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Job-Hunting Pilots

Seniority is Serious Business

By Tim Genc

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a stranglehold on aviation and certain facets of the industry have been more affected by others. Both the regional and major airlines have seen a dramatic decrease – a complete standstill for most – in recruiting and hiring. The unheard-of, supersonic speed at which a pilot could move from regional first officer to captain, to legacy carrier first officer has stalled out. To make things even worse, almost every airline out there has issued WARN (Worker Adjustment and Training Notification) letters to a large number of employees, with furlough notices not far behind.

For the time being, the recent “pilot’s market” that thousands of career aspiring aviators have been enjoying for the last few years has seemingly disappeared overnight. The trends of the previous ten years – not-affectionately referred to by many pilots as “the Lost Decade” – are upon us once again.

There are lights at the end of the hiring tunnel, (and they aren’t necessarily the lights of a train bearing down on you!) A very small handful of regional carriers have continued hiring, but these select few can be more selective now than in the past. Instead of the airline providing the required CTP course or ATP check ride, the ATP certificate has to already be in hand. While the CTP course is a costly one, due to the hours of full motion, airline quality simulator training required, it is an option that could be rolled into the cost of one’s training.

For pilots already in the industry, whether still building initial airline experience with a regional or already enjoying the next step with one of the major or legacy carriers, this prerequisite does not pose much of a challenge. Those faced with furlough can step right into one of these positions, potentially enjoying an immediate upgrade or Direct Entry Captain (DEC) position due to the number of Part 121 flight hours they have accumulated. Various 135 cargo and freight jobs, and opportunities with corporate flight departments are also available, as that part of the industry may not have been impacted in the same way; packages and freight have a low chance of contracting “the ‘Rona”!

Unfortunately, there is a cloud to this silver lining: some companies are requiring furloughed pilots to do the unthinkable of surrendering their previous airline seniority number before coming on board with their new company. Why is this? What does this mean? A furloughed pilot still has their old job waiting for them for a long period of time. In all likelihood, their previous job was paying more than the likely entry level aviation job they are possibly accepting. If things were to turn around, and they were recalled to their job – in the same position of seniority in which they left – they would be foolish not take it. More money, better schedule, lots of perks. Makes all the sense in the world for the pilot to not give this up. But what of the airline that just spent, thousands of dollars training that pilot? Are they just out that money? Even if there is a training contract in place to recuperate that cost, it can be bought out. But if the grass is no longer greener on the other side, the pilot has much more of an incentive to stay put with their new aviation employer. Some airlines and other aviation companies are requiring pilots to surrender their seniority numbers to protect their investment and their workforce. Looking at it from their perspective, it’s not a surprising move.

Unfortunately, there is a cloud to this silver lining: some companies are requiring furloughed pilots to do the unthinkable of surrendering their previous airline seniority number before coming on board with their new company. Why is this? What does this mean? A furloughed pilot still has their old job waiting for them for a long period of time. In all likelihood, their previous job was paying more than the likely entry level aviation job they are possibly accepting. If things were to turn around, and they were recalled to their job – in the same position of seniority in which they left – they would be foolish not take it. More money, better schedule, lots of perks. Makes all the sense in the world for the pilot to not give this up. But what of the airline that just spent, thousands of dollars training that pilot? Are they just out that money? Even if there is a training contract in place to recuperate that cost, it can be bought out. But if the grass is no longer greener on the other side, the pilot has much more of an incentive to stay put with their new aviation employer. Some airlines and other aviation companies are requiring pilots to surrender their seniority numbers to protect their investment and their workforce. Looking at it from their perspective, it’s not a surprising move.

But … should you do it?

This is where having a crystal ball would be a great thing to have! For how long is the hiring market going to stay where it is? For how long is this pilot going to be on furlough? Projections by industry experts suggest years, not another decade; we’ve heard educated guesses as soon as 2023. So, every pilot must ask themselves these questions: 1) what is the value of the offer as compared to my previous job, and 2) what are my financial responsibilities?

FedEx is actively recruiting and hiring pilots right now, and they do require the surrender of one’s previous seniority number; what is the value of that offer from FedEx as compared to the value of your seniority number from a regional airline with a flow-through to a major carrier? If you accept the offer from FedEx and, one year later, you were to get called back to your previous job, are you better off or comparable to where you would’ve been? If the answer is “yes”, or if it doesn’t make a real difference, then it might be worth it to write that resignation letter. If the answer is “no” due to either salary, having to pay back bonus money, or position on a seniority list having to do with a flow-through agreement, then that might be too costly a price to pay; consider Atlas Air, where a surrender of your number is NOT required.

The other consideration, finances, will also play a large part in your decision. A single pilot living in a small apartment with no one besides themselves to support has a lot more flexibility than a pilot with a family who depends on their providence to survive. Many a single, furloughed pilot has taken a non-aviation job while riding out the COVID storm, and they will wait patiently for their recall. It’s a different decision for everyone. There is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Other things to consider: • Some of the companies that are actively hiring are only requiring a training contract – which is still a good incentive – and not asking the pilots to surrender their seniority number. While training is expensive, a contract can be bought out if that recall notice arrives, and you have your previous company as a safety net. If that job offer is worth the paying back the cost of your training, then staying in aviation might be better than driving a delivery truck for a few years. • There might be a maximum on how many years you can remain furloughed until you are released; what is that number? What is the projected time for the industry to rebound? Depending on the answers to those questions, you could be dealing with the same “different job” decision a few years down the road. Make sure you know the terms of your furlough. • You cannot fake the surrender of your seniority number … not anymore. In this digital age, your resignation can be researched, and could mean your job if you do not follow through with your new company’s request. DO NOT think you can send an email to a fictitious address and CC your new chief pilot, and buy it back a year down the road. Unfortunately, in this day and age, they have thought of that.

The term that keeps popping up to describe this time in our history is “unprecedented”, and that term is just as appropriate to aviation as it is to every other industry. There has never been a precedent set for 100% remote education for elementary and middle schoolers; they are trailblazing and trying new things on the fly. Similarly, there has never been a precedent set for restricting travel, screening passengers, blocking off seats, and quarantining different states; our industry is winging it. These unprecedented times have affected our industry and our pilots in a way that no one could’ve imagined a year ago; we couldn’t think of anything that would’ve negatively influenced the “pilot’s market” of hefty bonuses and recruiters visiting with free food on a daily basis. Yet, here we are.

Aspiring pilots – young and veteran alike – are being forced to make unprecedented decisions about their futures. Seniority is sacred in aviation, and the idea of giving that up for another job is something that has never been contemplated as an option. It is unprecedented. It is a decision that needs to be weighed very carefully, and one that should not be taken lightly.

Aviation is a hearty industry that will bounce back from this pandemic but, in the meantime, many pilots need to take a long and hard look at a plan B. And, who knows? Maybe your alternate option will end up being a better one for you, your family, and your aviation career.


Bio: FAPA.aero