By Jason Depew, TPN staff writer
If you’re just joining us, this is Part 2 of 3 in a series about choosing an airline to work for. In Part 1 of the article, I suggested that the single most important factor to consider when choosing an airline is: location.
The sad (or not-so-sad) truth is: location is so important that every other factor pales in comparison. No matter where you go, you’re going to find ways to optimize for pay and/or Quality of Life (QOL.) That said, if you end up deciding that you’d be happy in more than one location, or your ideal location plays host to more than one airline, here are some general things you can consider. (Part 3 of this article will have a fancy spreadsheet with some specific company data for direct comparison.)
I recently saw a post on TPN where someone had offers from Southwest and American and was trying to figure out which company would be more “fun” to work at.
The easy answer here is Southwest, right? It’s known for a laid-back, enthusiastic culture.
I feel like Virgin America might also fit that bill. They have been known for more of a hip/cool vibe than SWA, but it was still unique in a good way. (Sorry, but that culture will change now that Virgin is part of Alaska…what that ends of being is yet to be determined of course. Their unique culture will try to hang on in some bases and some of it will seep into the combined company, but it is hard to say how much of it will give way to Alaska’s existing culture. Don’t mourn too hard though. Alaska beats-out even the big legacy airlines to win top industry awards every year. It’s a great company and any one of us would be lucky to work there.
The closest successor/peer for Virgin’s vibe might be JetBlue. It’s not a large airline and you may not make as much money there as at others, but it’s definitely a sharp company. If you read The Points Guy at all, you’ll hear rave reviews about JetBlue.
Now, having made these gross generalities, I assert that they’re all bullshit.
Any airline with thousands of pilots will be at least as diverse as any squadron, school, club, or other flying organization you’ve belonged to. Since we’re all pilots and we know that we’re generally better than everyone else on the planet, chances are most people in your organization will be easy to get along with.
Every once in a while, you’ll really click with someone you fly with. You’ll enjoy every minute of the trip. You’ll have to consciously force yourself to focus on flying because the flight deck conversation will be that enjoyable. You’ll go out to eat together every night of the trip because it’ll just make sense. When the trip is over, you’ll feel just a little disappointed that its all over.
There are also, unavoidably, goobers in any organization. You won’t have much in common and conversation will be forced. They’ll either avoid going out at layovers or you’ll wish they would. They’ll get wrapped around the axle over things that you regard as not nearly that important. Your inability to connect with this person will be as much your fault as it is his or hers, and you’ll feel oddly ashamed about it. Religious or not, you’ll praise God when the trip finally ends.
This is all just as true of FedEx as it is of Delta as it is of Southwest or anywhere else. Nothing about the big-picture company culture will apply universally to every pilot on an interpersonal level. If you’re a generally positive person who knows how to adapt and thrive as much as possible in interpersonal situations, you will enjoy life no matter what airline you join. If not…well…you probably don’t realize that you’ve been “that guy” or “that gal” for a long time, and your friends owe it to you to hold an intervention. (Maybe someday I’ll write a how-to post for making that happen.)
Just as some people expect the overall company culture to govern interpersonal interactions, some people expect one airline or another to offer flying experiences more interesting than others. Sorry to break it to you, but that’s probably just not going to happen. I hate to crush your ego, but we are mostly glorified bus drivers.
The flying you do will consist of: SID, cruise, STAR, vectors visual (backed-up by the ILS.) Every time. Several times a day, depending on what you fly. Even if your company allows and encourages hand-flying when appropriate like mine does, you’ll be using the autopilot for at least 95% of your career.
Yes, maybe 5% of the time you’ll get some kind of interesting approaches. Flying down the Potomac (don’t get shot down for flying through the Prohibited areas!) to do an extremely un-airline-like, last-second, hayaka turn to land at DCA is fun! So are some of the visual approaches at LGA, JFK, and other places. You’ll enjoy those when you get to do them, but depending on your employer, it might be a very rare thing.
Some pilots think that flying bigger jets will equate to more interesting flying. I would venture to say, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The larger jets spend a greater percentage of their time in cruise. This is hours on end trying not to fall asleep (not allowed) by not reading or watching movies on an iPad (also not allowed!)
Some pilots think flying something new and sexy will be more interesting. It’s not much different. I’ve flown a lot of different aircraft, and I’ve ridden on a lot of jumpseats. An ILS is an ILS no matter what airplane you’re flying.
“Roger, autopilot off”
It doesn’t look much different whether you’re in a run-out MD88, a brand-new A321, or a T-38.
There are times when the flying is engaging. Trying to avoid turbulence so that you can improve the customers’ experience (and thus your profit sharing) is engaging. So is dodging thunderstorms, or planning for and executing a landing at an airport buried in snow and ice. I’m looking forward to landing a 737-700 at KEYW someday. It’s always as edifying to have passengers praise a good landing, as it is character-building when you are a little slow to open the flight deck door because you know they are about to give you crap for a terrible one.
Those few moments of engaged flying do make our jobs more fun. However, professional flying done well should be as boring as possible.
This job is enjoyable because of the people you work with and the places you get to go. It’s enjoyable because it lets you earn a ludicrous amount of money for a regular amount of [usually] very easy work, or still amazing money for relatively part-time job. That combination of time and money open up opportunities for you to pursue other things in life. If you want that to include “fun” stick-and-rudder flying then either go buy/build something fun to fly, or go work for the Guard or Reserve. As my good friend Shakes recently said, “The Guard and Reserves will still happily absorb every free minute you are willing to give them once you become an airline pilot!”
I don’t feel like a desire for “fun” makes much difference in what airline you choose.
Speaking of this job being good because of where you go, layovers do matter…to an extent.
If you have a burning desire to “see the world” outside the US, then you need to choose one of the majors or possibly Hawaiian. Although JetBlue, Alaska, Southwest, and others do cover some locations in Canada, Central America, the Caribbean, as well as Hawaii. They’re not major international players, but you could still get your fix. Some of them make noise about trying to compete against RyanAir and Norwegian flying the B737-MAX or A321 Neo across the Atlantic to Europe. That’ll be a fun opportunity if you work for that company, but over the time span of our careers, it’ll only account for a tiny percentage of the flying in those companies.
I’ve flown with former-AMC pilots who got to see the world with the Air Force. While some of them would enjoy doing some more of that, most of them could take it or leave it. You may feel this way, but you should definitely not avoid a major to avoid international flying. You can actually be more senior overall and have better QOL sooner if you stay senior on a narrow-body at a big airline than if you wait to get to the top at somewhere like Southwest. Nothing obligates you to fly internationally, but it’s nice to have the option just in case you change your mind. If you’re 100% sure you don’t need international flying ever again, then you merely keep airlines like SWA, Alaska, and JetBlue on your list, rather than eliminating any others. This shouldn’t generally be a conclusive consideration.
Within the realm of mostly domestic flying, I assert that everywhere is basically the same. I run into crews from other airlines everywhere I go. We all fly to basically the same city pairs. The biggest difference is that a Delta pilot does every other landing in Atlanta while a United pilot does every other landing in Chicago.
If you’re the kind of person who’s never happy with anything in life, you’ll hate this job no matter where your layovers are. If you’re the kind of person who can make the best of any situation, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bad layover. (Thank you, Flint Michigan, for making a liar out of me here.)
Back of the Clock
Some pilots hate flying late at night, and want to minimize or avoid it. (Part of this is based on the military’s poor application of human factors in sleep and rest planning. Part 117, the relatively recent FAA rule about rest, along with each company’s pilot contract, makes life a lot better for airline pilots. Don’t necessarily give up on this type of flying because TACC sucked the life out of you in the past.)
FedEx and UPS are notorious for this kind of flying and I know some pilots who have discounted flying for them based on this. While that may be a decent overall choice, a FedEx friend of mine mentioned that they are a 24/7 operation. There are pilots in the company who only fly when the sun is up. My friend lives in base and just flies domestic out & backs. He puts the kids to bed, goes to work, gets home and sleeps in, and has most of the day with his family. He’s only stayed two nights in a hotel in his first two years at the company. It works well for him. It could work well for you.
On the other hand, most long-haul passenger flying involves operating overnight. If you can sleep on airplanes and function well with changing time zones you can thrive on this schedule. If not, you’ll probably hate it. I’ve flown with several captains who just couldn’t take it and moved back to a narrow-body. Avoiding the back of the clock doesn’t need to prevent you from cargo flying, and you won’t avoid it altogether if you fly for a major passenger airline either.
Size Actually Does Matter?
Delta does a lot less international flying than the other two legacy companies. Two-thirds of their profits in 2017 came from domestic flying while only about one-third came from international flying.
Some pilots bemoan the lack of wide-body aircraft, and part of me can see where they’re coming from. It’s nice to have the highest “industry-leading” pay rates, but if the company has so few wide-body aircraft that only a small portion of the pilot groups earn that level of pay, then the claim of “industry-leading” might be a little misleading. It might be fun to be able to choose from a wider variety of international layover locations. It might be nice to have a bunch of shiny B787s and B777-300ERs for everyone to fly.
At the same time, the industry consensus seems to be that the greatest threat to our jobs are air carriers like the Middle East 3 (ME3) and the ultra-low-cost, flag-of-convenience carriers like Norwegian. The ME3 operate at enormous losses and only exist thanks to billions in government subsidies. It is economically impossible to compete against carriers like that right now. Norwegian charges low fares by offering service that is mediocre at best. My company generally targets a different set of customers and can still compete somewhat; however, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
American and United may have giant fleets of sexy widebody aircraft, but together they carry nearly four times as much debt as Delta. Combined, they only made about two-thirds as much money as Delta did last year. Two companies holding four times the debt to make less money overall…that’s a heavy price to pay for giving more pilots the opportunity to fly sexy, high-paying widebody aircraft. I like my company’s financial position a lot better. I’ll enjoy the flying I get for now and wait a little longer for the fancy stuff.
If you’re a military pilot, you’re probably pretty clueless on work rules and that’s something that will take you a little while to get good at. Imagine the pilot group having the power to negotiate your operational rules and policies instead of having them dictated to you by TACC or whatever other bean-counters run your branch of service. Good work rules make a lot of difference! By the same token, bad work rules can really make life terrible.
I’d love to give you a detailed comparison of every airline’s work rules, but I lack the capacity at this time. My Pilot Working Agreement (contract) is hundreds of pages long. Even if I had the time and energy to pour through that many pages of document for that many companies, it just isn’t realistic. Every company does things a little differently. Even trying to address a single area like pay, scheduling, or commuting rules would be like trying to give you a head-to-head comparison of Dewey Destin’s, 12 Bones, and Beau Jo’s. They’re some of the best restaurants on the planet. They’re all great at some things. The locations and ambiance are all great. Yet, the overall experience and food is all so different that the comparison isn’t even worth attempting.
The best you can do is talk to people who work at those companies and ask lots of questions. Thankfully, that’s exactly what TPN is for! If you don’t know someone from your previous life at a given company, I guarantee you can find someone on the Network who’ll be happy to relate their experience at a given company. There’s probably even a decent chance you can find someone locally and reward their generosity with food and drink. (Maybe even a triggerfish sandwich, a full rack [don’t cheat them or yourself by ordering a half-rack!] or The Motherlode.)
I feel like a series of chats with pilots from each US airline would be an awesome series of TPN Podcasts. I can also imagine similar discussions being hot items at a future TPNx. (Hint, hint to Matt and Adam….)
Having successfully knocked down all my straw man arguments here, I feel like it’s safe to continue with my conclusion that you should base your airline choice primarily on location. However, I’m willing to attempt to make some sense out of the publicly-available corporate data for each company. If you’d like to ride along, watch for Part 3 of this series.
(I’m sure I didn’t cover every possible factor that you might want to include when considering an airline. Please feel free to add or discuss others in the comments. However, I still believe that none of them will be as important as location.)