First Officers Turning Down Promotion Offers

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Young pilots are increasingly putting golden moments above gold stripes and that could mean more delays and cancellations for passengers. The Regional Airline Association first flagged the issue of first officers avoiding promotion and said up to 20 percent of its members’ flights were canceled because of the captain shortage. The promotion can be unappealing because it often results in life-disrupting commutes and unpredictable schedules. Now the majors are reporting a similar trend, and the numbers are significant.

According to Reuters, there are almost 1,000 unfilled captain positions at United Airlines and Dennis Tajer, the president of the Allied Pilots Association at American Airlines, said twice as many right-seaters are resisting the shift to the left seat than seven years ago. He said about 7,000 FOs had avoided promotion in that time. The airlines are addressing the issue with quality-of-life enhancements in contracts like scheduling changes to try to avoid the four- and five-day grinds that some junior captains face and bonus pay to compensate for the misery.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said lifestyle enhancements were a significant part of the $9 billion contract offer the airline has made to its pilots, and American Airlines has now increased the package it’s offering its pilots. The company announced on Sunday it has sweetened the pot by $1 billion to $9 billion and most of that is going into working conditions improvements.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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33 COMMENTS

  1. So if the pilots are not accepting promotions, just what are they doing instead? Flying cargo?

    Given the choice, I know I would. Cargo doesn’t whine like passengers do…..

    • As I understand the article, the first officers aren’t quitting, they’re just not advancing to captain when the opportunity comes up. They’re remaining as first officers.

      For those in the airline world – is seniority affected by rank? Does moving up from first officer to captain put you at the bottom of a different list when it comes to bidding on flights and schedules?

      • That’s pretty much it. Your seniority number in the right seat carries more weight than it would in the left seat. This is an oversimplification of course. Equipment size, routes, and base desirability are driving factors.

      • Your seniority company wide remains the same, however schedules are based on the equipment you fly, the seat you fill and the base you work from by seniority.

        In many cases the switch in seats will cause you to lose your preferred base to a less desirable location AND you are likely to sit at the bottom of the seniority list at that new base resulting in poor schedules relative to more senior Captains.

        At my company there has been a huge shift in our flying to NYC and out of other bases. No one who doesn’t live in the NE wants to be based in NYC therefore ALL of the slots for upgrading Captains are located in the NYC base.

        So the choice becomes stay an FO in your preferred base, get more days off due to better schedules and avoid the commute into NYC where a stiff wind or a single cloud creates cancellations due to ATC staff shortages OR destroy your quality of life with a “promotion”.

    • Not to mention , they are very cognizant of the rare chance of busting the upgrade checkride, or a training failure could prohibit the chance of an interview with a legacy.

  2. The stages of the pilots life
    1) Chase the Tin
    2) Chase the money
    3) Chase the lifestyle

    By the time you make a major airline and are in a few years you are probably close to or at phase 3. So stay a senior FO and work a nice schedule or upgrade to Captain and be the flight ops bitch. Good on the newer younger FO’s to say no thanks, I will prioritize family over stripes.

  3. I believe there are two different factors in play when looking at the regional FOs and FOs at the majors. At the majors the FOs decision is all about lifestyle. At the regionals there is the added component of majors passing over regional captains when hiring to preserve operational integrity. Regional FOs who want to get to the majors and upgrade at a regional may find it sets back their career progression. Why would a regional FO who lives in a senior base, has a good schedule and wants to continue living there want to upgrade to a captain position at a junior base, be on reserve, have to commute and on top of that disqualify themselves for the job they really want at a major?

    • You are correct.

      Oh how times have changed. Even at regionals brand new FOs are making six figures. Add in the change in hiring practices at the Majors where just 3 years ago you couldn’t get a call back until you had 1000 hours part 121 PIC time and now they are hiring FOs with less than 1000 hours TOTAL part 121 time and ZERO PIC if you meet certain other qualifications unrelated to flying. The experience and judgement gained as a Regional Captain used to matter when moving to a Major. Today….not so much and in most cases not at all.

      The career path is changing without a doubt.

  4. Schedules, even for senior FO’s and Captains have gotten much worse over the last few years and here’s why. A subsidiary of Boeing created a scheduling program they call and “optimizer” which maximizes pilot usage right to the edge of contract and FAA rest rules. Pilots call is the “sodomizer”. So in order to have any quality of life, you have to be very high up on the seniority list. Thus FO’s are bypassing waiting to make the move over to the left seat. They are doing this at significant cost, due to the loss of income that comes with not accepting the promotion. This tells you just how bad the schedules have become and how poorly pilots are treated across the industry as companies use optimization tools to get ever last drop of work out of them.

    • I don’t know about these days, but in the last century at some majors you would upgrade when it was your turn, or be terminated. Once the upgrade was completed you didn’t have to bid captain if you didn’t want to.

  5. There are always articles on Pilots, shortages, hiring too young and so on. There is never an article about the even bigger problem in aviation with the severe lack of A&P/IA’s and the dismal numbers coming into the industry. The “Pilot shortage” pales in comparison to the technician shortage.

    I am a shop owner, and can not find technicians who are willing to work. The last numbers were 25% of us (Older mechanics near retirement) with less than 5% coming in the industry. The major problem is the airlines try and sweep up everyone from A&P schools, and nothing left for GA maintenance.

    Withing the next 10 years GA will be gutted as far as technicians go and there is really no stopping it.

    • Can’t blame the technicians. Why work for a GA shop when the airlines offer all kinds of benefits and job stability?

      • Going to the airlines you will not be a skilled technician or craftsman in this trade, your just another employee number with no value other than being a body. Small shops offer so much more in this career at becoming a true A&P troubleshooting, repairing, fabricating and fixing aircraft. I have been fortunate to have worked in small shops,(and the airlines) and small GA is the most rewarding work you can do. I have had the pleasure of working on 3 restorations that are now in museums across the US. I guarantee my generation is the last to do dope and fabric, wood and radial engines. Its no always about the money.

    • You are absolutely correct sir: without a collaborative, proactive effort by industry and government to promote aviation in general, and technical training/opportunities specifically, the pool will only continue to dry up. How many of us are having to go further and further to find shops for annuals and upgrades/mods, and at exorbitant costs? 70% of the conversation at my Saturday morning hangar coffee get-together centers on lack/cost of parts, dwindling mx support, eternal waits for an AI, and long turnaround times when you CAN get in. Why work at a GA shop for $18 an hour when you can start at an MRO or 135/121 operator for $30 or $40 an hour with better bennies?

      • Like I tell these young A&P’s going to the airlines, your going to be working graveyards, Thursday-Sunday for the next 10 years because you have zero seniority, and when you get laid off, (and you will) the small shops wont be hiring because you have no GA experience. And we pay with experience in the $28-38 dollar hr rate. We also offer the opportunity to get their PPL in our 172’s and incentive. Just unable to find qualified people.

  6. Writing as a career Airline Captain; Training Captain before and after retirement.
    Some go into flying as a way to make money; some become doctors to make money.
    Neither is someone you want to trust with your life.
    In my experience, hose few who didn’t want to upgrade were often those that couldn’t upgrade, or didn’t feel able to do so.
    They would make the “Lifestyle” excuse, but it was often just that, an excuse!
    The saddest characters were those who had entered the career, hated it, but had nowhere else to go.
    There is no question that pilots should be well paid, and schedules should allow for a reasonable life; the pay at lower levels is not acceptable, and often schedules are not acceptable.
    But; operators should not be hiring those who are not interested in the career, just the money or “Lifestyle”; give them a free pair of Ray Bans and suggest they go elsewhere!

    • First day FOs at Regional Airlines with no Part 121 experience are now making $100,000 a year. The days of food stamps and ultra low pay are gone.

    • This seems so strange to me. I’m 69 years old, and next month I will begin my professional aviation career flying medevac. Back in the 1970’s when I was 20, I tried to to join the airlines. No jobs to be had back then, airlines had 400+ applications for every available seat. Instead went to University, got the degrees ended up building my own business and owned 13 airplanes along the way.

      Sold my business two years ago, got my ATP and now I am starting my dream of flying as a pro some 50+ years later.
      So Yeah, I understand the lifestyle issues being discussed here, but as Brian commented here, for me it wasn’t about the money, it was always a passion.

  7. I have to wonder, when I hear stories about upgrading to captain and not upgrading to Capt. I think, who in their right mind would want to be the captain on today’s planes, full to the brim, of passengers that are squeezed in like sardines, beating the crap out of each other, dressed shabbily, and having to pay dearly for anything that they are carry onboard.
    The cabin crew, walking around without seatbelts, or some means of staying attached to the floor of the aircraft, have a very dangerous job. They should be paid as much, if not more, than the pilots. Soon, with the advance of technology and if managers have their say, pilots will be working from home, sitting at their computers, flight planning and operating several aircraft at the same time.
    Aviation is very technical now and not what it used to be. Management CEO’s, most of them sitting on the beach somewhere in the Caribbean or on the Balearic Islands or somewhere exotic, look at their computers and iPads and iPhones and think of other ways to squeeze money out of the workers and how they can squeeze in more passengers and charge more money for peanuts.
    When turbulence hits, and it can hit you in a hurry, people without seatbelts can be seriously hurt or even killed. This is getting more prevalent because the airways are so crowded and jammed tightly with airplanes coming and going with less than a thousand feet between them and wake turbulence worse than any Sunday afternoon, on a New Hampshire Lake, with speedboats leaving wakes of high waves, that cause coastal erosion and upend other boats and wake surfers.
    Aircraft mechanics are hard to find, because it takes so long a time to become an aircraft mechanic. In case you don’t know it, an A&P mechanic is licensed to build the engines and the airplane from scratch. They will even know what a ‘P Lead’ is, and they probably have worked on Pratt & Whitney R-2800’s.
    Captains, before they sit in the left seat, should have read the book, ‘Fate Is the Hunter’. By the way, the front part of the airliner is now called ‘Flightdeck’. ‘Cockpit’ is usually the name for a fighter aircraft’s front end.
    At the moment I am flying the Boeing 737-800NG Simulator, at Global Flight Adventures, in Canton, Massachusetts. Airline pilots from around the world train here; they hone their skills and practice for upcoming tests. Drop by anytime.

  8. The GA mechanic problem is getting really serious. Good shops are harder to find and they have more business than they can handle. Small shops are going out of business left and right because they can’t make a living working on GA aircraft and find good help. I think the biggest problem is that A&Ps don’t get the pay they need to make a descent living. The good ones get jobs with the majors or outside the industry that pay twice as much and have better benefits. The pay and benefits need to go up if you want to stop the loss of AMTs in the GA world. Aircraft owners need to acknowledge this and be willing to pay what it takes to keep their 40+ year old aircraft flying.

    • Another option is if the FAA would allow owner/pilots to get a limited A&P license to do more of the work on their own planes. I wanted to become an A&P when I was working, but all the schools in my area only had day classes, so I couldn’t attend. Now that I am retired, the schools want to train me in working on jet engines and airline stuff, in which I have no interest. So far I have been fortunate to have access to a stable maintenance workforce because the flight school at my airport also works on private planes too. I still have to get in line behind their trainer planes, but with a little planning, that works okay. If I could get training on my plane and get licensed to only work on it, that would solve two problems.

      • I agree. Ultimately the FAA is going to have to address the situation with some rule changes. Having only one class of mechanic license for everything from Piper Cubs to 787s seems a bit ridiculous. The FAA has shown willingness to make improvements in a lot of areas from Basic Med to Light Sport/MOSAIC to NORSEE. Hopefully the alphabets will finally starting to get focused on this problem.

    • If a shop has more business than it can handle, it ought to be able to charge more. That would allow it to hire and pay more.
      Apprenticeships are possible, as the FAA allows someone to work under supervision of an A&P. It takes about 3 years of full time work to get a certificate.
      There are also repairman certificates.

  9. Dennis is not the APA president.
    That would be Ed Sicher.

    Dennis is just our spokesperson for lack of a better term.

  10. This is what happens when idiot executives and “human resources” idiots dictate such a corporate environment, pilots turn down more money and responsibility in order to maintain their quality of life.

    • That would be true for every non union airline. The rest get to share the blame with the pilots and unions at their own and even other airlines.
      Reminds me of discussions with people who hate “capitalism”. Inevitably, they are most angry about the sectors with the least free markets.
      Also, they look at countries with lots of government control, and say they want that. What few people realize is that command economies mostly take a lot of cues from the US or other free markets when managing their own economies.
      Since there are virtually no free markets in airline pilot services (and haven’t been for a long time), of course, there is just not much information telling management and unions what they might be doing wrong.
      It’s one of those cases of not even knowing what they don’t know.
      Unions get the management they deserve.

  11. The maintenance issue and lack of mechanics could be resolved by reinstituting apprenticeships. I served a four year apprenticeship with a major carrier in 1965. I also received my A+P ticket back then. There is a world of difference between an airline mechanic and GA mechanic. These days, as a 16 year retired captain, the only planes I would use my A+P ticket is for the maintenance on my three acro birds. Incidentally, for those that don’t have the A+P but hang their hat on the ATP… the testing for the former is more intensive and involved than the latter.

  12. Quality of life is what I sought when I retired from the military. I spent over 5 years deployed at sea in my Navy career. At FedEx I was more interested in being at home to see and help my kids grow up to be responsible citizens (it worked). After 10 years in the right seat of the 727 I moved to the right seat of the MD-11 at around 55/400 upon check out. I would have stayed there even longer had mandatory retirement and retired income based on the high 5 years of income.
    I did less than 10 days of reserve in 22 years and don’t regret not trading quality time over $. I even retired 22 months before age 65 because I wanted to enjoy life more than flying to some one else’s schedule. Yes the money was good, it was the quality of the people that I flew with that I enjoyed the most.

  13. How different things are today than years ago when I was pointing toward an airline FO job. (an illness ruined that chance for good) The coveted prize was four stripes back then. Amazing.

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