Why Did You Take a Junior Captain Seat…are you crazy?

by Jason Depew, TPN Staff Writer

Delta just closed-out an Advanced Entitlement (AE)…a big, company-wide round of bidding for pilots to change base, aircraft, or seat. I’ve been at Delta for 3 years and 2 months, and I just got awarded a bid to become the 4th most junior A220 Captain in NYC. The way I see it, airline ranks are more like the Navy than the Air Force. That means I just got a 6-year “below the zone” promotion to the airline equivalent of Colonel…beating all of my peers to this prestigious rank. Hooray for me, right???

I happened to talk to Adam Uhan right after the award and he congratulated me before very diplomatically noting, “I’m interested to see how that works out.” That’s pilot talk for, “Emet, WTF were you thinking!? Why would you intentionally bid to be so junior as a commuter at the worst base in the system?” I think this is an important topic for discussion for the entire Network, so I’m choosing to address his unspoken implications here.

First and foremost, I want you to know that you should not try this at home. As I’ll explain, I have a pretty unique set of life circumstances that I think will make this work for me. Without those circumstances, there’s no way I would have bid for this.

For most people, the driving reason for a Captain upgrade is money. At my company, a Year 4 A220 FO makes about $154/hr. As an A220 Captain, I’ll make $244/hr to fly the same jet. Let’s do some quick math and count some unhatched chickens.

Despite my recent conversation with Cheapshot about how many hours the average pilot gets paid for, 

(https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/careful-what-you-ass-u-me or https://tpn-go.com/careful-what-you-ass-u-me/

we noted that the vast majority of airline pilots get paid for more hours than just the reserve guarantee. I’ll be so junior that I can only expect to fly the reserve guarantee in my new category…for a while. So, let’s multiply the $90/hr difference in pay rate by an average reserve guarantee of 72 hours per month. Multiply that by 12 months, add in a conservative 10% for profit sharing, and include my company’s 16% 401K contribution on top of all that. Under these conditions, I should make $99,221 more per year as an A220 Captain than I would as a junior A220 FO. Realistically, I would be so much more senior as an FO that I could use some tricks to make extra money and reduce that difference, but trying to quantify this is too much work for today. The important thing to note is that, although I won’t cry about the extra cash, my choice wasn’t entirely about the money.

When I wrote about my second year as an airline pilot, (http://www.aviationbull.com/2018/feb/26/airline-pilot-second-year-review) I noted that I only worked 149 days that year…about as many days as non-deploying military pilots get to spend not working. I only averaged 3 x 4-day trips per month that year, while the average pilot in my category probably averaged four. I intentionally work less than the average pilot, accepting the accompanying lower pay, for my family’s Quality of Life. After spending their entire lives as Air Force brats, my (still pretty bratty) kids’ biggest request was for Mommy or Daddy, rather than day care or some babysitter, to do school drop-off and pick-up every day. It seems like a small thing for us, but it’s a big deal to them, so my wife and I both took jobs with the kind of scheduling flexibility that allows this to happen almost every day. I also enjoy getting to spend far more time with my family than I ever did while I was in the military. I cannot overstate the value of that time.

It’s also very easy to pass up that extra pay when my wife is smarter, more talented, and better looking than I am. She makes more than enough money to cover what our family loses when I give up that 4th trip each month. She is the biggest part of the circumstances that make this upgrade possible.

I’ve met Captains who upgraded out of desperation…because they haven’t figured out how to control their spending. They end up hating their jobs because they have to work like mad just to make ends meet. I feel sort of bad for them, except that all they need to do is go read Mr. Money Mustache (https://www.mrmoneymustache.com/) or listen to the ChooseFI Podcast (https://www.choosefi.com/podcast-episodes/) and they’d be able to go from desperate to secure in no time.

Thankfully, my wife is even more frugal than I am. We save the vast majority of our earnings and have reached a level of pleasant financial security. This allows me to approach my airline job from a position of strength. Until now, I’ve only bid for trips I want to fly. If something comes up and I don’t want to fly a trip, I just drop it. Easy peasy. Although being junior will give me less flexibility overall, I still expect to be able to manipulate my schedule somewhat.

I’ll definitely be on reserve for a while as a junior A220 Captain. At my company, reserve pilots are guaranteed 12-13 days off every month. I only really need 10 specific days off to make our childcare situation work. Since that includes every Monday and Tuesday, I expect to fly most weekends. Most pilots try to get weekends off, so I don’t think I’ll have much trouble getting the days off that I need.

Staffing for my category is actually pretty good right now. Trade disputes and other stupid drama have delayed aircraft deliveries, so we have far more people than flying to go around. As long as the staffing stays like this I should be able to drop extra reserve days, if necessary.

For the days that I’m on reserve, I plan to ask to fly as much as possible. I won’t get to pick specific trips for great layovers like I’ve enjoyed as a senior 717 FO, but I’m uniquely capable of being happy most places. Most layovers have at least a few options for good food. A workout one place is pretty much the same as a workout anywhere else. I can write TPN articles from anywhere. Between Netflix, Spotify, and my Kindle, I have more entertainment at my fingertips than any human could consume in a lifetime. I have access to at least 5 different free video calling services to talk to my family whenever I want. I’ll manage with a limited selection of layovers for now.

Of course, there will be plenty of days when I’ll have to go sit in NYC, but won’t get to fly. This will be especially prevalent at first as everyone more senior to me (that is: almost everyone else in the category) scoops up all the flying in order to consolidate. I’ll only be vulnerable for short-call reserve 6-7 times per month, and I’ll volunteer for that every day check those boxes as early as possible each month. I’ll probably have to get a crashpad, at least for a while. I’m not looking forward to that, but it’s not much different than being on a mediocre layover. I’ll deal with it. (I haven’t commuted to NYC for a couple of years. If anyone has recommendations for a great crashpad close to LGA, please let me know!)

So far we have:

  • Amazing pay increase
  • Maintain the ability to make family schedule work
  • Mediocre schedule and layovers

Two out of three isn’t bad, but there’s a lot more.

One of the biggest reasons for wanting to upgrade is that I like being in charge. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing terrible about being an FO. I’ve started over many times in my aviation career, and I’ve enjoyed the easy life slinging gear for the last three years. However, I’ve also commanded crews on very complex missions flying all over the world. I feel like I’m capable of leading a crew to work together well while executing missions safely and efficiently. This takes more effort and thought than being an FO, but I like the challenge. My family has even considered making our official motto: “We do hard things.” (Granted, we’re only leaning that way that because a bunch of jerks had already taken “Winter is coming,” but this seems pretty close.)

I just completed A220 FO training and I was paired with a pilot who was going to be a first-time airline Captain at 63 years old. He was awesome! I had a great time flying with him and he took great care of me. He’d been an FO on the same jet for the last 12 years, and one of the reasons he chose to make a very challenging transition so late in his career was that he could feel himself stagnating. Maybe it’s just that the Air Force never let me stay in one place long enough to get comfortable, but I don’t like the idea of stagnation. I chose to upgrade because it will challenge me as a pilot and let me take control of my flying.

Along these lines, I also wanted to upgrade to infuse some (relatively) youthful energy into my job. As a very senior 717 FO, I flew with a lot of very senior 717 Captains. Many of them were my dad’s age, which actually made trips pretty fun. What pilot doesn’t enjoy a 3-4 day road trip with mom or dad? However, many of these pilots have been through difficult careers and they’re worn-out. Some of them are very grumpy and cynical. I enjoy stirring the pot to get them talking about airline history and their perspectives on unions and management. Their insight is invaluable, but after a while that much negativity can get old. Some of these pilots have slowed down enough that they stop caring as much and it doesn’t quite match my personal ethic for pursuing excellence. It’s not that they break any rules or do anything unsafe, they just tend to favor doing less than they could to represent our product.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not some obnoxious eager beaver who won’t shut up and constantly pings off the overhead panel. I’m all about my company’s image of a calm, dignified senior officer wearing the double-breasted jacket of a ship captain. However, I see a lot of small opportunities to make things easier, more pleasant, or more efficient both for passengers and coworkers. As an FO, you can only do so much suggesting before you become obnoxious. As a Captain, I’ll be able to drive that fight as much or as little as I see fit.

I also figure that as a junior Captain, I’ll end up flying with junior FOs. While I enjoy the road-trip-with-dad mentality, I also tend to enjoy the odd trips where I get paired with Captains closer to my age. I’m in the mood to do a little more flying with younger people for a while. I’m hoping they won’t be as worn-out or cynical as some of the senior Captains.

It’s also crazy to me that I’ve gone 3 years and not flown with a single female pilot at my company. This is an unfortunate consequence of a thankfully dying culture, and I’m glad to note that all the airlines are hiring more women than they used to. I’m fiercely proud of my wife’s Air Force service. She was a Lieutenant Colonel, a dental specialist, and made her department the most productive one of its kind in the Air Force through hard work and leadership. I also watched with dismay as she had to endure a lot of sexist discrimination throughout her career. Sadly, I noticed similar issues with many of my female pilot friends on Active Duty.

Although I feel like most pilots at my company are trying to do the right thing here, I still see too much of mentalities that I don’t like. As a junior Captain on a junior airplane, I suspect that I’ll end up flying with a fair number of female new hires. I’m far from perfect, but I can at least be one more person trying to make my company a great place for them to work without having to deal with the BS that I’ve seen my wife and many of my friends endure.

Another reason I wanted to upgrade ASAP was to give myself options. I enjoy giving flight instruction and think I might eventually want to do some of that at my airline. An airline pilot instructor is called a Line Check Airman (LCA) and they naturally have to be pretty experienced. When Delta announced that we were buying the A220 (or the CS100 as it was called then,) I was thrilled because I flew the Global Express in the Air Force. It has the same avionics and much of the same systems design philosophy. I figured I had more meaningful experience on this aircraft than most other pilots at my company.

I confirmed my suspicions during my recent month of A220 training. My captain and all my instructors noticed how proficient I was with the A220s FMS and avionics from day one. This wasn’t because I’m God’s Gift to Aviation, but because I’ve flown those systems in the real world for hundreds of hours. (They’ve had other Global and G650 pilots come through the program and saw the same thing.)

I would have loved to be part of the training team for bringing this new airplane to the company. I was even presumptuous enough to float the idea to someone in the program. I essentially got laughed at because, despite all of my relevant experience, I had zero PIC hours at this company. One of the reasons I’m upgrading to Captain now is so that I can try to accumulate a requisite 1000 PIC hours here. I realize that I probably still won’t be experienced enough to compete for instructor jobs for several years, but I want to at least have the option. For me, this is one of those things like altitude below you, runway in front of you, and fuel in the tank. I’d always rather have more than less, whether I need it or not.

Another reason I bid for this seat is that I know it’s not forever. Our contract lets a first-time captain get out of any seat lock. It’s a good deal, except that any remaining time gets added on to the new 2-year seat lock you incur when you upgrade. My seat lock was almost up anyway, so I’m only obligated for a little over two years. If I decide I don’t like being this junior, I can go somewhere else pretty soon.

I’m torn right now because I really like this jet and I can see myself enjoying it for a few years. However, my long term plans include a couple contradictions. I think it’d be cool to be able to say that I upgraded in Year 4 and spent the last 25 years of my airline career as a Captain. The associated career earnings will be amazing. At the same time, I’ve only done a little transoceanic flying in my past and feel like I should see some as an FO before trying to run that show as a Captain. I also want to fly the B757 before it goes away because every pilot I’ve asked has said it’s his favorite airliner. I could hold the FO seat on the B757 right now, but I don’t think I’ll be senior enough for a Captain’s seat on it before it retires. (Who knows though. Boeing has wasted a decade stretching the 737 far beyond the MAXimum of what makes sense, instead of developing the 797 like they should have been all along. We might have to hang on to our B757s for a very long time.) I feel like the smartest move for me right now is to finish my seat lock and then bid for an FO seat on our combined 757/767 category (we call it 7ER) to get at least a little international flying. I’d have to spend two years in that seat, and then I could go back to being a career Captain. However, I might be able to accomplish that goal with a useful contract loophole and some unique circumstances.

Delta is rapidly retiring our MD88s and the A220 is has proven quite popular (among passengers and pilots.) When an airline closes a category, it has to “displace” all those pilots to other categories. Since it’s non-voluntary, our contract lets those pilots go to any seat that they’re senior enough to hold. When these displaced pilots go to a new category, an equal number of pilots get displaced off that category and continue the waterfall effect elsewhere. Displacements start with the most junior pilots and go up the seniority list. I’m the 4th most junior pilot in my category, so if there is another round of displacements I’ll be at risk. However, my contract also gives me the option to volunteer to displace before anyone junior to me.

The moment I found out about my A220 Captain seat, I went into the system and listed 7ER FO as my top displacement preferences. I didn’t volunteer for displacement yet because if you volunteer you incur a seat lock. If you get a non-voluntary displacement, there is no seat lock associated. If things change and your old seat opens up, the company automatically converts you back. Or, if there’s another AE in the meantime, you’re allowed to bid for something else entirely.

If displacements hit my category, I’ll most likely get to check the international flying box as a 7ER FO, then I’ll either go back to the A220 ASAP or I’ll be free to chase something else. (We have more than 100 A321s and A321neos on order, with options for 100 more. I suspect there’ll be a Captain’s seat for me there soon if I want it.) This is a long-shot contingency plan, but it’s nice to know that it exists. I’d actually prefer the displacement because it’d get me more of what I want sooner without having to wait for my new seat lock to expire.

There are probably more reasons I can’t remember for bidding to be a junior Captain, but this is plenty for now. I will note that one of the reasons I didn’t bid for this seat is the notion that I’d get more respect. First off, I believe that if you feel the need to demand respect, you usually don’t deserve it. Second, I don’t need anyone else’s affirmation to feel good about myself. Third, the “Catch Me If You Can” era of airline aviation is pretty much dead. (https://www.netflix.com/title/60024942) Even if I thought there was some value to “respect” earned in demanding it by right of the stripes on my shoulder, most people don’t even notice anymore. I get called “Captain” 99 times for every time that someone calls me “FO” or “First Officer.” Sorry if this disappoints you, but it’s the world we live in.

So there you have it. Even though my schedule and layovers will be worse, I think this is going to be a great deal for me. I’ll make a lot more money for the same amount of work, I’ll get to run the show the way I want to, I’ll get to challenge myself as a professional pilot, I expect to fly with some younger people who aren’t quite as cynical, and making this move now gives me a lot of options for the future.

This all works for me because I have the luxury of approaching my airline career from a position of strength. My wife and I have both always worked, and we’re the kind of PAWs (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CLT31D6/) that have saved enough to be financially secure, even if everything else collapses. My wife is still working, so I have the luxury of continuing to adjust my schedule to favor Quality of Life.

I would caution anyone thinking of taking a junior Captain upgrade to consider the fact that my circumstances are pretty unique. Unless you have an employed spouse or other streams of income, and the discipline to intentionally work less in favor of QOL, this probably isn’t the best choice for you. I’ve been working on a very big project that will help other pilots achieve a position of strength like this. (It’s much closer to being ready, I promise.) Until you get there though, bid where you can be senior because Seniority is Everything! (https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/seniority-is-everything)

Of course, I could also be very wrong. I might hate commuting to reserve in New York so much that I’m miserable. If that’s the case, this will be a very long two-years-and-change. When I was talking to Adam, his very diplomatic comments included that he is very “interested to see how things work out” with my choice. He even suggested that we reconvene in a few months to discuss it on the TPN Podcast. (iTunes or Stitcher.) I think that sounds like a great idea. Some contract rules and weird company strategy mean that it could be as long as a year before I actually do my upgrade. My pledge to you is that I will eventually report back on the good and bad of my decision. In the meantime, to all my future FOs: your drinks are on me!

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