DL Will Fast-Track Pilot Promotions – But There’s A Catch

Bruce Parkinson, Open Jaw

MD-88 cockpit

It’s tradition in the commercial airline business that junior pilots spend years in the second chair waiting to win a pair of captain’s wings. Now Delta is offering them the chance to make the move in as little as six months. The catch? The promotion requires flying an unloved, aging plane nicknamed the “Mad Dog” that DL 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 a tight cockpit known as ‘the cage.’

They’re also so noisy that some New York politicians, including U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, cheered when DL recently pulled the planes from LGA.

Now the jets are helping to upend traditional timetables on pilot careers, as DL awaits deliveries of new aircraft and contends with a greying pool of flyers. Senior pilots shun the MD-88s for newer Airbus or Boeing 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 MD-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.”

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.

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. 

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