Who’s More Experienced, the Copilot or the Captain?

June 1, 2022

YESTERDAY was my birthday. I’m old. And I can’t believe the “Ask the Pilot” franchise has been running now for twenty years.

My first job as an airline pilot was in 1990. My first plane was an antique 15-seater with no pressurization or autopilot. I’d just turned twenty-four, and was one of the youngest pilots at the company. I made a thousand bucks a month, flying four days a week, in and out of the awful New England weather.

Suffice it to say my salary has improved. Nowadays I earn more on the average flight, wheels up to wheels down, than I made in an entire month flying those Beech 99s. I don’t mean that as a brag. It’s not that I’m overpaid today so much as I was ridiculously underpaid in those days.

On the downside, I’m no longer, by any stretch, one of the youngest pilots at my airline. This is depressing for the reasons you’d expect, but also has its advantages. I’m now one of the most senior pilots in my category, and can more or less pick and choose my trips, my time off, and so forth. I fly where and when I want to, as much or as little as I like. My salary has never been better, and neither has my quality of life — or “QOL” as pilots call it. The price I pay is being an old bastard with most of his life behind him.

Everything at an airline comes down to seniority. The moment a pilot is hired, he or she is the most junior pilot in the company, and from there begins the long climb upward. How quickly you ascend depends on different things: the health of the industry, the growth (or contraction) of your airline, and so on. As older pilots retire and new ones are taken on, up the list you go.

And because each airline has its own seniority list, your number is of value only within that company. When a pilot is out of work, for whatever reason, he or she cannot slide over to another airline and pick up where they left off. There is no sideways transfer of benefits or salary, ever. If you move to a different company, you begin again at the bottom, at probationary pay and benefits, regardless of experience.

For this reason — at least at the major carrier level, and once you’ve accrued a reasonable amount of seniority — it’s almost unheard of for a pilot to move from one airline to another. It’s also why any sort of industry upheavals (COVID, wars, recessions) make pilots very nervous. If your company goes bust, you lose everything.

My airline has roughly 13,000 pilots and I sit somewhere in the 4,000s. But it’s not that simple: there are lists within that list, broken down by base city, aircraft assignment, and seat (captain or copilot). Some bases are, on the whole, more senior than others, depending where pilots prefer to live or commute to. The same goes for aircraft type. Being senior in one base, or in one plane, doesn’t mean being senior in another base, or in another plane.

In my base city (New York), in my aircraft type (767), and in my seat (copilot), I’m in the top ten percent of seniority. A desirable place to be. However, if I were to change to a different base, or bid to captain, or bid to first officer on a higher paying plane, my ranking could drop considerably. I might earn more money, but my QOL wouldn’t be as cushy. My schedule, my commute, the trips I fly — everything would be more difficult. It’s a tradeoff. For the time being, I’ll take the QOL.

The potential training commitment is another reason I’ve been hesitant. The last thing I feel like doing right now is sitting through a month of training to learn an entirely new plane. I enjoy the 767, including its mix of domestic and international flying. Europe, Africa, domestic coast-to-coast… it’s an enjoyable mix.

And this results in situations like the one I found myself in the other day, when I was working a flight to Mexico City. The captain was a decade younger than me, and far more junior overall. I’d been hired in 2001; he’d been hired in 2015. I was older, more senior, and considerably more experienced than he was. For whatever reasons, he prefers life as a (very) junior captain than he would as more senior copilot. Maybe it’s the money. Maybe it’s ego, or a sense of fulfillment that comes with being called “captain.” I didn’t ask.

Bear in mind that I’m talking mostly about the United States. In other parts of the world, the seniority system isn’t as rigid. Copilots are often hired with very low experience levels, and upgrades to captain aren’t always based on tenure.

But here at home, a copilot becomes a captain not merely by virtue of skill, but when his or her seniority standing allows it. And not every copilot wants to become a captain right away.

Beyond the salary and responsibility aspects, the two positions aren’t a whole lot different from each other. “Copilot” is a colloquial term for first officer, and contrary to what a lot of people think, a first officer is not an apprentice. He or she shares on-the-job duties more or less equally with the captain. The captain is in charge, and earns a larger paycheck, but both individuals fly the plane. Copilots perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do, in pretty much all weather conditions, and both are part of the decision-making process.

That’s good enough for me. We’ll see how things look in another year. For now, I’m happy and staying put.


Epaulets photo by the author.

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13 Responses to “Who’s More Experienced, the Copilot or the Captain?”
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  1. Eric Rush says:

    QOL for sure! I had such a sweet deal as B727 FO when you and I were at DHL, I’d have been a fool to upgrade immediately to captain. Then, when my glorious schedule disappeared, money became the determinant. I wasn’t entirely unhappy when I busted my captain upgrade. QOL would have been miserable, not worth the extra money. I waited until my seniority would assure me the QOL I’d come to enjoy to complete my upgrade a year or so later. Not as well off financially as I’d have been with more years at captain’s pay, but I’m happy.

  2. Alan says:

    Good to see your career choices working out.

    That caption that is 10 years younger than you — any chance to get him/her to post a comment here on this article? I’m not expecting anything in particular but it would be interesting to see that perspective.

  3. RevZafod says:

    Happy belated birthday. Quoting Avron: “I’ve always gone for the “QOL” over the money and bragging rights in my own career. Also appreciate quality over quantity of work/skill–so you have your priorities straight as far as I’m concerned.”

    And my careers had nothing to with flying, except as a passenger [well, OK, early-on, sometimes as a passenger who jumped from 1000 feet or so with the 101st Airborne]. I retired in 1995 at age 55, and that’s when the fun really started. Getting certified as a SCUBA Instructor and traveling the world for diving and total solar eclipses. Beats working. RevZafod aka Dan Prall.

  4. CarlosSi says:

    It’s why I wish I was younger when I would be starting; I don’t want to be an OLDER bastard to have great pay and QOL. My “clock” hasn’t even started ticking.. oh well.

  5. Speed says:

    It’s good to have choices.

  6. Don Beyer says:

    I’ve always admired Patrick for not following the money. He could be earning 50-100K more a year as a Captain on a smaller plane. But that would mean far more time away from home and family and whatever he enjoy’s doing. I hope his airline keeps enough 767s so he can retire off one.

  7. Happy Belated Birthday to you Patrick. Nice to know that you are still flying the B767, obviously a very experienced pilot at that. Wonder what would be your type rated plane next. Wishing you all the best!👍

  8. Tom says:

    I can’t believe that the Ask The Pilot franchise has been running for twenty years, either. It always seems fresh and it’s a welcome read. Long may it continue!

    Assuming that I had made it to the airlines, I’d be retired by now. (I’m roughly a decade older than you, so I fully understand your remark that “The price I pay is being an old bastard with most of his life behind him.”) I spend a lot of time wondering about what might have been, if I had done some things differently.

    Oh, and Happy Birthday to you!

  9. wilson says:

    Dude needs to get a HondaJet and do the Uber thing. Solved.

  10. U.David says:

    Happy birthday, Patrick! A question: do airlines (or at least some airlines) have a policy requiring first officers to move up to captain after they’ve accrued a set amount of seniority, or do pilots have to make the decision to apply to move up?

  11. Carlos says:

    Congratulations on your birthday, Patrick. I thoroughly enjoy reading all your entries. Keep up! I agree with you, hands down, on quality of life over a better pay.
    BTW, are you going to rename your website askthecopilot.com?

  12. Avron says:

    Happy Birthday Patrick, to you and askthepilot.com

    I’ve always gone for the “QOL” over the money and bragging rights in my own career. Also appreciate quality over quantity of work/skill–so you have your priorities straight as far as I’m concerned.

  13. Jeff says:

    Belated Happy Birthday. We’re a couple of days and years apart. Have you figured out what aircraft you might bid for if/when your airline ditches the 757/767? Assuming you’d stay with wide body aircraft, how many people could be senior to you on the 787 or A330/350’s. And would you ever bid for an Airbus?

    On another note are there any pilots you think are good follows on Twitter?

    Take care, stay safe and healthy.