Airline Pilot – Second Year in Review

This post originally appeared on AviationBull.com in 2018. This version may not match the original exactly, and some links may not work. Sorry. It is reposted here with permission by the author.

When I was last deployed in Kandahar a few years ago, constantly obsessing about whether or not to leave active duty like everyone else in my squadron, one of the most frustrating things was the lack of truth data on airline life. I hope I’ve been able to generate useful information with posts like my First Year in Review. I’m wrapping up my second year at Delta now and I figure you may also get some use from a look at this year. 

In short: this year was better than the first, and I still love this job!

Pay Comparison

Let’s start with a tabulated summary again:

Year 1 (2016)Year 2 (2017)Difference
Pay$80,183$110,181+$30,098
401(K)$13,592$21,881+$8,289
Profit Sharing$11,205$16,249+$5,044
Health Care*-$15,600-$15,6000
Totals$89,380$132,811+$43,431

*I didn’t actually spend $15,600 on health care. That’s the absolute worst-case scenario for what you might have to spend on the most expensive company-sponsored health care plan. I had Tricare through my wife for about half the year, so I can’t give you an accurate estimate of health care costs for this year.

This means I received about $148K in total compensation for my second year. Not too shabby! Last year, I noted that second year pay is 43% higher than first year pay. Our contract also gave us a small across-the-board raise this year. That feels about right as my total compensation for this year is about 49% higher than it was last year.

I could have actually made a lot more money this year, but prioritized Quality of Life (QoL) over money in several areas. I made less per flight hour by transitioning from the MD88/90 to the B717. (More on that later.) I also flew less than average this year. (More on that later too.)

If you average my pay out, I got the equivalent of just over $1000 for every day I spent at work, or about $283 per hour flown. This is more than double the hourly rates you can find on airlinepilotcentral.com. When I’m doing back-of-the-napkin math I tell people to estimate annual compensation as 1000 x Hourly Rate. I feel like my pay numbers validate that rule of thumb, but only as a very conservative estimate. My actual total compensation has been higher than that both years so far.

I ran some numbers for what a pilot of my age would be making in the Air Force and was surprised to find that I’m “losing” a little bit of money compared to my (fewer and fewer) remaining active duty counterparts. This is based on the pilot bonus increase to $35K and a new top-tier monthly flight pay of $1000. (I ended up estimating that an O-4 peer would have made about $156K this year, with an O-5 “peer” making roughly $161K, before tax, including an “average” BAH value in Fort Walton Beach, FL.) Under the old values, I’d be making more than my O-4 peers. However, that’s far from the whole story.

General Stats

I flew a total of 520 hours during my second year. (I probably got paid for another 40-50 hours of deadheading, but I don’t put those flights in my logbook…“Other” time is even more meaningless to me now that I got my airline job.)

That covered a grand total of 145 days of work, including about 105 nights where I didn’t sleep in my own bed. I knew I’d slacked off a little this year, but was surprised to find that I only worked an average of 12 days per month!

A military aviator optimistically gets 52 weekends off per year (104 days,) 30 days of paid leave, and a random smattering of federal holidays, goal days, family days, etc. If you add those up, it comes out to roughly that same 145 figure. This means I only spent as many days at work as a military pilot gets days off, while getting paid roughly the same.

Let that sink in for a few seconds.

Then, let’s also consider the fact that many of my trips had 30-hour layovers. This happens when the first and last flight of the day to a smaller market gets mainline metal, with the rest of the day being served by the airline’s regional partners. (Think Green Bay, Cedar Rapids, Montego Bay (Jamaica), Monterey (Mexico), Gainesville, etc.) The FAA’s new(ish) Part 117 rules on pilot rest don’t allow the crew who flew the last flight in to turn around and fly the first flight out the next morning. This results in pilots getting two nights and one day at the given layover location with absolutely nothing required from the company.

Some people aren’t fans of these layovers, but I love them. You can meet the captain at a local watering hole to watch football, go hiking/skiing/exploring, write posts for your brothers and sisters on TPN, or just enjoy a relaxing day with no demands from either the company or your other life back at home. If my company allowed me to do my reserve job as a USAF Academy ALO while on layovers, it would be a perfect opportunity to write emails and interview candidates (not that I would eeeeever do that boss!)

Thanks to great contracts fought for over decades of negotiations, you still get paid your minimum daily guarantee for these long layover days. For me that’s 5.25 hours of pay (plus profit sharing, plus 16% fixed 401k contribution, plus per diem) for a day of sitting around relaxing while on the road. Yes, these aren’t days at home with my family. However, for me they only barely count at “work.” Looking back through my records, I averaged at least one of these long layovers per month.

I mentioned that I made a little less money this year than my peers who remained on active duty. However, if I worked as much as my slightly-more-industrious peers at Delta and averaged one more 4-day trip a month I would have increased my income by about $49K. This would have put me at a solid $181K for the year, beating even my buddies who accelerated to O-5…and I still would have worked 27 fewer days that year than they did, before counting any deployments. If I worked as many days a year as an average military pilot does, my total compensation would have been closer to $225K.

Not only do you earn far more money over your lifetime by leaving active duty to go to the airlines ASAP, I’m already getting far more time with my family (as a second-year FO on a busy aircraft) than I ever got in the military. Oh yeah, and this all assumes that you don’t spend a single day deployed or TDY with the military. How many years have you spent fewer than 105 nights per year deployed or TDY during your military service?

Far more money (in the long run, and also now I want to go earn it), far more time at home with my family, far less stress…wow. The more time I spend in this job, the tougher it is to come up with reasons that I could have used to justify staying on active duty. (And if I was having trouble getting over the loss of fun military flying, the Guard and Reserves need pilots as bad as active duty does. I may still end up pursuing some Total Force flying, but my current Reserve job is keeping me happy for now.)

Seniority

During the year, my seniority number decreased from 21,696 to 12,212…484 numbers. You may note that this is far more progression than the 389 (or so) mandatory age 65 retirements quoted on sites like airlinepilotcentral.com. It turns out that the previous generation of pilots has been working itself hard and many of them aren’t lasting to the statutory age limit. Whether they’re leaving for medical reasons, or just realizing that their ‘stache is far bushier than necessary, it appears that the airlines are losing a lot more pilots than expected every year.

This is great news for those pilots (in my opinion) because they’re giving themselves the long-overdue gift of freedom. It’s even better news for us because it means that there will be more jobs available in the near-term and our seniority will progress more quickly than we thought. The airline execs should like this too because younger pilots are cheaper. Everyone wins here.

My number puts me at 84% on the overall company seniority list. I’m at 41% within my category (Atlanta 717 First Officers,) which is a truly outstanding position. When I put in my monthly bid I list the specific trips that I want to fly and tend to get awards from my top 10-15 choices. When I was more junior I’d just put in general criteria (“I want this list of days off and I prefer 4-day trips. Please no layovers at NYC airport hotels or in Flint”) and then take what I got. Now, I choose where and when I want to layover. I avoid bad locations and short stays. It’s awesome to have this much control over your life!

Changing Aircraft

I got awarded a bid to switch from the MD88/90 to the B717 last February and finally converted at the start of September. (Meaning, I flew the MD88 for most of the year and finally started B717 training on 31 August.) On the surface you may be asking “What were you thinking?” I see where you’re coming from.

If I’d stayed on the MD88 I’d be at 33% relative seniority in that category right now…even better than my current 41%. The pay rates are also significantly different:

2nd year MD88 hourly rate: $122.60/hr

2nd year B717 hourly rate: $118.05/hr

This means that bidding down to the B717 cost me at least $4550 right off the top.

This was a conscious choice to give up some pay in return for better QoL. At the time, it looked like I was going to be more senior on the B717. That didn’t pan out, but I’m still senior enough to get what I want, so I’m happy. The best benefit of the B717 is that the category has better staffing. My company has a tough time keeping enough FOs to staff the MD88 because most of us move on ASAP. (It’s not a bad plane. It doesn’t deserve the bad reputation. I’ll happily bid back to the left seat on it.) This means they’re always short on reserve pilots and our contract rules generally prevented me from dropping or swapping trips at those staffing levels. The B717 category is fully staffed, which means we have plenty of reserve pilots, which means I can swap and drop trips with ease. Having the ability to massage my schedule like this is worth far more than $4500. I’ve cashed in on this many times throughout the last few months:

  • During my first month on the jet I bid reserve. (I was trying to game the system to make extra money.) However, I ended up feeling a little burned-out and wanting some more time with my family. On a whim, I put in a request to drop several days of reserve and was astounded when the request got approved almost immediately. This cost me some money, but got me an extra week with my family.
  • Another month I had a regular line, but again wanted more time with my family. I was able to drop a trip and get an extra four days at home.
  • The EAA scheduled one of their SportAir Workshops in Lakeland, just down the road from my new house, this February. I was able to swap a 4-day trip for a 2-day and go learn oxy-acetylene welding. (It was a fun class. I highly recommend doing one of their workshops, even if you don’t plan to plan to build an airplane.)
  • I got an offer to do a fun side-gig for a couple days. I lost some money dropping a trip to go do it, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m glad I took it. (Bonus points if you can figure out what it was. It should be more obvious around October-ish.)
  • I got assigned a terrible trip over New Year’s. It was four long days with either 2 or 3 short NYC layovers. I was able to swap it for something great: leave late on the 30th for a single leg to Appleton, WI (surprisingly great as a long layover.) I stayed there for 30 hours, and then flew 3 easy legs back on the 1st.

Those are just a few examples of how QoL improves by bidding to a well-staffed category.

Between increasing to 3rd year pay and our contractual pay increase for 2018, my pay rate has now skyrocketed to $142.30/hr. This means I’ll automatically make at least $25K more this year, if I stay on this aircraft. However, I have my eye on bigger prizes.

The International Trade Commission unanimously agreed with me that Boeing was ridiculously hypocritical in trying to keep Delta from buying the Bombardier CS100. Rumors say that we’ll be able to bid for seats on it very soon. If that’s true, I’ll be bidding for the left seat. Between the CS100 and deliveries of A350s, A330-900s, A321s, and B737-900s this year, I expect a lot of movement in my company. My backup bids will include captain’s seats on the MD88/90 and possibly the B717, as well as the right seat on our combined B757/767 category. It’s exciting to have so many options.

The People

This year has continued to be a 50-first-dates experience for me. I think I’ve flown a grand total of 2 or 3 trips with the same person so far in my career. I don’t mind this; I’ve actually enjoyed meeting so many different pilots.

Although there are now 50+ Atlanta MD88 captains junior to me, most of the captains I fly with are at least 10-15 years my senior. Many of them are my Dad’s age. Sometimes that means a trip ends up feeling like a road trip with your Dad…a good thing in my book. Some of them seem younger than their age and it’s more like going TDY as an O-2 or O-3 with the cooler field-grade officers in your squadron…also a good time.

Every once in a while, my captain and I just end up not connecting. It makes the trip less entertaining, but it’s not terrible. First Officers at my company are allowed to include a “Do Not Fly With” list in our bids. I have yet to put a single person on my list…it’s never been that bad.

It’s interesting to fly with disgruntled pilots. These are guys (I still haven’t flown with a woman, unfortunately) who make more than $300K/yr flying for one of the world’s premier airlines…and they hate life. I feel bad for them, sort of, some of the time. It’s tough to keep myself from just blurting out, “You have a disgusting case of excusitis and you’d be way happier if you chose to cure it!” I’m usually a little more timid and try to tactfully float hints and suggestions their way.

Once I get over my initial, futile desire to fix their lives for them, I pay attention to what they have to say. I believe that most rumors are based on at least a little truth. There are all kinds of forces at work in our industry, and not all of them act in favor of pilots’ long-term well-being. I try not to obsess about that stuff, but I’d rather know about it than not.

Most of my captains really are great though. Based on their (usually excellent) examples I’m working on a list of notes for future Captain Emet. Here are a few:

  • Captains cover drinks for FOs. (As an FO I never expect this and I never go overboard, but I sure appreciate it!)
  • FOs on probation also eat for free. Yes, they’re making six figures, but it’s still going to be a point of pride for me to take care of them.
  • When experiencing delays, never present the FO with this statement: “You’re okay with getting the absolute minimum 8-hours at the hotel tonight so we can try to get back on schedule tomorrow morning, right?” Instead say something along the lines of: “I’m beat and we have another long day tomorrow. I want to make sure we’re properly rested for it. What show time tomorrow will allow you to get the rest you need?” Then call the company and inform them, rather than ask, what your show time will be. (Future Captain Emet will relish every opportunity to exercise the “Command” in PIC.)
  • Trust your FOs to fly challenging approaches. They wouldn’t have gotten this job if they weren’t prepared for it.
  • And yet, if things look start looking ugly, don’t hesitate to call for a go-around!

This is just a start. If you have any good ones please leave a comment. I’ll owe a beverage to anyone who comes up with worthwhile advice for future me.

New Opportunities

I’ve branched out just a little this year. I signed up to be a new pilot mentor. It’s an easy and rewarding job that my company seems to value a lot more than I expected. It really only involves a few hours a month of text/phone/email with my new hires, answering questions about stuff that I recently learned myself. Some of them barely talk to me because they seem to figure things out on their own, and others call me a couple times a month. I’m fine with both…I like being able to make their lives just a little bit easier. It makes this job feel a bit more like the old flying squadrons that I miss being a part of.

The mentor position is unpaid, but I did get two days of training at company headquarters. We got treated like royalty and got intimate Q&A sessions with some of the top leaders in our company. It was a great experience. If your company has a mentor program, I highly recommend taking part!

I took advantage of another opportunity by writing and presenting some resolutions at a meeting of my base’s ALPA chapter. One of the things I notice about complainypants captains is that most of them either don’t know how to make things better or aren’t interested in trying. I see some things that could make our operation safer and/or more efficient. These improvements would all make life better for us pilots, so I wrote my ideas up and presented them to the pilot group. One got vehement negative feedback while on the floor and I ended up withdrawing the resolution mid-discussion. (I plan to find a new angle and reattack.) Two others got adopted by the group with minimal changes.

After the meeting, everyone who’d spoken against my resolution shook my hand, thanked me for taking an active part in things, and encouraged me to keep at it. No hard feelings…just like any other quality pilot debrief. It was a great learning experience and I’m excited to think that I may have instigated changes to my contract that will benefit more than 14,000 pilots. I’m already working on some better-written resolutions for the next meeting.

Perspective

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s so pervasive that it’s worth repeating yet again. I love the professionalism of the people in this industry. Yes, there are complainers and lazy people everywhere. However, when it comes down to it, an operation with thousands of moving parts comes together to launch multi-million-dollar aircraft thousands of times a day. There are no commander’s calls, staff meetings, formal feedback sessions, or Lt Colonels standing by the approach end of the runway with a stopwatch to make sure you have adequate spacing behind the preceding aircraft. (I can’t make this stuff up!) CBTs are about 90 minutes, once a quarter, and you get paid extra to do them.

People show up and do their jobs. The people managing the company let us fly and leave us alone. When you’re done flying you go home and forget that you have a job. I cannot overstate how wonderful this all is!

I’ve done layovers all over the eastern half of the US and in a few foreign cities throughout Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean. While there are some places I prefer to not go, it’s tough to find a bad layover. Like military assignments, layovers are what you make of them. Craft breweries are popular enough right now that most cities have at least one place serving fantastic food and a bounty of frosty beverages, if you’re so inclined. Pilots are very good at finding good food and there are plenty of layover guides on the internet to help you find your way in a new place. Most of the time those guides aren’t necessary because your captain already knows all the best places.

Not all layovers have a full-up gym where you can get Noticed while you preen, adjust your designer workout wardrobe, and continuously coif your carefully gelled boyband haircut in the mirror while listening to something Trendy on your iPhone X. However, if you can get over yourself long enough to do something physical, you can get an adequate workout anywhere.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can voice- or video-call home for free and access the entire library of written, musical, and video human achievement from your computer at any layover. You should be able to find something to keep yourself busy no matter where you go.

One of the (probably incorrect) reasons some people give for staying in the military is that it provides better financial security. I was recently reminded of this absurdity when our government shut down for several days. The internet blew up with military members enraged that they might not get paid. Welcome to the real world. It turns out that even the government gravy train isn’t always a sure bet. Given the option, I’ll take cold, hard cash in an account with my name on it over it a promise based on the government’s ability to continue taxing and spending at this rate any day.

Part of this attitude is probably based on the fact that I’ve been doing some more reading on personal finance than usual this year (in addition to Ian M. Banks outstanding Culture series, NK Jemisin’s award-winning Broken Earth trilogy, and others.) I read Rich Dad, Poor Dad many years ago and it changed the way I thought about money and wealth. This year I finally read The Millionaire Next Door. It simultaneously felt like obvious principles that I’d always known, and a quantum leap in my personal perspective on the meaning of wealth. You may have noticed the healthy dose of Mr. Money Mustache in this post as well. (I don’t plan to try living on $25K/yr total spending anytime soon, but who wouldn’t want a happier life and “Financial Freedom Through Badassity”? Go spend a couple weeks reading everything he’s ever written. You won’t regret it!)

Thanks to all of these good influences I’ve come to realize that I live a pretty great life right now, and I could probably be just as happy while consuming a lot less. I also realized that while I could go on to earn upwards of $10M over the course of my airline career, I’m not sure I want or need that much money to be happy. I’ve really enjoyed having more time with my family and I can easily see a future where I work less (than my current 12-days per month average) and enjoy more time with my wife and kids, while still earning ridiculously tall stacks of cash every month.

I enjoy airline flying enough that I don’t think I would want to give it up altogether. However, there isn’t a chance in hell that I’ll be a 60+ year old MD88 captain flying 4 legs a day, 16+ days a month. An MD88 captain could work 8 days a month or less and still easily bound past $100K every year right now, enjoying the other 22 days/month for whatever he or she feels like doing. That life sounds pretty great to me.

If you haven’t looked into the idea of attaining early financial independence and working less (or retiring altogether) you should take a look at some of the links I just posted. I’m actually thinking about writing a book on how to make that collection of ideas work for pilots. Maybe in the next year or two when I fly with a whiny captain I’ll be able to just pull a copy out of my bag and hand it to him with a smile. (Don’t worry about missing out on the announcement. If this actually happens you can expect me to blare it obnoxiously from my carefully crafted bully pulpit here and other random street corners all over the internet.)

In the meantime, life is really easy right now and I’m enjoying it. I spend about as much time at work as most people get free from work. While the work I do is pretty easy, it’s still engaging enough to keep me interested. (As a pilot, I naturally believe that I’m perfect. Despite that, I realize that I can always strive to improve.) I truly enjoy the way this job lets me explore the country/world, and it provides more than enough money to support my family. I plan to continue trying out different aircraft and bidding for a captain’s seat to keep things interesting. However, as my pay increases I’ll have the option of either saving massive amounts of money now, or saving slightly less massive amounts of money while working much less. Either way I’ve won the work/life balance lottery.

If you’re wondering whether you should abandon the military in favor of the airlines, or pursue an airline job at all, I humbly suggest that the answer is a resounding, “HELL YES!”

If you’re still in the military, thank you for your service. I appreciate you working to keep me and my family safe. However, once you’ve done your bit for king & country, take the break that you deserve. The former CSAF told us that he can find people to replace you, and whether that statement was fact or folly, it’s not your problem. Come make more money and fly more for less stress. Spend more time with your family and live a good life with them. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty great.

Thanks for reading!

Emet

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