Understanding How Pilot Seniority Works

December 21, 2022

Find out in this post how pilot seniority works.

For most jobs, moving up the corporate ladder is the natural course that an employee will take throughout their time at a company. While things generally work the same in the airline industry, seniority for pilots can look a bit different. For pilots, seniority does not necessarily depend on years of experience. Rather, it hinges on the pilot’s length of stay with a particular airline. How long a pilot stays with that airline determines other matters such as location, vacation time, and designated routes, among others.

Pilot seniority

Understanding How Pilot Seniority Works

    Some airlines put less emphasis on seniority, but the industry at large is seniority-based. For this reason, it’s ideal for pilots to get hired at their chosen airline as soon as possible. With the global and domestic airline industries bolstering their hiring efforts, it would be ideal for entry-level pilots to get hired immediately and work toward seniority early on. 

    One good way to achieve this is by enrolling at a pilot school in the Philippines with a comprehensive curriculum, preferably one that optimizes the school-to-airline pipeline.

    That said, there may be some things about pilot seniority you may not know about. This article will discuss what these are, and hopefully, shed light on what it means to prolong your tenure in the lucrative airline industry.

    Where to Start

    Simply put, the pilot who was hired most recently is at the lowest tier of seniority. Naturally, the pilot employed for the longest time at the airline is at the top of the seniority list. All pilots have a corresponding seniority number, and this number stays with them throughout their time at the airline. And as mentioned previously, this is why it’s better to get hired earlier: more seniority means a higher advantage over newly hired pilots.

    Of course, seniority can change due to certain circumstances. For example, a senior pilot at a regional airline may opt to leave for another major airline. This may put you higher up on the seniority list. Similarly, a pilot who has reached retirement age may choose to end their tenure, allowing less senior pilots to rank higher on the list.

    What Seniority Determines

    In a nutshell, having more seniority allows pilots to have more freedom of choice. From your monthly schedule to the aircraft you fly, you usually have more perks and choices if you’re regarded as a more senior pilot. In addition to these perks, seniority also plays a role in how quickly you move up in aircraft positions and how safe you are from employee furloughs. Generally, your seniority will determine your:


    Your airline domicile or crew base is where you will be permanently based. All the flight schedules for the crew begin at their designated domicile. Although pilots are allowed to list down preferred domiciles during ground training upon entering the airline, domicile assignments depend on a pilot’s level of seniority. As such, pilots tend to work toward seniority to get the most desired domiciles.

    Route and Schedule

    Pilot schedules are largely based on a bidding system. Every month, airlines publish the schedules and routes available for the next month. Pilots use the bidding system to bid for routes or “lines” depending on their preference. The higher you are on the seniority list, the higher your chance of getting picked for your desired route.

    Vacation Time

    Similar to preferred routes and schedules, pilots also bid for their vacation times. Airlines publish specific vacation schedules such as two-week leaves that pilots can place bids on. Of course, pilots higher up in seniority are more likely to get their preferred vacation schedules.

    Aircraft Types

    Another factor that may be defined by seniority is the kind of aircraft you will be able to fly. Just like your preferred domicile, you will also choose your aircraft in order of priority. Senior pilots are more likely to get in-demand planes such as large, widebody jets. These aircraft correspond to longer international flights, ergo a higher pay for pilots who fly them. Aircraft type may also depend on your domicile assignment, with some domiciles having a limited number of aircraft such as narrowbody planes used for short domestic flights.

    Flight Benefits

    Getting free flights is one of the most sought-after perks of being a pilot. However, if you rank lower in seniority, you may have to wait longer to get a free seat. Typically, airlines offer a limited number of seats to staff depending on flight demand. If you and a more senior pilot are looking to book the same flight, you will likely stay behind for the next available seat.

    How Seniority Can Stall

    With all these in mind, you need to understand that certain factors can slow down your seniority. For example, major airlines can stop hiring and cause senior pilots at a regional airline to stay put, causing seniority rankings to stall. The retirement age can also change, leaving senior pilots to work a few more years at their airlines.

    On a related note, there’s also a possibility for pilots to downgrade their seniority level. Some pilots take extended leaves of absence, which may impact their seniority ranking. However, this depends on airline-specific policies and union terms (if applicable). Some airlines also enter into mergers which creates shifts in the seniority ranking of their pilots.

    Staying on Track Toward a Solid Career Path

    When all is said and done, working toward seniority is a linear process that most people go through in all industries. In the end, it doesn’t really matter where you come from, who you are, and who you know. What’s important is that you have proven yourself long enough at the airline for them to trust you with their perks. 

    So if you’re thinking about becoming a pilot, make the wise decision of choosing a trusted school that offers a straightforward path toward the captain’s seat.

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