How are pilots evaluated for promotions and raises?

Q: How are pilots evaluated for promotions and raises? Presumably nearly all pilots take-off and land safely, so how are distinctions draws?

Whereto begin on this one. Within an airline, everything, and I mean everything, from promotions to route assignments to vacations, happens in order of seniority. Pilots (and flight attendants too) bid their preferences for position, aircraft type, vacations, and so forth, and these are awarded according to seniority rank. A first officer becomes captain not when his boss thinks he’s earned a shot, but when his number is up, depending on attrition or expansion. At which point he’s run through class and put through the rigors of simulator testing.

When business is bad and airlines are contracting, the same things occur in reverse: captains become first officers, and those nearest the bottom of the list find themselves at the unemployment office. It’s all very structured and, if I can say so without refueling the ire of some pilots, blue collar. The process has little to do with merit and everything to do with timing.

If a pilot is furloughed or his airline goes bust (as happened to thousands at Pan Am, Eastern and Braniff), and he takes a job with another carrier, he assumes a position at the very bottom of his new employer’s list, and is back to making a probationary salary. There is no sideways transfer of skills or pay.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.