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The Captain Upgrade Decision

By Peter Forman

For a young pilot new to ascending the profession’s ziggurat, a decision of when to become a captain seems like a simple one: move to the left seat at first opportunity. Although this is often the right choice, sometimes it is not. Factors that affect the decision include whether you’re already at your destination airline, lifestyle considerations related to seniority, and issues specifically related to your personal life and your skills as a pilot. The wrong choice could hamper or even severely damage your flying career.

Make no mistake about it, an upgrade to the captain’s seat can be a very positive event. Airlines typically pay their captains about 50% more than similar-seniority first officers. Just as important is the work satisfaction that comes with the move. You no longer need to be so much the politician when responding to the other pilot, and there’s no longer a threat of the scheduling gods pairing you with Captain Bligh (every airline has a few). Once you’re comfortable with the new duties of the left seat, you’ll find the whole experience of being an airline pilot more rewarding (both in terms of remuneration and job satisfaction). After all, this is the job you have been striving to achieve.

One hugely important consideration in deciding whether to delay captain upgrade pivots around the status of where your current airline fits into your career progression. Destination airlines effectively give you more discretion regarding timing of the upgrade. Stepping-stone airlines (typically regional carriers) can be much more problematic when the decision is made to delay upgrade, and here’s why. Your primary focus while building your pilot career is to achieve a seniority number with your destination airline. Delaying your upgrade at a regional works against that goal.

Most everything else during your regional airline flying is secondary to obtaining the best hire date at your destination carrier. Proving that you can successfully complete captain upgrade at one airline suggests to a destination airline that you’d be successful with your upgrade there, too, which is a huge plus. The pilot in command time you pick up as a regional jet pilot helps separate your application from those of other pilots. Most important of all, though, is that the hiring committee at a destination airline might well consider a delay in upgrade at a regional airline to be a red flag. As a general rule, airlines wish to hire pilots who are focused on becoming captains as soon as possible, and any deviation from this path can be a concern. There are exceptions to the rule which will be discussed later, but for the benefit of your career, you’re best off upgrading as early as possible with your regional airline.

Once you reach your destination airline, the upgrade decision is far less critical to your overall career. Lifestyle considerations associated with better seniority as a first officer now enter the picture. Is the equipment type on which you’ll likely upgrade available in the domicile from which you wish to fly? If not, a reasonably short wait until the desired domicile’s equipment becomes available for your upgrade training might be a reasonable choice. Some airlines lock a pilot into an equipment type for up to two years, and that can be a long, long wait as your contemporaries start flying from the domicile that you really wished to secure.

Commuting also often favors a delay in the upgrade. A typical junior assignment for a pilot with lowest seniority is sitting reserve. Usually, reserve assignments are not commutable and a significant lifestyle change ensues. Reserve can actually be a decent assignment if you live within easy driving distance of the airport, but for commuters, hanging out at the commuter pad falls well short of pulling reserve from home. Commutable trips are another consideration. Long trips and those with commutable show times and release times often get picked up by more senior pilots, and days away from home can increase substantially with an upgrade that places you at bottom-of-the-barrel seniority.

If your destination airline offers international flying on widebody equipment, the first officer pay may be comparable to that of a narrow-body domestic captain’s compensation. If your age might preclude your scoring such senior assignments as a captain someday, you might consider getting a taste for your airline’s best flying as a first officer before making the leap to the left seat.

Finally, consider that failing an upgrade to the captain’s seat can hugely disrupt your career, especially if that failure happens before you reach your destination airline. One contributing factor to a failure might simply be a lack of experience. We all learn at different rates and some pilots require more time in the right seat before they’re ready for the upgrade. Consider the path at one of the better regional airlines in the U.S. Not long ago, a first officer typically needed about 10 years of seniority to get a chance at a captain’s seat. A first officer hired around 2014 only needed about two and a half years before the upgrade became possible, and in 2019 the upgrade might be possible shortly after the first officer acquires all the experience needed for an ATP that is not restricted. If you brought jet time and experience dodging Midwest thunderstorms plus dealing with New England winters into your regional airline job, you have an advantage in developing the judgement needed to become a regional jet captain. On the other hand, if your previous time was in Cessna Caravans flying between the Hawaiian Islands, you have much to learn at your regional. It’s better to delay your upgrade than go through the process before you’ve developed the skills to pass it in a commanding fashion.

Sometimes, significant stresses in your life can be enough of a distraction to torpedo an otherwise passable captain upgrade. Loved ones with serious illnesses, divorces, and any number of other severe stresses can distract you for one of the most critical events in your piloting career. It’s better to put off the upgrade than fail it because you cannot concentrate. This advice goes for those upgrading at either their destination airline or at a stepping stone carrier. If you receive a question during your interview at a destination airline about the timing of your upgrade to the captain’s seat, giving an honest answer about your reason for delaying the upgrade may actually come across as showing you used good judgment in the decision.

Each satisfactory captain upgrade will rate as a high point in your flying career. There’s a profound satisfaction in being trusted with the duties of captain. Be sure to show judgment in timing when that upgrade takes place, however.

Do you know a pilot who crossed a picket line?

FAPA.aero executive editor Peter Forman is writing an article about pilots who crossed picket lines. We’re trying to provide a realistic picture of the experience, and whether, given the pilot’s knowledge of the consequences, would such pilots do things differently if they could turn the clock back? Anonymity is respected. The goal is to educate the next generation of pilots. Please email Peter at forman@fapa.aero.

We appreciate your ideas and input. Please email your comments or questions about this article to: support@fapa.aero.

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