Cockpit Chronicles: A Captain No More

Occasionally, pilots seek out a better ride by climbing a few thousand feet. Sacrificing a bit of fuel to climb earlier than scheduled often makes sense as long as there’s less turbulence at the new altitude. But it’s frustrating to discover that the premature climb didn’t help and then find yourself headed back to where you started.

Discontinuing a takeoff roll or performing a missed approach – or even a mechanical at the gate – are all annoying for pilots. But nothing, perhaps short of being laid off, is more frustrating than upgrading to captain and then being bumped back to a co-pilot position.

And that’s where I find myself today. After enjoying eleven months on the MD-80 in the left seat, the company has noticed that there are too many captains in New York on this airplane. So they’re displacing eight of us back to our choice of co-pilot positions, and they’ve announced intentions to bump another group back in April and May.

Once I knew it was inevitable, I could give my displacement preference – a line of text saved in a computer system for just this kind of action by the company – some more thought. Initially, I had planned to fly the 777 as a co-pilot, an airplane that I flew briefly in 2005. But after looking over the various destinations, schedules and the seniority (or lack thereof) my choice came down to three:777 International: While there are only four destinations on our largest airplane from New York – London, Tokyo, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires – they were all exceptional places to see. But even as a co-pilot, the 777 was a senior airplane, meaning I would likely be on reserve just as I was as a junior MD-80 captain. Reserve means that you don’t have much say in your schedule and typically fly when needed, which is often less hours than a full month. This may sound nice, and it can be if you’re working around the house or, say, blogging on the side, but it limits the flexibility in this job. It’s hard to string a bunch of days off in a row to travel, for instance.

767 International: Going back to what I did before the El Jefe position seems like a let down. But at just 36% down the seniority list, I would be able to fly to some of my favorite places in Europe, the Caribbean and Rio. The hourly pay is a little less than the 777, but could be made up by flying full schedule. And as a side bonus, many of my captain and flight attendant friends are still flying there.

737 Domestic: One of the happiest times of my career was 14 years ago when I first flew the brand new (to our company, at least) 737-800 and snagged trans-cons to Seattle, where most of my family still lives. Today in New York, there’s a one-leg-out, layover for 30 hours and one-leg-back trip I could easily hold since I’d be number one on the seniority list there. But what if that trip switched to the 757 in the future? There weren’t any other trips I was tempted to fly and it would be a larger pay cut. It also felt like I’d be taking a giant step backwards.

Goodbye Grand Canyon. Hello again, North Atlantic.

So in the end, I elected to go back to the 767, flying internationally to Europe and Rio. We’re adding a new destination, Dublin, in April and I’m excited to fly there.

Rumors are always flying (no pun) around the company, and the word is that the MD-80 will likely be leaving New York before any other base, possibly by the end of this year. So I doubt I’ll get the chance to fly it again, but I will always have a soft spot for the airplane that introduced me to the left seat at this company.

I suspect we may have a few light bumps in the ride going forward, but with the announced aircraft orders, it will hopefully smooth out soon. Perhaps I’ll be writing about an Airbus upgrade in the future – an airplane I’ve always wanted to fly and never thought I’d get the chance.

Through video over the next two posts, I’ll explain just what little features I grew to love in the MD-80, plus how one feature has changed our job. Stay tuned.

[Photo credit: Kent Wien]

Related: “Captain on the MD-80? Why?

Cockpit Chronicles” takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as a captain co-pilot on the MD-80 757 and 767 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the “Cockpit Chronicles” Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.