With the volatility of the airline industry, you may be discouraged to depart your current position for a life in the airlines. Maybe you made the jump already, only to have that company go under or furlough. Whatever your situation in life, the airlines have always been and will continue to be cyclical. It’s not a question of if the airlines will ever recover but a matter of when. And after it does recover, it will only become a matter of time before another downturn happens again. It is just the nature of the business we love. As a result of this uncertainty, you may have the question arise, “are the airlines still right for me?” The answer is a resounding… maybe. After all, YMMV.
Let’s say that you are on the fence about if the airlines are right or still right for you. You will begin the research process that so many have done before you and will do after you. You will research which companies you want to work for and find an endless stream of information online for each. As you read through RTAG.org, our different social media pages, and other forums, you’ll come across some phrases that are commonly used amongst the pilot groups to describe their experiences and careers. One of the most common phrases you’ll hear is “your mileage may vary,” normally shortened to “YMMV.” It seems understandable and common sense at first, but when you really talk to a pilot one on one its definition is a lot broader than one might think. So, what does that phrase mean then? I truly didn’t understand it until about two years into my regional airline career. Over that period in my career I watched as a few of my friends who came to the regionals with me left to go back to the helicopter industry. Some went to contract overseas flying planes and/or helicopters. Some went to ULCCs, others LCCs, ACMIs, and a few to legacies. Others even decided they are content staying at their regional of choice. This brings me to a critical research question some of you may be struggling with when picking your company. Many times, you will be tempted to ask others how they like their position or new career path. The most common question any airline pilot will tell you they’ve been asked by other pilots is this one, “how do you like airline X?” Or phrased differently, “how do you like your airline?” It’s an easy question that feels like it will give you a good answer. But I think it’s the wrong question to ask. Everyone has different circumstances. Everyone has different goals. No one is ever the exact same. And even if you yourself were able to work at the same airline but have the only variable be the separation of time and seniority, the outcomes could vary significantly because of that time delay. And that variability could be good or bad. Roads travelled will always vary on many things and time is likely the largest component. So, when you ask someone how they feel about something like a life choice, there is often a psychological response that occurs which doesn’t paint the desired response sought by the questioner. I’ll share with you instead some techniques I’ve used to research that can help you decide for yourself what’s right for you. Just remember, YMMV.
First understand that when you ask someone how they feel about a career choice they’ve made, they will likely respond with an answer that solidifies that they’ve made the right decision. It’s called sunk cost fallacy. The person has made a large decision that they believe they can’t take back because it would require significant sacrifice after an initial investment, be it time, resources, or even perceived social status. Think large, life decisions. Choosing a career or switching jobs is no minor task.
One could always change their minds. But think of what perceptions we have on going back on major life choices in our society. Likely most won’t, because to go back from where they currently are means they’d have to go back on what they believe they’ve already invested into towards their new situation. You’ve heard this belief before. Think “quitters never win, winners never quit.” You can always quit or change your mind. Many won’t though because they want the means to justify the ends. It’s human nature. Consider this when you ask someone why they made their decision. There is often no way they could ever tell you everything that went through their mind or what was happening or happened in their life before deciding in that moment. They likely won’t tell you their family or marital dynamic. They likely won’t tell you about their failures en route or upbringing. All of which greatly influence life decisions. If you ask them, “how do you like your company?”, even if they don’t mean to interpret it as such, the answer will likely instead be to the underlying question “did you make the right choice?” Answers to that second question from the same person will vary wildly depending on how well you know that person. How honest they can be with you. Online, chances are it will be a snapshot of the basics to a stranger, from a stranger. There are many factors to everyone’s own important life choices and your justification for choices will differ from everyone else’s. You might not know all the intricate dynamics of the individual you’re asking your question. Maybe they have different priorities within their marriage than yours. Do they have kids? Maybe they are parents of special needs children or have newborn triplets. Maybe they only have one child but live with one set of parents or must live near them to help. Maybe they have mountains of debt and decisions were made with considerations only for finances. Or they could even be the unicorn, single, never divorced, childless, debt-free pilot who goes wherever the wind takes them. There are endless individual circumstances that cannot be conveyed through social media or even years of friendship. Think about the details of your personal life that some of your immediate family and inner circle of friends might not know about. It’s minor details like these that drive our daily life decisions.
There’s also selection bias. You’re likely asking someone who has successfully transitioned to a new career in the airlines. How many times did you consider asking questions to those who left the airlines as a choice? How about those who decided not to make the jump to the airlines to begin with? Or those who made the jump, only for it to not work out in the end to no fault of their own, like those furloughed today in the summer of 2020? There are many people who have come before you to make this career change with many multitudes of results. It’s important to not simply ask questions to those who were successful. Selection bias can lead you to believe that obstacles will be infrequent or unimportant. But in your personal situation a specific difficulty could be a career ending event.
Instead of asking someone the psychological question of if they’ve made the right decision, ask questions about facts. “How does bidding work at your airline? How does reserve callout work at your airline? Are vacancies posted on an ‘as needed’ basis or scheduled monthly/quarterly by the contract and how long before they are normally awarded? When is the 401K vested?” When you ask fact driven questions and not for unintended emotional opinions, you’ll get a better picture for YOUR reality and not theirs. These are hard decisions we’re making and there is no right answer in life. We talked about personal family dynamics earlier but consider that their professional goals
might not line up with yours. Some want to fly as much as possible to upgrade quickly or make more money. Some want to drop as much flying as possible to be home more often for their family and don’t need the money. Others might be fine with doing only what’s asked of them by their company and don’t care to trip trade, pick up, or drop. With that in mind, try and avoid the question “what’s a day in the life like?” That pilot’s priorities will determine what a day in the life is like at their company because their priorities will determine what they do with their schedule and how they use their company’s contract. It will even effect what they think about that contract. There really isn’t a “right” way to have a successful career in this industry because of the variability in professional priorities.
Remember also that just because someone’s choice doesn’t work for you doesn’t mean it’s the wrong choice for them or in any way invalidate their opinion. If the airlines don’t work for you and you decide to leave, cool. If you don’t believe you’d like the night shift of cargo, that’s fine too. If contracting overseas works best for you, awesome! Just because it does or doesn’t work for you, means nothing to others whom it does. It’s hard not to feel personally attacked when someone says your life choices didn’t work for them. It’s even more disheartening when someone fails or failed at what you’re attempting, have a goal to do, or have already accomplished. It doesn’t take away from your life choices though or decisions that you may come to. No one can make these decisions except you and it’s important to keep that in mind. Also, there’s often an unaccountable amount of luck and timing that plays into results of those decisions. Our current industry is testament to that. Simply because someone else was successful or failed at their transition does not guarantee your success or failure.
I saw this when I was getting out of the U.S. Army. Flying Blackhawks was all I had ever dreamt of doing with my life since I was young. It just didn’t work out. I wasn’t a good fit for the units I was assigned to or the Army writ large. With the majority of career Warrant Officers I talked to before getting out, when I told them that the Army wasn’t right for me prior to reaching year 10, they reacted as if I told them they’d wasted the past 20 plus years of their life. It was a reaction I could not understand at the time. I was making a perceived personal decision that I thought would better my career and quality of life. Just because a career in the Army didn’t work for me, didn’t negate their career choices to stay in. But that’s how it was interpreted. I had a bad experience in the military and there were many factors that played into it. So I decided to get out. At the end of the day, the sacrifices of another 10 years on Active Duty wasn’t worth it. But that was for me, not them. What I viewed as a sacrifice, others might not view as a problem or even a struggle. And the same goes for after getting out of the Army. The airlines are a mixed bag too. What I view as no big deal, others may view as extreme hardship. Some might not ever be able to stomach first year pay, no matter how good year two and beyond are. Some might not be able to spend a single day away from their loved ones again. Whereas others are ok with being gone half the month, as long as the schedule is somewhat set in stone and known well in advanced. Others might not be able to handle the idea of being furloughed or having any career uncertainty. And a select few are not comfortable with the thought of starting over from the bottom repeatedly as a new hire or taking commands from a 23 year old captain after being the most senior person in their units for the last several years of their career. Hardship. Happiness. Sacrifice. Good. Bad. Living the dream. Quality of life! It’s ALL relative. Each
person has their own views and outlooks on experiences. This relativity is crucially important to keep in mind when seeking out advice and information from others.
The last thing I’d like you to consider when researching is that you don’t know what you don’t know. If you aren’t in the airline industry, the entirety of this new career path may not be understandable. You may not even consider which questions to ask because your knowledge of the career is limited. Once you start at a civilian aviation company, be it airline or not, your experience will help you form better questions to ask for your next step to your final company if you aren’t already there. You’ll generally only understand contracts and the language used in them with exposure to a contract at your new employer. When you run into major airline pilots in the terminal, your questions to them will become more direct. It’s hard to know what to ask sometimes when first starting this journey because you don’t have the foundational knowledge yet. This will change with exposure. Chances are this may be the first professional job you’re applying for that requires a resume. As many of us did, you likely joined the military straight out of high school/college. So know that your experience outside of the military is limited when researching any career changes. Unfortunately, this also means you may have to make decisions with limited information when you first start. You may select a substandard regional or time building job for yourself because, at the time, you didn’t fully comprehend the information available to you. Or it might have been the only option. With the climate of the 2020 airline industry, there might not be many options for who is hiring. You may leave your regional for another company because they were the first to call you in this stagnant environment, even though you originally intended to only leave for your dream company. There’s lots of information and advice out there for you to consume, but sometimes you might not be able to interpret it because your experience and exposure may not allow you to comprehend that data. It’s an important limitation for you to understand about yourself when researching.
This is probably the most overlooked life advice. We want to believe that we can understand all data we have available to us, especially in our age of information. All kinds of information can be found with a quick search online. But it can be hard to admit not being able to fully understand the data you find, or, even worse, make a decision with bad information because you did not understand what you found. No one knows you as best as you, so be honest with yourself. Identify and understand your limitations when seeking information from others. Be willing to admit that you don’t know all the variables or that you don’t understand. A thought-provoking question I enjoy asking after doing a deep dive into someone’s background and experience is “knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently?” You can get some interesting responses and perspectives. But also know that they are giving you opinions on experiences they had from a snapshot in time. And know that you will not have the same experiences if you followed their advice today because neither would they.
As a mentor, I have pivoted the information I give to focus on the person asking and I highly recommend my fellow mentors do the same. When asked opinion-based questions, try to get to the heart of why they are asking the questions. For example, I get asked often why I gave up the flow to American Airlines with Envoy for the opportunity to fly with Allegiant. It’s a loaded question and one that I try to be open and honest about when answering. There were family dynamics. There were base
dynamics. There were scheduling dynamics. I honestly made decisions with incomplete and misleading information. There were too many dynamics and variables than can be described to a stranger that doesn’t know me personally. Only a handful of family and friends know the majority of the story. Even then, no one knows the whole story except my wife and me. It would be impossible to relay that information to any person in a messaging app or post/feed. I would need to write a book to convey that amount of information. So instead I try to seek what motivates the questioner and then answer with facts I’m aware of. I also try my best to inform them of the variables that they may encounter that I did not. I consider myself fortunate to be in my present circumstances and I try to let them know that. That’s because it all could have been very different for me.
When I got out of the Army in 2017, an economic downturn and subsequent furloughs were coming, but not anytime soon. Then when I left for Allegiant in the fall of 2019, I gave up the security of seniority at Envoy and a flow to American Airlines to be at the bottom of the seniority list with Allegiant. It was a gamble that I believed I would be safe from a downturn that was still far off into the future. I am lucky, truly lucky, to still be employed. But that is today, in the summer of 2020 as I type this at the bottom 10% of Allegiant, and could be very different next month, next year, or a decade from now. As I said before, sometimes it’s just dumb luck with timing. And consider that what motivated me when I jumped to Allegiant is completely different than what may motivate me if furloughed tomorrow. During the uncertain times at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was searching for employer alternatives should Allegiant furlough me and even the possibility of an exit of the airlines altogether. Before making calls to others about their experiences and specifics about their companies, I first had to realize what was important to me and my family and how to formulate questions that gave me accurate answers for our needs. This is something you must understand about yourself when querying about your future career transition. Important life decisions should not be made based on the answers of vague generalities to generic questions.
At the end of the day, everyone must make their own life choices. No one will ever agree 100% with one another’s choices. “Your mileage may vary!” If you want someone’s opinion, remember it’s an opinion. If someone says their life choice was the right one, remember it was the right one for THEM at that particular moment when they made it. Even then, they could just be selling themselves on that decision. It takes nothing away from you if their decision wasn’t the right one for you. I’ve read plenty of comments where someone has basically told me or someone else that their choices were the wrong ones, even when made as a general remark. I had to take a step back and remember that they aren’t attacking me personally. What they really meant was it wasn’t right for them. There are many kinds of people out there that make decisions for completely different reasons than you.
In summary, consider this article and its content while evaluating your prospects. Beware of sunk cost fallacy. Consider selection bias for sources of career advice. Ask fact-based questions and be specific. It’s easy and sometimes feels more polite to ask the soft questions. But remember that you might not be getting the full picture to make your own hard choices if you don’t seek out the right information. Understand your personal dynamics, needs, and limitations. Try to understand the respondent’s
dynamics and know that even they might not get the same results they’ve accomplished today if they took their own advice. And mentors need to understand that as well when giving advice. Lastly remember that even after considering all these factors, you may still make a retrospectively perceived, wrong decision. It’s ok. You made a decision at a moment in time with the information you had. Don’t feel trapped by that decision. Don’t fall into the sunk cost fallacy. You always have options, even if that means pivoting again. I’ll leave you with this final thought. Live your life as best you can with what you have at each moment in time. It’s your life and only you can live it. Your mileage WILL vary.
Author: Richie Mercado