How I Made $4400 to Eat a Slice of Pizza

Note: I wrote this several months ago…we’re behind in our publishing schedule. I left it voiced as if it was yesterday. Let’s just agree to pretend okay? – Emet

Dear TPN, I just made $4,400 flying to New York and back for a slice of pizza. How was your day at work?

No, I’m not exaggerating or kidding you. While this is far from an everyday occurrence, each of us has the power to increase the likelihood of getting good deals by choosing what companies we apply for and then what categories we bid for once landing a job.

(In airline speak, “category” is the seat you occupy on the aircraft you fly, and the base from which your trips start and finish. This time last year, my category was Atlanta B717 FO. My current category is NYC A220 FO. This time next year, my category will be NYC A220 Captain. https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/emet-why-did-you-take-a-junior-captain-seat)

The three different categories I’ve flown since starting at Delta each represented a unique combination of Quality of Life (QOL) factors. (Most of) my intent here is not to brag, but use these situations, along with some general industry insight, to present you with a comparison. I hope this will help you shop for jobs and categories in the future…or at least give you something new to debate around the flight school water cooler or while you pretend to work on TPS reports and science projects in your military cubicles. (Don’t feel guilty about doing that and don’t pass up a single opportunity. You never know when the guy in the next cubicle will crash 7 miles from base in a God-forsaken dump of an African country. https://www.hurlburt.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/204913/four-hurlburt-airmen-die-in-u-28a-crash-in-djibouti/ Here’s a toast….)

I started out as an MD88 FO, based in New York for about 4 months before switching to Atlanta. At my new-hire dinner I was the plug…the most junior pilot in the entire company. I spent a couple months on reserve, but I was able to hold a line (get assigned a set schedule through the monthly bidding process) before I even left New York. My seniority advanced rapidly, especially in New York, because the MD88 was…unpopular. It’s reputation was undeserved in my opinion, but I didn’t mind reaping the benefits. If you’re a good enough pilot to deal with a slightly more challenging aircraft, going for the oldest, most worn-out, least-loved jet should serve you well. If you chase something shiny, new, or large, it will cost you in relative seniority and QOL.

I needed very specific days off because I was commuting from England, and I was senior enough to get mostly what I wanted the whole time. My family and I did numerous week-long vacations all over Europe without caring what days I’d been officially assigned vacation. There was a good variety of trips at both bases, and by the time I finished around 40% seniority, I was starting to bid for specific layover locations and durations.

One drawback of picking an unpopular fleet to get seniority was that the category was always understaffed. My company offers pilots a variety of ways to drop, swap, and add trips. Unfortunately, they restrict most scheduling adjustments in categories where they don’t have enough reserve pilots to cover trips you want to drop. In the MD88 it was nearly impossible to just drop a trip because reserve coverage was never good enough. Seniority = good, inflexibility = bad. Just like everything in aviation, these two factors are tradeoffs.

I moved to the 717 for a variety of reasons. My seniority stayed about the same. I was able to immediately start bidding for specific trips each month, and usually got assigned about 4 trips from my top 5-10 choices. Since the 717 is much more popular than the MD88, the staffing on the category is much better. We almost always had reserve pilots at or exceeding the numbers required. This let me regularly adjust my schedule. More than once I just dropped a trip and stayed home to have more time with my family (and accepted the decrease in pay.) I worked an average of about 10 days per month during my time on the 717. (https://www.tpn-go.com/airline-pilot-third-year-in-review/)

If, now or in the future, you plan to copy my strategy of working less for less money and more time at home, be careful about what category you bid for. This strategy only works if staffing levels (and the rules in your contact) are good enough to allow it. At my airline, I could drop my entire schedule if I wanted to. Some buddies at UPS told me that they can drop trips until they have about 37 hours on their schedules. That’s not a lot of work, but if you want the ability to take if a full month here and there UPS might not be for you.

The pilot contact at each company has lots of these unique little quirks, and it’s worth researching them before you apply. I wish I could do a massive comparison of the contacts of all the major airlines, but it’s just too complex a task. My contact is something like 600 pages long. A single document comparing contacts at the 6 major US airlines would span several volumes of books. Even if I could get someone to pay me for that writing, I’d rather spend that time playing Warrior Cats (https://warriorcats.com/) with my daughter.

The 717 fits a nice niche between a regional jet and a larger mainline narrow body. (Boeing recently lost a BS trade dispute because they choose to ignore this fact and this market. http://aviationbull.com/2017/oct/14/boeing-bullies-bombardier-hypocrisy-most-foul They decided to stretch the 737 well beyond what should have ever been MAXimim effort for it. They’re paying the price for their bad choices now https://www.chicagobusiness.com/manufacturing/how-much-will-737-max-crisis-cost-boeing, but I have hope that they’ll end up stronger for it all.) In my opinion, the best part about the 717’s unique place is that it tends to do the last flight in to a Tier-3 city every night, and the first flight out in the morning, with RJs covering all the other fights throughout the day. Thanks to the FAA’s newish rest rules (Part 117: https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=7fc4e6fe69deee75c9d2ffd80b47d30f&mc=true&tpl=/ecfrbrowse/Title14/14cfr117_main_02.tpl) this means the crew who brings the 717 in at night can’t fly it out the next morning. Instead, they get to stay for 2 nights in a row, doing zero actual work during what amounts to a paid day off in the middle. I love these layovers and bid to have one on almost every trip. Not everyone loves them because they depart very early in the morning, but I like getting paid to not work.

Some airlines get around this with a scheduling trick called a Continuous Duty Overnight (CDO,) a stand-up, or a lean-over. They’re able to schedule you to show up, fly the first leg, spend 4-5 hours in a hotel room, and then fly the last leg back to base all within the maximum Flight Duty Period (FDP) allowed in Part 117. Most companies don’t give you a full 2 days of pay for these trips, but they do pay extra. If your daily guarantee is 5 hours of pay, a CDO should pay 6-7 hours. I don’t like the idea of doing these trips, but some people love them. I have a friend who used to do them at a regional. She’d kiss her kids goodnight, to to work, and be back before they left for school in the morning…and she got paid extra for it. You should find out whether a company’s contact allows lean-overs, how much they pay, and how easy they are to get/avoid (depending on your preference) before you apply there. The same goes with bidding for a specific seat at your company.

I’ve commuted for my entire airline career so far, but not all commutes are equal. When my commute was TPA-ATL, I could count on 12 mainline fights on most days, though it could be as few as about 6 flights on slow says. Many of those were A320-series aircraft with 2 jumpseats each…a commuter’s ideal aircraft.

If possible, it’s important to have options to commute on your company’s own mainline aircraft because you’ll have priority for the jumpseat. If you’re commuting on another carrier, even a wholly-owned regional authored airline subsidiary, you can be bumped off the jumpseat by the most junior FO in that company. I probably had options to fly Southwest, JetBlue, and many others out of Tampa, but I never even bothered trying. I usually had plenty of options on Delta, and I was able to use Orlando and Sarasota as backups.

When I switched back to NYC on the Canabus, my commuting situation changed drastically. There are usually about 8 flights from TPA to New York each day, but about half of those go to JFK. Most of my trips start from LGA, so JFK just adds expense and hours to my commute. This leaves me with 4-5 realistic commuting options on any given day.

Not only are there fewer flights each day, they’re spaced out at much less convenient intervals. Delta has a TPA-ATL flight and once an hour from 5:30 am until about 8:30 pm. That was frequently good enough to commute up for a trip on the same day it started, even with a pretty early show time.

Delta has a great policy that protects commuting pilots if something falls through. As long as you have a firm jumpseat or nonrev reservation for a fight, and there’s a later backup flight that would get you to your base before your assigned show time, they’ll never punish you if your commute falls through. On the 717 I had a lot of flexibility planning my backups because we had a flight almost every hour of the day. If I had a late show time for a 717 trip, I could realistically spend most of the day at home with my family before heading to work.

I don’t get the same luxury traveling to New York. The latest flights to JFK and LGA are around 8:00 pm every night. The next earlier flights depart around 3:26 pm. (Which flight do you think I take most frequently?) The earliest flights of the day don’t depart until about 7:00 am, arriving in NYC around 10:00. The only backup option doesn’t leave until noon, arriving around 3:00 pm.

This means that even if I have a very late show time at LGA (say, 9:30 pm) I still have to be driving toward the Tampa airport NLT 1:15 pm. The lack of early arrivals in the morning means that if I have a show time before 3:00 pm, I have to fly out the night before. If the show time is before about 9:45 am, I have to leave at 1:15 pm the day before my trip starts, in order to have sufficient legal backups.

I’d hoped to not have a cash pad as an NYC A220 FO, but I’ve started shopping for one. This will only get more difficult when I become a very junior Captain and get less ability to control my schedule.

While our daily fight schedule plays into my commuting calculus, it’s the company’s trip design that causes most of the problems here. In an effort to spend less money on pilot pay, the company plans early show times and/or late release times for most NYC Canabus trips. The company knows that New York has more commuters than any other base, and the havoc their trip planning wreaks on so many lives. The company doesn’t exist for my personal benefit though, so it’s not likely to give me later show and earlier release times soon.

I don’t say any of this to complain. I knew (mostly) what I was getting into, and I’m finding ways to make things work. I’m explaining this to show you how important it is to research a company/category before you go there.

One unique consideration here is that a strong union can have an effect on trip planning. It’s possible to include a provision in a pilot contact that gives a Union committee input on and even some veto power over the design of every trip every month. ALPA has spent decades failing to achieve this for Delta’s contact. We’ve just entered negotiations for our next contact and there’s widespread support for getting some sort of relief here. Here’s to hoping…. When you’re researching an airline, it’s definitely worth finding out what kinds of power your contract gives your union over seemingly little things like trip construction.

So, if I knew the NYC trips would probably be less commutable, why did I bid for this category? It turns out there are some nice tradeoffs of time, money, and seniority.

Although the 220 initially went very senior on the Captain side, it went junior among FOs. (It’s the second lowest paying aircraft in the company, and see above for just a few of the reasons why NYC is a terrible base unless you live there.) As I write this, I’m #11/76, or about 14% in my category. Of the trips in our monthly bid package, I basically get my choice. (It also helps that I fly weekends to be opposite my wife’s work schedule.) If there are commutable trips, I’ll get them. If there are more desirable layovers, I’ll get them. It’s nice.

The 220 is also unique in that is has very long legs…3,500 miles worth. (That’s longer range than any of our thankfully non-MAX B737 variants, our fancy new A321CEOs, and even most of our B757 variants.) We fly much longer legs than the MD88 or the 717. Our new engines make us far more efficient than now “legacy” A320s and B737s, so we get to cover some of the longer trips they used to do. A typical day on the Canabus is 2 longer legs or 1 long and 2 short legs for a total of about 7.5 block hours. On all my other jets the legs were so short that even doing 4 flights a day might only pay the minimum guarantee of 5+15 hours. If a 4-day trip on the 717 paid exactly 21 hours, a 4-day trip on the 220 probably pays somewhere in the 23-25 hour range. This means I get to work fewer days for the same amount of money. Overall, this helps mitigate the effect of having to commute to work the day before a trip starts. (The value of those trips adds up quickly at $155/hr (Year 4 pay,) plus 10-20% profit sharing, plus 16% company 401k contribution, plus per diem.)

Flying 7.5 hours a day may sound like a lot, but 2 legs on the 220 is a far easier day than 4 shorter legs on the 717. It’s time mostly spent at cruise. The flight deck is roomier than either of the DC-9 variants, or even a 737. It’s the least work I’ve ever done in my life, and it pays more than I’ve ever made.

Flying a short-range aircraft costs you hours, pay, and more demanding work days. This effect is magnified at least 200% at the regional airlines. Be careful what you bid for. Research the types of trips available before you go there.

My seniority, plus the fact that the A220 is a brand new fleet makes for some unique opportunities for me. When adding a fleet type, an airline has to do a delicate balancing act. They need to have pilots trained to fly the new jets as they arrive, but they don’t want to train too many pilots and then pay them to sit around not flying. Just about every aircraft program in history has ended up over budget and behind schedule, meaning that airlines usually end up training pilots too soon no matter what. I got to spend about a month getting paid to sit at home between the Sim and OE. Some pilots got more like 6 months.

Getting pilots through OE is a problem/opportunity too…which leads us to finally figuring out how I made $4,400 to eat pizza today.

Only a Line Check Airman (LCA) can conduct OE training. On a new fleet, there are only so many flights a day available for training, and seniority rules require the company to award those flights through the regular bidding process. Since training is also done in seniority order, the people who need training are almost always junior to the people who get awarded the trips each month. This means the company has to “buy your trip” from you. They pay you for the flying, but let you just stay at home while the LCA and his or her student do the work.

That’s what happened to me today. I was schedule for a 4-day trip worth 21+43 hrs. (Yes, this was a low-paying trip for the 220. I bid for it because it had a couple easy single-leg days.) Still, $155/hr, plus 10% profit sharing (a very conservative estimate for this year,) plus 16% 401k contribution comes out to about $4,400. I had to commute up the night before the trip, because of all the scheduling issues we just covered. I knew they were going to use my trip for training, but they won’t officially release me until about 5 or 6 pm the night before. I got the visual voicemail translation of that news through my free onboard WiFi (messaging only for now on Delta) on my way to New York while watching The Avengers on the seatback screen of a nice A319. Knowing that this would probably happen, I’d already listed for a jumpseat home on the last flight out of LGA. I had just enough time to run to the food court, get some decent (though honestly not amazing) New York-style pizza (still outrageously overpriced even with my 30% employee discount,) and hop on my flight home. Sure, this whole boondoggle cost me a full evening with my family, but it’s still not bad considering the money I’ll make and the fact that I now have an extra 4 days at home with my family.

I hate sounding like the sham-wow guy, but when I talk about working for an airline I frequently find myself saying, “But wait, there’s more!” It turns out, there’s more here!

When the company buys your trip, you suddenly have several days with nothing planned. Although I highly recommend saying at home with your family, sometimes the company makes you an offer too good to refuse. When your trip gets bought, you’re allowed to pick up extra flying over those days, and if there’s any kind of bad weather, computer glitch, or maintainer work action going on (https://www.dallasnews.com/business/american-airlines/2019/06/30/american-airlines-says-mechanics-causing-delays-now-judge-could-force-union-pay) you can frequently do that flying for premium pay.

I did this for my first A220 trip after OE. I commuted up to LGA and sat around all day waiting to fly. I showed up to the jet to find an LCA with a new FO doing the preflight. (Scheduling had forgotten to call me. I haven’t made this mistake again. Now, if I haven’t heard from them by 18:00:01 the night before a trip, I call them!) In this case I caught a flight out right away and got home in time for dinner. The next day, the automated system called offering me an Inverse Assignment. (https://www.tpn-go.com/ja-congratulations-you-just-volunteered/) I wouldn’t normally take one of these, but my wife wanted a new paver patio out back and I needed to fly 100 hours in 120 days to get consolidated anyway. I promptly called scheduling back and jumped on that grenade. I mentioned that I was in a Tampa and that since it was late notice there weren’t any open jumpseats available for my commute to NYC. They booked me a confirmed ticket, granting me a zero-stress commute. (It never hurts to ask!)

I flew the IA, an easy IAH turn (out and back) and got back to NYC late enough that I had to stay in a hotel that night. (Chump change for a guy who just made 16 hours of pay for one day of work!) All told, I made the equivalent of about 8 days of 717 pay for: one wasted day, one extra hotel stay, and one day of work. We lovingly refer to situations like this as “winning the Delta lottery.”

The company tries hard to get their balancing act right, but production delays (and BS trade disputes) will inevitably put aircraft deliveries behind schedule. Delta currently has 18 of 95 A220s on property. We’ll be getting airplanes (and training crews to fly them) for years before we get anywhere near steady-state. This good deal isn’t going away anytime soon.

Okay Emet, that’s some great insight for Delta that may tangentially relate to other airlines. However, I hate hats and double-breasted jackets. Can you make any of this more relatable to the rest of us?

Certainly.

First off, I cannot emphasize enough the fact that you should avoid living somewhere that requires a commute (https://www.tpn-go.com/give-a-hoot-dont-commute-part-1/,) unless you have a compelling reason to do otherwise. (https://www.tpn-go.com/give-a-hoot-dont-commute-part-2/) Much of my whining here would not happen if I “simply” moved my family to Queens. (Or at least somewhere half-decent like New Haven or Allentown.) Not only could this make your life easier, it could also make you rich. (https://www.tpn-go.com/careful-what-you-ass-u-me/)

Next, if these examples do nothing else, they should reinforce the idea that Seniority is Everything! (https://www.tpn-go.com/seniority-is-everything/) I’ve only been at my company for a little over 3 years, but that’s the difference between being 11% in my category and new-hires being 99%. The left seat on this jet went fairly senior, but the bulk of the Captains (and most of the LCAs) are only about 2000 numbers senior to me. In many cases, those are 2014 hires who have only been at this company 2 years longer than I have. We’re already having drastically different careers than our slightly senior peers, and that effect will continue for more than 2 decades before we all retire. Do not delay your path to a major airline. Don’t take a non-flying job at your regional unless your resume desperately needs it. Don’t stay in the military longer than you have to. (You can get almost anything you could possibly love about military service in the Guard or Reserve…after you get a seniority number at a major airline! https://www.tpn-go.com/ideal-military-pilot-career-path-spelling-it-out-part-1/)

Much of my relative seniority advantage has been a factor of flying less-popular aircraft. If you’re about to find yourself sitting in an indoc class, I recommend you think hard about what aircraft you pick. Sure, it might be exciting to fly a shiny new B737 or A321, or get an initial assignment on a widebody like the B767 or B777. Realize though: this will keep you more junior for longer than your compadres who pick a less desirable aircraft. If you want to maximize QOL, go for the aircraft that everyone else jokes about. At American, this was the MD80 and is still the E190. It’s also the E190 at JetBlue. At Delta this means MD88, B717, and even the A220 to some extent. United is desperate to fix some low-end scope issues and their pilot group is on the record saying they’d love to have the E175 as a mainline aircraft. If that happens, it will pay less than any other jet at the company, it will go very junior, and it’ll be a fantastic opportunity for a pilot looking to maximize QOL.

Several airlines don’t have opportunities like this because they only have one or two fleet types. You can still apply these principles with the base you choose. Although I assert that you’re always better off living in base, if you’re going to commute anyway, you should at least consider living somewhere that allows an easy commute to an unpopular base. That’s one reason Tampa is nice. I can get to ATL more easily than NYC, but I can still do a single-leg commute to LGA and JFK. If I lived somewhere like Boisie or Oshkosh, it’d have to fly at least 2 legs or rely on other carrier regional jets to get to NYC. It wouldn’t be realistic.

You could live a pretty great life as a Southwest pilot who lives 1 leg away from Oakland, a cargo pilot who lives 1 leg away from Anchorage, a Delta pilot who lives 1 leg away from Detroit, or somewhere close to New York.

Another reason that I’m getting so many good deals on the A220 is that it’s a new aircraft type. Adding an aircraft to any operation is guaranteed to cause chaos. For a smart pilot, this kind of chaos is synonymous with “opportunity.” Some of the first A350 pilots at Delta had 7-figure sums on their W2s last year.

If your company is going to add a fleet, and you don’t mind a little unpredictability on things like training dates, I recommend you consider bidding for it. Some upcoming opportunities may include:

  • Hawiian changing from the A330 to the B787
  • JetBlue adding the A220
  • United adding the E175
  • Southern Air adding the B737
  • Silver Airways converting to the ATR 42 (https://www.tpn-go.com/a-new-frontier/)
  • Frontier, JetBlue, and possibly others adding the A321XLR. This won’t be an additional type rating, but it’ll require some additional OE or other specialized training that could induce some pilot-friendly chaos.
  • Hopefully all three majors adding the 777X

I don’t recommend basing your choice on which airlines to apply for based solely on trying to get a few years of good deals on a new fleet. However, if you know that you won’t be sticking around forever, it might be worth bringing this into your crosscheck. (https://www.tpn-go.com/a-100-knot-tailwind-with-continuous-light-chop-occasional-moderate/)

This also means that you may consider avoiding some companies that aren’t likely to add new fleet types. Allegiant and Frontier seem pretty happy with the A320-family, and I wouldn’t expect them to add anything new anytime soon. The biggest cargo carriers (FedEx and UPS) seem to be pretty set with the types of aircraft they have. I don’t foresee a new type of freighter aircraft showing up anytime soon. (Although, some passenger carriers are starting to park A380s….) For better or for worse, I don’t really foresee Southwest abandoning their beloved 737 any time soon. (As a Delta guy, I hope they hold true to that. I’d hate to have to compete against SWA B787s or A220s!)

Although this could provide some lucrative fun for a few years, the truth is that most pilots end up settling down at some point in their career. They find a type of flying they enjoy, try to get senior on it, and learn to maximize their contract to their benefit. If it makes sense for you to be at an airline that will have some of these opportunities, even as a short-term plan, I think it’s worth doing. I wouldn’t base my plans for a 20-30 year career on a situation that will only be in effect for a few years.

I hope I’ve effectively illustrated some of the trade-offs you’ll want to consider as you try to decide what company to work for and what category to bid for once you get there.

This industry works because each pilot wants something different, and if you’re a little bit flexible you can absolutely reap the rewards of things changing.

There are a lot of moving pieces and I only scratched the surface. The next obvious question here is: “How do I research all this?”

Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer. You’re probably not going to get access to the pilot contracts for a bunch of different airlines. Even if you did, it would be incredibly difficult to effectively digest the details of each one not having worked at that particular airline. It’d be even more difficult if you’ve never done any Part 121 flying.

I think I have a better solution though: go talk to people.

The best way to get insight into a particular airline’s opportunities is to talk to someone living that life every day. If you’ve been a pilot long enough to meet a major airline’s minimums, there’s a good chance you know people working at several different companies. If they live nearby, invite them over for a barbeque or buy them lunch. Most pilots are cheap and won’t refuse free food and drink. Worst case: call the person, do some catching-up, and ask your questions over the phone. Email and FB messages are fine, but you can cover a lot more ground more efficiently through voice communication.

If you don’t know anyone at a particular airline, start by asking your friends. Sometimes you’ll find that you just hadn’t heard about someone you know getting hired. Sometimes, they’ll be able to introduce you to someone new.

Don’t forget that The Pilot Network is a built-in group of 25,000+ friends. If you ask, I’m confident that you’ll be able to find someone working for an airline you’re considering. Don’t be afraid to post questions publicly, but realize that if your questions get too detailed it may be appropriate to take things to private messaging or a phone call.

While online communication is nice, TPN facilitates a couple superior ways to do this kind of research. We’ve been holding Hangar Fly events all over the world, and I’ve been to several in Tampa. Each one has been a good time, and each one has offered invaluable insights for a variety of aviators. If you haven’t heard anything about Hangar Fly events in your area and you would like to attend one, contact Matt & Adam (heyguys@thepilotnetwork.org) and volunteer. If you are capable of choosing a place to eat dinner or drink beer and post on social media, you are 100% qualified to host one of these events!

As great as these local events are, they don’t even cast a shadow on the scope of our annual conference, TPNx. This year’s event was fantastic, and I spent the entire weekend discussing exactly the kinds of specifics I’ve written about here. Attendees had unprecedented access to pilots from several major airlines, including the hiring teams from Horizon and Southwest. If you have lingering questions, or just want to do some meaningful, specific research on work rules at the airlines you’re considering, you will never find a better resource than TPNx. (Read more about TPNx 2019 here: https://www.tpn-go.com/tpnx-2019-quality-over-quantity/)

If you choose well, you’ll be able to have your…pizza…and eat it too. You’ll be able to bid for fantastic quality of life while still making more money than 89% of all Americans the day you start at a major airline. It’s a pretty awesome situation to be in. Don’t delay if you aren’t here yet.

Since I wrote this I’ve upgraded to Captain on the A220 and gone from #9 from the top of my category to #4 from the bottom. Strangely, my Quality of Life hasn’t suffered as much as I imagined. I’m working slightly more than my average 10 days per month, but I’m writing this on my way to spend Thanksgiving with my family in Colorado. I also expect to be able to spend Christmas with my wife’s family in Virginia. Expect a post about how I’m making that happen another day.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Enjoy your families and fly safe!

The feature image for this post was taken by sammy joonhee on Unsplash. Thanks!

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