A Pilot’s Guide to Airline Seniority and Why It Matters

by | Jan 31, 2023

Choosing to work for a major airline is an important step in a pilot’s career, but it’s good to understand how airline seniority works before you make that leap. From working schedule and location to paid time off and overall salary, you’ll find that your hiring position at the airline can make a significant impact on your quality of life.


Today, we’ll take you through some of the top reasons why airline seniority matters if you are a commercial airline pilot. Then, you can decide for yourself whether or not this career path makes sense for you.

6 Key Reasons Why Airline Seniority Matters

1. Pilot Working Schedule

Unlike typical jobs in corporate America that are 9 to 5 and 40 hours per week, airline pilots can work a variety of schedules. Airlines with international travel may have many flights that operate overnight. In contrast, commuter airlines may have shorter routes that all operate during daytime hours.


As a pilot, where and how often you fly is partially determined by the size of the airline and where it typically flies to and from. The rest of the story is dictated by airline seniority. As the monthly schedules and routes are published, pilots are granted their pick of which line they work based on their rank. Senior pilots typically get the most desirable routes and schedules, while those with lower seniority may have to settle for less desirable ones.

2. Vacation Time as a Pilot

Where and when you work is certainly an important part of any job, but so is when you don’t work. In other words … when you’re allowed to take vacation time or paid time off. In many workplaces, employee wishes for time off are granted on a first-come, first-served basis. In the airline industry, however, the situation looks a little different.


While the actual process for reserving vacation time may vary between airlines, one thing does not – the fact that airline seniority matters. In short, those pilots who have the greatest seniority will have the first pick of what days they can take off. Once their vacation days are reserved, the next senior pilots are granted vacation time based on their preferences and what’s left.

3. Job Security as an Airline Pilot

Most of the time, the airline industry follows the pattern of the U.S. economy. If the economy is doing well, so are the airlines, and vice versa. In the last three decades, perhaps the most notable events that affected the prosperity of the airline industry were 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic. As the airlines faced unprecedented stressors, so did their pilots, with many of them losing their jobs.


Although we’ve listed it as #3 here, job security may just well be the top reason why airline seniority matters. That’s because when jobs need to be cut to curtail costs, pilots who are lower on the seniority ladder are among the first to go. While higher seniority pilots aren’t guaranteed a job forever, they can breathe a little easier during high-stress times for the airline, knowing that there are others who will be furloughed before them.

4. Location, Location, Location (aka Home Base)

Each airline has several home bases for its crews located throughout the country. While pilots are not required to live close to their crew base, it certainly makes life easier if they do. Otherwise, they could face a lengthy commute which may interfere with daily living or even their ability to show up for work.


Like other aspects of being a pilot, airline seniority comes into play here as well. That means that pilots with the most seniority often get based at the most preferred locations – those that are easiest to access have a cheaper cost of living and are closest to their actual home. Single pilots may not care so much about where they’re based. But, those with families will be anxious to climb the seniority ladder as quickly as possible to increase their chances of being based near home.

5. Types of Aircraft an Airline Pilot Can Fly

One of the first steps to becoming a pilot is deciding what you want to fly. From airplanes and helicopters to gliders and hot air balloons, the sky is literally the limit. But if you’re already an airline pilot, you decided to get trained on how to fly the ‘big birds’ … a Boeing 747, Airbus A350, or a number of other large aircraft. Unfortunately, simply knowing how to fly these airplanes and having the right pilot’s license to do so isn’t always enough.


Airline seniority will also affect what type of aircraft you can fly. Most of the larger aircraft are flown by senior pilots, while pilots with lower seniority fly the smaller planes. This may not be a huge deal, depending on which airline you fly for, however. If they’re all small planes because your airline only flies regionally, for example, you might just get to fly the nicest one if you have seniority.

6. Career Advancement Opportunities

For most people, getting a promotion at work can result from a variety of things – knowing the right person, being in the right place at the right time, or simply being exceptional at what you do. Careers in the aviation industry, however, can operate a little differently, especially if you’re a pilot.


While performance certainly IS important, airline seniority may help you move forward in your career faster than simply being a great pilot. When you’re first hired as an airline pilot, you’ll start as a First Officer. Then, as you gain experience and progress up through the ranks of seniority, you’ll have a better chance of being promoted to Captain. This rank typically comes with more responsibility but also higher pay.

How to Jumpstart Your Aviation Career as a Teen

At Rising Aviation High School, we provide an aviation-related, STEM-based high school education for teens in the Dallas, TX area. With a campus located at the Addison, TX airport, our students get hands-on aviation training from expert flight instructors. Those that are interested in doing so even have the opportunity to get their Private or Remote pilot’s license under the direction of our staff.


Not every student who graduates from Rising Aviation will pursue a career as a commercial airline pilot. Those that do, however, will benefit from logging flight time, gaining hands-on experience, or getting a teen pilot’s license while still in high school. Our students are able to learn a wide variety of aviation-related skills at a young age, giving them a head start no matter what aviation career they choose.


To learn more about our flight training for teens or our aviation-based academic program, contact us today!

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