United Airlines grapples with pilots avoiding the Captain’s Chair

As a warehouse manager for $250 million in sales annually warehouse, I was tasked with distribution, inventory, and costs. In other words, we had to ship on time to get inventory overseas via train to container ships and customs in a timely manner to our plants. We did it but not without my going back to the warehouse at night to check inventory to answer a plant of spend a Wednesday and much of Thanksgiving Day answering the Philippines facility and Japanese management why we could not ship on Thanksgiving Day. I was back in the office on Friday, one person picked the parts, another did the paperwork, and Bear Airfreight picked it up. On Saturday, I left for a month tour going from plant to plant, visiting them, and listening to their problems. That plant was one of them and they apologized.


December of last year found me writing about railroad crews or the Engineers and conductors who were constantly on call. “Pushing Train Crews and Other Railroad Workers to the Brink, Angry Bear” is a similar story about the railroad industry pushing its workers (in this instance Engineers and Conductors) to the brink.

“The question is why were train workers so mad causing them to prepare to strike? Well, the major freight rail companies were short-handed after years of labor cuts and quits. Rail companies were introducing draconian attendance policies on railroad crews and other workers. These newer policies were causing workers to be constantly on call, tired, sick, and stressed from company demands. It is hardly the mindset they should want of the people operating trains. With one mistake, the trains could become giant bombs or poison clouds.”

In today’s practice, railroad scheduling waits for trains to have enough cargo loaded to recoup costs and be profitable for a run. At which point when at an optimal amount, the companies will call crews in to make the run. At the other end at the arrival terminal or rail ~12 hours out from the home terminal, new local crews took over. The original crew will hole-up in a hotel. During which time they are waiting unpaid for 18 to 48 hours to crew a train back towards home. The lax time of waiting, burns into personal time. Time in which to go to the doctor, be with families, and rest from the stress of their job. Since they are on call with little warning, they stay close to their work centers and phones.

The Issue

It appears the pilots and first officers alike have similar issues. Pilots more so than First Officers. But to become a Pilot, they first have to be Junior Pilots. Read on to discover why United is short Pilots.

United Airlines grapples with pilots avoiding the captain’s chair, msn.com, Rajesh Kumar Singh

United Airlines first officer Phil Anderson is turning down opportunities to be a captain. He does not want the unpredictable schedule that comes with the bigger paycheck.

He is one of many who have passed on a promotion at United Airlines. Analysts and union officials claim a resulting shortage of captains functioning as head pilots could result in cutting the number of flights available to travelers by next summer. One industry official dubbed it the “no one wants to be a junior captain syndrome.”

Smaller regional carriers have already been forced to reduce their flights by as much as 20% due to staffing constraints, said Robert Mann. Robert is a former airline executive who now runs a consulting firm. If pilots refuse to take the captain’s seat, Mann warned that airlines like United could face the same problem even as consumers are returning more to travel. He added . . .

“You can’t fly with two first officers. You have to have a captain.”

Finding pilots willing to take career upgrades is not just a United problem.

At American Airlines, more than 7,000 pilots have chosen not to take a captain’s job, according to union-supplied data. Spokesman Dennis Tajer for American’s pilots’ union, said the number of pilots declining promotions has at least doubled in the past seven years.

A first officer helps navigate and operate flights. The captain is the pilot in command of the plane and is responsible for its safety. While both are union jobs, they fall in different categories and have different pay rates.

United pilot union data is showing bids for 978 captain vacancies (about 50% of the vacancies), are empty. In June, 96 of 198 openings went unfilled.

Current union data shows the Chicago-based carrier has about 5,900 captains and 7,500 first officers.

Airlines tend to start training captains after the summer travel rush.

Scheduled to report earnings on Wednesday, United has sought to encourage pilots to become junior captains. A new pilot deal includes provisions such as premium pay, more days off, and restrictions on involuntary and standby assignments. Finalization and ratification of the agreement has to occur.

Quality of Life

Garth Thompson, United’s pilot union head, said the deal would “go a long way” toward ensuring United is sufficiently staffed with captains for 2024 and beyond. But some pilots said it was too early to assess its impact even as they called the proposed changes big improvements.

United did not comment for this story, but CEO Scott Kirby on LinkedIn previously said the deal would deliver “meaningful” quality-of-life improvements for pilots.

Delta Air Lines and American have tried to address work-life complaints with measures such as premium pay and restrictions on four- or five-day trips in new pilot contracts.

Mann said increased flight cancellations and delays at U.S. airlines are largely responsible for work-life complaints.

“It’s not necessarily what’s in the agreement, but what happens every day in the real world. The biggest complaints come with the least reliable schedule.”

Multiple pilots at United told Reuters that senior first officers have been avoiding promotions as they do not want to surrender seniority in their current job category to become a junior captain and risk more disruption to their personal lives.

Under current work rules, pilots said they can be forced to involuntarily accept assignments on days off and that trips can be changed or extended “on a whim.”

Seniority affords pilots some schedule certainty as it lets them choose and trade trips, and plan vacations. But a change in their job category or airline base or the equipment they fly can affect their seniority.

A captain’s pay is better, but junior pilots, currently, face greater risks of being subjected to unpredictable flying schedules, more on-call duty and assignments on short notice.

Taking a captain’s job would have boosted Anderson’s pay by 40%, but the 48-year-old pilot said it would have been costly. The Indiana resident, who has three young children said.

“If I did that, I would end up divorced and seeing my kids every other weekend.”

Top-of-the-scale hourly wages for a 737 United first officer, in the new contract, will range from about $231 to $232, compared with about $311 to $312 for the most junior captain in the same aircraft.

A failure to substantially improve work rules was a major reason why United pilots overwhelmingly rejected a deal last year.

Greg Sumner was among those who voted against the deal. The 50-year-old pilot has moved back to first officer’s chair after spending two years as a junior captain.

Sumner said his time in the captain’s seat was “rough” as he was often on standby and would receive phone calls from the crew scheduling team at “all hours of the night.” Adding . . .

“The biggest takeaway from that time was fatigue. I was tired all the time.”