Southwest Airlines Unveils New Look with Heart. Photo: Stephen M. Keller.

MIAMI – Why does it take the airlines so long to recover from furloughs once they begin? Thanks to Juan Brown, we have a pilot’s perspective.

On his Youtube channel, the airline Pilot explains the whole training process, which he is going through right now for an unspecified US airline, to why it takes so long for an airline to recover from furloughing Pilots.

The CARES Act allocation for US airlines came with the condition that they could not furlough any employees. In exchange for not furloughing staff, airlines could not reduce service to any of the cities in their network. Now that the expiration date has come, no additional packages have come through from Congress as of yet.

As a result, airlines now have to right-size, furloughing Pilots and reducing service to some of the cities along their routes.

two pilots sitting inside plane
Photo by Rafael Cosquiere on

A Long Road to Recovery

TSA US air travel statistics indicate that air travel is only 30 to 39% of what it was before COVID-19 hit. Now, as Pilot furloughs begin, a whole cascade of events will make the recovery of major US airlines come in a year’s time or more if flying returns to pre-COVID levels. The reason for the long recovery is that the airline industry is highly regulated one with a highly unionized labor force.

Each aircraft has a single type certificate. Accordingly, each Pilot has an individual type certificate rating to fly one aircraft. As such, a Pilot can only be type rated, current, and qualified in one aircraft at a time, Brown explains. “Even though I’ve got type certificate ratings from the 727 all the way up to the Boeing triple seven and darn near everything in between, I can only be current qualified in one aircraft at a time.” Brown is now going through requalification training for the Boeing triple seven.

Brown says that the overall amount of time it takes to get a Pilot trained can take anywhere from four to six weeks, maybe even eight weeks, depending on what kind of training he or she needs, regardless of whether coming back from furlough or switching aircraft.

Central panel of the cockpit. Photo: James Field.

Pilot Training and Seniority

Brown goes on to explains, “there’s only one thing of importance in the industry, and that is your seniority number as a Pilot for the airlines; your seniority number determines everything and determines the quality of your entire career.”

A seniority number is simply the date that a Pilot was hired by a specific airline in conjunction with how old he or she was on that date because airline Pilots have mandatory retirement at age 65. “So now we have a bunch of different aircraft and Pilots that each require an individual type certificate rating to fly. And we have to marry that together with the union seniority system,” states Brown.

This process is done through the four part bid status, which, according to the Pilot consists of the following:

  • The aircraft.
  • The seat: Captain, or First Officer.
  • The base (as each airline has different pilot bases throughout its system).
  • Whether it’s a domestic or international qualification.

Brown says that the fourth one is slowly being eliminated as everybody is going to be eventually internationally qualified. “So you basically have this three-part bid status that you got to satisfy, and that’s what creates this cascade of seniority.”

Pilots after deplaning. Photo: Airways Files

A Cascade Effect

A cascade of seniority occurs because the most desirable jobs, the best paying jobs are those of widebody captains of the highest seniority at the top of the list. However, Brown says that most junior Pilots end up at the bottom of the list as Narrow body First Officers (FO).

Here’s the kicker, “When it comes time to furlough, you can only furlough by seniority. You cannot furlough by aircraft or base or anything else, but by seniority number. And the majority of those junior Pilots are down here on the narrow-body FO list.”

Therefore as Pilots fall off the list, that creates a whole cascade of training events all the way to the top of the list. “The most junior wide-body Captain may very well have to be displaced down to a wide-body FO or a narrow body Captain.” That, in turn, creates another displacement down the bottom of the list.

The same thing occurs when the system repopulates the list. “Everybody has to come through training and fill up the list from the bottom up based on seniority.” Brown reminds us is here that “it takes for the individual Pilot a four to potentially eight-week footprint…to get back up to speed, and that’s all based on how long he’s been out of the cockpit.”

Delivery pilots in the A319’s fly-by-wire cockpit. Photo: Airways Files

Pilot Currency Expiration

According to Brown, there are two major currencies that Pilots need to consider. One is landing currency every 90 days. “You’ve got to have three landings. You can get that currency back in the SIM and that SIM takes each Pilot about one hour apiece. You can get three, three, or four Pilots in those SIMs and get them knocked out and recurrent in about a four-hour simulator session.” The longer currency requirement relates to check rides. Pilots are required to have a check ride every nine months.

When does a Pilot turn into a pumpkin? Brown says that this is a rule that’s not well understood, even with inside the industry. “It’s has nothing to do with the date of your last flight. It has to do with what was the date of your last check ride. You take the date of your last check ride. You add nine months to that. That’s when you turned into a pumpkin from that date that you turned into a pumpkin.”

Brown continues, “You then add a year, and whether you were out for less than a year or more than a year determines the amount of training that you will be required to have in order to get requalified in your aircraft.” Those training footprints can vary in size.

When you try to remarry all those different bid statuses and repopulate them all the way up the ladder, that can take nearly a year to 15 months. This is why furloughs take so long to recover from, and why they cost so much money for the airlines to put up all the different training expenses, especially for carriers that have a wide variety of aircraft. You can check out Juan Brown’s video below.

Featured image: Southwest Airlines Unveils New Look with Heart. Photo: Stephen M. Keller