This requires an understanding of the airline seniority system.
In the United States and many other countries, all of a pilot’s quality-of-life variables are determined via seniority bidding, based on date of hire. Our destiny has almost nothing to do with merit and everything to do with timing. Experience and skill, for all of their intangible value, are effectively meaningless. Seniority is the currency of value. Nothing is more important than, as we call it, our “number.” We bid our preferences for position (captain or first officer), aircraft type, base city, monthly schedule, vacations, and so on. What we’re ultimately assigned comes down to our relative position within the ranks: our number within the airline overall; our number in a particular base; our number within a specific aircraft category; our number, number, number.
First officers become captains only when a slot becomes available, and only when seniority permits them to. How talented you are, or how swell a person you are, will not earn you a faster track to the left seat. Neither will how many lives you managed to save in the throes of some emergency. Only your number can do that.
I should point out that not every pilot whose seniority permits an upgrade to captain will opt for it. The transition from first officer to captain means you’re going from the top of one category to the bottom of another. You’ll probably be getting a raise, but not necessarily, and once you account for schedule, the places you’re likely to fly, and so on, you might have a better lifestyle remaining as a senior first officer than you would as a junior captain. Thus it’s not terribly unusual to find copilots who are senior to, and more experienced than, many captains.
The seniority system is not as rigid in every country, though many follow all or part of the U.S. model. And with minor variations, flight attendants work within an almost identical framework. It’s at once fair and unfair, the ultimate insult and the ultimate egalitarian tool—dehumanizing, maddening, and immensely important. It’s important for the reasons just listed, and also because, if a pilot is laid off or his airline goes bust, his years of accrued tenure become meaningless. Seniority is never transferable from airline to airline. Any time a pilot changes airlines, he starts over at the bottom of the list, at probationary pay and benefits, regardless of experience. The long, slow climb begins again. This is industry standard, and there are no exceptions—not for Chesley Sullenberger, not for a former NASA astronaut, not for anybody. When the pilots of Eastern, Braniff, Pan Am, and a hundred other belly-up carriers suddenly found themselves on the street, their choice was an ugly one: start over as a rookie, as it were, or find another career.
If business is bad and airlines are contracting, seniority moves in reverse: captains become first officers; and junior first officers become cab drivers. In the rickety profit/loss rollercoaster that is the airline industry, layoffs—furloughs, as we call them—come and go in waves, displacing thousands at a time. Following the 2001 terrorist attacks, more than ten thousand airline pilots were furloughed in the United States, yours truly among them. Many are yet to return. When it happens, a portion of an airline’s pilot seniority roster, which is to say everybody at the bottom, per date of hire, is lopped away. If cutbacks determine that 500 fliers have to go, the 501st one hired now becomes the company’s most junior—and most nervous—crewmember. Some pilots are fortunate, getting on at just the right time and sliding through a long, uneventful tenure. But it’s not the least bit unusual to meet pilots whose resumes are scarred by three or more demotions or furloughs, some lasting several years.
Furloughees remain nominal employees, presumably to be summoned back when conditions improve or attrition warrants their return. When and if that day comes, assuming the airline that cut you loose stays in business, you’re brought back to the fold in strict seniority order—the first pilot out is the last pilot back. How long can it take? My furlough lasted five and a half years.
Pilots can reduce the risk of furlough by embracing the lucrative but less-than-glamorous realm of cargo flying. If the greasy glare of warehouse lights at 4:00 a.m. doesn’t cramp your style, you can hunker down on one of the more recession-resistant seniority lists at FedEx, UPS, Atlas Air, etc. You won’t be signing autographs for little kids, and your circadian might graph out a little funny, but layoffs aren’t as common in the freight business.
If you’re a youngster setting your sights on this mad business, expect that it will happen to you. When it does, try to relax, it’s not the end of the world (yet). Don’t join any religious cults and don’t make voodoo dolls of your employer’s corporate board. Don’t take a job flying unexploded munitions out of Liberia, and, as gloomy as the future might seem, do not sell your wings and hat on eBay. The FBI won’t like that, and you might need them again.
And not that you asked, but allow me to propose that the two greatest songs about furlough and unemployment are a couple of old school punk rock staples—the Clash’s “Career Opportunities” and the Jam’s “Smithers-Jones.” The former, from the Clash’s eponymous debut in 1977, is a raucous tear-down of the economic malaise in late ’70s Britain. The latter, written by the Jam’s Bruce Foxton, tells the story of a British workingman who arrives for work one morning, optimistic and “spot on time,” only to be summoned into the office and summarily handed his walking papers.
“I’ve some news to tell you,
There’s no longer a position for you,
The song implodes around the word, “Jones,” in a crash of orchestral beauty. It also makes me nauseous and gives me the willies, because I know the feeling.