Congratulations! The runway is in sight, and you’ve built enough hours to start seriously considering what regional to fly for as a First Officer. You’ve probably been wondering, which regional airline is the best? “Best” is relative. It’s easy to get caught up in hourly pay or base locations and not consider all of the other elements of a pilot contract that will impact your quality of life. What’s “best” depends on what matters to you and how flying for that airline will complement your life.
It’s vital to do some research and understand the rules of the pilot contract before joining a regional airline. While some regional airlines have similar rules, all of the contracts are different. Here are some items to look for before you make your big decision.
LOOKING BEYOND BLOCK HOUR RATE: HOW DO YOU GET PAID?
What’s the highest paying regional airline? The answer isn’t as simple as block hour pay. Some regional airlines have impressive hourly rates until you realize all of the time you’re not being paid for. The clock tracking a pilot’s hourly pay starts when the passenger door closes prior to takeoff and stops when the door opens for any reason, like a weather delay, gate return, or arriving at your destination. If your flight is delayed due to weather and you’re sitting in the terminal or on the aircraft with the door open, you’re not being paid a block hour rate. It’s essential to look at the rest of the contract and understand how you are paid.
Air Wisconsin, unlike other regionals, has Duty and Trip Rigs (regulations) in place that ensure pilots are paid more for their time and that time is used more efficiently. We calculate pilot pay three ways—by block hour, Duty Rigs, and Trip Rigs—and you get paid the highest number.
Duty Rigs have a 2:1 guarantee. Let’s say your plane experiences a mechanical issue, and you’re sitting for 4 hours waiting for the plane to be fixed. Under Air Wisconsin’s Duty Rigs, you’ll be paid for at least 2 hours of your regular rate. If you fly for a regional without Duty Rigs, you aren’t compensated for that time.
Trip Rigs work the same way with a 4:1 guarantee. For example, if you spend 85 hours away from your base during your 4 day trip, you’ll be paid for at least 21.5 hours of your hourly rate.
Duty and Trip Rigs incentivize the company to schedule trips more efficiently, meaning you’re making the most out of your time away from home. You’ll sit less, so you can build flight hours faster. When you do sit due to weather, maintenance, or another issue, you’re still being compensated for that time.
INCENTIVES: WHAT ARE YOU PAID FOR ADDITIONAL FLYING?
If you want to build hours quickly by picking up trips on your days off, look for a contract that offers extra hourly pay as an incentive. All additional flying at Air Wisconsin is paid at 150% or 200%. The exact amount is determined by the operational resources team based on how critical the trip is to the operation. In some situations, a First Officer or Captain may be given a junior man assignment to cover a critical trip, which is always paid at 200%.
CHECK THE COMMUTER CLAUSE: WHERE DO YOU WANT TO LIVE?
As a pilot, you’ll have a few different crew bases, aka domiciles, throughout your career, especially if you go onto a mainline carrier. A big question pilots ask themselves is, do I move to the base or commute? It’s entirely up to you since everyone’s situation is different. If you have a family, moving may be less desirable. You might also really love your community. If commuting is on the table for you, be sure to check out the commuter clause for any airline whose wings you want to wear.
Air Wisconsin, for example, has a generous, straightforward commuting clause. We say, live where you want. Give yourself two chances to make your show time, which is when you’re supposed to report for duty. If you can’t make it because flights are canceled, delayed, or full, so you can’t deadhead or fly standby, there’s no strike against you. More than likely, our crew schedulers will buy a ticket to get you where you need to be in our operation.
MAKING THE MOST OUT OF VACATION
Who doesn’t love time off to recuperate and use those travel privileges to explore the world? Always check an airline’s pilot contract to see how vacations are handled. Air Wisconsin has an exciting rule in the contract called trip touching.
Our pilots bid for their primary and secondary vacations. When the schedule comes out, if a trip touches any part of your primary vacation, the trip is automatically dropped, and you’re paid in full for the dropped trip. It’s an easy way to turn 7 days off into 21 days off or more!
For secondary vacations, if a trip touches the first day of your vacation, you will not be required to show until noon the following day at the earliest. This gives you more time to report to your domicile. If a trip touches the last day of your secondary vacation, then you will be released no later than noon the day before your first vacation day.
DO THEY HAVE DUAL QUALIFICATION?
Dual qualification is something you hope not to see in your pilot contract and something Air Wisconsin does not do. When some regionals upgrade Captains, they still keep those pilots qualified as First Officers as well. This means those airlines can fly their pilots as First Officers unless they need them in the left seat. An airline may promise to offer an “immediate upgrade” and then require those “Captains” to remain in the right seat unless they are needed in the left. This means you could swap seats mid-trip or spend a day or months in the right seat even though you’re a “Captain.”
At Air Wisconsin, dual qualification is strictly prohibited according to the contract. Captains are upgraded according to seniority and will remain a Captain unless downgrades occur. Downgrades are rare at Air Wisconsin and have only happened when the industry was under extreme duress.
WHEN CAN YOU EXPECT PAY INCREASES?
In addition to yearly longevity pay increases, Air Wisconsin has automatic annual hourly pay increases of 1.5% every October as part of our pilot contract. Additionally, our pilots have seen consistent pay increases every time a new tentative agreement is ratified.
SITS: DO YOU GET A DAY ROOM?
When considering a regional airline, talk to pilots about how many block hours they actually fly and how long they sit, which means how much time they have between flights. It’ll give you a good idea of how much money you’ll make as a pilot for that airline. Of course, Air Wisconsin pilots are paid for more of their time on their road, so keep that in mind.
Some regional airlines offer day rooms, meaning the airline will purchase a hotel room for you if your sit is longer than a certain amount of time. For Air Wisconsin, a crew scheduler will get you a day room for any sit longer than 4.5 hours.
PARTNERSHIPS: WHAT’S YOUR ULTIMATE CAREER GOAL?
Many pilots consider regionals to be a stepping stone to mainline carriers, and some regionals have pipelines set up to those big names. For example, Air Wisconsin partners with United Airlines in their Aviate program, the most direct and secure path to a United flight deck. Unlike other pipelines, you’re not locked in. You can apply to other carriers if your desires change down the line. You’re also not guaranteed a spot like you are in a “flow” program. Under Aviate, you still need to interview with United and have a record they find acceptable. However, you could get to United faster versus a flow program to another mainline carrier.
Also, Air Wisconsin has plenty of pilots who choose to spend their entire career at the company until they retire at 65. This group of experienced individuals is extremely valuable to the pilot culture and a testament to the quality of life as a pilot at Air Wisconsin.
GO WITH YOUR GUT
After you do your research and talk to pilots who fly for the airline you’re considering, you’ll know what’s best for you. If you still have questions, reach out to the recruiting team.