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.

Galley Gossip: Airline seniority, bidding & working undesirable trips

Dear Heather,

Since when do you have Oklahoma City layovers? Heather, Heather, Heather……I’ve always envisioned you as A View From The Top, Transcon, 767, New York to LA Princess. It’s really hard for me to picture you on a Super80 Oklahoma City two-day. What gives?

Yours truly,

Ron “The frequent-flyin, two-timin cheat

PS Did Miss Oklahoma really sit in economy?

PSS Did your dress really rip because of that leap out of the crew van, I mean…. well, we ALL now know what you had for breakfast that day! LOL!

Dear Ron,

Ya just had to go and bring up the Cracker Barrel, didn’t you! Thanks a lot. It’s official, I’m now on a diet. As for Miss Oklahoma, not only did the lovely Miss Taylor Treat sit in economy, she sat in a middle seat! Not once did she complain about it, either. I know who I’m going to vote for in the upcoming Miss America pageant!

I completely understand why you might be disappointed to learn I’m not the transcon princess you’ve dreamt about. From time to time I really do bid for Oklahoma City / El Paso / Nashville / Kansas City layovers. I know it’s hard to believe, but It’s kind of nice to shake things up. No matter how great a trip may be, after awhile it gets boring knowing what passengers are going to say before they even say it and only stocking the beverage cart with diet soda, club soda, bottled water, and extra limes when flying back and forth from New York to LA. Anyway, ya gotta do what ya gotta do to hold the holidays off. My Oklahoma City layover was just the price I had to pay to spend Thanksgiving at home with family.

SENIORITY – Refers to a flight attendants years of experience. Years of experience with an airline is based on date of hire. Seniority is everything at an airline. It determines what trips a flight attendant can “hold” and whether or not a flight attendant will serve reserve.

I have fifteen years seniority at my airline, which isn’t much considering many flight attendants have forty – plus years with the company. That’s why I commute from my home in Los Angeles (one of our most senior bases in the system) to New York (our most junior base). In New York I can hold great trips. More importantly, I’m off reserve.

BID, BIDS, BIDDING – a request of choice routes made by each flight attendant to fly specific monthly schedules. At the airline I work for, our bid sheet offers over hundreds of lines to choose from. Bids are awarded by company seniority. Ever wonder why the flights to Asia and Europe are staffed by our most senior crew members? Because it takes a lot of seniority to hold the best trips!

Each month I bid for the exact same trips: San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, and Dallas turns. Normally I’m awarded one of my top ten choices. But during a holiday month every flight attendant is trying to get the exact same days off, so I’ll bid a few “undesirable” trips just in case I can’t hold what I want. And that, Ron, is how I wound up with Oklahoma City layovers in November.

This month I got lucky. I’m off on Christmas eve, Christmas day, and New Year’s Eve! Of course it came at a price, a very steep one – a line of turns on the 757, and not just any line of turns, but a line of New York-Vail turns. I shudder just thinking about it. I mean what could possibly be worse than working a full 757 crammed with 160 passengers who all think they belong in first class. Not bad enough? Now imagine all those full length fur coats that MUST be hung at once in a closet barely big enough to house the coats and jackets belonging to those who are actually seated in first. And that’s just the beginning. We haven’t even taken off yet! But I’ll be home for Christmas and that’s all that matters.

Not to worry, Ron, things will be back to normal in January.

Happy Travels,


Photos courtesy of Heather Poole & Jennifer Pickens

Galley Gossip: A question about why I’m based in New York when I live in California

Dear Heather,

Reading your comments about being on reserve in New York made me wonder; why don’t you fly out of LAX? I know quite a few people at United who commute west coast to IAD, but that’s primarily because you can’t get the great international flying anywhere else in the system and their seniority goes a lot further.

John in MRY

Dear John,

Good question, John! In fact, it’s a question that my own family and friends have asked often. But first I’d like to address the airport / city codes you mentioned in your question for our readers who are not familiar with airline lingo…

Back in 1995, my classmates and I were offered several base choices prior to graduating from flight attendant training. Because the bases were rewarded by class seniority and class seniority was determined by age, which made me one of the more junior people in the class, I only had three real options – San Francisco, Miami, and New York. My plan was to eventually live at each and every base the airline offered. That’s why I took the job in the first place. To travel. To experience new things. To live in different places.

San Francisco: San Francisco would have been my first choice, except for the fact that the base was (and still is) one of the most senior bases in the system. When it comes to working for an airline seniority is everything. It determines what you fly, when you fly, and days off. Not to mention, the cost of living in California was (and still is) expensive for a flight attendant. A new hire back in 1995 only made a salary of $17,000 the first year. And because only a handful of people from my training class were going to San Francisco, all of whom were from San Francisco, I knew it wouldn’t be easy to find a couple of roommates to share a small place in the short four days the airline allotted before we were all off and flying our very first trip. Though I didn’t go to San Francisco, I knew that one day I would transfer there as soon as I acquired a little more seniority and my pay checks were just a wee bit bigger.

Miami: The majority of the people in my training class wanted to go to Miami, whether they had enough seniority to hold it or not, and most of them did not. The base was (and still is) the second most junior in the system. Of course the weather is always nice, the beaches are beautiful, single life, for me, would have probably been a lot of fun, and the cost of living in 1995 was not bad, not bad at all. I remember seeing an ad in the newspaper for a one bedroom apartment near the beach for $500 a month. It seemed like a dream, a dream that I could actually attain as a flight attendant. Miami was the base for me – but there was just one other place I wanted to go to first.

New York: An hour after my silver wings were pinned to my blue lapel, I was whisked away to the airport where I quickly boarded an airplane that flew to New York. At a window seat I sat, and I’ll never forget looking out of that window at all of those twinkling lights down below as we descended into La Guardia Airport. It was a beautiful sight. Nor will I forget freezing my you-know-what off as I stood outside the deserted airport in the middle of December, two large suitcases lying at my feet, with absolutely no idea what to do next. A not so beautiful sight. I chose New York because I just wanted to go to the one base I knew I’d like the least, just to experience it, and then transfer out as soon as possible. Since I knew most of my classmates would get stuck in New York, I figured it’d be fun to experience flying life with all my new friends. As bad as it seemed at the time having to share a small house in Queens with six other full-time flight attendants, two commuters, a Border Collie named Monica, and Boris, a Russian yellow cab driver who lived in the basement, those were some of the best days of my life.

It’s been fourteen years and I’m still based in New York, even though I live in Los Angeles. Here’s why…

Seniority: New York is the most junior base, yet we have, I think, the best flying. Now, fourteen years later, I’m holding pretty good trips, like transcons from New York to the west coast. That’s one long and easy flight. If I were based in LA, a very senior base, I’d be stuck working up and down the west coast, multiple legs a day, and because flight attendants don’t get paid until the aircraft pulls away from the gate, you do not want to spend very much time on the ground, which is exactly what happens when you work multiple legs a day – waiting in the airport between flights, boarding, deplaning, etc. A flight attendant can easily be on duty for twelve hours but only get paid for eight of those hours when working this type of trip. I work a reduced schedule, so I have to make the most of my days at work. That’s why it’s very important I hold good trips in order to be able to drop them.

Reserve: Reserve, to put it quite simply, is hell. There’s is not one flight attendant I know who enjoys being on reserve. When on reserve, except for a few scheduled days off, you are on-call to the company for a month. Because New York is a junior base, my chances of holding off reserve are good. In fact, I’ve actually held off for a year until this month, and now I am just 15 people from holding off again. For me, it’s much easier to commute to work than to be on reserve, and I do hope to be off reserve again soon. Fingers crossed.

Because I love New York – There’s just something about the energy in New York City, an energy I can’t explain, that does not exist anywhere else. The moment I step off the airplane and walk into the JFK terminal, I feel alive, and creative, which is good when you write about what you do for a living. I love New York so much, in fact, that I even enjoy the brief drive through Manhattan in the dark on the way to Newark airport after being called out for a 5 a.m. sign-in on reserve, which has already happened twice this month – two days in a row. Let’s all pray it doesn’t happen again.

And that, John, is why I’m based in New York. Thanks for the question, and if you, or anyone else, have another question feel free to email me at

Happy Travels,

Heather Poole


Photos courtesy of (Vintage airline poster), (New York City) Morrissey

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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