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Bid What You Want

The airline captain’s left seat beckons—but is it for you?

The airline captain’s left seat beckons—but is it for you? [Adobe Stock]

A few recent articles within the frequent-flyer blogosphere have bemoaned that airlines cannot convince enough of their first officers to upgrade to captains and the staffing challenges that presents. Despite a huge pay difference (often an extra $100 an hour), a lot of first officers are sitting tight in their current seats. With a few exceptions who tried up-or-out clauses where first officers had to upgrade upon reaching a certain seniority threshold, most airlines are powerless to force first officers to move up.

The result is that instead of having to wait for several years before upgrading, some airlines have had junior pilots bid for the left seat—and have it awarded—while they were still in initial training or shortly thereafter.

So why are some first officers so content to stay where they are? In a nutshell, they prefer a bit of control over their schedule versus the boost in hourly pay. When bidding as a very senior first officer, pilots get to choose the “milk runs.” What constitutes a great trip is widely varied. Commutable start and end times, favorite layover cities, avoiding landings at O’Hare (KORD), or simply trips without a lot of flying involved are all considerations that a senior bidder may seek out in a trip.

First of all, let’s clear up the difference between a captain and a first officer. When we were referred to as pilot and copilot, the inference was that the copilot mainly went for coffee and maybe talked on the radio while the captain did the lion’s share of the flying. And that wasn’t far from the truth—80 years ago. For generations now, captains and first officers are treated more nearly as peers than as superior and subordinate. Generally, they share the flying about evenly—in my fleet we usually swap off flying duties after two legs of the trip. If there’s an odd number of legs, I’ve seen who flies the go-home leg determined by a coin toss, spinning the heading knob for a game of even/odd roulette, or one captain even surprised me midway through the last leg when a timer went off exactly at the midpoint. “OK, that’s my half of the leg. Take us on home from here,” he said as he transferred the autopilot.

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But we’re not exactly equals. The captain signs for the plane and assumes a level of responsibility beyond that of the first officer, and generally captains are obligated to do the landing when low visibility forces a Category II or III landing. And when flying with a new first officer without a certain number of hours in the seat, there are considerations such as weather or special airport qualifications that force the captain to fly that leg. Earlier this year, I flew a four-day trip with a brand-new captain, and the ceilings and visibility hovered right near minimums, forcing the captain to do most of the flying. I think I landed twice on that trip. But whenever a captain asks if I’d like to start out flying or monitoring at the beginning of the trip, my answer is almost always, “It doesn’t matter as long as it pays the same!”

When most of us were hired, it was the left seat we longed for ultimately, but the pay for pilots has improved significantly in the last contract cycle or two. As long as we don’t have collections of boats, airplanes, vacation properties, and ex-spouses lining up at the bank on payday, living comfortably on a first officer’s salary in today’s economic environment shouldn’t be a challenge. Maybe just wait till you’re off probation before you buy that Maserati or Bonanza.

Still, some of us take the bait. We’ve trained for that seat from day one, and for some of us, the carrot remained just out of reach until now.

“When we hired you, we didn’t hire a first officer,” the instructor told us on our first day of indoctrination at the regional airline. “We hired you as a captain in training.” Was that yesterday, was it a lifetime ago, or have 17 years passed since that morning? All three answers feel correct. At age 27, I wasn’t “the old man” in our class, but I wasn’t far from it.

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In the years that followed, I gained experience unfathomable to the 12-year-old kid who showed up at the airport one weekend and, despite going home to sleep, his heart stayed in the hangars and in the heavens. I turned wrenches, swept floors, and earned a few big favors that paid off in the end. After nine years of flying regional jets on starvation wages, I moved up to an Airbus at a lower-cost carrier and started living comfortably. The entire time, I’d been in the right seat as a first officer. At the regional airline, I got within eight seniority numbers of upgrading to captain before we began to slide backward, losing airplanes and downgrading pilots from captain to first officer.

At the next carrier, I was awarded captain 23 hours before I interviewed for my current and almost certainly final job. I opted to skip upgrade training since I would be leaving before my check ride. The time in the schoolhouse would have been a waste of resources for the company and a lot of effort for naught on my part.

When is the right time to upgrade, though? Some have always advocated that upgrading at the first opportunity is the only way to go— start making captain pay as soon as you can. Others really do need a bit of time in the right seat before they take the role of captain. Military fighter pilots, for example, can fly the heck out of a mission with tight formations and precision attacks against the enemy. If they’ve been flying single-seat jets for years, fine-tuning the communication skills required on the flight deck takes a while. On the other hand, a pilot who has flown regional jets for years may walk into the job completely ready for the command seat as soon as they settle in and become comfortable with the company’s procedures and policies.

But above all, the greatest criteria is universally echoed by the better captains when the topic comes up: “You’ll know when it is time to upgrade.” And while the length of time varies for all of us, at some point it really does become evident that it’s time to move up. I found myself imagining if I would be the same or different than most of the captains I was paired with and becoming more particular about the tone they set on the flight deck. Some of the worst captains I flew with could fly the plane just fine. They just could not hold a conversation without bouncing off the third-rail topics such as religion, politics, or hot-button social issues. Starting over at the next airline reset my itch for the left seat…for a little while.

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A little after a year at the company, I modified my bid sheet just a bit, changing one parameter. One of the most tired of our industry’s tropes haunted me as I did it: Bid what you want, but want what you bid. In other words, be careful of what you ask for. It might just happen. A few days later, I was at Oshkosh when my phone blew up. “Congratulations, captain!” was the constant theme, and I celebrated with some friends over ice cream at the show center moments after the award. I’d be training for the left seat of my current fleet in just a few months.

The hard part still lies ahead. The award is based on seniority, but the training, check ride, and initial operating experience with the check airmen still sit beyond the horizon. I’ll be grilled on my ability to fly the plane, sure, but also scrutinized for my capacity to manage the crew, delegate responsibilities when things get busy, and call the shots when things go off script. I’ve already spent considerable time in our manuals, bookmarking all sorts of reference items. Knowing where to find the information is the key when what you’re looking for may be spread across any of a half dozen manuals.

I’m learning a lot as I set up these quick-reference links, for sure, and a lot more knowledge is yet to come. Each captain I fly with, upon learning I’m soon to upgrade, takes care in imparting a few gotchas they’ve encountered along the line and tricks to making some difficult situations easier. This is truly one of the last chances in my career to look left for an answer. As one of our manuals for the captain upgrade points out, “Pretty soon, you’ll look left for an answer, and all you’ll see is your reflection in the cockpit window.”

But in a few months, I’ll go to work with an extra stripe on my shoulders and won’t have to shake my head to avoid a minor case of stolen valor whenever people see me in uniform and refer to me as captain without knowing which seat I occupy up front.
As the old joke among pilots goes, I’ll be flying with my favorite captain every single trip.

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Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the November/December 20203 issue of Plane & Pilot magazine. 

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