My pilot readers all know this, but the fact that Patrick Smith dedicated a second column to it made me aware that the general public doesn't know it, and according to Smith's feedback, is scarcely able to believe it.
To summarize the article at the link above, airlines always and only hire pilots to be probationary junior first officers, and, assuming they pass the probationary period and every subsequent requalifying sim session, they move up slowly from there to higher levels of pay and responsibility. If layoffs occur, they occur in seniority number order, so it doesn't matter how skilled you are, how well you brownnose, or how much everyone loves you, the last hired is the first let go. If you find another airline to hire you, you start again as a junior first officer, even if you were a senior captain in your last job. The captain you fly with may acknowledge your experience in considering your input into command decisions, but you can still have a 35 year captain from a failed company sitting on the right of a tyro captain at an expanding one and right seat's pay and responsibility are commensurate with the hire date at the new company, and utterly unrelated to his previous experience.
At the low end of the aviation scale there are deviations from this. I, for example, was hired as a "direct entry captain" at a very small airline because they had expanded very rapidly and didn't have sufficient qualification inside their ranks to promote new captains. I have also been kept on at an aviation job in a time of layoffs over someone who was hired a week before me. I think it was that I had regular customers who asked for me, and thus was bringing in business. You had better believe that week would have made the difference between job and no job for me in an airline environment. I've seen an airline interview book that recommends that when an airline is conducting interviews in several cities, to travel to the one where they are interviewing first, so as to get an earlier job offer and thus a few seniority numbers higher than if you were hired in your own city. It matters that much.
I see the seniority system in action now as friends are losing their jobs or being demoted based on seniority. After achieving the required seniority, a pilot goes through rigorous training, screening and testing and gets promoted to captain. The economy goes down and everyone (in a case I know of, literally everyone with a lower seniority number than him) below him is laid off. He is no less skilled than he was yesterday, no less intelligent. But he is no longer a captain. he is now the lowliest first officer in the company. With commensurate pay (could mean his salary is halved), control over schedule and risk to his job.
I feel the seniority system even in my job. It's not a union company, but it will almost certainly work this way. There's fairly high pilot turnover because of the stress of being away from home close to 200 nights a year and for stretches of a month or more at a time, so if we have a big drop in flying, I won't be the first to go. And that makes me a little reluctant to move on to another company, where I would be. Had I been hired by one of my targets in the last couple of years, I'd be out of work right now.
As it is, I'm a little bit out of work. Despite a recent assurance by my chief pilot that my schedule would be unaffected, my scheduled April flying has been cancelled, and it now looks as if I may not be back at work until June. I'll weather it without starving or being thrown out on the street, and I'll have lots of free time, but if I have to suffer, you have to suffer, so I'm going to cut back to blogging two or three times a week. Yep, sorry, even your daily Aviatrix fix is hit by the decline in the international economy.
But Aviatrix, blogging is free! Oh come on, when did the economy ever make any sense? Everyone else uses the economy as an excuse to give you less, why can't I? I'll be off taking advantage of my free time, and not tied to my phone and instant availability.
If anyone needs some seasonal flying for the spring, maybe firewatch, drop me a line. I am happy to agree not to blog about your operation, if need be. Or hey, while I'm asking for work: Air Canada Jazz, please call. I dig Dash-8s. You have my number.