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Career Pilot: Seniority is everything

The time to get hired at an airline is ASAP

You’ve probably heard the saying, “seniority is everything.” Well, in the airline piloting business, that’s absolutely correct. Every day you’re not on the roster is another day someone else gets above you.

Surely, seniority isn’t everything, right? Yes, it pretty much is. Let’s start with pay. The sooner you get hired, the sooner you can accrue longevity pay increases. Most airlines top out at 12- to 15-year pay, and you enjoy a raise on your hire date every year until you hit the top pay rate. Although the increases aren’t staggering, they are certainly meaningful, especially as a new hire. At the same time, however, most major airlines have some sort of retirement “B fund,” which is essentially a percentage of your salary that goes into a retirement fund. This is a significant benefit. If you make $100,000 in your third year, and the retirement B fund is 15 percent, the company pumps $15,000 into your retirement for that year. The higher your pay, the more money goes toward your retirement.

In the last five years or so, major airlines have been profitable, and most have some form of profit-sharing plan in place for employees. Typically, the profit-sharing payout is a percentage of your salary. Once again, seniority plays into this because the longer you’ve been on the property, the more you will take home in profit sharing.

And the sooner you get hired, the quicker you progress through the ranks to become a captain, where pay rates increase substantially. So, not only do you make 40 percent more in hourly pay, for example, the company will then be doling out that much more in your retirement B fund and in profit sharing. See where this is going? If you get hired at a major airline at age 25 instead of 35, you will accrue millions more in pay and benefits by the end of your career.

Then there’s the quality of life issue, and it’s a biggie. In the airline business, it’s all about people getting hired behind you, and those retiring or otherwise moving on who are ahead of you. If you get hired at the beginning of a hiring wave, you will rapidly move up the seniority ladder and get decent schedules within just a few months. Those hired at the tail end of a hiring wave will likely spend years toiling at the bottom of the seniority list, where the schedule can be brutal.

With seniority, you can transfer out of the company’s smaller airplanes and move on to widebody airplanes that pay more—and have easier schedules. Or you could use your seniority to become a captain on a smaller airplane and enjoy the big raise. Vacations are also based on seniority. Want to get the Fourth of July holiday off for a family vacation? Only the senior folks in their respective seats will get that. If you’re junior, expect to only secure vacation weeks in the winter—and only during weeks that don’t have a holiday in them. For pilots with families, being gone on weekends and holidays can be a real burden on your lifestyle. In the airline world, those woes can only be solved with seniority power.

So, does seniority mean everything? As you can see, it’s more than just important. Seniority drastically affects pay, retirement benefits, quality of life, and career advancement. In fact, if you’re given an opportunity to obtain an earlier hire date, jump on it any way you possibly can.

Peter A. Bedell

Pete Bedell is a pilot for a major airline and co-owner of a Cessna 172M and Beechcraft Baron D55.

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