Airline Pilot - First Year in Review

(Edit 24 Feb 17: Added some discussion on furlough.

A few months after starting work at a major airline, I wrote an article taking my newly available truth data available about airline pilot pay and comparing it to military pilot pay. That article has been read more than 41,000 times and was republished in The Pilot Network Quarterly (TPNQ.)

I just celebrated my first anniversary at that airline and things are great! I compared my actual earnings with my predictions and was pleasantly surprised. Given the interest in my original article, I figured you might be interested in that comparison too. This article will show you the actual numbers, explain why they're better than expected, and consider some implications for military pilots. I'll also include some description about other parts of life as an airline pilot, from the perspective of someone who'd previously spent 11 years flying for the USAF.

Disclaimer:

I'm publishing real data here. I'm not doing it to brag. A lot of people are working very hard to get to a job like this. I hope this motivates them to keep going. There are more than enough jobs for all of us! A lot of people braver/smarter/harder-working than me are doing great things out in the world. I don't write any of this to demean what they're doing...on the contrary I applaud their efforts! This job won't offer everyone the combination of fulfillment and economic security they need. I love my job and I'm thankful to have it. My goal here is only to provide you with some accurate, first-hand information in case you're considering changes in your life.

Pay comparison

Here's the table summarizing everything:

Predicted Acutal Difference
Pay $75,600 $80,183 $4,583
401(K) $11,340 $13,592 $2,252
Profit Sharing $7,560 $11,205 $2,645
Health Care -$13,100 -$15,600 -$2,500
Totals $81,400 $89,380 $7,980

Based on this, I earned about $8K more this year than I expected to. Since my wife is still on active duty, our health care expenses were actually zero. If you take that into account, I actually made $104,980...or just a little more than I did during my last year on active duty as an O-4. In my original article I'd suggested that multiplying the advertised hourly pay rate by 1000 would yield an approximate value for total annual pay. I feel like that still a valuable rule of thumb, but it appears to be a fairly conservative estimate.

I used $15,600 here as a worst-case figure for health care costs based on the health insurance available through my airline. (Yes, that number increased from the $13,100 worst-case figure I originally used. Yes, that makes me nervous. Health care is going to be a significant cost for all of us.)

Why the difference?

  1. The Delta pilot group signed a new contract this year and the pay was better than I expected. I'd estimated our new contract would include a 20% pay raise. That's about right for my 2017 pay rate, but the overall raise in this contract was 30.1%. Not only did we get a raise, but we got "full retro"...meaning that the company paid each of us a lump-sum to adjust our entire year of 2016 pay to reflect the increased pay rate in the new contract, even though the contract wasn't signed until later in the year. This new contract is the biggest factor in my extra earnings this year.

    Even better, this contract is up for renegotiation in 2019...probably after American and United complete their next round of contract updates. Given the profitability of all airlines right now, I expect to get another decent raise. It might not be 30%, but I have no doubt it will grant a better margin over inflation than military pay increases will over the same period.

  2. Profit sharing! I estimated a career average of 10% profit sharing. I hope that's a very conservative estimate in the long-run. Delta made more than $6 billion in profit this year, and profit sharing was 17.8%. (Delta always pays profit sharing as a lump sum on Valentine's Day. That's a week after my first anniversary, but I included it because it's based on my first year pay.)
  3. The new contract also increased the company's 401(K) contribution to 16%, from a previous 15%. This helped, but most of the extra money on that line reflects larger pay and profit sharing figures.

Overall, it was much better year than I expected.

Implications for Military Pilots

In hindsight, I think the estimates in my original article were all a bit low. I had a jumpseater one day who also works pilot retention at the Pentagon. I discussed my numbers with him and he essentially said, "No offense dude, but your numbers are way off. You show a NPV difference of a couple hundred thousand in favor of the airlines? I have PhD-level economists working for me who say the airlines' NPV advantage is actually closer to $1.5 million." Wow, huh?

Anecdotally, I believe this. I was chatting with a couple of MD88 captains one day about pay. One related that he'd flown with an FO who made $350K/yr...about $40K more than he did as a captain. (The FO did a lot of extra flying for premium pay.) The more senior captain in the group said, "$310K? That's nothing! I made over $400K last year!" (The more senior captain also picks up extra flying for premium pay.)

This was all referencing earnings before our new contract and its 30.1% pay raise. In my original article, I'd estimated the pay for these captains at $218K. This means I was anywhere from $92K to $182K low on my estimates of top-end MD88 captain pay. Wow.

Put this next to military pilot pay and there's no competition. A RAND Corp study recently recommended increasing the USAF pilot bonus to $62.5K/yr in hopes of competing with airline pay. The USAF rounded that down to $60K in their request to Congress, but was only authorized to offer $35K. That's a joke. In order to make up for a deficit of $1.5M NPV between airline and military pilot pay, the military would have to increase the annual value of the 9-year pilot bonus to nearly $250K more per year than it currently offers as a bonus.

What's the takeaway here? The military will never be able to compete with the airlines on pay. Ever. I'm officially on the record saying that a pilot cannot financially justify staying in the military until retirement. The disparity in pay is so significant, that the decision to stay in must be based on non-monetary considerations.

Life as an Airline Pilot

Day to day life as an airline pilot is good. Some days are a lot of work while most are ridiculously, luxuriously easy. Here are a few more specifics:

  • Professionalism

    At the individual level, I believe military pilots are professional, conscientious aviators. However, at an organizational level, the USAF frequently treats its people more like kindergarteners than professionals. There are constant check-ups, accountability lists, meetings about nothing, etc. The military might trust an officer to carry dozens of troops, thousands of pounds of cargo, or drop countless tons of bombs in places halfway across the planet. However, the organization won't trust that same officer to administer an annual PT test, show up to a meeting on time without multiple layers of oversight, or socialize responsibly without direct supervision and rigid protocols preventing actual relaxation. Sadly, that's because bad actors continue to justify leadership's concerns. There's nothing like this at an airline.

    People know when they're supposed to be at work and they show up on time. They do their job. The company keeps track of their training/currency requirements. If something is due, it's scheduled...automatically. The company has a plan to cover flying in case someone gets sick or has a family emergency. Sure there's some drama every once in a while, but it's nothing compared to the military. Everyone just shows up, does their job, and goes home. It's simple and beautiful in a lot of ways.

  • 50 First Dates

    Airlines pilot groups are large enough that you rarely fly with the same person on separate trips. It only happened to me once this year. Granted, there are 550 captains in my category in Atlanta and the story may be different in a another category. Since you're meeting someone new every trip, going to work tends to feel like a string of first dates. (Though, sadly, I have yet to fly with a Captain Barrymore.)

    On a trip, I generally spend the first leg or two going through the same set of questions. I'm so used to it that I've tailored my answers in hopes of reducing some of the tedium of the process. I never answer "Do you have kids?" with a simple "Yes," because it will invariably be followed with queries about number, gender, age, etc. "Do you have kids?" gets "Yep. My daughter is X and my son is Y."

    Yes, the word 'tedious' is accurate, sometimes. However, I've also enjoyed the process of meeting new people. I like getting past the preliminaries when I can start digging to find common interests. I've flown with GA pilots, military pilots, musicians, outdoorsmen, and more. Once I find some common ground, we tend to spend the rest of the trip engaged in some great conversations on those topics. Sometimes we have trouble finding common ground. I that case, I try to at least find something the captain likes that I know enough about to listen intelligently and try to get him talking. I've only encountered a few people where that didn't seem to work. Those were long trips, but thankfully it's very rare.

    I have yet to fly with the stereotypical "bad captain" who disobeys the rules and treats everyone else like peasants. There were a couple I didn't especially enjoy flying with. One was 3 weeks from retirement (and still flying the MD88!) and was critical of everything I did, but not in a good way. Thankfully he's gone. The other had just been flying the MD88 for 20+ years and had a particular way for doing everything. None of it was wrong, but it was obvious that he didn't need me there or think I had much to contribute to the conduct of the flight. At least he was a nice guy.

    Otherwise, most of the captains have been great. Most captains do the walk-around on my legs, and they give split those legs evenly with me. On probation, I practically didn't pay for a meal. Most captains will still buy the FO dinner, or at least a drink when you go out. I'm looking forward to carrying on these kinds of traditions in the future.

  • Short flights

    I grew up thinking that the regional airlines were a bad deal. Up until now they have been...$22K/yr is not enough pay for a job with this kind of responsibility. Somehow, I also decided that it would be undesirable to fly the short legs that regional jets cover. It turns out that the MD88/MD90 fly many of the same legs, we just carry more people while we're doing it. I'd say that the average length of an MD88 leg is about 75 minutes, and I love it!

    I've flown aircraft that stayed up for longer. B-1 training missions were 4-6 hours. U-28 missions could stretch to 5-6 hours. E-11 flights are planned at 9 hours and frequently run longer. There are pluses and minuses to flying longer missions, but they can easily get boring.

    It turns out, I don't really enjoy long flights in the MD88. Texas is about 2 hours from Atlanta and Denver/Tucson are about 3 hours, and that's too long. There's something nice about a 1-hour leg. You're busy at the start and end of the flight, but there's plenty of time to chat and relax in the middle. Most importantly, you're not airborne long enough to get bored or run out of things to talk about. I aspire to fly bigger airplanes that cover longer legs; however, I know that I'll find myself bored more often when I do. There's nothing wrong at all starting out on a narrow-body aircraft flying short legs.

  • Commuting sucks (or maybe it's just NYC)

    I was based in NYC for my first 4 months. I had a decent crash pad and it was survivable, but I didn't love commuting. Maybe it's just that Jamaica, NY, isn't the nicest place on Earth and it's a pain to get anywhere. I transferred to Atlanta, got an apartment, and decided to keep a car down here. Life is immeasurably better. I'd consider commuting to NYC again for seniority or the right type of aircraft, but not forever. If you're considering choosing an airline, the ability to live in a major domicile is so important that it might be worth making it the #1 consideration on your list.

  • Reserve isn't that bad...at Delta

    Delta has great work rules regarding reserve. By default you get at least 12 hours notice if you're going to fly. That's usually enough time to commute to your reserve base. Chances of getting non-voluntary short call reserve (2 hours notice) more than 3-4 days a month are pretty small. Since I was commuting a long way to reserve I wanted to fly every day I was there. Delta allows you to volunteer to fly by putting in a "yellow slip" (YS.) You can even specify the trips you'd prefer to fly on a YS. It's great. I flew a bunch and got off probation (by flying more than 400 hours) in about 6 months.

    I felt sorry for the non-Delta pilots at my NYC crash pad. I'd show up the night before a trip, put in a YS, and end up working a trip the next morning. I'd get back to the crash pad after as many as four days and many of the other pilots would be sitting on the couch in the exact same position as when I'd left. They weren't getting any flying. Some even had to call their chief pilot and warn her that they were going to bust the time limit on consolidation (FAA requirement to fly 100 hours in the first 120 days in your new aircraft.) They hated life! I felt glad to be working for Delta.

    One month I successfully employed "Rolling Thunder." I stacked my days off at the start of the month, then I'd put in a "green slip" (GS), volunteering to fly on my days off for premium pay. I'd get paid essentially double for that trip and the days off just got moved later in the month...I didn't lose them. I did this for about half the month, then just went home when the string of days off touched the end of the month. I made extra money for about as much flying as I would have done anyway. If you want to make a lot of money, you can use this strategy to fly even more than I did.

    I also had a reserve month where I messed up my request for days off. I needed some days later in the month for my daughter's birthday, but was scheduled to be on reserve. I put in requests to drop, swap, or shift those days, but nothing took. So, I put in yellow slips to fly every day starting on the first day of the month. I was only getting regular pay (I could have been getting premium pay by flying green slips instead,) but I was aiming for something else. Unlike a GS, the hours you fly on a YS count toward meeting a threshold called the "reserve guarantee." Once you reach that threshold, the company can't make you fly any more that month. You're allowed to go home and you don't even have to answer your phone if someone calls. This is called being "reserve full." I hit reserve full on about the 17th of the month, picked up one extra trip for more money, then went home. I was there for my daughter's birthday even though bidding hadn't worked out exactly like I'd wanted. Though I didn't try it, I think this strategy could be used to secure time off at Thanksgiving and Christmas if you're desperate to get those days off.

    It's also worth noting that I didn't actually ever have to be on reserve after my first month or two. Delta has grown so quickly lately that by the time I finished training I was already senior enough to hold a regular line. There is a world of difference between commuting to reserve and commuting as a line holder. I ended up intentionally bidding reserve a few months in order to get specific days off.

  • Bidding

    I'll probably end up spending the next 28 years learning new tricks for bidding. However, I've had pretty decent luck with it so far. I've had almost no trouble getting the days off that I wanted. I've started including specific locations, longer layovers, and some other criteria in my bids. I recently did a layover on Pensacola Beach. I went for a run and a swim that morning, and ate lunch at Flounder's. It was awesome. Bidding takes some practice, but since everyone in the company wants something different, there's a lot of opportunity to get what you want. Since every pilot in the company has to obsess over it every month there's plenty of experienced, free advice available.

  • Time off!

    In the Air Force, I worked a minimum of 20 days a month. I also deployed 8 times where I essentially worked every day. At Delta I've worked a maximum of 18 days a month. This winter, I had as few as 14 days of work per month. It's wonderful!

    My wife's USAF assignment is in the UK, so I spent large blocks of my free time over there. I've used lots of my that time to travel all over Europe. I've been to more countries in the past year than I ever visited in the Air Force. So much for, "Join the military and see the world!"

    I'm looking forward to my family moving to somewhere in the US. England is nice, but everything is more difficult and more expensive there. I'm looking forward to having days off to spend on other pursuits. I plan to do some more writing, maybe build a kit airplane, and buy and learn to fix up a house. I'm also looking forward to trying my hand at making some money with some flight instruction, including teaching classes for Part 107 drone pilots. My wife and I also have an idea for a side-business. I expect to have at least 14-16 days a month free for these side-gigs, unless I employ some techniques for trying to work even less. Airline pay is good enough that I don't need to make money at any of them, so I get to focus entirely on things that I enjoy. (This job sort of enables a unique brand of Mustachianism.)

    I've flown with captains who served as president of the school board, worked as a deputy sheriff in a major city, coached college lacrosse, ran an aircraft brokerage, and ran a heavy machinery business...mostly just for the enjoyment of it. The opportunity to pursue other things is a huge plus with this job.

    My days at work feel less like work and my days off are truly free. It's so nice compared to long days and long weeks in the military. On the civilian side, I have a buddy who works as a project manager at a construction company. He works at least 20 very long days every month. He's even spent more time on the road supervising his projects this year than I spent away from my family as a first-year airline pilot.

    Whether compared to the military or non-flying civilian employment, this job is tough to beat for free time.

  • My Time is Valued

    I used most of my time off this year to relax with my family. However, I had ample opportunity to make a lot of extra money by picking up extra trips. (I did some of this, but far less than I could have.) In the military extra duty is assigned, whether you want it or not, without any consideration for the value of your time. It has to work that way...it's the military. The airlines don't work that way though. If you do extra work, you get paid for it. The contract specifies the minimum amount of work you have to do each month, but beyond that you're safe. The company cannot force you to do any extra, except in the absolutely most extreme cases...and they have to pay you accordingly if that happens. There's something to be said for working in an organization that is contractually obligated to pay you what you're worth any time you're at work.

  • Seniority

    I started out as the junior pilot in the company with a seniority number of 12,993. A year later, I'm at 12,696. However, Delta also hired more than 1,100 pilots last year. This means I'm in the 72nd percentile in my category...senior enough to not worry about reserve, get the days off I want, get weekends off, and to start getting picky about my trips. I'm senior enough to hold MD88 captain in NYC and only about 200 seniority numbers (so about 8-9 months) away from being able to hold MD88 captain in ATL. I'm not going to bid to be the most junior captain in my category, but it's nice to have the option.

    A change of 300 seniority numbers in a year isn't monumental, but it's made enough of a difference to get me excited about the future. Starting in 2020, my seniority will increase by at least 400 numbers a year for the next 12 years! In 10 years I'll be in the top half of the company. Four years later I'll be in the top third, and four years after that I'll be in the top quarter. I'll have 7 years in the top 15% where I can hold just about any seat I want. It's going to be good.

    If you're trying to decide whether to stay in the military until retirement, this should be a major concern for you. I'll discuss why shortly.

Looking to the future

I just got awarded a bid to transfer to the B717. It pays a little less than the MD88 (by roughly $3/hr,) but I'm lucky because my sugar mama makes enough that we're not scraping to get by. I bid for the B717 because I'll be more senior in that category (meaning better quality of life,) the category has better manning which I hope will translate into some more schedule flexibility, it has a lot of trips out to the west coast which I want to see, the transition training from the MD88 is only one week...and as such the seat lock is only one year. I'm also considering making it a personal goal to fly every airplane in the company. I'm not sure if that goal will last, but this is the most logical step in that process.

I have friends in the MD88 who live in DAL, SLC, SEA, LAX. They've all been commuting and it sort of sucks. My friend from Dallas has commuting figured out. he's in the 21st percentile in the category in NYC so he has a great schedule...he's staying there. At 1 year, my three other friends all successfully bid for and got awarded aircraft in the bases they live at. One year of relative pain seems like a small price to pay for never having to commute again!

My overall bidding strategy will change a lot this year after my family moves back to the US. I'll be commuting from central Florida rather than England. I'll definitely want weekends off and I'll probably see what I can do to work fewer days per month for a while. Gaining 10% more seniority by shifting to the B717 will hopefully help with that. It'll take some time for me to learn how to bid to achieve all my objectives, but I'm confident I'll figure it out. I have friends and mentors within the company who are always happy to give free advice.

Longer-term, I could stay on the B717 and get more senior. I could also bid for FO on the B757/B767, B737, or A320. Or, I could go for MD88 captain in NYC or ATL. (It'd mean an instant pay raise of at least $100K/yr, but I'd be sacrificing some seniority.) I'm hoping that the new CS100 will eventually be based in ATL and/or NYC as well. I have a few hundred hours in Bombardier's Global Express and it's a superb aircraft. I think the CS100 is going to be even better to fly.

I'm definitely in the front of a giant wave of pilot hiring, and that's going to give me incredible opportunities throughout my career. Unfortunately, that wave has to crest and then decline eventually. If you get to a major airline in the next five years or so, you're going to have an amazing career. If you're not here by then, I hate to say that it's not going to be the same career. It'll still be great, but you won't have the opportunities and flexibility that I will. If you're on the fence, don't hesitate! PC, separate, retire! If you still need some military flying/service for personal fulfillment, find a guard/reserve unit. You can finish your time with them and pick up a retirement at 60.

Most of the captains I fly with couldn't hold that seat until 10-12 years with the company...and even then it's only the left seat of the MD88. There's nothing wrong with spending most of your career as an FO. It'll be a great job and you'll be able to provide extremely well for your family. However, many of the people I fly with are a little bitter that they won't have the opportunity to go back to international wide-body flying as a captain...or that they've missed out on 10-15 years of captain's pay. I know many pilots who will retire as MD88 captains. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the MD88. I love honestly love it, but it's a lot more work to fly than what you'd expect to be doing as a 55+ year old captain.

By contrast, the junior MD88 captain right now got awarded the left seat at 4 months in the company. I'm not in a terrible rush to upgrade, but I could very feasibly spend 20-25 years as a captain. Many of the older guys I'm flying with will be lucky to get 10 years in the left seat.

If you choose to stay an extra 5-9 years in the military to get that retirement, your opportunity cost will be giving up thousands of seniority numbers. You'll have a great career, but you might have to wait an extra decade or more to upgrade to captain. You may never get to do the kinds of B777 or A350 flying that you aspire to. You may have trouble finding a category where you're senior enough to bid for the type of schedule that you want. This isn't necessarily bad, but it is a very different quality of life.

If you instead have the ability to get out asap, and take a job with the guard or reserves, you can truly get the best of both worlds. A US law called USERRA grants you the right to complete 5 full years of military service without any penalty while you're employed by a civilian company. Delta (currently) sweetens that deal by not counting military leave periods less than 30 days against your 5-year maximum. Whether you need to use military leave or you just want to play military pilot on your days off, you should have no problem completing your final 9 years of military service in the guard or reserve and earning some type of retirement. In the meantime, you get to a major airline in the front of this wave and you continue to accrue seniority, even during your periods of military service.

Unfortunately, there's a bit of a fight brewing at Delta over military leave/USERRA issues. Pilot Law Corp reports that some Delta pilots just filed a class action lawsuit against the company over alleged USERRA violations. I haven't seen any of this personally...my experience is that Delta has generally been friendly and encouraging toward its military pilots. However, I don't think the plaintiffs in this lawsuit would bring forward these allegations unless they were real. This fight may bring some changes to company policy that make things a little tricky, but it's not going to change the fundamental US law.

Risk vs Reward

It's easy to be happy with your situation when times are good. One reader reminded me that this hasn't always been the case with the airlines. Sadly, all it takes is one bad day and the airlines can be in for years of bad times. In a situation like that, there's always the threat of furlough.

I wish I could show you a guaranteed plan to protect against furlough, but I can't. It's a very real risk that could significantly affect your lifetime earnings and quality of life. Since it's something I can't control, I feel like all I can do is take advantage of the good times and handle my finances in such a way that I could minimize the impact a furlough has on my family. Here are a few thoughts on furlough after watching how things move for a year, and talking to a lot of captains who went through it themselves:

  1. Some companies are more furlough-proof than others. Southwest doesn't furlough pilots...it's part of their corporate culture. If you have a low risk tolerance, that may be a major consideration for you. Also, cargo seems to be more resistant to catastrophe than passenger travel. People may get scared to travel for a while, but the United States is addicted to iGadgets and other technology from Asia. We also like fresh cut flowers, year-round access to seasonal foods, etc. While some of those things can travel by sea, much of it has to go by air.

    Passenger airlines had a rough time in the post-2008 recession. Yet, there were lines out the door every time Apple released a new iPhone. Apple became the most valuable company on the planet during the worst recession in recent history. If you have a low risk tolerance, you should definitely consider flying for a company that will be delivering tens of millions of iPhone 13s and Samsung Galaxy S24s many years from now.

  2. A military retirement is a way to mitigate the threat of furlough. Between $55K/yr in the check of the month club and a side-gig, your family won't go hungry. Another option is to continue serving in the guard/reserve. Most units have the ability to give you more work if you need it.

    The airlines probably won't admit this, but I think they count on the fact that if a major catastrophe necessitates airline furloughs it will probably also be accompanied by a military build up. I think an airline would much rather magnanimously allow its military reservists to take extra mil leave to save our country than screw them with a furlough. This isn't a sure bet, but it's a consideration.

  3. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I also want to take a look at how timing plays into furlough an long term quality of life.

    In anything other than a worst-case scenario, only the bottom X% of pilots in a company will be furloughed. Your risk tolerance plays directly against that percentage. Once you've accrued enough seniority to reach it though, you're hopefully "furlough proof."

    The pilot hiring wave is large enough that, at least for pilots at the 11-year point today, getting out right now doesn't help you reach a furlough proof position much sooner after you start with your new company. I looked at some actual retirement numbers from Airline Pilot Central and this Delta-specific tool created by some blessed, but unknown soul. Let's assume that furlough proof means you're in the top 80% of your pilot group and compare the time to reach that point based on leaving the military at different times.

    If you started with Delta right now, you'd reach our arbitrary furlough proof status at 5 years. If you instead retire from the military 9 years from now, it'll take you 6 years with the company to get to this point...minimal advantage. I also looked at FedEx (because it was the only smaller company for which I could get good numbers.) The numbers show that joining them today means it'll take you 7 years with the company to get furlough proof while someone who retires in 2026 before going purple would hit that point after only 5 years.

    Just for grins, I used the same spreadsheet to take look at the time required to reach 50% seniority. That's roughly a point where quality of life gets really good. If your risk tolerance is especially low, you might consider 50% to be your threshold for "furlough proof." Either way, you're senior enough at 50% to make great money holding a reasonable schedule as a narrow-body captain, or have a great schedule and the opportunity to make incredible money as a senior FO.

    The difference here is significant. If you started at Delta today, you'd hit 50% at 11 years in the company. If you wait to retire from the military first, you won't hit that point until 20 years in the company in 2045...and I'll be one of the mandatory retirements getting out of your way that year. At FedEx, a smaller company, the difference wasn't as big and it actually shows a shorter time at the company to reach 50% for the pilot who retires from the military first. I'd be interested to see how these calculations work out for some other companies.

  4. Sadly, the military isn't "furlough proof" either. I watched at least 4 rounds of non-voluntary "force shaping" and "reduction in force" during my time in the military. Hundreds of combat-seasoned patriots non-voluntarily lost their jobs and their government pensions.

    A bunch of friends and I also got hit by a program called TAMI-21. We worked hard for our entire lives to achieve a specific goal. We reached that goal. Then the USAF arbitrarily took that achievement away from us and sent us, non-voluntarily, to fly something else or not fly RPAs. It sucked.

    I've also seen plenty of people get non-voluntarily grounded for staff or RPA jobs, or get assignments that were more painful than any furlough, through the normal grind of the assignments process. If that happens during your last few years in the military you're going to give up a half-million dollars in lifetime earnings and a 1000-2000 seniority numbers by spending a year or two at a regional airline before a major will take you. This situation is more complicated than I can cover in a paragraph, but it's something to consider.

    The military is desperate for pilots and it's only going to get more so over the next few years. However, it has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to do things as bad as furlough (or worse) to its people.

There isn't any way to guarantee furlough protection, but I don't think fear of furlough should take precedence over getting to and airline early enough to ensure top-tier quality of life in the long term.

Conclusion

Overall, it's been a great first year. I've enjoyed the flying, I got paid more than I expected, and I got far more time off and time with my family than would ever be possible in the military. I love having a job where I show up, fly, and then go home...I don't have to deal with all the other painful trivialities that plague military life right now. Second year pay is 43% higher than first year pay and I'm looking forward to outstanding opportunities over the next 28 years with the company. The major airlines will be hiring tens of thousands of pilots over the next 20 years, so if you're reading this there is probably room for you. However, the sooner you get here the better. Your family's quality of life for the next 20-30 years depends on it.