Career Magazine

Bigger Isn't Always Better

By Aafo4ever @AAFO4Ever

Get your mind out of the gutter...we're talking about airplanes here!
From the outside looking in, an airline pilot's decision to move up to a larger airplane may seem obvious. After all, the larger jet pays more, goes farther and offers more prestige.  In the end, it comes down a choice to chase the paycheck or to strive for a better quality of life...with the possible exception of those at the top of the seniority list, you can't have both.  Either way, the decision is a personal one and isn't as straight forward as you might think.  This is the story of my decision and why I made it.
Bigger isn't always better
Sometimes, you have to move down to move up.
The first chance I had to move up came early in my career. I was a Boeing 727 Flight Engineer, living and working in the same city and loving life.  I had only been employed by the airline for a few months and memories of minimum rest layovers in the dirty, bug infested motels arranged by my previous employer were fresh on my mind. I spent the first two months at my new job commuting to Miami, Florida from my home in Texas and was very happy to have my commuting days behind me. With a short 15 minute drive to work, I swore I would never commute again.
The airline was hiring 100 pilots per month at the time, so career progression was happening fast.  I loved the 727 and hoped to fly it as a First Officer, a famously cushy position. The Captain was responsible for the paperwork and bore most of the responsibility for the flight, the Flight Engineer performed the walk-arounds, many of the pre-flight duties and managed aircraft systems while the First Officer was responsible for...well...not much.  His duties were often summed up by the following rhyme: "Window heat, pitot heat, what's to eat?"  From the perspective of a Flight Engineer, that little saying seemed fairly accurate.  I expected the job to mine within a few months.
Then it came to my attention that the airline was short of Airbus A300 First Officers in New York.  With good reason, they didn't want to put new hire pilots in that position, but there weren't enough internal proffers to fill the available jobs, so the decision was made to displace pilots from other assignments to fill the vacancies.  Our contract allowed the airline to freeze a pilot in a particular position for almost two years after spending valuable time and resources to train him to fly a new jet.  Unfortunately, that provision also allowed the company to freeze a pilot in a position even if the company forced the move.  Having only recently bid farewell to the lifestyle of a commuter, heading off to New York for two years was a depressing thought to say the least.
Bigger isn't always better
The company's solution was to displace Flight Engineers with six months service onto the A300...and the only way to avoid the assignment was to bid and receive another First Officer position.  I was bound and determined not to commute again, so I placed a bid for the right seat of anything and everything at my home base in Texas.  I wanted the Boeing 727, thought I would get the Fokker F100, but ended up with an award to the MD80.  The decision to make that first move was largely made for me and was considered an upgrade even though I was moving to a smaller jet.  That was 13 years ago and the events of the past ten years cemented MD80 FO as a relatively permanent position.
It's comical now, but I had big plans for my career progression and the MD80 was not part of the plan.  My dad, a retired 767 International Captain, warned me not to stay on the 80 too long.  "Stay on that darn thing too long and you might decide you like it," he said.  Well, apparently I stayed too long because I have decided that I like the MD80. She may be old technology, but pulleys and cables work just fine and the old girl is surprising reliable for her age.  Plus, there is comfort in the familiarity that goes with spending this much time on a single aircraft. As of today, I have nearly 9,000 hours in the right seat of the "Mad Dog" and I'm fairly certain I will miss her when she's gone.
In the absence of any sort of merit based system, just about every aspect of an airline pilot's life is based on his seniority, and not just his seniority within the company.  Each airline, each airplane, each seat, each base...all have their own seniority system.  That isn't to say that there is more than one seniority list at a given airline, only that each specific area has its own, individual ecosystem.  I use my company-wide seniority number to bid the city where I wish to be based.  Within my base, seniority determines which airplane I will bid and fly.  Once assigned to a particular airplane, seniority determines which seat I occupy, what days I work, where I spend my layovers, how early or late I have to work, when I take goes on and on and everything comes down to seniority. 
For various reasons, some bases are more senior than others and I have an affinity for senior bases...go figure.  I could fly a larger, better paying airplane at a more junior base, but I like where I live and again...I'm not interested in commuting.  Within my base, the larger airplanes pay more, but they are also populated by more senior pilots, so I may chose to remain on a smaller airplane longer to have more control over my schedule and vacation choices.  Captains are paid more than First Officers, but it takes seniority to make Captain, so I may choose to forgo the pay raise and remain a First Officer longer than I must.  Everything comes down to a personal choice between quality of life and paycheck.
Muddying the waters
I have written before about the fact that the past ten years were not good to me and my career. I spent much of that time on reserve, and in spite of my hatred for commuting, was forced out of base and into a situation that required commuting across the country to get to work. It was not pleasant, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.  We are finally buying new airplanes, growing into new markets, recalling furloughed pilots and upgrading pilots into the captain's seat.  Our recently announced merger with another airline may or may not present opportunities for advancement...time will tell on that one, but I am cautiously optimistic.
Last year, with my seniority finally moving in the right direction, I spent Christmas and Thanksgiving with my family. I was home for birthdays, anniversaries and most of the important dates my wife puts on her "wish list" each month while I'm bidding for my schedule.  My seniority is finally buying me some of the "quality of life" I've missed out on for so long.  So late last year, when the opportunity presented itself to move up to a larger airplane, I had some thinking to do and have, until now, resisted the temptation to move up. 
My seniority on the MD80 puts me near the middle of the list, which is senior enough to enjoy the benefits I've described.  I am off reserve, fly between 80 and 90 hours every month and enjoy some control over my schedule. I am now senior enough hold First Officer on the Boeing 757/767 here at my home no commuting either way, but here's where the waters get muddy.  I would be the bottom, most junior pilot on the Boeing and would only be paid the minimum guaranteed pay of 73 hours per month.  Given the number of hours I fly per month on the MD80, the increased hourly rate on the 757/767 would actually result in a decrease in net pay if I made the move.  I would be losing the paycheck and the quality of life...just to fly a bigger jet.
Getting off a dying airplane
Another reason to consider a change is the fact that the MD80 is beginning to show signs of a dying fleet.  We have been the largest MD80 operator in the world for a very long time and in 2003 owned 362 MD80s.  We quietly lost that distinction recently as we continue to send our oldest jets on one last flight to the desert.  As the fleet continues to shrink, the number of choices and the quality of flying available to me will continue to shrink as well. It is impossible to know exactly when this will happen, but the MD80 fleet will eventually reach a tipping point where the quality of flying is so poor that pilots will begin bidding off in droves.  At that point, it could be very difficult to get off...essentially stranding the junior pilots.  I would like to make a move before that happens.
Bigger isn't always better

Bigger isn't always better

The number of MD80 and B737 aircraft on the property by year.

 Decision time

It's time for a change, but I should probably be careful what I wish for or at least specify change for good.  After all, I have seen things go backwards before and don't need that kind of change.  If I stay on the MD80, I will eventually get stuck and could even find myself back on reserve.  If I bid 757/767 Domestic, I would enjoy flying a much larger and more advanced airplane, but would have to accept a pay cut in the process.  757/767 or 777 International are positions that would result in a slight pay raise, but I don't have enough seniority to make those moves.  I would most likely be able to hold the Airbus A319/321 when they arrive later this summer, but there are too many question marks about flying a new I'm ready to move now.  That only leaves the Boeing 737.  The jet would not come with a pay raise, but it would not come with a reduction in pay either.  
Bigger isn't always better

I placed my bid today and expect I will be awarded the position sometime in early March with training most likely during the month of April.  I haven't decided what the blog will look like while I'm in training.  I have a few posts ready and waiting to go, but may elect to change the format during that time to be more of a daily log of my training experience.  I'll keep you posted on that...and the results of the bid.

Bigger isn't always better

My wish list...number 8 is the one I'll get.

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