Contract Flying User’s Guide

by Michael W. Johnson, Paramount Aviation Resources Group, Inc.
, Nov/Dec 2008

Losing a job, whether it be from furlough, bankruptcy or some other some other reason, is a tremendous disruption to our lives. Once we reach our “dream” job we do not like change. We have mortgages, car payments, children to feed and other life responsibilities. Additionally, we lay roots, settle, get friends and neighbors, get involved with the community and have a nice routine. Having to face the unknown and uncertainty of losing one’s job is a very stressful life event for the entire family. I know. I’ve been there.

Several years ago I was flying a trip with Jerry, a senior captain who had spent half of his career on furlough. At that point I had already begun the perilous backward slide toward the great furlough chasm. Like my contemporaries, I was dreading the unknown. As Jerry and I discussed my inevitable furlough Jerry looked at me and said, “Don’t fear furlough. Embrace it. It’s an opportunity for you to take a break from your career and explore other avenues. Your job here will come back.” I was amazed. What a great perspective.

Sure enough, not long after our trip together I was given my furlough notice. It was at this time that I was introduced to the world of contract flying. Up until this point I knew nothing about this realm. I had a lot of questions and hesitation going into this unknown arena, but following Jerry’s advice and doing some due diligence I ended up with my first contract job. It turned out to be a great experience. There are several aspects of contract flying that remain enigmatic to many pilots. Here is a User’s Guide for a few key points.

Crewmember Benefits of Contracting

First and foremost, there are many benefits to contract flying. In many respects there is a stigma associated with contract flying – that it is a purgatory for airline pilots. This is not the case. Many contracts available today are very good. They have excellent working conditions, compensation packages, advancement opportunities and stability. The nice thing about a contract is that it is mutually binding. It binds both parties, not just you. The contracting company is also obligated to perform within the parameters of the contractual provisions. The biggest benefit of this mutual obligation is stability. Almost all flight crew contracts are term contracts. They last for a specified duration, usually about three years, which precludes the company from laying you off during the term of the contract (unless it is for a reason specified in the contract, i.e., acts of war, violation of company policy, unsafe practices, etc.). Additionally, contracts almost always rollover into subsequent contracts. There are two major benefits of this for you. First, you know you have a job – a paycheck – for the term of the contract. That is certainly refreshing, especially considering the instability of the U.S. airline industry. Second, upon completion of the contract term you are not obligated to renew if you do not want to. You can simply walk away free and clear.

Another major benefit of many contracts is that often you will have the opportunity to fly on equipment and in locations that you would not have had the opportunity to fly, at least for a while, at your career job. For example, I was able to fly a jumbo in transpacific operations, going to places and flying equipment that I would not have been able to at my legacy carrier. It was an excellent experience for me professionally and personally.

The reason the airlines are using contract crews in the first place is because they need pilots to fly their aircraft. For various reasons – economic, regulatory, operational or others – the airlines are unable to recruit and hire their own flight crews. Alternatively, hiring contract crews may simply be a lower cost option for the airline. Either way, often one of the benefits is a fast upgrade time. This will happen either because the airline is taking delivery of additional aircraft, which creates captain slots, or they are severely short of pilots and as newly acquired pilots come into the system you are simply pushed up into the left seat. High retirement levels also create opportunities for upgrade.

These are a few of the benefits to contracts. However, as with any job, before signing on the dotted line you must do your own due diligence.

Each Contract is Unique

No two contracts are exactly alike. There are many variables written into or omitted from any given contract. Here are some of the factors that are worth considering: contract term, training duration and location, liquidated damages, scheduling and compensation. Once given a contract, I recommend having your attorney explain to you what the contract will demand of you. Do not allow yourself to be pressured into signing a contract before you have reasonable time to review and understand it. Many leasing companies post the prominent terms of the contract on their websites. This allows you to peruse various contracts and directly compare the key terms and conditions. If the terms are not posted, contact the leasing company and have it provide you with the terms. A direct comparison is a great way to help you determine whether it is a fair and reasonable contract. But this is not the end.

Research – Ask Questions

Research the Airline – The way a contract works is simple. You are hired by a contract company – a crew leasing company. That company in turn leases you to the airline. You are employed by the leasing company – it pays your salary and benefits – but you fly under the operating certificate and operational policies of the airline. It is very important, therefore, to know what the safety history of the airline is. There are many ways to learn about an airline: ICAO, blog sites, the airline’s own web site, informational websites, industry trade publications, people who currently work or have formerly worked at that airline and information from the crew leasing company. Know the airline. There is no job that is worth compromising your standards, your own safety or your hard earned certificates for.

Research the Crew Leasing Company

Like contracts, no two leasing companies are the same. Most of the major companies are well run organizations or they would not still be in business. However, there are still companies that will try to take advantage of crew members. Talk to your point of contact at the leasing company about the company, about the airline and about the contract. Ask questions. Have them provide you with contact information for one of its current crew members and ask him/her about their experience at the crew leasing company and the airline. You owe it to yourself to learn as much about what life is really going to be like on the line once you start this new job. If you find your questions are creating more questions than answers or that you cannot get a straight answer, then proceed with caution. These are strong indicators of how you will be treated once you sign on the dotted line.

Research the Quality of Life Issues

The biggest problem with any job is having a certain expectation of what you think the job is going to be like and then finding out that the reality of the job is far below your expectations. Key factors include: duration and location of training, pass/fail rating, scheduling, productivity, commutability and compensation. There are some airlines that have very long training programs. This is not necessarily bad, but it is something you and your family need to prepare for. Be aware of high fail rates. Once you invest the time, energy and money into pursuing a job, you certainly do not want to end up back on the street because the fail rate is unreasonably high. It is imperative to know what your schedule is likely to be once you are on the line. This is closely tied to productivity. For example, be wary of jobs that will send you to a destination and then have you sit in a layover hotel for three days before you fly one leg back. You will be gone from home for five days but will only be working for two. This is poor scheduling and very low productivity, and the combination results in your being away from home more and earning less. The majority of the current contract jobs for 121 air carriers are outside of the United States. Therefore, many of the contracts provide for commuting allowances both with scheduling and monetary provisions. Finally, know how, when and how much you are going to be paid. There can be no ambiguity on this issue. Do not be embarrassed or intimidated to press your point of contact to answer these questions to your satisfaction.


As Captain Ed Cook said in his last Airliners’ article, this is the most important aspect: approach the unknown with a positive mindset. There is no way you can control whether or not you will lose your job, so embrace the opportunity. You never know what great new experience will come your way. Ultimately, determining whether a contract is “good” is a personal decision. With an open mind, a positive attitude and some due diligence you will be able to make the right decision.


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