Plane Answers: How do pilots move up to Captain?

Introducing Gadling’s newest feature, Plane Answers, where our resident commercial pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from take off to touch down and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away! Here’s the first question and answer:


I have a question on how the majors promote pilots. Do pilots start out as (say in AA’s case) an MD-80 co-pilot and go to MD-80 captain, then 75/76 co-pilot to 75/76 captain to 777 co-pilot etc..? Also do the Captain’s fly reserve as well?


Thanks Matt for the first question in our Plane Answers feature. You’ve touched on a subject that my neighbors and friends often ask.

I mentioned in one of the Cockpit Chronicles how seniority controls what kind of schedule you’ll be flying. Even more significant than your monthly schedule or when you’ll be taking your vacation is what position you’ll be flying. This is driven entirely by your seniority.

Every airline is different, but typically you’ll start out as an MD-80 or 737 co-pilot. Up until 2002 at my company, you may have started in the flight engineer position of the 727. That’s the guy who sat sideways and controlled the aircraft systems, such as the fuel balance, hydraulics, electrical system and the air-conditioning and pressurization. I did this for four years before upgrading to the right seat (co-pilot) of the MD-80. I was just thrilled to get a view out the window finally, and the first opening just happened to be in Boston where I wanted to end up anyway.

When our company started buying the new generation 737-800’s I went to that as a co-pilot. The pay was very close to the MD-80, but I was thrilled to be flying the non-stop Seattle flights where my parents live. Three years later I jumped up to the 757/767 to fly internationally, still as a co-pilot. For a short time, one month to be exact, I flew the 777 out of New York before getting displaced from it back to Boston on the 757/767.

So typically you’ll work your way up through ever larger airplanes (which usually pay more) while sitting in the right seat before making the jump to the left seat in the smaller narrow-body aircraft. This often results in a 20-40% pay raise.

There are exceptions of course. Some pilots stay in the same airplane for their entire career–especially if their airline flies only one type, as is the case at Southwest. Other pilots might want to choose to fly as a co-pilot for a few more years to enjoy their seniority in that seat. They would hold better schedules as a co-pilot, but once they move over to captain, they’ll likely be near the bottom of that list, which means flying on reserve (on call) again–which happens to be the answer to your second question.

The time to upgrade to the left seat is different at every airline. It’s entirely dependent on how much the company is growing and how many pilots are retiring. At my airline, movement into the left seat has been excruciatingly slow. I’m in my 16th year and I will have to wait for another two years or so before enough retirements allow me to upgrade to captain on the MD-80 in New York. If I elect to stay in Boston, it will likely take another year or so on top of that.

Other airlines have grown rapidly in the past few years. Continental has a few pilots that recently upgraded to captain with less than three years of seniority. Compare that with our most junior co-pilots who were hired at least eight years ago.

In addition to actually being able to hold the captain position with your seniority, you’ll also have to successfully pass your checkride before you can move into the pilot in command position. Failure to do so means you’ll have to go back to the co-pilot position. But some airlines have an up-or-out policy, meaning that you’ll have to successfully advance to captain if you want to continue working there.

So you might ask why pilots stay at a slow moving airline instead of leaving and taking their experience to another carrier. Pilots almost never quit to fly somewhere else because they’d have to start at the bottom of the other companies list regardless of their level of experience. This could leave them vulnerable to a furlough if that company cut back on it’s capacity.


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