Delta Will Promote Pilots to Captainif They Can Fly This Aging Plane

Since almost the beginning of the commercial airline business, junior pilots have had to toil years in the second chair waiting to win a pair of captain’s wings. Now Delta Air Lines Inc. is offering them the chance to vault into a captain’s seat in as little as six months. The catch? The promotion requires flying an unloved, aging plane nicknamed the “Mad Dog” that Delta plans to retire in three years.

The McDonnell Douglas Corp. MD-88 jets are the oldest aircraft in operation at any major U.S. carrier. They come with quirks such as glare-prone skylight panels called “eyebrow windows” that were common when pilots sometimes navigated by the stars. And they’re so noisy that some New York politicians, including U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, cheered when Delta recently pulled the planes from New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

Now the jets are helping to topple traditional timetables on pilot careers, as Delta awaits deliveries of new aircraft and contends with a graying pool of aviators. Senior pilots shun the MD-88s for newer Airbus SE or Boeing Co. jets, now the industry’s standard equipment. But some junior co-pilots who covet the prestige and higher salaries awarded captains aren’t so choosy.

“The good side of M-88 is that there is such HATE for it that seniority happens in crazy fashion,” read one recent post on a Delta pilot forum. “In one year you will be able to hold holidays and weekends off.”

Unionized pilots typically progress from the right-hand first officer’s seat to the left-hand captain’s perch, and from small to large jetliners. Moving from first officer to captain historically was an 8- or 10-year process and occasionally has dropped to two or three years in boom times, says Kit Darby, a pilot consultant based in an Atlanta suburb. Veterans with the most seniority get first pick of choice assignments, such as flying the Boeing 747 jumbo on routes to Asia. Junior pilots might only claim a captain’s seat on the 110-seat Boeing 717, or a first officer’s role on a larger plane.

But some Delta pilots who are willing to accept the worst assignments—flying an MD-88 or sharing a crash pad in Queens and flying out of New York—are upgrading fast. One pilot hired in January was a captain by June, according to a company memo to pilots. Moving up within six months is “not unheard of,” says Delta spokesman Michael Thomas, and less-tenured pilots flying the MD-88 aren’t any less qualified than those at the controls of bigger jets. “We hire folks who have the qualifications and airmanship and aptitude to become captains with Delta,” Thomas says.

Still, that’s the fastest career development for pilots among the Big Three U.S. carriers, according to pilots and industry advisers. Some American Airlines Group Inc. pilots have advanced in less than two years on the 99-seat Embraer E190 regional jet, American spokesman Joshua Freed says. United Continental Holdings Inc. has no similar cases of such quick promotions, according to a United spokeswoman.

“Almost every pilot I talk to, when I tell them people are upgrading to captain within a year, they all go, ‘Wow, you’re kidding!’ ” says Louis Smith, president of the firm Future & Active Pilot Advisors. “It’s almost unheard of in the business.”

Upgrading can mean a big bump in pay. A first-year first officer at a major airline makes about $86 an hour with a significant raise in Year Two, while a new captain makes about $220 an hour, Smith says. Pilots say about $180,000 is typical annual pay for first-year captains after they’ve completed training.

Other carriers may wind up with similar fast-track options if the shortage of airline pilots gets worse, as expected. About half the pilots at 10 large U.S. airlines will hit the retirement age of 65 by 2026, Darby says. The problem is more acute at regional carriers, which are lobbying to relax a requirement that commercial pilots have at least 1,500 hours of flight time.

A Delta MD-88 aircraft at Philadelphia International Airport.
Photographer: Mike Mergen/Bloomberg

Lifestyle and pay packages that reward co-pilots on long-haul aircraft are also making it harder for Delta to staff the MD-88. A first officer with 10 years’ experience on the long-range Boeing 747 makes about $221,000 a year, roughly the same as a first-year captain on the shorter-range Boeing 717, according to Delta pay tables viewed by Bloomberg. And Delta’s Thomas says that the MD-88, the Boeing 717, and other short-haul planes require pilots to fly many more legs than longer-haul jets, and some aviators don’t want that kind of schedule.

“International widebody pilots hold the best schedules and work the fewest days because of the nature of the flying they do,” says Sam Mayer, a longtime American Airlines pilot. “A lot of guys are finding out they’d rather stay at first officer” on the bigger aircraft than move up to captain of a smaller jet with a less desirable schedule.

The MD-88, a workhorse on shorter flights since 1988, has controls and checklists that feel antiquated and counterintuitive to pilots who face demanding training before they can switch aircraft types. Then there’s a cockpit described as a “cage” by Dennis Tajer, who flew a similar-vintage sister McDonnell aircraft nicknamed the Super 80 for a decade at American before ascending to the Boeing 737. The McDonnell flight deck is “very small, narrow, and unforgiving for any pilot that would like to spread his or her wings,” says Tajer, a spokesman for American’s pilot union.

Still, the MD-88 has its fans. Delta has redone the interiors of even its older jets, so passengers probably can’t tell it’s so old, says Rene de Lambert, who pens a Delta frequent-flier blog called Rene’s Points. Also, the plane’s configuration, with two seats on one side of the aisle and three on the other, means the MD-88 has fewer dreaded middle seats than many planes, he says.

“Yeah, if you’re in the back it’s noisy, but most people are going to be sad to see it go,” de Lambert says. “It will be missed. Of course, it’s not flying over my house.”

The MD-88 is almost certainly headed for aviation’s boneyards. There are only two other operators beyond Delta: Allegiant Air, which is also retiring its fleet, and an obscure Iranian carrier, Taban Air, according to “Delta has remodeled all of their MD-88s, but it’s like an old car that’s been spruced up,” Tajer says. “It’s not like sitting down in a brand-new Cadillac.” —

    BOTTOM LINE – Airline pilots have typically waited up to a decade to move from a first officer’s spot to a captain’s seat. But a shortage of pilots is accelerating the timetable.

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