United Airlines pilots don't want to be promoted

If your promotions don’t acknowledge what workers actually want, don’t be surprised if nobody will take them.

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There are plenty of reasons you might resist a promotion. Maybe you don’t feel qualified yet, or you’re content in your current role. Maybe you want to move your career in a different direction entirely. Or maybe the increased demands of the job, as pilots are finding, aren’t worth the upgrade.

That’s the case at United Airlines, where pilots are declining to be promoted to the captain’s chair. CEO Scott Kirby said this week that while there are plenty of openings for the job, the international airline is having trouble getting its senior-ranking pilots to apply.


“It’s the first time that I’ve ever known it to happen in the airline industry,” Kirby said during the company’s earnings call on Thursday (July 20). About half of the captain openings posted have gone unfilled in the past year at United, according to pilot union data reviewed by Reuters.

Those vacancies pose an unlikely issue: By the end of the year, planes won’t be able to get off the ground. Flights can’t operate without captains in the cockpit, and unless more senior first officers step into those roles, Kirby said, United’s flight capacity will shrink. It seems the airline’s learning a lesson in leadership: If your promotions don’t acknowledge what workers actually want, don’t be surprised if nobody will take them.


Pilots, like all workers, prefer flexibility over promotions

So why the resistance? A new captain title comes with a more unpredictable schedule—and pilots say the bump in pay isn’t enough to offset the volatility.

Pilots can be forced to take work on their days off, or have their trips extended or rerouted without notice. Having seniority allows for more autonomy, allowing them to pick and trade trips. But stepping up into a new job category, like becoming a captain, puts them on a lower rung on a higher ladder. Pilots would rather retain seniority on a more junior level, and their scheduling flexibility, than have that promotion.

That tracks with workers across industries, earthbound or not: Plenty of people would rather have autonomy over where and when they work over a better title or pay. In one survey conducted last year, for example, 70% of global office workers said they’d pass up a promotion in favor of the ability to work from anywhere, anytime.


A lack of flexibility can deepen gender inequities in the workforce, too, especially for professional women. In Deloitte’s annual study of women in the workplace, flexibility emerges as a consistent top priority around the world—and women cite a lack of it as a top reason they walk away from their jobs. (Meanwhile, women represent less than 20% of workers in most aviation occupations, according to the Women in Aviation Advisory Board. And the numbers are especially stark among pilots: At Southwest Airlines, for example, women comprised just 4% of them at the end of 2022.)

For what it’s worth, United is aiming to meet pilots’ priorities where they are. The company says that it’s amended some of the issues in its new pilot contract and that there’s already been a better response in the latest application rounds for captain openings.