Seniority vs. Meritocracy in Today's Aviation Industry?


I am curious how merit is considered in being promoted Regional FO–>Regional Cpt–>Major FO–>Major Cpt. To be more explicit, what metrics are used to compare two pilots of similar flight time? Prior feedback/scores from proficiency checks? Personality and attitude in an interview setting?

The follow-up to that is how much influence can merit have over seniority during this process, i.e. is it common for less-senior pilots to jump more-senior pilots for promotions? Do politics play a role in these sort of things - like “it’s about who you know” - as in other careers?

I only ask because it seems like public perception says that it’s all about seniority, more flight time means next man/woman up. This question pertains to promotions, but if you have other thoughts about the idea of Seniority vs. Meritocracy, feel free to share!




It is all about seniority. That’s not public perception, that’s the fact. Merit has absolutely ZERO effect on your status, schedule, promotion etc WITHIN your airline. It can’t. First off the majority of airlines in the US are union shops and the union would never allow it. More important if your start rating performance that conversation would inevitably lead to a conversation about safety. If there’s a pilot on top that means there’s a pilot on the bottom. Which flight gets stuck with the underperforming pilot? Would you want your family on that flight? Probably not. While there are obviously stronger pilots than others, to operate an airline the airline MUST state that ALL their pilots are skilled. ALL are worthy of promotion and ALL can safely operate EVERY flight. Or should they give discounts if you buy a ticket on a flight operated by a medicore pilot? No sir we’re ALL great airman and you will only upgrade when your seniority says so. Period.

Where merit may come into play is when trying to make it to a Major or possibly becoming an instructor or check pilot. Those are things to be presented in an interview as to why your performance warrants such a position or opportunity.


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Merit really has nothing to do with the industry as all pilots pass the exact same FAA flight checks. These tests are pass/fail, there is really not a grading sheet assigned to them.

Seniority has to do with when one is hired at an airline, not how much flight time a pilot has. Some pilots fly more than others. Sometimes this is in their control, sometimes it is not.

The nice thing about the seniority system is that it really keeps politics out of the equation. There really is no more fair way to decide things.


Seniority system is put in place to eliminate any type of favoritism, nepotism, cronyism and politics as mentioned about to a large degree. In terms of merit the only exception would perhaps be if you enter into the training department of your airline, but that has more to do with experience.