Ah. Excellent question and one that’s on many pilots’ minds too.
I always say this:
- You either fly at home, in your own country, and unless that’s a big place, there’s usually only one big airline, usually the national carrier. That’s the one to go for.
- Or you fly “somewhere else”, and once you do that, you become a prostitute of the industry. You go with who pays you best or who treats you best, or a combination thereof that suits you.
I’m a prostitute of the industry. I started off in a loyal marriage with my national carrier, building up seniority from very young, being proud of the company I flew for. Lo and behold, they went bust a few years later. So there I was, betrayed and lost everything I invested in them.
I think the days where you start in a company, stay loyal to it for all your active career, and then retire in the same company, are finished. You may get lucky, and I certainly wish that upon all pilots, but it’s likely you’ll end up like one of us expat pilots: wondering how to weld your personal life with your career, while looking for a contract that isn’t taking you for a ride.
The problem in an aviation career is that holy seniority that rules everything. A pilot can only make promotion, and can only get the nice flights or the leave he requests, with enough years working for that company. Switch to another one and you reset your accumulated benefits. I often make arguments that this seniority is actually working more against us than for us in the modern world, but hey, it’s not about to change soon. So you’ll have to take that into account.
It’s all good and well to say that it’s better working for Cathay Pacific or Singapore Airlines, but if you’ve already given 15 years of your life to KLM or Alitalia, you’re not going to start from zero there.
If you’re young, then you have better options. I would then recommend that you decide whether you really want to fly at home, where your family is, your friends whom you grew up with and you’re likely going to stay friends with forever, and possibly a partner. Don’t underestimate the importance of this in your life. They could easily be worth a big pay cut or the fact that you can’t say you work for a legendary five star carrier.
If you’re not too attached to home and are quite independent, then look further and keep in mind that you can play the industry like the industry plays you. Pay is important but not everything. However, if you leave home, you have to keep in mind that you lose the benefits that come with that: pension and free health care for example. So you have to be able to put enough aside to compensate for that. Usually that means that people rarely want to be a long term expat unless they make a lot more buck at the end of the month than they could at home.
At the same time you have to be realistic. Great, you want to work for Lufthansa, but you don’t speak German or don’t have the right to work in the EU. Tough luck. It’s all good and well to say that pilots in this and in that airline are better off, but to be honest, those are not jobs that you can normally reel in.
A lot of friends/colleagues of mine keep switching airlines as expat, playing the industry. I personally never wanted to do this. Instead I preferred to go somewhere where it’s good, and stay there a long time. The main reason for that is that I want to plan my personal life, and not wonder every two years where I’ll end up for the next two years.
All this to say that if you compare airline jobs, you have to realize that what’s best for one pilot isn’t the best for another. People have different benefits from their governments in their home countries and different pilots have different priorities in life.
So I’d split up your list. You need a list for who flies at home and for who is an expat. And you need a list for a young pilot seeking to make career versus a seasoned pilot who doesn’t want to give up his seniority anymore.
From word of mouth I’ve consistently heard this among colleagues (and keep in mind I’m a European flying in Asia, so the Americas are a bit off my sphere):
Best airline for young expats who have to make career:
- Emirates: fast growing, great conditions, great airplanes, wonderful ratings
- Easyjet: work hard but get paid well, fast career, move on to greener pastures if needed later, chose a base close to home
- Etihad: fast growing, nice atmosphere, good pay, great equipment
Best airline for seasoned expats who’ve built up seniority there already: (I will throw in an extra and do a top 4 here, since this is really my terrain)
- Cathay Pacific: the new contracts aren’t what they once were, but great lifestyle combined with a good pay and benefits. Live in Hong Kong or on one of their overseas bases.
- Emirates: a lot of my friends there may complain all the time, but wouldn’t dream of leaving to somewhere else for conditions that they consider puny.
- Singapore Airlines: prestige, great expat conditions for captains (not First Officers), great place to live.
- Cargolux: great benefits, great lifestyle, great destinations
Best airline for homeboys who are just starting:
- British Airways: fly everywhere in the world, prestige, great conditions
- Qantas: good career prospects, good conditions
- Air France: lots of destinations, good career prospects, good conditions and pay
Best airlines for homeboys who have seniority there:
- United: I keep on hearing this over and over, even though I don’t actually know anyone there, so there must be something true about it. Pick your own schedule and with great conditions. Seeing the age of their pilots and flight attendants in hotels where I have layovers, it must be true: nobody seems to retire there.
- Qantas: good conditions, good pay, good benefits
- British Airways: great pay, fly everywhere, good benefits
Now, please realize that this is my personal image based on the stories and the word of mouth I get from friends and colleagues and from where I’ve seen people go to – and stay – through my years in aviation.
I actually hope for feedback here, though I am fully aware that feedback from pilots will be more to deny their airline’s position in this ranking based on what’s all wrong in their godforsaken company, rather than to say where they would go if they had the option. Go ahead, shoot.