United Airlines Grapples with Pilots Avoiding the Captain's Chair
CHICAGO, July 18 (Reuters) - United Airlines (UAL.O) first officer Phil Anderson has turned down opportunities to be promoted to captain as he does not want the unpredictable schedule that comes with the bigger paycheck.
Anderson is one of many who have passed on that promotion at United, and analysts and union officials said a resulting shortage of captains - who function as head pilots - could cut 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."
Some smaller regional carriers have already been forced to reduce their flights by as much as 20% due to staffing constraints, said Robert Mann, 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.
"You can't fly with two first officers," he said. "You have to have a captain."
Finding pilots willing to take career upgrades is not just a United problem.
At American Airlines (AAL.O), more than 7,000 pilots have chosen not to take a captain's job, according to union-supplied data. Dennis Tajer, a spokesman 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, but a 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.
At United, bids for 978 captain vacancies, or about 50% of the vacancies posted, have gone unfilled in the past year, United pilot union data shows. In June, 96 of 198 openings went unfilled.
Currently, the Chicago-based carrier has about 5,900 captains and 7,500 first officers, according to its union data.
Airlines tend to start training captains after the summer travel rush.
United, scheduled to report earnings on Wednesday, has sought to encourage pilots to become junior captains with a new pilot deal that includes provisions such as premium pay, more days off, and restrictions on involuntary and some standby assignments. The agreement must still be finalized and ratified.
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 (DAL.N) 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," Mann said. "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.
"If I did that, I would've ended up divorced and seeing my kids every other weekend," said the Indiana resident, who has three young children.
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."
"The biggest takeaway from that time was fatigue," Sumner said. "I was tired all the time."