apples comparison.
There are some apparently universal truths when it comes to choosing an airline. There are a few specific characteristics that matter, but the rest really don’t, in my ever-so-humble opinion. I’d be wasting my time building that chart, and you’d waste even more time pouring over it.
I’m sorry. I know that isn’t what you want to hear. The thing is, every single person I talked to loves his or her airline. No matter what challenges I read about for a particular company, each pilot was as happy with things as they are and optimistic about the future.
In the case of every person I spoke with (and based on my own personal experience) the resounding message I got was:
If at all possible, live in base!
This doesn’t mean that commuting is horrible. I commuted from RAF Lakenheath, UK to NYC, then to ATL for my first 18 months at my airline. I now commute to TPA to ATL. It works fine for me. I’ve discovered ways to bid my monthly schedule and plan my jump seating that optimize the commuting process for me. (Expect a separate post on this topic, also soon-ish.) However, it’s easy to see opportunities that I miss because of my commute. Here are just a few examples:
When a pilot gets sick on short notice, the schedulers start calling reserve pilots to assign someone else to cover the trip. Every once in a while, or more frequently during busy travel seasons, the schedulers run out of reserve pilots and have to start offering premium pay to anyone willing to cover the trip. (At my company, premium means double pay.) Unfortunately for commuters, by the time the schedulers run out of reserve pilots and start calling for premium pay, it’s at most a few hours before the flight is scheduled to depart. Even under ideal circumstances, there’s almost zero chance I can get from TPA to ATL in time to cover the trip. If you live within an hour or two of a major hub for your airline you can pick up these trips much more frequently. That can either translate into huge amounts of money, or making about as much as everyone else for half the work.
I once had a Delta MD88 FO on my jumpseat out of LGA who makes $385,000 per year flying premium trips. Yes, he makes more money than most of the captains he flies with.
Frequently, the company doesn’t want to give out premium pay for a 4-day trip, so they’ll only offer the first day for premium pay, planning to use a new reserve pilot starting on Day 2 to finish the trip. If you’re a commuter, it’s usually not worth scrambling up to your base just to fly a one-day trip and then go back home. If you live in base this is an entirely different proposition. You can make $1000 for an easy day of work and be home in time for dinner. You can’t beat Quality of Life like that! (And that’s $1000/day on second year pay. It only goes up from there.)
The most senior wideboy FOs in my company (and probably the captains too) bid reserve. Since there aren’t that many widebody departures in a day to cover, and it’s not as common to sick-out of a trip at the last minute, those reserve pilots rarely get used. They get paid the “reserve guarantee” (usually around 75-85 hours per month) whether they fly or not. I’ve flown with pilots who worked an average of 5 days per month for years on end using this strategy.
You can make this work as a commuter, but you’ll be guaranteed to have to commute in to spend 5-7 days a month sitting short call at your airport, and may end up getting assigned a trip anyway. It’s not ideal. If you live in base, you can “sit” short call from the pool in your backyard, the football stadium, the movie theater, etc. It’s a good deal either way, but it’s a far better deal if you live in base.
Being a sim instructor is a great deal at my company. You get paid the hourly rate for the biggest aircraft you could possibly hold if you were flying the line. That means you could instruct on the B717 (lowest paying aircraft in the company) but make B777 pay for every hour that you work. If you live in Atlanta you can do this job and be home every single night. I have a friend who teaches the MD88 right now. He has little kids so he sleeps in and spends the day with them, leaves in the late afternoon or early evening to do a sim, and gets home late that night. He’s making crazy amounts of money to spend every day with his family. That’s more unbeatable Quality of Life that you can’t get as a commuter. (My company lets you commute to a sim instructor job. It’s still a good deal, but it’s a lot of nights away from your family.)
I’ve mentioned that my company’s Chief of New Hire Pilots and Mentors position is available to any FO in the company (including me.) It’s a fun, rewarding job that would set you up to do great things in the company if that were your goal. That’s only one of many leadership/management jobs available to pilots at my company. They’re not the type of job you can do as a commuter.
I also have a friend who works as a Technical Pilot for the company. He does science projects that help us get new airplanes, new technology, and fly more efficiently and safely. It’s fascinating work and he posts all kinds of pictures of doing things like touring aircraft factories as part of the Official Company Team considering purchases of new aircraft. Although I’ve heard rumors that this job offers possibilities for working at home on occasion, it’s really something that you need to live in base to do.
These are just a few examples of how life can be drastically different (and potentially better) if you live at one of your company’s bases. In this context, I recommend that your primary consideration for choosing an airline should be location. In my book, that should weigh so heavily that it accounts for 50-75% of your criteria.
“But Emet!” you might say, “There’s so much more to it than that? What about ______?” (Insert obscure rule or trait unique to Airline X here.)
Yes, you’re right. Each airline is unique and each one offers different ways to get better QOL or extra money. I assert that we pilots are generally smart (or cheap) enough to figure out the way to get the most money for the least amount of work, or set up the best possible QOL situation, no matter what company we work for. Most of us consider ourselves at least as good as lawyers when it comes to interpreting contracts and regulations, and we’re happy to pass on knowledge about how to hack a given situation. I believe that no matter where you go you’ll be able to maximize what you have to your advantage.
If you can’t make that happen, one of the great parts about this job is that you are a free agent at all times. If you get on with a company and decide after a year or two that it isn’t working out, you still have time to move on to something better. Retirement rates will be high enough for the next 10+ years that your seniority will still improve far better than the last generation of pilots and you will have an awesome career.
Part of my reason for this stance is my ongoing infatuation with Mr. Money Mustache. This husband and father lives happily in a (paid-off) $400K house in the foothills of Colorado. He built a mancave/studio in his back yard. He has a blog that earns him a six-figure income. He recently bought, renovated, and opened a building downtown as a co-working space/hangout for local members of his ironic non-religion…just for fun. Oh, and this guy hasn’t had a “job” in a decade. He retired from that sort of thing at age 31. Sure, he does plenty of things that end up making money, but it’s all on his schedule and he only pursues those things that are very interesting to him…like spending lots of time with his wife and son. (And when he feels guilty about having so much wealth, he just hands $100K donations to his favorite charities.) It sounds like a pretty awesome life. The crazy thing is, aside from his major construction and blog-related projects, he and his family live on an average annual spending of somewhere in the range of $25,000 per year.
“Wow, that’s impressive, but what’s your point Emet?”
The point is: if you’re spending hours of your life dithering over which airline to join, trying to pick apart tricks and techniques and unique contract provisions, you’re wasting your time!
No matter which airline you choose, you will find a way to optimize for outstanding QOL. No matter which airline you choose, you will make so much money over your career that you’ll have to get creative to find places to stash it. Even if you don’t plan to live on $25K/yr spending (I don’t…at least not yet) you will still make far more than you need to live a great life.
Before we wrap this up, we have to address one more aspect of location: your second job. Many military pilots will spend at least a few years serving in the Guard or Reserves at the start of their airline career. This needs to play in to your location decision.
Best case: you get an arrangement like flying C-17s out of Memphis and working at FedEx, or C-130s out of Dobbins and working at Delta. That should make your decision pretty easy.
Most people aren’t that lucky. Ask anyone and they’ll say not to do a double-commute. It’ll just eat away too much time and you’ll hate it. You need to live at one job or the other. So, the question becomes: where are you going to be working more?
No matter how much you love your Guard or Reserve job, you’ll probably quit doing it after a maximum of 10-15 years. You’ll still be at your airline long after you complete your military service. If you chose to live near your military job, you’ll have sacrificed a lot of your airline job QOL for your military job for a long time, and then you’ll continue to have the somewhat diminished QOL of a commuter for the rest of your career. I assert that it’s worth considering a commute to your military job to prevent this situation. Or, you could just plan to move once you retire from the military.
One big exception to this would be if you plan to do a long stint of full-time military service. If you leave active duty with 15+ years of service, USERRA allows you to get established at your airline, then drop military leave and continue with full-time service for up to 5 years. You could end up with an active duty-style military retirement while building seniority at your airline. This could be a perfect opportunity to hit personal goals like command or flying a specific aircraft. (In my opinion, there is no better way to do things if you are committed to the military until at least 15 years of service.) If you’re going to go full-time at your military job for 3-5 years, you need to live locally. Plan to move after you’re done.
While this is a great way to secure yourself a spot on the government gravy train, I feel like it might still not be worth the pain involved. Ask yourself: why are you doing the reserves? If the answer is money, I assert that you may be doing it for the wrong reason. You won’t enjoy the job enough to spend those years of your life on it. The QOL associated with full-time military service will rarely be as good as full time airline work (while possibly playing part time as a TR.) Plus, you’ll lose a lot of money overall, compared to what you could have made flying for your airline. On the other hand, if your answer to “why the reserves?” is that you need just a little more fun flying, camaraderie, or that you’re just boiling over with patriotism, then the money doesn’t really matter, does it?
So, when it comes to choosing an airline, write down a list of every major airline domicile in the country. Think hard about each one and pick a few where you’d really enjoy living. (Give yourself a drivable radius of 2-3 hours.) If there’s a clear winner, apply to every airline with a domicile in that city. If not, apply to any airline with more than one domicile at the top of your list. Finally, apply to every other airline with a base where you and your family could be really happy in the long-run. (This implies involving your family heavily in this process, of course.) At this point, “I’ll take the first offer I get” becomes a choice driven not by fear, but by the potential for a great life.
(The only caution I’ll give here is that airline domiciles aren’t necessarily forever. Delta used to have bases in places like Dallas, Boston, Orlando, and Memphis. There are still hundreds of pilots who settled down permanently, only to find themselves commuting. You’re probably safe choosing Chicago or Denver for United, Dallas or Miami for American, or Honolulu for Hawaiian. However, you need to either realize that you could end up commuting someday, or enter this situation acknowledging that you may still need to move again.)
Now, if you aren’t picky about where you live or you get really excited about a lot of different places, you might as well give some consideration to other factors. We’ll look at them in a couple ways. First, we’ll cover some broad-brush cultural considerations based on my interviews and other market research. Second, I have put together a table looking at the major characteristics I’d focus on, now that I have a couple years of experience in the industry. For the sake of readability, and giving you something to look forward to after your mind-numbing commander’s call in a few days, those parts of the article will be in following articles.