Pay & Quality of Life – Why Pick Just One?

So there I was, standing on the curb at the airport wondering where the crew van was. We were looking forward to a layover, but it turns out a crew of deadheading pilots on our jet had taken our crew van without bothering to ask us if we were also laying over. Strike one.

The van company made the same van come back to get us, and the Captain of that crew (yes, we’re going to call him Joe) was pissed that we hadn’t deigned to inform him that he needed to wait for us upon arrival at the airport. Strike two.

Skyhop Global, a common airline crew transportation provider

After he’d finished berating us for our breach of etiquette (I’m 83.7% sure he was serious) he immediately launched an interrogation with: “So what’s the minimum pay rate you’ll accept on our new contract?”

In and of itself, this wasn’t a completely outlandish question. We’d been in contract negotiations for over two years, and inflation was constantly eroding the value of our pay. We’d need some pretty significant pay increases just to keep up with inflation, before discussing any raises.

My response was, “My #1 contract priority is Scope, and #2 is Quality of Life (QOL). If we get those, I’d be happy with a pay raise that beats inflation.”

Captain Joe was not impressed. He countered with: “I don’t care about Scope or QOL. Pay rates are all that matter to me.” Strike three.

When planning this post, I promised I wouldn’t call Old Joe a stupid poopy head, so I won’t. However, I find it hard to believe that any pilot could be so obtuse.

I told him that I refuse to sell Scope or QOL for pay rates. My FO and I had already exchanged a few looks over Joe’s behavior. I happened to notice Joe’s poor FO rolling his eyes at his Captain’s ongoing rant and felt bad for him. Can you imagine being stuck on the road with a pilot like this for a 4-day trip?

Joe was way senior to me, but I was also a Captain and wanted to stand up to both his behavior and the absurdity of his position. I debated him all the way to the hotel where my FO and I were finally able to ditch him and enjoy our layover.

One of the many points that Old Joe refused to acknowledge is that there are many ways to increase income. Higher pay rates is one way, but not the only way. Another critical part of every airline pilot’s contract deals with the intricacies of how pay is calculated. These issues affect QOL, but when we quantify them we frequently refer to “soft pay.”

Since that day with Captain Joe my union has reached a Tentative Agreement (TA) on a new contract with our company.

Thankfully, our union negotiators nailed Scope, securing high-paying widebody jobs against previously serious threats. They also addressed lower-end scope (regional airline flying) in a way that pleases me.

Our TA also does a lot to improve QOL. It doesn’t hit everything I would have wanted, but it’s very good overall. We’ll discuss why that’s important in a moment. However, we should note that the provisions likely to improve QOL also have the potential to significantly increase our pay. I’ll show my numbers on this one, and those numbers will prove why Poor Old Joe’s stolid insistence on increasing pay rates alone would have been a very bad strategy.

Optimizing Away Quality

Airline pilots make incredible money. However, that money is worthless if our jobs take away all our time, and/or make us hate our lives. I write so much about Pilot Math to help aviators realize that we can accumulate more than enough wealth while still having enjoyable, balanced, fulfilling lives.

My airline is a truly fantastic place to work. However, the company has decreased our QOL by changing the way it builds trips over the last few years. We’re flying more hours and more legs per day, with shorter layovers.

Now, I feel like I’m one of the least picky pilots in the business. I enjoyed living in tents and plywood huts on military bases throughout the ecological disaster that is interior Afghanistan. The COVID pandemic helped me distil the basics of what I need to really enjoy any given airline layover. I won’t assert that I’m entitled to only 48-hour layovers with free spa treatments and Southwest’s contractual alcohol pricing so cheap that it must make HIMS administrators cringe. However, I do need a few basics for a layover to be reasonable. At a bare minimum, every layover should include:

  1. Time to call home.
  2. Time to get a workout.
  3. Time to get at least one hot meal, at a stationary table, that isn’t on a flight deck or in a hotel room.
  4. Time for basic hygiene and getting my uniform ready for the next day.
  5. At least a few minutes of rest that doesn’t include 1-4 above.
  6. My FAA-mandated 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep opportunity. (Note: in order to accomplish 2-5 above, I need at least 9-10 hours after arriving in my hotel room, as a bare logistical minimum. Adding a workout in there adds at least an hour.)

The sad truth is that my company has taken what used to be reasonable work schedules and whittled them down to the most cost-efficient trips possible (when viewed by an accountant or programmer with zero knowledge of real-world airline operations).

This has been made possible (no) thanks to software algorithms generally referred to as The Optimizer. This triumph of computer programming builds extremely efficient airline schedules using only the absolute limits of contract rules and regulations as its parameters. The Optimizer fails to consider a single Human Factor or the reality of real-world flight operations. As such, the trips it builds are terrible for crews and passengers. They leave us fatigued, and they leave the operation brittle in the face of any issues from labor, to maintenance, to weather, and more…leading to major meltdowns like this one, this one, this one, this one, and numerous others.

These kinds of trips are fatiguing for pilots in both the short- and long-term. Day to day, they constantly run us up against the legal and human limits for rest and fatigue. They involve earlier mornings and later nights, frequently wreaking havoc on circadian rhythms by shifting from between early and late flying on the same trip.

These trips also cause chronic fatigue. It takes longer to recover when a pilot gets home. We get less exercise, our eating habits get less healthy, and we enjoy work less. This model isn’t sustainable.

Until our recent TA, we didn’t have much recourse. Our existing contract only granted us minimal buffers above the regulatory minimums. We’ve tried to engage the company in discussions and negotiations for improvements, but found our managers unmotivated. We even went so far as conducting a system-wide informational picket advocating for fatigue mitigation. The event got great visibility, but only led the company to offer minimal and largely symbolic changes.

I needed this new TA to do something to fix our bad trip construction. The company could have offered me significantly higher pay rates, but I would have campaigned and voted against the contract without QOL improvements.

Thankfully, I got what I wanted.

Thank You, Golden Rule!

“He who has the gold makes the rules.”

We’ve all heard that one, right? Although we frequently wish it wasn’t that way, we’re basically stuck with it.

It’s tough to get people to do the right thing simply through advocacy. However, if you can find a way to effectively hit them in the pocket book, you can influence pretty much any behavior you want. Electric cars are my favorite recent example of this.

For years, environmentalists have wanted to increase automobile efficiency and decrease carbon emissions. Liberal politicans would advocate strict standards. Conservative politicians would water-downt those standards as much as possible, or outright repeal them. Ancient car making bohemoths in Detroit resisted all efficiency mandates because they’d be expensive to implement. Electric cars have been around for decades, but weren’t taken seriously until Elon Musk got a hold of Tesla.

Suddenly, Tesla’s cars were extremely efficient and capable. You could charge them at home using cheap renewable energy and drive all week. Better yet, his are some of the highest-performance cars on the planet. These stock, 4-door family sedans and crossovers stand up well against purpose-built muscle cars and supercars.

Tesla became a world leader and the first successful American car company in ages. Better yet, it’s sparked an electric vehicle revolution that has even the Detroit dinosaurs racing to build vehicles that can compete with Tesla’s performance and efficiency. (And no, electric cars are not worse for the environment than gas cars. That argument has been thoroughly disproved).

I love that Tesla has single-handedly done with economics and engineering what decades of legislators and special interest groups failed to accomplish through politics and advocacy. Golden Rule for the win!

Our new TA uses this principle to mandate better trip construction.

The FAA’s regulations allow narrowbody pilots to work Flight Duty Periods (FDPs) as long as 14 hours with only 10 hours off work before their next FDP begins. Both the FAA and our existing contract agreed that if a pilot’s day ends with a deadhead leg, it doesn’t count toward their FDP limit.

Our TA changed both of those rules to include deadheads as part of our FDP. It also sets a limit of 10 hours for a domestic FDP. Anything over those 10 hours gets paid extra, at our regular hourly rate, on top of any other pay due to us.

Our existing contract didn’t allow any type of ready/in-airport reserve duty. Common at some airlines, this type of reserve requires pilots to sit around all day to cover any short-notice flying with as little as 15-30 minutes notice. Instead, our company just built long airport sits into the schedules of regular pilots. It’s not uncommon for me to wake up early, fly a 4-hour leg to SLC, then be scheduled to sit in the airport for another 4 hours before finally flying a 4-hour leg to JFK.

This kind of day is excruciating, especially at the end of a trip when it means getting to NYC too late to commute home. We speculate that our company does this to make us de facto airport reserve in case it needed to reroute us. The problem is that it’s fatiguing, inefficient, and rarely increases our pay on a trip.

Our new TA fixes that too. Any airport sit over two hours (enough time to get some food and catch a breather) earns us one minute of pay for every two minutes of additional sit.

The new TA also implements a volunteer-only airport standby provision with some nice pay and benefits. It’ll be a big win for reserve pilots with tough commutes, pilots who live in base, and pilots who love money.

These are just a few examples of the rules in our new TA that will improve our QOL. Their true beauty lies in the fact that they use economics to force the company to do the right thing. Again, economics accomplishes what years of science-backed safety advocacy couldn’t.

Case in Point

I recently flew a trip that illustrates exactly how powerful these new contract rules will be. Here’s an overview of the trip:

Day One

Early show, single leg JFK-RSW, at the hotel by 1100 am for a 19-hr layover. Had to commute in the night before, losing half a day at home, and pay out of pocket for a hotel. Commute: yuck. Workday: not bad.

Day Two

Earlier show, three legs RSW-JFK-ATL-BNA. My stop in ATL included a 2.9 hour sit, making for a 10.8-hr FDP before a 13.5-hr layover. Meh.

Day Three

Earliest show yet, BNA-SLC at more than 4 block hours, scheduled 4-hr sit, SLC-JFK blocked at more than 4 hours, ends too late to get home so pay out of pocket for a hotel and lose another half day at home. Total FDP: 13.1 hours. Yuck.

While a day like this might look peachy at many airlines, trips at my company used to (and should continue to) look better. Day two was fine, but could have been mitigated with a longer layover. Day three was excruciating. There’s no excuse for sitting in SLC for four hours before a go-home leg to the base where even most “locals” have a 2-3 hour drive home.

I’ve done Day Three before. At least once, I had to call in fatigued in SLC because the music and constant EMS sirens on Broadway in Nashville led to poor sleep the night before. Despite volumes of feedback, the company hasn’t changed trip construction.

I made 18.3 hours of pay on this trip, or $5,033, not counting per diem or company 401k contribution. That includes 16.9 hours of “hard time” spent operating the aircraft, and another 1.9 hours of pay that falls under various rules associated with trip rigs. Our average daily guarantee is 5.25 hours of pay, meaning the average 3-day trip only pays 15.75 hours of pay. Making 18.3 hours was pretty efficient, though I paid for with two mediocre workdays out of three, and terrible commutes on both ends of the trip.

Under our TA, this trip would have paid far better!

First off, let’s note the “sit pay” included in the TA: one minute of pay for every two minutes of sit over two hours. (For the first year, this rule doesn’t kick in until after 3 hours of sitting, but we’re looking longer-term here).

Since Day Two included 2.9 hours of sit, I would have gotten 0.45 hours of extra pay. Day Three’s longer sit would have netted me just over a full hour of pay for my 4.1 hour sit. At my current pay rate that comes out to an extra $413, not counting the company’s 401k contribution. Not bad.

The FDP provisions make this even better though.

Day Two ended up as a 10.8-hr FDP. Since the new TA draws a line at 10 hours, I’d make an extra 0.8 hours. The best though is Day Three. At a painful 13.1 hours, I’d get an extra 3.1 hours of pay, more than $850 extra for that day alone.

Yes, that extra FDP pay stacks on top of the extra sit pay for that day. This means it will cost the company more than 4 hours of extra pay to schedule something as egregious as Day Three.

All told, this trip would have been worth 23.7 hours under the new TA, a 29% increase over the 18.3 hours it was worth under my existing contract. Based on my existing contract pay rate of $275/hr, a 23.7 hour trip would have paid $6,517. If you account for the 18% Date of Signing (DOS) pay raise that brings me to $324/hr, the company would have paid me $7,679 for this trip – a staggering 52.6% increase!

Let’s not stop there though. At three years after Date of Signing (DOS+3), Year 7 B737 Captain pay reaches $368/hr. At that rate, this same trip would pay $8,722 – a full 73.3% increase over our existing contract.

This is the power of soft pay. Even though my pay rates will only be 34% higher at DOS+3, I have the potential to make 73% more money.

Win-Win for Pilots

This is the point I probably failed to get through to Old Joe in the crew van. We don’t need astronomical pay rates to make a lot of money. By implementing QOL improvements with intelligent language, we got astronomical pay raises at reasonable-sounding pay rates. (More on “reasonable” in a moment).

I suppose we could have listened to Joe and ignored QOL to simply negotiate a 73% pay raise. However, that wouldn’t have influenced the company’s trip construction process at all. We would have made the same amount of money either way, but our lives would have sucked if we’d sold QOL for pay rates.

I worry about airline pilots’ long-term physical and mental health. There’s no point in working that hard for big money. Aleksander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus, is famous for once saying, “The Belarusian people will live poorly, but not for long.” This slip, intended to inspire, spoke a dark underlying truth about conditions in his country. This is exactly how I feel about schemes I hear from pilots like Joe who won’t be bothered to put forth the conscious effort to look past straight pay rates.

Some short-sighted detractors (probably including Joe) will argue that this 73% pay increase isn’t guaranteed. We only get that if the company keeps building trips like it is. If they don’t, we may be limited to that 34% total pay raise.

Oh, the humanity.

Actually, that’s the whole point of this discussion.

We didn’t ask for these new rules hoping to make that much more money. If money was all we loved, then that’s what we’d receive…at the expense of our ongoing health and sanity. We negotiated these contract provisions hoping that they’d rarely (or never) apply because that would mean the company was building better trips.

There are numerous other ways to make extra money for those pilots who want to work more. This TA even adds several new opportunities. However, these new rules set a baseline that still guarantees a substantial pay increase with a better work-life balance.

If the company wants to shell out 73% instead of 34%, it’s welcome to do it. However, I’m hoping economics will do its thing. Either way, pilots win.

Back to “Reasonable”

There’s another important angle for considering the economics of this situation. In any contract negotiation, pilots have to make their asks (or demands) at least sound reasonable.

As an industry, we must realize that our pay is amazing. New hire FO pay rates at my airline put a pilot in the top 11% of all Americans for income. For us to get a 34% pay raise in this TA is wonderful.

What would my kids’ school teachers, or a plumber, or a fellow parent at my kids’ Scout meeting say if I told them how much I make, and then complained that a 34% pay raise wasn’t enough?

Along the same lines, what if our pilot group tried to negotiate for a 73% pay rate increase? Can you imagine the company’s reaction? Can you imagine how every other employee at our company would react? Can you imagine the news headlines?

Simply put: that kind of straight hourly pay rate increase would be ludicrous.

And yet, it’s essentially what we got. The trick is that nobody will ever know. (Unless they’re one of the three people who read this post.) (Hi Dad, love you!)

If (likely when) our pilot group approves this TA, the headlines will only mention the 34% pay raise, because that’s the only concrete guarantee. It will mention QOL improvements, but those are so complicated that it takes an entire article to illustrate the effects of just a few of them on one trip. We’ll get something we want, either lots of extra money or better QOL, without having to negotiate for or alienate others with pay rate increases more outlandish than the 34% everyone will hear about.

I feel like that kind of gamesmanship is important.

ALPA – The Handicapper General

For better or for worse, camouflaging pay increases as soft pay is important for another reason. The Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA) believes that it has to keep pay rates relatively even across the airline industry.

Part of me hates this concept. It makes me wonder whether Kurt Vonnegut advised Dave Behnke on ALPA strategy.

If pilots at one ALPA carrier get a large but reasonable pay increase, ALPA can negotiate for a slightly larger raise for the next pilot group to get a contract. By continuing an endless cycle of this “pattern bargaining,” ALPA becomes the rising tide that lifts all of our boats.

However, if one pilot group were to get a truly outlandish pay increase, it’s likely that several of the other airlines would balk and refuse to match the increases. ALPA’s grand strategy of pattern bargaining would break down, and most airlines would be worse off.

Consider that if I’d earned $6,518 for my recent trip thanks to the new world rules in our TA, it would have been the equivalent of me having a pay rate of $356/hr in today’s money. Compare that to our senior A350 Captains only making $353/hr under our existing contract.

Maybe our pilot group could have negotiated that kind of pay rate for ourselves, but there’s no chance of other ALPA carriers like Alaska, Sun Country, or iAero paying $356/hr in today’s money for a mid-longevity 737 Captain.

If we carry this all the way through to DOS+3, that 73.3% pay increase would equate to a pay rate of $477/hr in today’s dollars. Compare that to the current industry leader, UPS, with a top-line pay rate of $401/hr for its most senior widebody Captains.

Even if ALPA could magically negotiate a pay rate of $477/hr for a mid-range 737 Captain at my airline, there’s no way it could ever negotiate that as an industry-wide 737 pay rate that beats UPS’s top-line widebody Captain’s pay by more than $75/hr.

That’s so far beyond ludicrous it’s gone plaid.

ALPA wouldn’t even bother trying for those kinds of pay rates because it would ruin their nationwide strategy. The Handicapper General simply couldn’t allow it.

Thanks to soft pay, they don’t have to. They were able to negotiate work rules for my pilot group that either give us all that crazy pay, or significantly improve our QOL.

Our TA’s top-line 737 Captain pay rate of $382.60 still feels very high, without exceeding ALPA’s tolerances above Alaska’s top-line pay of $330.97.

Work Rules Matter

I hope this shows you the importance of work rules in our career field. Don’t be the fool who goes to a specific airline based entirely, or even primarily, on the money. Is the money worth it if you end up as unhappy as Poor Old Joe?

How much money do you actually need to be happy? I recently had dinner with a friend who was in training at my airline, but undecided on whether to take a job offer from UPS. I tried prompting him to explain what appealed to him more about Brown over our company. The biggest reason he could give was that he believed he’d make $3M more over the course of his career there, compared to here.

I believe that’s possible. UPS pays very well. However, we already make amazing money. When I calculated things out for my book in 2016, career total pay at my company ranged from $8-11M, without picking up a lot of premium trips.

Would it be nice if that number were $11-14M at UPS? Definitely. However, this takes us back to a critical pilot that every pilot must consider: How much is enough?

I don’t know enough about the specifics of UPS’s work rules to know whether I’d have better QOL there than I do at my current employer. However, from what I do know, I think I’m better off here. If I was thinking about going to UPS though, I’d want to know a lot more about work rules there before I made my decision.

And that’s the point. If you’re thinking about joining a given company, call up some pilots who work there. Meet them in person for a meal or some cold beverages, if possible. Try to ask intelligent questions about QOL, but ask them to tell you about things you don’t even know to ask about.

  • How do bidding and day-to-day scheduling work?
  • What are the reserve rules?
  • How long are your work days?
  • What about your layovers?
  • What soft-pay provisions do you really love and use to your advantage?

Then, when you get to your company and start negotiating for a new contract, make sure your union reps and fellow pilots know that soft pay matters in many ways. Don’t blindly chase higher pay rates. Your contract can exert economic pressure on your company, forcing them to pay a lot extra or do the right thing. Build those protections into your work rules so you can enjoy a long, healthy career.

Thanks for reading. Good luck with your applications. Good luck with your negotiations.

8 thoughts on “Pay & Quality of Life – Why Pick Just One?

  1. I’m one of the three who read the article! Great insight on soft pay and yes QOL is that important. “Dirty Thirty!” -Diesel 😉

  2. Thanks for the insight! I’m still new to this airline world coming from the military and really didn’t understand why there was so much focus on work rules vs high pay rates.

  3. Excellent post! The points were well-articulated, and the math simply put. I agree with your sentiments.

  4. Great post Jason! A thoughtful explanation of why I and many others are happy with this TA. Unfortunately, I think “Old Joe” and a lot of other No voters can count the number of years they have left on one hand, and have enough seniority that the QOL gains just don’t seem to concern them. They just want cold, hard cash for their sunset years. Fair enough, but those of us with decades left outnumber them 10 to 1. Sorry, Old Joe.

    1. Great insight. The one thing I want to add is that years and seniority goes VERY fast at an airline career. “Where you are I was and where I am you’ll be”. Remember that for the rest of your lives. Before you know it, you’ll be looking at 25 years behind you. Times are good for airlines now, but the crap can hit the fan really fast and before you know it the contract means very little and the next thing is the Company asking for concessions. Been there done that? YES! When that happens remember one thing.., ALPA always eats it’s young 😉

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