July 4, 2010

A Tale of Two Airlines

I took to the sky for the very first time at the controls of an avocado green and white Cessna 172, N4664L. I saw a picture of the old girl recently…hasn’t changed a bit. Same paint job, interior unchanged. The images rekindled positive memories of an outstanding flight instructor and a summer learning the skills that became the foundation of my career in aviation. The date was September 13, 1986...13 years to the day before I landed what I thought was my dream job.

I was a junior at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas in 1986 when I chose Aviation Science as an elective course. Taught by the varsity golf coach, the class was basically a Private Pilot ground school course and the leaping off point for my career. On a regular basis, our class was visited by a local flight instructor, former Braniff and current (at the time) corporate pilot and photographer for Steak and Ale who volunteered his time and offered to take anyone who wanted go, flying in his little green and white Cessna 172. We went three at a time…each of us getting about 15 minutes at the controls. After flying with the entire class, he chose one person who, in his opinion, possessed the ability and the desire to make a career of aviation, and taught that person to fly for free…well, almost free. It was more of a time swap deal. One hour in his yard for one hour of instruction. He chose me and I spent the summer mowing, trimming, clipping and learning the skills of aviation.

Thirteen years to the day from my first flight, I stepped onto the property at American Airlines as a gainfully employed airline pilot. Dream job obtained. Grey pin-striped suit, burgundy tie, brief case…we all looked the same…pumped up and feeling like we had just one the lottery. But I’d like to back up about 30 days and describe a unique perspective of two career paths. 30 days earlier, after years of preparation and training. Four years of college. One year as a CFI. One year flying cancelled checks single pilot at night with no radar or autopilot. Six years at a regional airline flying the EMB-120 Brasilia and the ATR-72 and years of applications and updates. Then, in one day, I got two calls. One from American and one from Southwest. Here’s what happened.

The airline industry can be a perilous place to hang your hat. My father, retired in 2004, was hired by Delta when the airline was a regional carrier with no international presence at a time when the desirable airlines were names like Pan Am, TWA and Eastern. Leap ahead 36 years and Delta is the largest airline in the world and all my father‘s first picks are fading memories. In 2004, the pay rates at Delta were unmatched anywhere in the world and may never be achieved again in commercial aviation. A B777 Captain at the time could easily bring home something north of $300,000 per year. Who knows what the future holds…another 30 years in the future and Delta could be on the same list as the other bygone greats. No one knows, and that is the most significant pitfall of an airline career.

A pilot is married to an airline for life due to a little thing called seniority. The guy who has been there the longest is number 1 on the list. The guy hired last is at the bottom and everyone hired in between populates the list in a position relative to his hire date. Everything, and I mean everything, is determined by seniority. Monthly schedule, base, equipment, vacation, compensation, the list goes on…everything is based on seniority and you can’t take it with you. As a new hire pilot at American Airlines in 1999, I earned a little less than $24,000. Today, I make 11 year MD-80 FO pay…roughly $100K per year. If American Airlines closed up shop tomorrow, if I was furloughed, fired or just chose to leave and work for another airline, my seniority would reset to day one. I would start over at the bottom in every sense of the word…and that is why pilots are careful about where they work and never leave unless forced to do so.

As soon as I was hired by a regional airline, I put my career plan in high gear. Part of that plan was that moss would never grow on this stone. I would spend every waking moment attacking the idea of working for my airline of choice. I thought I was sitting pretty at the time. I was making descent money, working for a reputable, stable airline and upgrade to Captain was in sight. There was no pressing desire to move to another “stair step” airline. That is, another step to a company where I would not spend my career. I wanted my next step to be my last. So I made a short list of what I thought were the best U.S. airlines and sent my first application to a major before I finished new-hire training at my regional airline. American, Delta, Continental, United, Northwest, Southwest, UPS and FEDEX all made my list. Yours may vary. Mine would certainly look different today.

UPS and FEDEX never responded to me at all. You never quite know why one airline jumps and another gives you the finger and my story was no different. Continental, Northwest and United responded to each of my updates with a pleasant enough postcard inviting me to try again later. Delta was a top choice for me, but my father was a pilot for them and they had a nasty nepotism rule that excluded me as candidate for employment. That would change later when they dropped their little “no family” rule, but it would prove too little too late for me.

So that left American and Southwest. American’s response to my attention was no different than the rest at first. Southwest was different. Their minimums were higher and a little more complex than the rest, so I had been focused on the other airlines for quite some time before I met the minimum requirements at Southwest. At this point, almost 6 years had elapsed since I sent in my first major airline application, but only 2 months since I applied at Southwest. I was astounded by how fast things worked with this great airline and quickly shifted all my hopes and dreams to Southwest. I was hired by Southwest two weeks later and put into a “pool” of available pilots. Sadly, there was no rhyme or reason to the method of pulling pilots from the pool, and I stayed there for months. All that momentum came to a screeching halt.

Then, in August of 1999 in the presence of a good friend and pilot with whom I had a friendly, yet vigorous, competition to see who would be hired first, the phone rang. It was American Airlines calling to offer me a job and unlike Southwest who placed me in a pool of available pilots, American offered me class date. Remember, seniority is everything…and seniority starts on your first day. It can never be taken away and never improved. You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit…as my 9 year old would say. I had always said that I would only apply where I really wanted to work and accept the first class date that came up. So I accepted. Happily…and I won the competition too!

Later that same day, smile still firmly affixed, the phone rang again. It was Southwest Airlines. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. My two top picks on the same day. It was the toughest decision I have ever had to make. At the time, American paid more, had a better retirement, flew bigger, more exciting airplanes and flew them around the world. Captains at the time were receiving yearly bonus checks large enough to purchase a new Cadillac and Southwest just seemed like a better paying regional airline job. At least that’s how I rationalize my decision today. Plus, I always said I would take the first job I was offered and never look back, so I stuck to my plan and accepted the job at American Airlines.

I won’t know until the day I retire if I made the right decision. My employment history at AA has been a roller coaster ride. I was hired at a time when the airline was taking on 100 pilots per month. By September 2001, when everything changed, I had almost 3000 pilots junior to me on the seniority list. Since then I have steadily lost seniority due to the shrinkage of this once great airline. When I was hired in 1999, my seniority number was just over 10,000. The pilot ranks at American swelled to over 13,000 with vigorous hiring and the merger with TWA in 2000. At one point I was displaced out of my home airport and forced to commute to reserve in a distance city. A situation that lasted almost 4 years. Today, I am based where I want to be based and have a 20 minute drive to work. But with almost 11 years seniority, the right seat of the MD-80 is the only thing I can hold, I’m on reserve, unable to hold a regular line of time and upgrade to the left seat is at least 10 years in my future…if at all. At Southwest, I would have been a Captain 5 years ago, in the same city where I live now, making double what I currently earn. Did I make the right choice? You may have your own opinion. I know I have mine, but time will tell.


  1. Hindsight. Always at least 20-20, never color blind or impacted by fatigue.

    I am quite sure there are a slew of pilots who are amazed at SWA somehow became one of the best paying and most secure airlines in the market. Who knew?

    On the other hand, how many people ended up furloughed and haven't touched a throttle in years?

    It's all relative I guess, hopefully it won't get any worse.

  2. I spent the better part of 28 years at my last "company" always thinking "what if?" as so many ventured off for greener pastures. I have absolutely no regrets for staying the course and remaining true to my first choice, even though it sure did not supply a very lucrative lifestyle.

    Dont look back, you are part of a very special team over there with a rich history that others dream they could be a part of. Enjoy it!