In case you haven’t heard, Trans States Airlines surprised the world this week by announcing that they’re going to completely shut down operations by the end of the year. (If you haven’t already, go read the letter that TSA sent to its pilots.) This is an absolute gut punch, and our hearts go out to those pilots. Nothing is ever going to make this situation okay for them, and we’re going to be talking about the way this went down for the next 20 years.
I’ve noticed an outpouring from the pilot community, with people from many places offering what help they can. I’ll echo my offer from my last TPN post: if you’re a TSA pilot unexpectedly filling out airline applications today, I’ll take a look at yours, for free, before you send it off to a professional app review company or your next airline.
The good news, if there is any, is that lots of places are hiring. Some regionals are offering direct-entry Captain positions. A deal like that won’t help a pilot retain any seniority, but it will at least minimize the financial impact of this situation. If I were in a TSA pilot’s shoes, I’d immediately shotgun apps to all of the following, before starting any serious research into other options:
- GoJet is offering a $50,000 bonus for direct entry Captains, and based on their starting pay being almost as high as what I started on at Delta, their promise for a minimum of $125,000 in first year compensation seems reasonable. Of course, they’re owned by Trans States Holdings, the same holding company that owns the soon-to-be-defunct TSA, but they could be a decent place to start.
- CommutAir is offering $50,000, paid in full, prior to indoc for direct entry Captains.
- Skywest offers “soft landing” consideration to incoming pilots with previous Part 121 experience. (See the poster at the bottom of this page.) They’ll give you credit for up to 10 years of service at a previous company and start you on that line of the pay chart for “pilot pay (up to 10 years), 401(k) match, profit sharing, and user/vacation accrual.” They’re also offering a $7,500 bonus to pilots with the right type ratings. Again, this doesn’t replace your seniority and it won’t make things all better. However, it’s a lot more than you’ll get at most places.
- ExpressJet is getting 36 of TSA’s EMB145s. They’re going to need hundreds of pilots to staff those. The TSA pilots will undoubtedly be at the top of their list. This is a double gut-punch, because you’ll be flying the exact same aircraft for the exact same parent company (United Airlines,) but you’ll lose all your seniority. They’re offering a $22,000 sign-on bonus, an annual “override” of $10,000 for FOs and $8,000 for CAs, and a $5,000 type rating bonus…and TSA’s EMB145 pilots qualify for all of that. Again, this might be a tough pill to swallow, but it’s somewhere to start. Remember: you’re never more than 2 weeks’ notice from leaving for something better.
- Frontier has been hiring like crazy this year as they try to triple the size of their operation. At $58/hr, their Year 1 FO pay sucks eggs. However, it hits a respectable $108/hr in Year 2, and top line Captain pay is competitive with any other A320 operator.
- Delta has publicly stated a goal of hiring more than 1,300 new pilots by the end of this year. Any TSA Captain should be competitive at Delta, and I know of pilots who got hired with zero regional PIC time.
- TPN has two fantastic sponsors who are predisposed to welcoming members of our Network with open arms. I recently referred a friend of mine to Horizon Air, and Jet Linx is a great way to earn hours and experience in great, professional flying other than a Part 121 airline.
This TSA drama has stoked some debates that have been raging through our industry for decades. I’m writing this because I feel like many of the debates get emotionally focused on part of the issue without considering the whole thing. I understand those emotions and hope that there are some old laser printers getting smashed to bits today! However, I want to see if stepping back for a moment might be able to help some pilots find a better way forward.
Historical Regional Pilot Pay
One of the most common refrains in these debates is that we don’t have a pilot shortage…we have a pilot pay shortage. The regional airline industry has proven this, conclusively, over recent years. Starting pay at regionals has skyrocketed from $18,000 per year to much higher levels. I’ve repeatedly asserted that the market price for a starting regional airline FO is $55,000-$60,000. The only excuse for working at a company that doesn’t at least pay this much is if you can’t get hired anywhere else, or you have strong family/Quality of Life reasons for living in a certain place. It’s possible to start with total first year compensation above $90,000 at some regionals.
So, why did the regionals suddenly start paying better?
It’s critical to realize that these pay rate increases were not “sudden” at all. After a decade of bankruptcies, mergers, and financial downturns, the major airlines started making more money and hiring…a lot. Delta was one of the first to open the floodgates in 2014. Southwest, United, FedEx, and UPS have more or less kept pace. American was the last airline to merge (with US Airways) and their retirement wave peaks a little later than anyone else, so they took a couple years to kick into high gear.
The military lost a lot of people to the major airlines in those years, and has finally admitted that it’s in the midst of a serious pilot shortage. However, the demand from the major airlines is so strong that even the entire DOD can’t meet it. That was great news for pilots who’d been stuck at the regionals for years, if not decades. They’ve been moving to the majors in droves, and they are most welcome!
The loss of these pilots was always going to be devastating for the regionals. Their staffing levels started plummeting rapidly. The drama we see playing out at TSA is not a new phenomenon. Republic blamed a bankruptcy on pilot staffing in 2016. The A220s that I’ll enjoy flying later this week were supposed to go to Republic. That company is still around, but another, Great Lakes Airlines, ceased to exist in part because they couldn’t afford to staff themselves adequately either.
As major airline demand increased, the regionals had to do something…and so pay rates and other compensation started increasing. Hooray for market forces!
However, remember that they didn’t immediately start offering $50K to direct-hire Captains. At first, the bonuses were just a few thousand dollars. Then, they got bigger and hourly rates increased. A more recent trick is that companies are offering extra incentives if you already have a type rating on a specific aircraft, or can start immediately as a Captain. This is nothing short of an effort to steal you from your current company as a short-term fix to staffing problems just like those at TSA.
So, let’s ask ourselves: why did these increases happen so gradually?
To answer that, let’s consider how our industry is structured.
Not Their Own Masters
Let’s get one thing clear: in an ideal world regional airlines would not exist. The only reason they do is that the majors realized they could save money by splitting their seniority lists into sections and paying the non-mainline pilots a lot less. That’s not good for us pilots. I also happen to think that it’s less desirable for the passengers. However (spoiler alert) there isn’t a manager at a single airline who cares what I think.
If you look on Airlinepilotcentral.com, you’ll see a list of 29 regional airlines in the US (including the now-doomed TSA.) Some of these are independent companies, while others are partly- or wholly-owned subsidiaries of major airlines. Almost all of them work for someone else. In most cases, you cannot go to a regional airline’s website and book a ticket. (Try it for Envoy or Mesa. Yes, Silver is an exception.)
All the booking and payments for flights on these regional airlines is handled by major airlines through their websites. The regional airlines have no direct say over the price a customer pays to fly on their aircraft. Instead, each regional airline has to negotiate a contract with the major airline they serve. Some regionals even serve more than one major. Each contract specifies the amount of money that the parent company will pay to the regional for its services. Once that price has been negotiated, it’s essentially set for the life of the contract. (This should sound similar…our pilot contracts work the same way, right?)
So what if fuel prices go up, unexpected maintenance issues arise, or coronavirus scares so many people that the regional airline can’t fill all its seats? Can it raise ticket prices to cover those costs?
Like it or not, the regional airline doesn’t have enough control to do that. (If you’ve been following the insolvency of the US Postal Service, you’ll see similarities between the way Congress treats the USPS and the way major airlines treat regionals.)
The major airline can raise ticket prices. In the case of wholly-owned subsidiary airlines, I imagine this happens pretty often and pretty quickly. In the case of independent regionals, a savvy negotiating team might be able to put provisions into the contract that require price increases in case of events like this. However, once the contract is set, there’s no way to get relief until that contract expires and you start negotiating the next one.
This shows why the regionals have never had the power to “just start paying pilots more” to make their staffing problems go away.
Has there been money in the industry overall to increase regional airline pilot pay? You bet! Delta made $6.2 Billion in 2019! If their regional airlines need to increase pilot pay, there’s money to make that happen. Remember though, those regional carriers have no way to make their parent airline give them that money. As much as it sucks, they’re stuck in contracts that specify exactly what they get for years at a time.
So, I believe we saw regional airline pilot pay rates increase somewhat slowly because it all progressed at the pace of contract cycles. Early on, it probably wasn’t a huge burden to pay a signing bonus of $5K to a new hire. There’s probably enough slop in the budget to make that happen. However, before you can offer new hires $57,000 in bonuses like Air Wisconsin, you have to negotiate higher pay rates from your parent airline.
At least part of the reason airlines like TSA, Republic, Great Lakes, and others have run into trouble is that they didn’t anticipate the hiring market, and didn’t negotiate contracts that would allow them to pay market value for pilots. (Yes, it’s also possible that the execs are greedy and hoarding money for themselves. If you want to ignore the economic realities of the industry and ascribe everything to the execs, enjoy your tin foil hats. I tend to believe that, at the most sinister, there are many factors involved.)
If you’ve been reading any of the online discussions about the TSA drama, you’ll hear that their Captain pay and overall benefits lagged the industry. As I said, what’s happening there will never be okay. However, as long as we can find ways to take care of all those pilots, we should celebrate TSA’s demise! Ding dong, the Witch is dead!
As pilots, each of us naturally knows that he or she is smarter than any bean-counting CEO. It’s a pity that those CEOs refuse to admit this, because if they would just listen to me, I could solve all their problems, right? Unfortunately (for them) this just doesn’t happen. It turns out that airline industry execs only respond to much louder signals.
When regional airlines have to start cancelling legs because of staffing issues, it starts affecting major airline bottom line. That passenger flying from Chicago to Berlin doesn’t live in Chicago. She lives in Des Moines, and is only going to bother flying United out of Chicago if there’s regional jet service to get her there.
If TSA can’t cover that segment because of staffing, you can be sure American Eagle will gladly get her to Berlin via Dallas or Charlotte, or Delta Connection will get her there via Atlanta or NYC. Companies like Southwest might poke a hole in this theory by also offering service to Chicago, but United doesn’t want to lose business to them either. The bottom line is: if a major airline starts losing market share due to regional airline pilot staffing, they’ll do what it takes to fix regional airline pilot staffing.
Regional pay had started increasing before Republic declared bankruptcy, but I think that event was a major wakeup call for our industry. If some regionals, like TSA, have been failing to keep up with realistic compensation increases since then, it’s because some airline execs are too short-sighted to remember the very recent past. If that’s true, TSA is the best thing that could happen to our industry overall. It’s a stark reminder that companies have to keep up with current pay rates if they want to recruit and retain enough pilots to fly.
Speaking of messages, let’s talk about one group of pilots that I’m afraid is wasting their time with a weak signal.
Before we get started here, let me say that I support all the pilots at Endeavor Airlines. One of them is my best friend from college. I want them all to get their dream jobs at major airlines, and live happily ever after. Any criticism I offer here is done with love, in hopes of being constructive. And so…
If you’ve been in a US airport in the past few months, you’ve probably noticed some pilots wearing bright orange lanyards almost as ugly as the one that I wore in 2016 during my last contract negotiation. These new orange monstrosities are part of a “Hats off, Lanyards on!” campaign at Endeavor.
These pilots have some valid gripes. They’re a wholly-owned subsidiary of Delta. All of their passenger-facing interactions are done in the Delta name. Their jets have Widgets on their tails. They are a significant part of the regional feed that has made Delta the most profitable airline in history.
They’d like Delta to acknowledge the critical role they play in that brand by ensuring some career progression to the mainline, parent company. Delta needs to hire so many thousands of pilots over the coming decades that it could easily absorb the numbers it’d get from Endeavor. I think the Endeavor pilots’ position is absolutely logical.
Unfortunately, the system that Endeavor and Delta have worked out to grant this career progression has not been good to Endeavor pilots. It’s called the Delta Guaranteed Interview program, or DGI. Once an Endeavor pilot has served for 18 months as a Captain, he or she is guaranteed an interview with Delta Air Lines. Sounds like a great deal, right?
Detour: Flow-Through Programs
The problem with any flow-through program is that it comes at a price. I feel like most formalized airline flow-through programs meet the late Admiral Ackbar’s definition:
It’s a trap!
Like everything else in our industry, most of these programs are seniority-based. This means from the day you’re hired at Regional X, you have to wait until every pilot ahead of you has had his or her shot at the contractual flow-through opportunity before you get your shot.
As a pilot who continuously runs fuel calculations all flight, your first questions when considering any flow-through program should be:
- How many pilots are ahead of me?
- How many get their shot at flow-through each month?
If you get honest numbers, you’ll realize that most flow-through programs are designed to keep you at your company for 3-6 years. “Seniority-based” flow through? It’s a trap.
That seems like a very long time. Remember the discussion we just had about how regional airlines are going out of business because they can’t hold on to their people? Can you blame them for wanting their flow-through programs to ensure they can keep you around for a few years? They aren’t doing this to be jerks. They’re doing it as a matter of survival.
Before we go on, we also need to note that not all flow-through opportunities are created equally. At some, flow-through is essentially guaranteed. I got excited enough about Silver’s flow to Frontier to write a whole post about it. If you get hired by Silver under this program, all you have to do is reach 2,500 hours total time and you’re guaranteed a spot in one of the next 3 training classes at Frontier. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Other companies (like Endeavor) only promise you a guaranteed interview. Even for highly experienced regional pilots and combat-seasoned military aviators, major airline interviews are not a done deal. In my mind, the promise of a guaranteed interview is only slightly better than when my kids promise that if I let them play video games now they’ll do their homework afterwards. (Don’t fall for it!)
This isn’t to say that all flow-through programs are bad. Like I said, I think the Silver/Frontier program is great. I also think that Horizon Air is a must-do for anyone who might want to fly for Alaska. It’s also the perfect regional for a pilot who wants to end up at any major airline’s base in California, or Washington. (I wrote about this program in TPNQ Issue 8.) American Airlines is also known for getting roughly 50% of their new hires for the past few years from their three regional carriers: Envoy, PSA, and Piedmont. If American was high on my list, I’d make these three regionals my top choices.
When you read through these programs, you’ll see some impressive guarantees. However, many of them require provisions like flying as a Captain for at least 2 years, or hitting a certain number of hours. Between that, and the fact that these programs are usually seniority-based, they really can be traps. Thankfully though, we’re in a pilot’s market right now and you have options.
You’re absolutely free to apply to major airlines outside a flow-through program. There are some rumors that if you’re inside a given major’s flow-through pipeline, they’ll intentionally not hire you outside of it. I hope that’s not the case, though I think it’s a possibility. In that case, I’d consider choosing a flow-through program for an airline that you’d enjoy working for, that maybe isn’t your #1 choice overall. That way, if you do get stuck in the pipeline, you’ll still be able to apply to your top choice company without any backhanded restrictions (real or perceived.)
I’d also apply to a wide variety of major airlines, even if I felt trapped in a flow-through program for my #1 choice. Your dream company will be much more likely to hire you from another major airline than they will from a regional. I know lots of people who have flown for more than one major. I just got details about the makeup of the last two new-hire classes at my airline. It included pilots from Alaska, Southwest, JetBlue, FedEx, and more. I think it’s such a viable career path that I wrote a whole post demonstrating that you don’t even give up that much by making this jump.
Whether you feel you’ve attained credentials that warrant hiring outside of a company’s flow-through program, or you’re just trying to do well when you finally get that guaranteed interview opportunity, you simply must do everything in your power to make yourself competitive. That point brings us back to Endeavor.
Back to Endeavor
Before we reach any conclusions, we need some more background for our discussion about the Endeavor pilots’ situation.
Endeavor pilots aren’t happy with their DGI program, in part, because they feel like they shouldn’t have to interview. They feel like they’ve proven their ability to represent the Delta brand. They’d rather have a flow-through program more like those at Silver or Envoy where one interview covers both the regional and the major. I agree that this would be better and think they should work for it.
Unfortunately, there are two harsh truths here:
The first one is that pilots from another airline screwed this up for them in the past. Those other pilots didn’t have a guaranteed flow-through either; however, several of their flow-through pilots showed up at Delta with serious attitude issues. As new-hires, they thumped their chests about how they were Part 121 airline Captains and deserved more respect than they were getting. They criticized the company for not paying them more, not giving them advanced seniority credit, etc.
I’ve only heard of one or two pilots getting not making it through their probationary year at Delta for flying deficiencies, and the company went out of its way to help them stay. Several of the entitled babies from this other airline’s flow-through program got canned, and nobody batted an eyelash. That airline no longer has any type of flow-through agreement with Delta.
If today’s Endeavor pilots want to blame anyone for blocking their career progression, the pilots from that other regional airline should be at the top of the list.
The second harsh truth is that DGI will not change until it’s negotiated in a new contract between Endeavor and Delta. The goal of the orange lanyard campaign may be to force those new negotiations, but I’m afraid it’s not going to work. (More on that in a moment.)
Another reason that the Endeavor pilots don’t like their DGI program is that it’s success rate is abysmal. Anecdotally, fewer than 50% of the interviews that happen through this program result in CJOs. That’s truly atrocious.
In speaking with Endeavor pilots wearing orange lanyards, part of what they’re doing is protesting that pass rate. They seem to expect Delta to “do something” to increase those numbers.
I honestly feel for these pilots. However, I think criticizing the pass rate is short-sighted and counter-productive. Let’s take a moment for introspection and ask why this pass rate could be so low.
First off, as I’ve mentioned, no group of major airline applicants enjoys a 100% interview pass rate. I have a friend with thousands of hours as an IP in both the T-38 and the F-16. He flew combat missions, he held leadership positions, he had advanced aircraft qualifications, he had plenty of hours, a masters degree, blah, blah, blah…. On paper, there was every reason to think that he’d have his choice of airlines. In reality, it took him long enough to hear back from anybody that he did a Regional Airline Touch & Go (article in this issue of TPNQ,) and still got rejected at one major airline interview.
If this dude could make an interviewing mistake that didn’t get him hired, then it shouldn’t be surprising that some percentage of Endeavor pilots also has interview slip-ups.
Next, let’s look at the structure of the DGI program. The basic requirement at Endeavor is that you must be a Captain for 18 months to get your DGI. Let’s assume a best-and-worst-case scenario where a pilot has 1,500 hours total time when he or she gets hired as an FO. The FAA requires a pilot to have 1,000 hours of Part 121 time before upgrading to Captain, which would put our theoretical pilot at roughly 2,500 hours TT.
Although it’s possible to get a maximum of 1,000 hours per year as a Part 121 airlines pilot, the reality is that this would break you. Worse, if you fly the CRJ200 at Endeavor your legs are so short that you can barely even scrape together a few hours over the course of an 8-16 hour workday. APC says the junior Captain at Endeavor is a November 2018 hire. I’d say upgrading in 18 months is possible, though a more realistic timeframe is probably closer to 24 months.
Let’s say you get after it though and upgrade ASAP. Now you’re the most junior CRJ pilot in New York City…and you’re on reserve.
One of the many ways that mainline carriers abuse their regional partners (or use them effectively, depending on your point of view) is that when weather gets bad, it’s the regional flights that get delayed and cancelled first to minimize impact on the mainline schedule. In the summer, this means regional pilots get their flights cancelled for thunderstorms. In the winter, they get cancelled for snow and ice. As a reserve pilot, you’ll get abused, but you’re not going to get a lot of hours.
In a way, this will make you glad that the DGI program specifies a number of months, instead of a number of hours. If it was the latter, it might take forever to get the hours you need. Think about where this leaves you on the day you show up for your interview though.
If you rushed through flight training and instructing to get your ATP, then flew the line hard as a regional FO to get the 1,000 hours needed to upgrade, then worked hard for your 18 months as a Captain, you probably didn’t have time to accomplish much else in life.
12-18 months as a Captain might make you eligible for simulator instructor or Line Check Airman at a regional airline, but they’d rather hire people who have more hours as a Captain than someone who’s been min-running the system and will be eligible for DGI in the next few months.
You probably haven’t had many other opportunities to hold leadership positions or win awards in your primary job or your other pursuits…assuming you had time for any other pursuits whatsoever. You probably haven’t had the time or motivation to earn a master’s degree. You probably haven’t had the time or means to earn additional pilot ratings.
Let’s be perfectly honest with ourselves. If this describes you, your Delta application probably hasn’t scored very well on the day that you show up for that wonderfully guaranteed interview. You’re not officially being compared to anyone else in your interview group, but you’re still not going to look impressive compared to the 6,000-hour Line Check Airman from Regional Airline X or the B-2 pilot in the next room. Even if your shot at a CJO isn’t based on those types of comparisons, is your past record strong enough to make the cut?
This brings us to a critical piece of information that people don’t seem to realize: pilots in the DGI program are assigned an interview without any consideration given to their application’s score.
I almost don’t know how that can be.
There is nothing in the DGI system to confirm that a pilot’s app scores high enough to meet Delta’s hiring requirements before he or she goes to that guaranteed interview. If your application doesn’t score enough to meet their current threshold, you could have the best interview in history, but you still won’t meet standards. Even if they gave some special consideration to DGI pilots (and we’ll see shortly that they’ve started doing this) I imagine that low-scoring apps probably fare poorly in this interview anyway.
Put yourself in the shoes of someone on an interview panel. A sharp-looking pilot walks into the room, nervous and excited. You have a PDF version of his or her app on your company iPad, and your interview questions are based on scrolling through each section of the app as you chat.
All day long, you’ve been talking to regional, corporate, and military pilots with loads of aviation and other life experience. They’ve impressed you. This new pilot hasn’t done nearly as much. Wouldn’t you wonder why? “Well sir, I’ve been working hard to earn the chance to do this DGI. I haven’t had time for much else.” That’s great. That’s Understandable. Still, Delta needs pilots who can handle a 2-FO 767 divert in the middle of the Atlantic at night because the CA is sick…the day they start with the company, or commanding an MD88 after being at the company for just 4 months.
The company has some standards of past experience that have proven good guidelines for when a pilot is ready for that sort of thing, and this interviewee just doesn’t meet those standards yet. You’ve rejected far more experienced pilots with far better applications in past interviews. This interviewee isn’t giving you a lot of reasons to hire him or her in the first place. How many slip-ups will it take for you to go with “TBNT” today?
This fact alone leaves me wondering why Endeavor pilots are surprised at the low success rate of the DGI. When we look honestly at the timeline we just described, and think about the limited opportunities that a pilot has to strengthen his or her application in a headlong rush to hit 18 months as an Endeavor Captain, I wouldn’t be even slightly surprised to hear that they don’t have everything Delta is looking for…yet.
In my mind, this alone could account for a 50% or worse success rate, even if we assumed that every pilot otherwise aced the interview. And we’re still not done counting everything stacked against DGI participants.
As I mentioned earlier this month, I’ve never seen an airline app that was completely free of errors. In the case of almost every app I’ve looked at, there was at least one error so bad that I think it could prevent a CJO in and of itself.
In cases other than DGI, the system protects pilots from themselves here. If an app has errors, it just doesn’t score high enough for an interview and the applicant doesn’t get called for an interview. In the case of something that’s especially glaring, most companies will send an otherwise competitive candidate a “fix-it” email. In most cases, making the changes they asked for are enough for the app to pass muster and earn you an interview invite. Again, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of an interviewer:
Let’s say that as you scroll through your Endeavor interviewee’s application, you notice that it’s riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. That doesn’t look very professional, does it? There’s an unexplained gap in this pilot’s employment history. He or she can explain it, but you wonder how that didn’t get caught before this app got to you. This pilot also logged SIC time for some flying a C-208. You’re not a small airplane pilot, but you know enough to realize that the C-208 isn’t certified for two-pilot ops.
You throw the interviewee a bone: “Did you fly it for a company with an Ops Spec that requires two pilots?”
The unimpressive answer is: “Um, I’m not sure what the Ops Spec said about it. They just said I was a crewmember, so it was okay to log the SIC time.”
This is all stuff that the interviewee should have caught. Why didn’t that happen? You know that many interviewees pay for a professional app review. Did this one not? Why such seemingly poor attention to detail?
Every other app you’ve seen today was free of these types of stupid little errors and distractions. You’re not used to seeing these kinds of errors because by the time other applications get to you, they’ve passed some extra layers of review. Whether you as an interviewer are aware of the mechanisms or not, the other applications you see during interviews all look far more professional than this DGI pilot’s application.
I suspect that Delta and Endeavor view DGI as a benefit, and suspect they advertise it as such to their pilots. Honestly, I’m not sure it’s all that beneficial in most cases.
Instead of helping their pilots with this process, DGI exposes all of a pilot’s weaknesses at the do-or-die point of their one and only guaranteed interview. Unless a DGI pilot has done an eye-watering series of app reviews, there will be errors that nobody notices until you’re sitting at the panel interview – errors that would have otherwise precluded an interview invite. Instead of asking your bad Captain and TMAAT questions, your interviewers are going to be pointing out and asking about errors in your application. You’ll automatically look worse than every other pilot being interviewed that day. This will make your interview less friendly, and it will raise your stress level. Can you see where this downward spiral leads?
Put all that together: nobody is guaranteed to ace an interview, 18 months as a regional airline Captain has the potential to get you to an interview too soon…before you can be otherwise competitive, and the pitfalls of a “benefit” that bypasses the protection of having your app scored before your interview. Is it any wonder why DGI success rates are so low?
We’re going to look at some solutions, but we need to cover one more part of the Endeavor pilot group’s complaints.
In an effort to modernize the pilot hiring pipeline, most major airlines are working on ab-initio programs. Delta’s is called Propel. The company has partnered with several collegiate aviation programs. Students in this program interview with Delta and can get a Qualified Job Offer (QJO) in their senior year. At that point, the student goes on to earn an ATP and/or spends some time flying for a regional, a corporate outfit, or the military long enough to gain a specified number of hours. As long as that pilot meets all the requirements of the program, he or she is guaranteed to move up to mainline Delta at a set point in time. It’s a great deal for baby pilots!
Delta isn’t the only company doing this. United just announced their Aviate program that looks oddly similar to Delta’s. Southwest was excited to talk about their Destination 225 program at TPNx this year. JetBlue had several Pathway programs back before it was even cool.
I think these programs are the way of the future. I think they’re good for everyone in the long run. However, current Endeavor pilots don’t like Propel because they feel like it bypasses them. Why do these college students who haven’t proven themselves as pilots or ambassadors of the Delta brand get such a firm QJO, when experienced Endeavor pilots who fly what Delta-owned and painted jets every day only get that mediocre DGI?
I can see where they’re coming from. In order to understand how we got her, we have to remember how this industry works. Delta has full authority to do whatever it wants to attract pilots, independent of its relationship with Endeavor. In fact, Endeavor has fewer than 2,000 pilots, which highlights part of the uselessness of their opposition. DGI was not negotiated as a benefit. Endeavor’s ALPA MEC had no say in how the program works, and has little or no say in how it gets adjusted now.
Thankfully, the Propel program is brand new, and only involves a handful of students at Delta’s partner universities. Even if Delta offers a bunch of QJOs this year, those pilots won’t have met the criteria to move up to Delta mainline for at least a few years. Many of them will even be sent to Endeavor to earn the hours that are part of that criteria.
In the meantime, every single pilot at Endeavor has a lead on these Propel pilots. Endeavor pilots have multi-engine turbine time, at least one type rating, and they’re adding hundreds of those hours per year. I assert that there is more than enough time for any Endeavor pilot with the potential to be competitive for Delta to strengthen his or her application before this first handful of Propel students moves up to mainline. Delta’s need for pilots is so great that it could absorb all of Endeavor, all of the replacement Endeavor pilots that Propel is likely to produce for the next few years, every pilot leaving the military, and still need more.
Where Does This Leave Endeavor Pilots
Having looked at all this context, what do we think about the Endeavor pilots’ predicament and what can we do about it?
Yes, Endeavor pilots represent the brand of the major airline that owns their company in whole. They are at least as good of candidates for a QJO-type flow-through as unproven college seniors. Like it or not, the reasons that the DGI program sucks so badly are not that anyone is intentionally being unfair to them. DGI fails people because it rushes them to an interview before they’re ready for it, without any protection.
Knowing what we do about our industry, what does “Hats off, lanyards on!” do for these pilots? Does it highlight the failure of the DGI program? Yes! That’s not a hit on Delta though, it’s a hit against the pilots failing the interview.
Their first step in solving this problem is getting Endeavor’s ALPA MEC to stop leading actions that only make their pilots look like pilots from past flow-through programs. You’re already wearing the diapers for those pilots’ mistakes. Don’t highlight that fact!
The next step is to do what it takes to make sure that you and your app are competitive if you get thrust into your DGI.
I’ve been reading and watching The Expanse lately. (If you’re looking for something to do on layovers, I highly recommend it.) In my mind, I happened to run a draft of this post past Chrisjen Avasarala, my favorite character from this show. Her immediate and exasperated response was classic:
“Will someone tell those G–d— pilots to pay for a half-decent f—— app review!?”
If I was an Endeavor pilot looking at the threat of DGI, I might never stop getting my app looked at. I’d have my wife, my parents, my high school English teacher, and whoever else I could con into reviewing my app put eyes on it. I’d absolutely pay for a professional app review, but only after all those other people had seen it.
In the meantime, although I just recommended it, I would absolutely not be wasting my time on layovers watching any TV…even The Expanse. I’d be doing everything I could think of to strengthen my app. I’d get active as a mentor with the Professional Pilots of Tomorrow. I’d volunteer to do science projects for the airline, my union, or both. I’d look at earning a Six Sigma certification…maybe from a place like Perdue. I’d volunteer at Habitat for Humanity. If I didn’t have a Master’s Degree, I’d absolutely start working on one.
Does online grad school suck? Yes. I didn’ particularly love it. However, it is 100% doable. I did mine while deploying 7 times in 4.5 years. I actually took extra classes while I was on the road because I had so much more time free from honey-do lists and everything else associated with real life. Layovers are the airline equivalent of deployments, and you absolutely have time to earn another degree.
Does it suck that having a masters degree could improve the score of a major airline application? Maybe. That doesn’t change the scoring matrix though. Given a choice between watching more Netflix or working on a degree on your layovers, only one has the potential to increase your chances of getting hired by a major airline. Take it or leave it. (You need a side-hustle anyway, and you could choose a degree that will help facilitate a good one.)
Let’s put ourselves back into the shoes of Endeavor’s parent company for a moment. I have to imagine that Delta is as surprised and disappointed by the DGI pass rate as anyone. This program was given as a gift and if we were still in their shoes, we’d do everything we could to be ready when the time came for the DGI. (I wonder if Delta has even considered the nuances that lead to so many Endeavor pilots showing up for a DGI looking unprepared.) If this version of the program makes so many Endeavor pilots look undeveloped and unprofessional, would you feel any motivation to reduce scrutiny of those pilots by offering a guaranteed flow-through program? (Again, we’ve looked at why things appear this way. Those reasons may not be fair or nice, but we have to consider how the parent company views the situation.)
If we’re Delta, does “Hats off, Lanyards on!” impress us? Does this make these pilots look like the mature professionals we want to hire…or like petulant children? We can still smell the stench of the pilots from that other flow-through program. What about “Hats off, Lanyards on!” makes us think these Endeavor pilots are better?
Remember how we looked at the structure of our industry at the beginning of this post? The Endeavor pilots also need to realize that they have zero leverage to make Delta do anything. If Delta gets unhappy, they have 27 other regional airlines to hire pilots from! If they never hired another Endeavor pilot again, they’d still be able to staff their company.
Thankfully, Delta hasn’t been petty enough to retaliate against the Endeavor pilots’ little campaign. In fact, my bet is that the response is closer to, “Awe, that’s cute,” than anything.
Delta and Endeavor made the news early this year when they announced improvements to the DGI program. The three gains that all this achieved?
- Endeavor pilots don’t have to take the job knowledge test (because Endeavor uses the same one as Delta mainline. This was an easy sell as cost savings.)
- Endeavor pilots get “Preferential Scoring Credit” on their apps which should help make up for the lack of opportunities they have for professional development if they try to rush through the DGI program.
- An Endeavor pilot who doesn’t succeed in the DGI program can go through a second time and skip any portions of the interview process he or she already passed.
Overall, this is a win for the Endeavor pilots – which is exactly why it’s a problem. Although it’s a win, it’s a small one. It’s still only a guaranteed interview opportunity, and not a flow-through program. It makes up for some of their disadvantages, but still won’t be enough for some pilots.
Unfortunately, by making these few minimal concessions, Delta just freed itself from enacting any more meaningful improvements in the near future. Another part of the Endeavor pilots’ battle cry has been that they want “career progression.” What they got was a slightly better role of the dice. If they ask for more, Delta can now say, “We just gave you some concessions. We did our part.” If the Endeavor pilots want to continue pressing the issue, Delta can get what they need other places.
In my opinion, if the Endeavor pilots really want career progression, their current attempt is dead and only hurting them from now on. What do they need to ask for? How about insisting that a third party puts eyes on an application before a pilot gets interviewed? They could ask Endeavor to pay for a professional app review…a few hundred bucks a pop is a lot cheaper than some things they could do.
They should really also ask that the DGI criteria chance to say: “18 months as a Captain at Endeavor, and an application score that meets Delta’s hiring guidelines.” This would protect a pilot from having to interview with an application that will not get him or her hired.
I believe that if you got one or two of these provisions, your DGI pass rate would increase significantly. This would also send a much more effective message that you’re interested in being part of a professional pilot organization. It’d show some long-term thought and acknowledge the need for professional development.
Should the Endeavor pilots try to get a more guaranteed pathway to Delta? Absolutely. However, they would be better served by doing what they can to improve their applications, and negotiate for a more useful mid-term improvement before trying to go all the way.
Also of note, if Delta or Endeavor won’t pay for a professional review of each Endeavor pilot’s app, then their union should. These pilots pay a portion of every paycheck into the union, and this could be a service it provides. It could even conduct these app reviews itself.
Where Does This Leave The Rest of Us?
Unfortunately, most of this doesn’t help Trans States’ pilots in the short term. I hope that it helps give them some perspective on flow-through programs when they consider where to apply next. I think many of them will be competitive for a major airline, and hope that this terrible situation will be the impetus that helps them finally make that leap.
If regional airline hiring bonuses weren’t enough to convince me to start at the bottom of another regional’s seniority list, I’d at least make sure I had apps on file with companies like JetBlue, Frontier, Spirit, Allegiant, Sun Country, Southern Air Cargo, Atlas, etc. You’ll get mixed reviews about any of those companies, depending on who you talk to. However, I think each of them could potentially be a great place to work while waiting for a major to call. For the right pilot, most of these companies could even be a great forever home.
In the near term, I’ve seen lots of offers online from chief pilots and hiring departments to meet with pilots from TSA. Thanks to all of you who are making these offers! Like I said, I’ll look at any TSA pilot’s app. I also suggest that if any of us runs into a TSA pilot in the near future, we buy him or her a drink as a combination of condolence and encouragement.
I’m also going to put in a shameless plug here for my book, Pilot Math Treasure Bath, not because I’m out to make another buck but because I believe it truly has the power to help TSA’s pilots in the short- and long-term. There are chapters dedicated to baby pilots, regional airline pilots, and deadzoners. Depending on how long you’ve been at TSA, you may fall into all three of those groups.
For everyone reading this, the sooner you can apply Pilot Math to fill up a Treasure Bath, the sooner you can live a life free from any worry about things like this happening. (And I promise, this is not the last time we’re going to see this happen.)
If you can’t afford a copy of my book because your airline just went bankrupt, or you’re just morally against my self-advertising, ask your library to order a copy instead. (Think of it as part of your tax refund for the year.) Most library systems will let you do this online. (If you have to ask in person, let them know it’s available through Ingram Spark and/or Lightning Source. They’ll know what that means.) If you want to read it for free, but can’t wait that long, let me know and I’ll send you a copy because I’d rather you get the information than I make a couple bucks.
Regional airline bankruptcies, pilot (pay) shortages, and flow-through programs are emotionally-charged issues. I realize that I haven’t gotten everything perfect here. I realize that I’m not a regional airline pilot and that I may not know the whole industry as well as you do. However, from what I’ve seen, some people tend to latch onto one or two parts of what I’ve discussed here without taking a look at the whole situation in context.
If you disagree with what I have to say, feel free to say so in the comments. You can even call me a stupid poopy head…my kids call me worse every day. You’re welcome to ignore or discount any part of what I’ve said.
I feel like everything I’ve covered here addresses at least part of what’s happening in our industry. I feel that a pilot who uses this context to shape his or her relationship with our industry will be more successful overall. You’re welcome to choose not to do that. Thankfully, my career doesn’t depend on me being right or wrong, or your acceptance or rejection of these ideas. I hope these thoughts help.
To the TSA pilots out there, I hope you land softly.
To the Endeavor pilots out there, I hope you find an effective way to get the career progression you’re after.
To everyone, the A220 is a magnificent airplane. Delta hopes to hire 1,300+ pilots before the end of the year. Get your app in and come fly with me!