Junior Captain Update #1

I wrote last year that I’d just been awarded a seat as the 4th most junior A220 Captain at Delta. Every time I interact with people online, they ask “So, how’s it going?” with a sort of morbid, hesitant, even cringing curiosity. (Don’t feel bad, I’d be asking the same thing in exactly the same way if our roles were reversed!)

Spoiler alert: it’s been fantastic. I enjoy running my own show, I’ve maintained full control over my schedule, and the money…well….you can read the pay charts yourselves.

I finished OE in October and have been flying the line without training wheels for a couple months now. Although I’m planning on doing a 4th Year in Review post after profit sharing drops in February (16.6% baby!), I felt like it’s worth giving a bit of an update now.

For the sake of my own sanity, I’m going to start by addressing some of the points from that original post in roughly the same order. Here were some of the key considerations/expectations:

  • Amazing pay increase
  • Maintain the ability to make family schedule work
  • Probably mediocre schedule and layovers
  • Enjoy running my own show
  • Challenge myself
  • Fly with younger pilots
  • Not chasing more “respect”
Is it me, or does the view improve from the left seat?

The Money

Let’s start with the money, because I know that’s one of the top questions on your mind. My hourly rate is $244. Plug that into these basic math equations:

Hourly rate x 75 hours per month x 12 months = Annual Flight Pay

Annual Flight Pay x 0.166 = My 2019 Profit Sharing

All of the above x 0.16 = Automatic Company 401k Contribution

Add all three of those, tack on roughly $500 per month for per diem, and you get a decent picture of the annual salary for a Year 3 Captain at a major airline in 2019. (Note that this is a very low-end estimate. Most major airline pilots choose to fly more than 75 hours per month.)

Yes, as a former military aviator, major airline Captain’s pay is stunning. (And I’m still only in Year 3 on the 2nd lowest-paying aircraft at my company!) I feel like I’m getting premium pay every time I fly. At one point recently, it looked like I’d only be getting 60 hours of pay for the month. Poor Old Joe would tell you that’s too low. “There’s no way you can make ends meet on 60 hours of pay Emet!” However, 60 hours of Captain pay (at $244/hr) equates to 94 hours of FO pay (at $155/hr)…and I only have to work about 8-9 days to reach get that many hours on the A220. So, with just over one week of work per month, I can do better than the best month I ever had as an FO. I’ll take that any day.

Long trips can make for early and/or long days. That also means fewer days of work per month.

I’ll admit that I’m guilty of working more than 60 hours per month lately. Having reached a point where our investments have us feeling confident about our future, my wife and I decided we’d like to work toward paying off our mortgage ahead of schedule. I’ve taken advantage of my new pay rate to help with that effort. However, for January I found my wife saying she felt like I was gone a little too much over the last couple months, so I just dropped a week of reserve. Sure, that cost me more money than ever at my new pay rate, but it’s a small price to pay for the Quality of Life we got in exchange.

Part of my ability to do stuff like this is based on already having a decently full Treasure Bath. The other part is knowing that if we decide we need more money, I can just pick up more flying. This Captain upgrade has increased my ability to use my career at variable speed to work for me, instead of getting used at full speed all the time like I did in my past life.

In the past I’ve made cases for going to work at companies like Frontier and JetBlue. I think these kinds of carriers make a great stepping-stone between the regionals and the Big 6 major airlines. However, now that I’m earning the kind of pay that their Captains get at the top of their pay charts, I firmly believe that most pilots could stay at those kinds of companies and enjoy an entire career. If flying for one of these companies prevents you from ever having to commute, any one of them could be a forever home. Your quality of life will be through the roof and you will be able to make up for pay rates that only slightly lag the Big 6 by picking up extra trips if you want to. As long as your company has decent work rules and remains financially strong, I believe Fronter, JetBlue, Spirit, Allegiant, and others could be great places for pilots to end up. (This should be especially exciting for Second Career Pilots working on a compressed timeline.)

Scheduling

I did lose a lot of relative seniority switching to this seat. I finished at #9 from the top as an NYC A220 FO; I’m now #4 from the bottom as an NYC A220 CA. I was more than a little worried that this would tank my ability to control my schedule. Frankly, I’ve been shocked at how much of a non-issue this has been so far. I’ll admit it’s due to a confluence of unique factors, which means this isn’t for everyone. Here are some of the forces at play for me:

Efficiency

First off, the legs and trips on the A220 are much more efficient than the MD88 or B717 that I flew previously. (For a detailed discussion on the concept of trip efficiency, check out the article that my buddy Cheapshot and I wrote a while ago.) On my previous aircraft, the average leg was probably 1+15 hrs. Even four legs per day was rarely enough to get above Delta’s Average Daily Guarantee (ADG) of 5+15 hrs of pay. Throw in plenty of 30-hour layovers (that I love) eating in to the credit for flying above the ADG on the other days of the trip, and there was no way I was going to make more than an average of 5+15 for any day I spent at work.

The A220 is the size of the B717, but it’s an entirely different class of jet. It’s an honest 3000 mile aircraft. Bombardier did a demonstration flight taking one from London City Airport to New York, westbound! I do a lot of NYC to DFW or IAH, then Texas to SLC. From there it’s out to the West Coast, or back to Texas. We also fly between Texas and NYC via DTW and MSP. Most days are 2 or 3 legs, and my average leg is now blocked for 3+ hours. This means one day of work tends to pay 6-8 hours, far in excess of our ADG.

On my past aircraft a 3-day trip rarely paid more than the ADG total of 15+45, and a 4-day trip paid 21+00. On the A220, I usually get about 18 hours for a 3-day trip, and 23+ hours for a 4-day. What this all boils down to is:

I’ll be on reserve on the A220 for a long time. It’s doable because the trips are so efficient that even if I’m awarded 18 days of reserve for the month, flying for the first 10-11 of those days gets me off the hook for the rest of the month. If I choose to work beyond that point, I’m making money hand and fist, above my reserve guarantee. On a jet that regularly flies shorter legs (the MD88 or B717 at Delta, the E190 at American, and potentially something like the E175 at United someday) this wouldn’t work. I’d end up having to fly all 18 days just to reach my reserve guarantee. I’d have to be at work all the time and it’d suck.

The A220 only serves a few destinations right now because we don’t have that many jets yet and we’re keeping them close to maintenance stations. However, I think it will eventually start serving some of the smaller markets and doing those 30-hour layovers. This will mean some of the trips get less efficient and don’t pay as well. However, I think that it will still make sense for the A220 to continue flying the types of trips it has been doing so far. It’s such a versatile airplane that it can do both well. This means it’ll be a good category for people who are working different kinds of strategies.

I can’t say enough that one of the reasons this industry works so well is that each pilot wants something different. People commute from different cities, people have different side-hustles, people have different family situations and schedules, people have different financial needs and goals. You may not like the makeup of a particular trip, but chances are there’s someone else for whom that trip is ideal. You can both get what you want, and everybody wins.

Reserve Math for the Win

Flying this jet with my company’s reserve rules has some awesome effects. First, I’m earning a lot more per day spent at work. Second, it makes being on reserve a lot less painful.

Airlines specify a number of days per month that a pilot must be on reserve and awards a guaranteed number of hours of pay, usually in the 72-78 hour range. If the reserve guarantee is 75 hours and you’re assigned 18 days of reserve, it means your guarantee is worth roughly 4+10 hrs of pay per day of reserve.

A most airlines, a pilot on reserve can do almost as much flying as he or she wants to. However, once you’ve flown at least as many hours as the reserve guarantee, you’re considered “full” for the month. At that point, the company can call all they want, but you’re not obligated to even answer the phone…let alone show up for work.

Since flying the A220 averages more like 6-8 hours per day, it only takes 10-11 days of flying to fill up. Looking back at pay, this means every reserve pilot (even little old me at the very bottom) can earn a full month’s pay for only working 10-11 days. This makes it a much easier decision to spend less time at work and more at home with the family, even being junior in my category.

Holidays

This fact has been critical for the last two months. Since I’m so junior, I knew I had no chance of bidding to get the holidays off. Sure enough, I was assigned reserve on both weeks. Thankfully though, since those holidays all fall toward the end of the month, I had at least 11 work days in the month before the holidays hit. I just requested to fly as much as possible on my regular reserve days early in the month, and easily filled up in both cases.

Yes, I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas at home (well, in Colorado and DC) with my family as the 4th most junior pilot on reserve in my category. No matter what seniority you’re at, there are ways to maximize your contract to your advantage. The sooner and more thoroughly you learn that contract, the better off you’ll be.

Days of the Week

All of this was made better by the fact that my wife only works two days each week: Monday and Tuesday. This means I can work on the weekends without losing as much family time as the average pilot. If I needed to bid to get weekends off, my position would be much less desirable.

I’ve noticed that a lot of airline pilots, especially the ones who’ve never served in the military, seem obsessed with getting weekends off. I get it. Culturally, we’re used to spending those days with our families or on fun activities. Many pilots feel inspired (or obligated?) to be at church on the Sabbath.

My wife and I were both Active Duty Air Force for many years. We spent months and years apart, and worked our fair share of weekends. We realized that it’s possible to enjoy spending any day of the week together. In fact, most places are less busy and more enjoyable on weekdays when all the toiling masses aren’t there to crowd you out. Sure, the kids are in school for part of the day, but there’s still plenty of time between 2 pm and bed to plan a fun family day.

If weekends are sacred for your family, then bid to get them off as soon as you can! However, I recommend you consider planning to work some weekends…maybe start with just one per month. In a seniority-based airline bidding system, asking to work over a weekend will all but guarantee that you get what you ask for. You’re only going to work so many days per month, and if a couple of them are taken up with that weekend, it’s fewer days available for the company to stick you with for the rest of the month. If you’re very junior, you might still work most weekends, but this could help you get Wed-Fri or Mon-Wed off those weeks, still improving your QOL overall. If you’re right on the cusp of being able to hold weekends off anyway, this small boost of artificial seniority could help you secure free time on some other weekends.

If nothing else, try it out for a month. I can’t emphasize enough how great it is that you can change your bidding strategy every month as an airline pilot. If something doesn’t work, you’re never stuck with it for more than one month. In the military, if you take a bad assignment it’s 3 years of misery without recourse. The airlines win here every time.

Staffing

Airline contracts give pilots several ways to adjust their schedules after they’ve been issued through the monthly bidding process. Most offer ways to add, drop, and swap your trips. Some even let you trade individual legs with other pilots. These contracts include caveats that prevent too many trips from being dropped if there aren’t likely to be enough reserve pilots to cover them. On some of my past fleets, I had almost zero ability to adjust my schedule with any of these tools, because staffing (and hence those reserve coverage levels) were very low.

The A220 is the opposite – it’s overstaffed for now. On most days, we have far more reserve pilots available than needed, meaning I’ve been able to straight up drop reserve days with no trouble. I don’t think this will last forever, but it’s been wonderful for me so far.

This means staffing is a factor you should pay close attention to when you’re deciding whether to bid to a new category.

I don’t know how long my luck will hold. Delta was drastically understaffed last summer. The company awarded record numbers of Green Slips (last-minute trips for premium pay) all summer and into the fall. Although Delta has announced plans to hire 1300+ pilots this year, I don’t think we’ll end up any better off next summer. (We have a lot of retirements this year, and I’m not sure about our ability to interview and train that many pilots in a full year, let alone before we get busy with summer flying.) This may result in less scheduling flexibility for me this summer.

On the other hand, this also means the summer may be the perfect time to work hard and Roll Thunder for a couple months. If I do it right, I think it’s realistically possible to make more money over three months in the summer than was reported for the entire year on my 2019 W-2. I’m not going to go that crazy. I’m planning to take plenty of time off for vacations this summer, but my wife has approved full-on Rolling Thunder for at least one month. It’s going to be impressive!

Not all of these unique characteristics will apply to every pilot at every airline. I’m blessed to be in a fantastic position at my company right now. If you’re considering an early Captain upgrade, I think the average pilot/family will need to be a little bit flexible to make it feasible. If you can, the rewards are amazing.

Running My Own Show

Honestly, most of flying in the left seat is the exact same job as the right seat, except that I make a lot more money, the checklists are all voice-actuated, and I buy all my FOs’ drinks. However, I have enjoyed increased opportunities to run my own show.

When we have maintenance issues, I get to decide whether we spend time troubleshooting or just call maintenance. In the past I’d have to sit and cringe while the boss tried to make up his mind, or he just wasted time trying things that weren’t going to work anyway.

When I know there are nonrevs or jumpseaters trying to get on my aircraft, I get to tell the gate agent, “Nope. You’re not closing the aircraft door until I’m ready. Why don’t you go keep clearing nonrevs until every seat is full.” Talk about being a powerful force for good in the world!

When there are opportunities to provide above-average customer service, I’m not stepping on anyone’s toes by being the one to start making things happen.

I’m not perfect at all this yet, but I like having the opportunity to drive the fight.

I do have to admit that it’s not all fun and games though. I do feel increased pressure and stress when things start going poorly and it’s up to me to make decisions and deal with it. We’re still figuring out some maintenance quirks with the A220. (There’s an old aviation proverb that goes: “Never fly the A-model of anything!”) It seems that if we’re going to have a maintenance issue, it’s when we’re behind schedule at an understaffed station with grumpy mechanics and a gate agent that wants us out of there…yesterday!

It’s not physically hard work dealing with situations like that, but it is mentally taxing and more stressful than when I was in the other seat.

I get the same thing with weather. Last year I wrote a post about how nice it is that the Go/No-Go decision at my company is almost always “Go!” However, as the PIC, I’m subject to an extra degree of scrutiny. I know that I’m probably going anyway, but I’m obligated to put more conscious thought into that decision before we actually push. Again, it’s nothing crazy…just more stress than when I was looking at the same weather from the other seat.

A perfect example of: It doesn’t matter. You’re going!

Challenge

I don’t say this to boast, but the process of upgrade training was not as challenging as I’d expected or even hoped. My company loves to say, “We don’t hire First Officers. We hire Captains.” I guess that means they expect anyone competitive enough to get hired here has already been a Captain/Aircraft Commander before and already knows the basics of that job. As such, sim training for the left seat is almost exactly the same as for the right seat.

(Don’t delay applying to majors just because you lack PIC time though. One of my Line Check Airman noted that he’d done OE with a pilot from a regional who had never been a Captain on anything. He had a decent amount of SIC time, but essentially zero PIC in turbine powered aircraft. If you have the hours and you’re otherwise qualified, apply!)

Since I was already current and qualified on the A220, I actually go to do a shortened course for training. It was either 7 or 9 days of work over the course of two weeks. I had some great instructors who took the time to discuss “how to be a Captain” type topics, but I was graded on very little of it. The overwhelming majority of the graded events were just everyday flying tasks.

“Okay Emet, next we’re doing a single-engine ILS without the autopilot. Do you think you can handle that?”

“Gee Sir, I just don’t know.”

That said, it has been a bit of a challenge getting used to commanding an aircraft in this environment. In the Air Force, there was always tension between ops, maintenance, our supported ground forces, and other agencies on base. There is a similar tension between groups of people in the airlines, but those groups and concerns are different. I thought I’d done a good job observing all that as an FO, but it’s taking some work to figure out the best ways to do all of it. (I’m confident that I’ll get good at it eventually.)

I’m also not perfect at my crystal ball gazing or passenger communication. A couple weeks ago, I was on a leg from SLC to DFW. The weather forecasts had been fine, but things unexpectedly went bad. (Thunderstorms in January!) We had lots of holding gas, but my dispatcher eventually sent us a very simple message on ACARS (a text-based data link system that most or all modern airliners have.) The message read: “Divert to AUS immediately.”

I’ve written before about diverts and Austin. There aren’t that many gates and if a big airport like DFW or IAH starts getting hammered, it means a lot of airplanes from United, American and Southwest (not to mention Delta) all need to stop somewhere nearby for gas. I had the FO point us directly at AUS and start working down right away. I asked dispatch whether there’d be a gate waiting for us and how many aircraft would get there before us. He responded that we were #1 and there was a gate just sitting open that very minute. I had a good FO – he dialed the speed up without even being told.

Trying to do the good Captain thing, I made PAs explaining why we were going to AUS. I tried to soften the news by suggesting that there might be time to grab a delicious pulled pork sandwich at Salt Lick BBQ. When we landed, I called dispatch and the weather in DFW hadn’t improved yet. I suggested to the passengers that they could get off the plane, if they wanted to. (DOT regulations require the company to at least give them the option.) They would have time to get food, but needed to get back to the gate quickly.

What the passengers apparently heard was “EVERYBODY OFF, NOW!” and immediately formed a traffic jam in the jetway.

Naturally, Murphy saw this and decided to have a couple laughs at my expense. The fueler showed up right away, instead of taking his time like you’d expect. The weather miraculously cleared out of DFW and dispatch said, “You can depart as soon as you have fuel and everyone onboard.”

I had to do the walk of shame up the jetway (past 109 passengers) to tell the (now furious) gate agent that we should turn everyone around. I then did the second walk of shame (past 109 passengers) back down the jetway to finish preparations for departure.

Thankfully, none of the passengers complained. Several said, “Thank you for keeping us safe!” and a few seemed concerned that I hadn’t gotten time to get any BBQ for myself, but overall everyone ended up happy and where they needed to be.

I guess I need to work on the specificity of my language when I make PA announcements though.

Overall, I enjoy the increased challenges and stresses that come with this seat. It continues to make my job engaging, and the stress isn’t so bad when you’re the one with ultimate authority to do something about it.

I think this would all be a lot more challenging if I wasn’t already somewhat comfortable in my jet. Knowing this, I highly recommend flying in the right seat of any aircraft before upgrading to Captain…at least for your first upgrade. Trying to learn the A220s avionics with all the extra stress and considerations that come with the left seat would be a stretch.

For reference, I had about 200 hours flying these same avionics in another Bombardier aircraft (The E-11A BACN, aka: Global Express in the Air Force,) and right around 200 hours as an A220 FO. Those 400 hours were enough that the flying part of moving to the left seat was not a huge issue for me. You could probably make that move with a few less hours, depending on your personal risk tolerance and overall confidence as a pilot.

Coworker Demographics

Overall, I haven’t minded flying with older captains in the past. The vast majority of them were nice, easy to talk to, and happy to meet for dinner on a layover. That said, there were a few with less desirable attitudes or habits. I’ve lost much of my patience for people who refuse to take responsibility for the bad decisions they’ve made in life. (I even went so far as to publish a book hoping to help you avoid making the same mistakes that so many of them have!)

As a junior Captain on a junior aircraft at a junior base, I’ve been flying almost exclusively with pilots who are still on probation. For almost the first time in my airline career, I’m usually older than the other pilot. I’ve flown with regional airline and military pilots, and I’m happy to say that they’ve all been great.

I don’t know that this is better or worse, per se, but the dynamic has been very different flying with these younger pilots. I feel like they’re sometimes more proficient with the A220’s advanced avionics than some of the older pilots who didn’t grow up in the age of Nintendos and iPads. I still watch them like a hawk, but nobody’s scared me yet.

I even got to fly with a female aviator for the first time in my airline career. She was a retired Air Force officer who had been a squadron commander contemporary of one of my all-time favorite bosses. It was fun to talk about him behind his back from our very different perspectives. (Don’t worry, we only said nice things.)

I have noticed one randomly interesting thing about flying with these junior pilots. The A220 frequently stops in DFW’s E Terminal around lunchtime. On these short layovers, the typical senior Delta Captain’s go-to is Chick-fil-A. Even the least in-shape Captain seems willing to walk to the far end of the terminal to get his favorite, familiar comfort food. The regional airline pilots, on the other hand, are used to operating out of the satellite terminal. Their first choice always seems to be Whataburger. They’ll walk to the opposite end of the E Terminal, down escalators, under the ramp, back up escalators, and around the corner for their delicious gut bomb. I’m generally happy either way. I just find it humorous how strict this dichotomy is so far.

Respect

One of the things I was not chasing with my move to the left seat was increased respect. I’ve always believed that respect is earned through action, and that any person who feels the need to demand or insist on it probably doesn’t deserve it. Maybe I’m just too much of a narcissist to care what other people think. That probably makes me a bad person.

Although I wasn’t looking for it, I have noticed that I get extra respect just because I have an extra stripe on my sleeves and shoulders. From sim instructors to gate agents to fellow pilots, I perceive a surprising level of increased deference. I’m trying not to let myself actually feel more important because of this. If you notice that happening, I hereby authorize you to smack me and ask me to buy you a drink.

What Does the Future Hold?

We live in an amazing time for airline pilots. Mandatory retirements are starting to crest, but will remain abnormally high for at least a decade. The demand for air travel has never been higher, and most airlines are expanding. Frontier is in the process of tripling its fleet. Delta announced this year that we’re getting 14 extra A350s. United is working so hard to keep up with demand that it had Bombardier certify a new jet type, the CRJ 550, to help them get around some scope restrictions.

This all means that seniority will build quickly for all pilots and we’ll have increased opportunities to take Captain upgrades and/or move to larger aircraft at unprecedented speeds. When older Delta pilots see me wearing four stripes, they ask how long I’ve been around. When I say, “Almost four years,” they’re astounded. They’ve responded that it took them anywhere from 10 to 19 years to be able to hold a Captain upgrade. To their credit, none of them are angry about the situation. They’ve all been happy for me and recognized that the rising tides are also lifting their boats.

I’ve mentioned that if I’d done my bidding differently, I could have enjoyed a short stint as an FO on 7ER (combined 757/767) category and still gotten this A220 Captain seat whenever I wanted. Part of me wishes I’d done that for a couple reasons. I want to fly the B757 and realize that it won’t be around forever. The catastrophe that is the B737MAX drove Boeing to announce this week that they’re not going to bother trying to come up with a 757 replacement (assumed to be a future 797) anytime soon. Between that, the fact that Airbus is having a tough time meeting A321neo demand, and the fact that even the A321XLR will never be a full-up 757 replacement, I believe our 757s will probably stick around for a while.

I could probably just wait around and get senior enough to hold 7ER Captain before the 757 goes away. However, that category does a lot of ocean crossings (especially on the 767 side of the fleet) – something I didn’t get to do much of in the Air Force. It would not be a bad idea for me to see some ocean crossings as an FO before I have to risk my license doing it as a Captain.

I had been thinking that I’d have to go from A220 Captain to 7ER FO to get that done. However, I’ve since discovered another potential strategy: I could sit tight for now and try to bid for FO on our B777 or A350 categories. They do very different international flying than the 7ER, but I think the international experience would apply well enough that I could move from there to 7ER Captain if necessary. As things stand right now, I will probably have enough seniority to hold DTW A350 FO in June 2021, or B777 FO in ATL or LAX toward the end of 2022. There’s talk of opening up a NYC 777 base, which would go slightly more junior than ATL, at least on the FO side. Between that and adding all those LATAM A350s, I may be senior enough to hold one of those FO seats even sooner.

I could also bid for the right seat on an A330. I want to save that for immediately after the A320 because it’s a short upgrade course. This picture is here because I feel like the A220 and A330 look similar, despite being designed across an ocean and a couple decades from each other. I call this picture: “Mommy and Baby.”

There’s no rush though. I have a seat lock for moving to the A220 left seat. However, as soon as it’s up, I think I could get the international flying I need on one of these fleets as an FO. The pay for FOs on those aircraft is so good that it wouldn’t be much of a cut for me. I’d make sure I did enough flying to learn what I need to, then continue bidding reserve and trying to fly as little as possible for a while. I could continue living that easy life until I’m senior enough to hold left seat on the 7ER and make my move.

Or, I may just skip that whole strategy and jump from the A220 to the 7ER without any extra international experience. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m confident in my ability to study and learn new things. The FAA would require me to get a lot of OE with a qualified and competent Line Check Airman anyway, and I’d fly almost any overseas leg with augmented crews after that point. If I couldn’t figure things out with all those training wheels, a couple years of international flying as an FO might not be enough to prepare my anyway.

Before we go, there’s one part of airline pilot life worth looking at on this front. For me, in my current situation, it’s both an opportunity and a threat. Not every pilot in a similar situation would look at it that way, but I’m lucky.

Since I’m so junior on my aircraft, I’m vulnerable of getting bumped off the bottom of the category if pilots senior to me start getting displaced. This is unlikely overall. Not that many people want to commute to NYC, my jet doesn’t pay as well as most others at the company, and some of the more senior captains don’t like flying it for reasons we’ll discuss another time.

However, Delta still happens to be holding a wild card: the Crazy 88. We kept the MD88s around longer than planned to pick up the slack that the B737MAX left in the market this year. However, I get the feeling that the jets are getting so old and tired that the company really wants to get rid of them as soon as it can. Over the last couple years, the company has consolidated all MD88s from a few bases down to just one in ATL. The category has remained large, because we need a lot of pilots to staff so many aircraft. Eventually, the drawdown and closure of that category will trigger hundreds of displacements.

The problem is that some of the current ATL MD88 Captains went there unwillingly when the company closed the NYC MD88 category. Those pilots can all hold more senior, higher-paying aircraft by now. However, there’s a chance that some of them will want to continue with narrowbody flying, and they’ll have heard how fantastic the A220 is. They may realize that they can be extremely senior on it and enjoy great QOL. Many of them have been commuting from NYC to ATL to fly the MD88 for months and will be able to stop commuting if they go to the A220 in NYC.

All it will take is four, out of several hundred MD88 Captains in ATL to get displaced and list NYC A220 Captain on their displacement bid for me to get pushed out the bottom of my category.

Many people in my position would panic at this. The only other jet I’m senior enough to hold the left seat on is the B717 in NYC. I love that aircraft, but the trips they build for NYC crews are terrible and I refuse to go there. However, since I have my eye on some widebody FO seats anyway, this is the perfect situation for me. I’m more than senior enough that if I get displaced, I can hold the 7ER seat at any of our bases that fly it. In fact, several of those options are listed as top choices on my standing displacement bid.

Since a mandatory displacement doesn’t come with an associated seat lock, this would really work out well for me. I could be a 7ER FO for as long as I wanted, while my A220 seat lock just ticks away. Once that seat lock is gone, I’d be free to move to whatever else I could hold. Since I’m considering trying to fly every aircraft at our company I could continue checking those off. I could go to our B767-400 category (which I may skip because they’re still “just” 767s.) I could go to the B737, something I’m not particularly excited about, but I feel like it’s worth having the type rating so I can say I’ve flown it when I’m hanging out with Southwest pilots at parties. In two years I’ll be senior enough to hold the left seat on that jet, or the A320. From there, it’s off to the races on collecting all the other type ratings on our menu.

I’ll admit, I’d be disappointed if I had to give up my shiny, new A220. I love this airplane. However, I console myself with the thought that I’d be senior enough to come back to it whenever I feel like. There’s a good chance I’ll find something else I enjoy flying even more in our fleet, but if not, I know I like this. It’s not like other airlines where, “You can fly any jet you want, as long as it’s a 737.”

In the meantime, I’m just happy where I am. Being in charge of the A220 is fun. It’s engaging enough to be interesting, without too much added stress. It’s a nice change to fly with younger pilots, the pay is out of this world, and scheduling has worked out far better than I expected so far.

An early Captain upgrade isn’t for everyone. I have unique family, scheduling, and financial leeway. I don’t recommend doing this to chase money. You’ll get what you’re after, but at a heavy cost. I think an early upgrade is best suited to a pilot/family in the position where you can feel comfortable dropping trips or days of reserve, despite the potential financial cost, to ensure good Quality of Life. If your family can be at least a little flexible and you’re confident in your abilities, I believe that most pilots could make this work.

I’ll cover some broader topics about my 4th year in general in a couple months. In the meantime, hit me up if you have questions about early upgrade or the A220 in general. I even have an official TPN email address now: jason at thepilotnetwork.org.

Have fun out there, fly safe, and make your family’s Quality of Life your #1 priority.

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