The Demise of the Airline Pilot
by Capt. Douglas Corrigan
On January 15, 2009 we received a reprieve from Obamamania and our focus on what was forming into one of the most inept presidential administrations when Captain Chesley Sullenberger ditched US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River in the media capital of the world. It was said that it came during a time when we needed our faith in the competence of our fellow man restored and it was a surprise turn for a pilot who was probably trying to end his career without bending any aluminum and hoping that his chief pilot would say: “Who was that guy?” when he saw his name on the retirement list.
Nevertheless, he was forced into fame.
Driving home from the airport that evening, I was listening to the neo-con Michael Savage praise this man on the radio; touting his awesome skill and how when the host boards an airliner (when he’s not flying private jets) he wants to be able to turn left and see someone with grey hair, blue eyes and military experience sitting up front. Did he not know that the application military technique to an Airbus 300 led the first officer of American 587 to overcontrol that plane with aggressive rudder inputs which sheared the vertical fin from the fuselage and sent the plane plummeting into a Queens neighborhood? We were led to believe that his experience flying the antiquated F-4 Phantom thirty years ago (which incidentally has an ejection seat for such events) was more important than his years of flying the line and training on high tech airliners or even the fact that he is a glider instructor.
Later, Clay Lacy joined the show ostensibly to corroborate Savage’s babbling take on the event but he did little but use the opportunity to say that the corporate jets in his fleet might fair better. He admitted having military experience himself, but this was deceptive because he was not an Academy graduate like Sullenberger nor had he flown much in the service. With 50,000 hours of flying he is ranked second to Evelyn Johnson in terms of time spent in the air. His brief guard stint began after he started his 40 year career with United Airlines and was done to avoid the infantry. Despite being a scab, his career as an airline pilot was lucrative enough to earn him the seed money for his own charter and aerial cinematography company. While he’s done a good job of ensuring that his own employees never experience the kind of career he did, if you’ve seen a Hollywood movie made within the last four decades with aerial footage, the chances are great that Clay Lacy Aviation had a hand in it. Check the credits.
The coverage of Sullenberger’s water landing was non stop. Like the “bubbleheaded bleach-blonde,” Don Henley describes in his song “Dirty Laundry,” who “comes on at 5:00” and “can tell you about the plane crash with a gleam in her eye,” Fox News’ boisterous attorney-turned-anchor Megyn Kelly read the cockpit transcript and did her best captain’s impersonation with the words “I have control” amidst giggles she could barely contain. It was enough to send any transport pilot on a search for the nearest airsickness bag.
It has been called: The Miracle on the Hudson, but how does this miracle, where no one even got wet, rank?
On July 19, 1989, United flight 232 suffered an un-contained failure in the center engine which severed all the hydraulic lines with hurling shrapnel. It should have been over for everyone aboard at 37,000 feet when this happened because the crew lost all power to the flight controls. A priest could have given conditional absolution to all if one had been on board, yet the crew, led by Capt. Al Haynes, was too busy to be scared. While they were unable to roll, yaw or pitch the aircraft, they made judicious use of the two remaining engines to steer the plane with differential power. They used every asset available to them including the help of a jumpseating off duty pilot (Jumpseating is a professional privilege whereby pilots can fly free on carriers for personal reasons) who helped manipulate the throttles and lower the landing gear for the over-tasked crew. In spite of this, Haynes kept his composure and his sense of humor.
Jumpseater: I'll tell you what, we'll have a beer when this is all done.
Haynes: Well I don't drink, but I'll sure as hell have one.
Sioux City Approach: United Two Thirty-Two Heavy, the wind's currently three six zero at one one; (360 degrees/11kts). You're cleared to land on any runway.
Haynes: [laughter] Roger. [laughter] You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh? (Haynes was alluding to the extreme difficulty in controlling the aircraft and their slim chances of making it to the airport at all).
While the landing had to be termed a crash, nearly two-thirds of the occupants survived the fireball. The NTSB concluded after studying the event, that training for such a scenario would involve too many factors to be practical and was unable to reproduce such an outcome in simulators.
In August of 2006, a Hawker business jet collided with a glider at 16,000 feet. It takes a long time searching the internet to get the facts of this story but reports say that the Japanese glider pilot turned off his altitude encoding transponder (to save the battery) thereby making it invisible to the jet’s Traffic Collision Avoidance System. The glider pilot bailed out prior to impact and the jet suffered damage to the wings and tail with a concomitant loss of directional control as air rushed into the front of the plane with tremendous velocity and noise. One engine was gone and the plane was forced to make a wheels up landing at an abandoned airfield. Nevertheless, the passengers claimed it wasn’t particularly rough.
The sailplane’s carbon fibre spar cut through the nose of the jet and entered the cockpit pinning the controls in the captain’s lap. Any further and she would have been bisected at the abdomen. The sheriff reported that the cockpit looked like a hand grenade went off inside. All survived. It was truly a miracle.
Where was the adulation for this skilled aviatrix and her first officer? From Amelia Earhart to Kara Hultgreen, political pressure has pushed female pilots beyond where their abilities would warrant while the Patty Wagstaffs and Hanna Reitsches are only known to aviation buffs. In the case of Reitsch, the fact that she was a devoted Nazi assures forever that she will never be recognized as one of history’s best pilots.
Applause for landings is appreciated in this beleaguered profession but it sometimes underscores the frustrating fact that few appreciate all that goes into making the rest of one’s flight so forgettable.
Indubitably, all pilots perform more difficult feats than what amounted to a VMC ditching without the swells of the open sea and with all the visual cues of a large runway complete with crash & fire rescue. Phil Comstock and his Wilson Group have been surveying unionized pilots for decades and he often has to remind them how special they are as a labor group. By way of comparison, consider a surgeon about to perform a very serious operation. Does he have a federal license? Must he go for a medical exam himself every six months? Is he drug tested and how much of his background is a matter of public record? Does the retention of his right to practice medicine depend upon him going into the operating room and performing “simulated surgery” during which an explosion occurs, the patient wakes up from anesthesia and the room goes dark with a generator failure. All the while he is told he must perform as though everything is normal.
Pilots are submitted to this type of scrutiny twice a year; it’s just called training and checking. For many it brings on more anxiety than most emergencies they’ll every experience. So much so that regional pilots, who often lack union protection to guard against the capriciousness of some examiners, wryly refer to it as “career day.” And nearly all of these simulated emergencies are conducted under Instrument Meteorological Conditions as opposed to Visual Meteorological Conditions. The distinction is lost on most non aviators who can only correlate flying to driving a car in a two dimensional environment. Without instrument training and proficiency the absolute best pilot is helplessly in a vertigo situation seconds after losing sight of the horizon. The inner ear balance mechanism will not prevent a death spiral from ensuing. As a private pilot, William F. Buckley Jr. inadvertently found himself in an overcast layer and said many times: “I have never experienced such a thing, and the sensation was terrifying, robbing you, in an instant, of all of the normal coordinates of normal life, including any sense of what is up and what is down.” If he hadn’t had a seasoned pilot with him, the conservative movement may have been stillborn. The instrument rated John F. Kennedy, Jr was not so fortunate as he followed the pattern of many doctors and lawyers affluent enough to become pilots and own planes but with little time to practice and remain proficient. With his wife and sister-in-law on board, he pressed on to Hyannis as the horizon disappeared into the haze and darkness over Long Island Sound.
Perhaps what frightened Sullenberger the most was the notion that the decisions he would make in seconds would be analyzed for months. The findings made by the FAA give some insight into how he would’ve been treated if there had been a less than happy ending. As the Wall Street Jounal reported:
1) In hindsight, the crew incorrectly pitched the nose of the aircraft down to gain the airspeed necessary to relight the engines thereby losing precious altitude and limiting their options.
2) While ditching was the safest and easiest thing to do with the surest outcome, the event was replayed by airlines and manufacturers in simulators and all test pilots were able to return to LaGuardia for a safe landing.
3) Checklist procedures (though poorly designed) were not properly completed and the pressurization outflow valves remained open thus bringing water into the fuselage.
4) It was absurdly suggested that the crew committed one of the most common violations of federal air regulations: They broke sterile cockpit, the rule that proscribes having conversations not pertinent to the safe operation of an aircraft below ten thousand feet. This rule would be cited a month later when the transcript of Colgan flight 3407 showed the crew was talking about fatigue, low pay and long commutes to work without adequate rest before that plane crashed.
5) Even advocates for the manufacturer tried to diminish the accomplishment by pointing out how an Airbus, designed with a European socialist mentality takes the pilot out of the equation, not only prevents a “dumb pilot” from stalling or over-speeding an aircraft but, in this situation, ensured that they had hydraulic power and instrumentation despite the loss of engine driven pumps and generators.
So why is Sullenberger, who never put himself on a pedestal higher than others, a hero to so many airline pilots? Simply put, it’s because he has used his fame to draw attention to the plight of his profession. When the Republican airline pilot appeared before Congress he said: “Flying has been my lifelong passion, but while I love my profession, I do not like what has happened to it. My decision to remain in the profession I love has come at tremendous cost to me and my family. My pay was cut by 40 percent and my contractual entitlement to a retirement pension was stripped away ... Airline pilots do not live in a vacuum, and we understand fully and are sympathetic to the fact that many Americans have recently experienced economic difficulties. But, airline employees have been hit by an economic tsunami ... I attempt to speak accurately and plainly, so please do not think I exaggerate when I say that I do not know a single professional airline pilot who wants his or her children to follow in their footsteps.”
As someone with aviation pursuits outside of his career, it’s a fair guess that he is a member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, an organization whose relationship to pilots is analogous with the one between the NRA and gun owners. Perhaps, he read the June 2006 AOPA Pilot article “The Glory Days Are Over” written with great anguish by Capt. Barry Schiff. The 73-year-old Schiff spent three decades at TWA flying everything in their fleet; and has managed to get checked out in over 300 different aircraft types for recreation. He described his post-World-War-II career as one characterized by rising pay and improved working conditions with each contract renewal, but in retrospect.
That era came to an end in 1978 when President Jimmy Carter’s deregulated of the airline industry. When Schiff’s son Brian was hired as a pilot in 1989, the future looked bleak because, as a result of deregulation and all the changes which followed, he would surely work harder and for less pay than his dad. Things went from bad to worse for this young 727 captain when TWA merged with American Airlines. In two years he went from the left seat to the right seat to the street. He now flies a regional jet for the American subsidiary American Eagle. Schiff’s other son Paul bounced around at regional airlines for over six years but never made as much as $30,000 a year, and the little that he did earn was quickly eaten up in the expenses associated with working 21 days a month away from home. Paul Schiff had no social life and no hope of settling down because, even if he had the time to meet someone, he couldn’t afford to date with an empty wallet. After much agonizing, he left the profession and opened up a pet supply company.
While Schiff Senior concludes that he cannot recommend the pilot profession any longer, he conceded that “Coping with the challenges of weather, communing with nature in a way only pilots can appreciate, and maneuvering a sophisticated aircraft from one place on Earth to another remains a stimulating and gratifying endeavor. It is the price one must pay to get there that is so discouraging.”
This love of flying is what makes this career unique, and it is this love which makes flying part of their identity as pilots. Most can look back to their youth and recall always looking up at planes that flew overhead and drawing doodles of aircraft in class when they should have been paying attention to the teacher. Can an attorney say that he dreamt of trying cases when he was in grammar school? This infatuation explains the pilot’s willingness to work in horrid conditions but it also explains the sacrifices of time and money which people are willing to incur to become an airline pilot; it also explains how the airlines can use this infatuation to drive down wages. Only within a minority of pilots trained at the expense of the military can there be found individuals for whom flying is just a job; second to being an officer. Many aircraft manufacturers wrongly assumed after WWII that the returning pilots would want to own their own light aircraft. Acting on this erroneous assumption, the aircraft builders produced such a glut of personal planes, which went unsold, that most went out of business. After a while, planes like Buckley’s Ercoupe could be purchased by college students. The fact that both president Bushes and John McCain never touched the controls of an aircraft again after leaving the military isn’t any more exceptional today than it was then.
Unlike other first world countries, the U.S. has usually been able to rely on a pipeline of pilots from the military, particularly when airline opportunities were too few for one to justify the training investment themselves. Recognizing that military flying entails its own set of skills, a set of skills not completely congruent with the skills needed to fly commercial planes, legacy carriers such as All Nippon Airlines, Japan Air, Lufthansa, AlItalia and many others eschewed pilots trained in the military and preferred to rely on ab-initio programs to train their pilots themselves. This usually means that the theoretical training is accomplished in the home country and practical training is done in the U.S.A. where the cost of flying is less than prohibitive due in part to an abundance of low paid American flight instructors trying to build flight time in the hopes of breaking into airline flying themselves. Closely monitored along the way, these pilots have been safely placed in the cockpits of jetliners with less experience than most pilots hired stateside through affirmative action quotas.
The ‘60s saw the only true pilot shortage in the United States. It was short lived, but it forced airlines to train their own pilots. From this group emerged men like future MEC chairmen Rick Dubinsky and Roger Hall two of the fiercest champions of unionized pilots ever seen on the property of United Airlines. [FTL2]
U.S. commercial aviation’s love affair with the military is, however, about more than just avoiding the costs of training pilots. While it’s true that one can hardly distinguish the background of a pilot after a few years with an airline, as new hires, military pilots are often the least militant of labor groups. Until the end of the first contract negotiation they experience, their peers will often view them as Kool-Aide drinkers easily swayed by managerial agitprop.
The year 1919 saw the first attempts to unionize Air Mail pilots. When the Post Office forced its pilots to fly in the weather element they feared the most, namely, fog, the pilots went on strike, and military pilots, who were more compliant than their union-affiliated colleagues, were brought in to break the strike. The results, for those unfamiliar with instrument flying, were disastrous. The loss of personnel and aircraft that came about as a result of the government’s attempt to use docile military pilots to break the first strike resulted in a recognition of the authority of a pilot to determine when to fly and when not to and the equipping of the early mail planes with primitive weather instruments.
When the pilots of Century Airlines struck in 1932, Army and Navy pilots were released from active duty to take their places, and the Department of Commerce sent a special team to certify the new hires. Attempts by the nascent Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) to make their case to the new hires along with job promises for the strikebreakers fell on deaf ears and were further thwarted by the airline, which forced the new hires to live in a guarded dormitory, take their meals together, and ride to and from the airfield on a guarded bus. [FTL1]
In 1946, TWA was struck, and this time the pilots were threatened with replacement by an organization called the Military Pilots Association (MPA), a group of pilots flush with recent four engine experience and boasting 13,000 members, who had allegedly flown in the Air Transport Command. So brazen was this group that they took to calling pilots exempted from military duty because they were involved in essential service “draft dodgers” and they insisted upon receiving seniority rights over those already on the property if called upon to break the strike.
And this brings us to Ronald Reagan and the PATCO strike of 1981. According to Alan Greenspan, “Perhaps the most important, and then highly controversial, domestic initiative was the firing of the air traffic controllers in August 1981. The President invoked the law that striking government employees forfeit their jobs, an action that unsettled those who cynically believed no President would ever uphold that law. President Reagan prevailed, as you know, but far more importantly his action gave weight to the legal right of private employers, previously not fully exercised, to use their own discretion to both hire and discharge workers.”
It seems the distinction between public employees and private employees makes it illegal for the former to strike but Greenspan thinks the termination emboldened private employers to respond similarly. In the years following Reagan’s successful attempt to break the strike, we were forced to endure an inadequate ATC system reminiscent of the third world, and it was the military that provided the replacements, even if in time the replacements would form NATCA and start to resemble the group they replaced.
The transformation of the professional pilot from a goggled occupant of an open cockpit into an aristocrat of labor whose work actions would be derided as "Cadillac Strikes" in the press did not happen accidentally nor was it the work of the Invisible Hand of the market. From the earliest days of ALPA under the tutelage of Captain Dave Behncke, pilots, who are by nature very individualistic, were cobbled together into a working, viable guild with self respect. Benefitting from a prescience that sometimes even eluded the airline builders of the past, such as the legendary Eddie Rickenbacker of Eastern or Juan Trippe of Pan American, Behncke devised pay scales that were tied to aircraft size and speed. While management may not have been able to look forward to days when airliners where bigger and faster than the DC-3, Behncke could. When technology allowed these planes to come on line, pilot pay went up automatically just as surely as profits; much to the chagrin of management. An early assault on pilot wages came in the form of the so-called Age 60 rule. Several airlines had tried and failed to impose mandatory retirement ages on their pilots outside of negotiations as the larger and faster aircraft were being delivered. The pioneer era pilots were approaching 60, and there was a concern that their longevity coupled to higher pay rates would cut into profits as would the longer times anticipated for training them. After the Korean War, airlines were flooded with applications from pilots who had jet experience and would work for less. No data ever gathered was able to prove that older pilots were less safe than younger pilots, but the law was rammed through because American Airlines president and founder C.R. Smith’s friend former Army Air Corps Lt. Gen. Elwood “Pete” Quesada had recently been named the first administrator of the newly created FAA by his former military commander, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. For more information on how this fraud was perpetrated go to: http://www.publicintegrity.org/articles/entry/483/ or http://www.age60rule.com/history_frameset.html.
As a member of what is already the most psychologically analyzed profession what does this pilot-blogger think of all the gay men who have now squeezed those young girls out of the profession and the sensitivity training he must now submit to? It’s doubtful that he perceives it as just the next phase in the use of sexual liberation as a means of control.
How, you ask, does business benefit from this distraction? Consider the fact that airlines were among the first to make contraceptives part of their benefits packages. While it makes business sense for an airline to open up a crew base in some far flung place, isn’t it easier to order the relocation of a deracinated pilot with a broken or non-existent marriage and no kids? And if that makes sense in terms of driving down wages and increasing control, then wouldn’t the ideal employee then be a military trained homosexual?
It is true that the flight deck had been, with few exceptions, the preserve of the white male. Relying on the military pipeline would almost assure that. Prior to the ‘60s I don’t think people gave it much thought since they probably didn’t identify themselves in those terms but rather along regional or ethnic lines. But the fact remains: the two biggest groups making up the pilot population were southern whites and ethnic Catholics. It would take affirmative action to unite them in an ugly way, so that now you can ask any “white” airline pilot what UNITED stands for and he’ll come back with: Unqualified Niggers in Training, Expect Delays.” Of course, their reclassification as “whites” was abetted by the flight to the suburbs made easier by the fact that they seldom commuted daily to work and almost never at rush hour.
Ethnic Catholics have traditionally been over represented in the transportation industry and had growing political clout. Combined with the baby boom, the fact that their presence in the military was out of proportion to the general population assured the growth of this group in the pilot profession. I contend that they could have more easily assimilated Hispanics and blacks naturally. Instead they were forced to accept that they along with other “whites” had a debt to pay for past injustices beyond their control.
The surge in members of the fairer sex on the flight deck was first brought about by the courts but later eagerly promoted by the human resource departments. Books can be written on the short term costs to airlines of these policies, and stories of incompetence abound whenever pilots gather, but most were and still are quite capable of performing their job.
Large airlines have already demonstrated that they have, due to the long upgrade times, the capacity to hire and train pilots with very little experience such as the tactical military pilot who typically flies one-tenth as much in a year as a regional pilot. Unlike police departments and firehouses that went through similar social engineering experiences, women never put any one in this field in danger because of their lack of upper-body strength. As senior captains internalized the commands of their oppressors, they became intimidated by the possibility of being charged with sexual harassment. Comics have averred that it is now possible for a flight attendant to get a pilot pregnant, but perhaps the larger social consequence of sexual favoritism has been that it is easier for a daughter to follow in her father’s footsteps than a son. All of these things had the effect of weakening the cohesiveness of the pilot group and decreasing the value of its labor through an increase in the size of the workforce.
The period following deregulation saw the smashing of unions by corporate raiders such as Frank Lorenzo and the establishment of non-union “alter ego” companies that took business away from unionized carriers with the same owners. Like the thugs who steal cars, Lorenzo found that airlines were sometimes worth more for their parts than as a whole.
Exacerbating the divisive effect which cheaper labor working at nonunion airlines had on the industry, the individualistic traits of pilots allowed management to play groups off against one another. In 1982, two-tiered pay scales were devised "to protect the pay of senior pilots" when in fact they were intended to give unequal pay for equal work and prevent new hires under the infamous "B-scale" from ever seeing compensations rates like their colleagues on a different track. The deviousness of the “B-scale” was that it played to myopia and greed of the pilots who voted for it by pitting pilots currently working against those who weren’t even hired. [FTL2]
Some pilot groups were sold the notion that pay scales should be governed by longevity and not by equipment flown. Companies would save money on cross training crews to different fleets and pilots could stay in their preferred aircraft and forego jeopardizing their careers by not having to be trained and checked on new aircraft types every few years in order to get a raise. Such pyramidal pay structures, while initially appealing to junior pilots who can't see themselves ever having the seniority to bid the largest equipment, never give the best pay to all crews. In fact, with a carrot at the apogee, they only induce pilots at the bottom to perform the same tasks for less in anticipation of a move, with time, to the top. When the pyramid gets too top heavy, management cries for concessions.
Then came the Regionals.
Whether an individual Regional Airline existed in some form before the 1980s is irrelevant because even most major airlines in the early years would be characterized by regional activities by the standards of today’s modern intercontinental jets. When I used the term “regional” I’m referring to the subcontractors which are not really airlines in the classical sense. Unlike the airlines which share their paint schemes, regionals are not able to increase market share through advertising, adding routes and destinations, increasing the number of fights or tweaking fares. So-called regional airlines agree to carry the passengers of a mainline carrier for a set price, and the only way they are able to increase their profit margins is through the streamlining of the operation. Sometimes this comes from operating newer more efficient aircraft, but in the end it usually comes about through cutting the costs of salaries, training and maintenance. There is intense competition between regional airlines for these contracts, and their options are that limited.
Major airlines have now shifted so much of their flying over to regional partners that we are now in a situation where regionals make up the backbone of the domestic route structure. The pilots of major airlines were only been able to slow this process through what are known in the industry as “Scope agreements.” Pilot contracts attempted to limit the flying performed by regional partners by restricting the capacity and range of regional aircraft. The efforts to stop the chipping away of these constraints have been in vain. In 1997, the pilots of American Airlines struck to prevent American Eagle from acquiring regional jets, but then-President Bill Clinton ordered them back to work after 30 minutes. When they engaged in a sick out in 1999 over the farming out of flights to Reno Air, the union representing the American pilots was nearly fined out of existence. After calling them cry babies and comparing the pilots to the Mafia, Judge Joe Kendall declared: "If the activity and consequent damages continue, when all the dust clears, all the assets of the union, including their strike war chest, will be capable of being safely stored in the overhead bin of a Piper Cub." Kendall was even bold enough to trot out the old canard that because pilots are limited to 100 hours of flying per month, they were part-time employees, when their actual duty times frequently doubles this figure and includes time they are not compensated for.
Federal law may require the name of the regional airline operating your flight to be listed on the ticket and somewhere along the outside of the plane, but as far as airline executives are concerned, they’d prefer you to assume you were flying on the mainline carrier, unless there’s is a crash, at which point the liability assumed by the contracting regional kicks in. Unfortunately, it has taken the deadly crashes of some regional aircraft to highlight the abysmal working conditions at regional airlines.
Low pay, long hours, debt, and despair typify the life of a regional airline pilot today. Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story probably introduced many people to this fact. He interviewed pilots who collected food stamps and were reprimanded for getting sick. He asked how a pilot who makes less than $20,000 per year can expect to pay off $100,000 in loans taken out to qualify for the job. For safety’s sake, the FAA limits the amount of hours a pilot can fly and be on duty, but it doesn’t prevent a pilot from holding a second job and showing up to work tired. Moore revealed that pilots waited tables, walked dogs and donated blood on their days “off.” It was refreshing to see that someone was bold enough to divulge this dirty secret on the silver screen.
Perhaps he didn’t want to push the bounds of credulity, but Moore missed entirely the other half of the story, which is that some of these pilots are in essence paying to ride up front. Given that regional pilots (flying planes that are starting to even look like what the majors are flying) are able to transition seamlessly to the mainlines, management at the regionals has devised training contracts and pay for training programs to curb attrition rates. Paying a living wage would defeat the purpose of regionals. By far the most egregious offender in this area is Gulfstream International which has expanded the idea to create another revenue stream.
During the Eastern Airlines strike of the late ‘80, Capt. Thomas L. Cooper, a strike breaker who proudly had “#1 Scab” emblazoned on his flight bag, founded a small on-demand air taxi which flew to Haiti and the Bahamas from South Florida. The company initially operated eight passenger piston powered Cessna 402s. Through a third party company named Avtar International, they did their pilot recruiting at job fairs and with ads placed in Flying magazine and glossy career oriented publications like Career Pilot and Piloting Careers. As the old ads in Flying show, for $8,900, a pilot could get 150 hours of real world multi engine experience as a first officer in an airline environment, all legally loggable toward the ATP. A military pilot or a flight instructor with the requisite 1,500 hours of total time for the Airline Transport rating (ATP) could attend a weekend course at ATP, Inc., where the test prep would put the SAT courses to shame. Through feedback, they had managed to whittle the test down to 200 potential questions, and the applicant would spend a few hours looking at answers on one of their proprietary PCs and then when he was confident enough, move to another computer and take the actual test. A test that would normally take hours could now be aced without reading the questions or pulling out the pilot’s slide rule or maps. The practical test in the airplane was similarly slipshod. Yet, after completing this program, such a pilot, provided he had an additional $15,000, could be a captain at Gulfstream International, though it’s doubtful with such limited experience himself whether he could provide any useful mentorship to his first officers.
Ideally, the first officer would complete his time and then be replaced by someone else with “a check book and a dream.” Not being in the military environment or in a European style ab-initio program, low time civilian pilots are faced with the old conundrum: how do you get a job without experience; how do you get experience without a job? At a stage in their career where flight time is more valuable to them than fair wages, paying less than it would cost them to rent the plane is an attractive proposition.
The program came with good news and bad news, neither of which was advertised. Because the program relied heavily on foreign nationals who could secure low interest educational loans but had difficulty obtaining the appropriate visas, U.S. pilots often had the chance to fly more hours than they purchased because this source of pilots was unreliable when the immigration laws were sporadically enforced with some vigor resulting in the deportation of pilots.
The bad news was, that these first officers, technically, weren’t required crew members and if passengers loads or other weight limitations dictated, they could be bumped from the flight. Hopefully, this would only happen stateside when it was easier to hitch a ride home.
Such conditioning quickly transformed the interning pilot into a groveling sycophant willing to sell out his peers and curry favor with management and the captains with whom he shared a room on layovers for the chance to work more without pay and ultimately log enough time to qualify to buy a paid position in the left seat.
As the airline grew, it transitioned to an all-turbine fleet which required two pilots, but it retained the pay-to-fly programs even when the airline evolved into a true regional replete with code sharing agreements and new paint schemes modeled after the airlines it served. Program costs increased with the size of the planes flown, for time spent in larger planes is worth more on one’s resume and topped out at $39,000 for 500 hours in the heaviest turbo-props. At one time, even Red Chinese were sponsored to fly there by their home country.
In 1995, in response to derision from the pilot community and the need for at least a core of co-pilots who were dependable, U.S. citizens were remunerated at a rate of $8 per “segment hour” or less then $10,000 a year. It was a reluctant move by management but was easily offset by increasing the cost of tuition. Nothing changed for the foreigners except that now their badges were stamped in red “Jumpseat Not Authorized.” The last thing the company wanted was someone riding in the cockpit of a major airline (particularly one they were code-sharing with) describing the program in broken English, because by now they were being compared to prostitutes.
It’s baffling to non pilots why a professional would submit himself to indentured servitude but such a path was, if all went well, the fastest route to the flight deck of a major airline short of a sex change, and the Gulfstream Training Academy literature has the data to support this claim.
Major airline pilots who were eager to have their kids follow them into the cockpit would solicit these pilots for information on the program’s ability to fast track one’s career and were undeterred by the fact that they were sending their sons to work for a bottom feeder that should’ve changed its call sign from “Gulf-flight” to “Catfish” a long time ago.
Next to Michael Moore’s movie, the second best description of life as a regional airline pilot can be seen in the PBS Frontline documentary “Flying Cheap”.
The program did a fair job of depicting the long hours and low pay endured by those who fly passengers who are convinced they are flying on the planes of a different company. The underground market of crash pads where 10 pilots share an apartment intended for 2 people was fairly depicted. No consideration was given to the increasing complexity of aircraft being flown at the regional level, but the major shortcoming of the program was the inchoate manner in which it elucidated the relationship between mainline pilots and regional pilots. It correctly explained that there was no mentoring or even any actual contact between the two when they are performing their jobs. While it correctly stated that regional airline pilots were able to upgrade to captain much more quickly than major airline pilots, the attractiveness of this is not the higher pay but the fact that it enables such a pilot to log valuable pilot in command (PIC) time making him more attractive to the recruiters at major airlines although probably not the major airline he’s currently serving as a regional pilot because airlines prefer to raid a competitor’s cheap labor supply rather than their own. Logging valuable flight time quickly is why pilots often seek out employment at the least reputable airlines. Recall that Gulfstream even hired pilots straight into the captain’s seat.
Although “Flying Cheap” seemed more like a serious documentary than Moore’s box office flick, it did stoop to histrionics in the production department. Most glaring was the way in which they inserted audio of piston engines over the turbine whine of the Bombardier Dash 8. Such melodrama plays to the ignorance of people who don’t understand that short range, low altitude aircraft are more efficient with external propellers even if they don’t really sound like DC-3s.
Nevertheless, they could’ve used this track to dub over the expert testimony of the former DOT Inspector General Mary Schiavo. You can always count on “Scary Mary” to show up whenever an airliner crashes, but her presence seems to prove that industry and government will tolerate criticism as long as it’s easily refuted and the source has been discredited. Her best seller Flying Blind, Flying Safe contained so many factual errors, such as a completely erroneous description of how pressurization works, that the real experts were distracted by offering corrections to these errors and away from fixing what’s truly wrong with the industry. In 1999, she correctly surmised that airport security was weak and tried to make her case by checking a fake bomb (a bag with shoes and telephone cables) onto an airliner in Ohio and then deliberately not boarding the plane. The scheme blew up in her face when “the bomb” was immediately detected and resulted in the shutting down of the airport until she came forward and confessed to cameras while trying to invoke journalistic immunity. This woman has blown nearly every opportunity that crashes offer to reform the industry.
Nevertheless, if you go to the PBS website, the text of the entire interview can been seen. The fact that it was axed from the final cut that aired on TV is proof of the saying that even a blind sow can find a truffle.
FRONTLINE: So why doesn't free enterprise, the capitalist system, work in this industry?
Schiavo: Because safety is like a rubber band. It doesn't work because you can stretch it. Planes -- a lot of them are just great. They're overbuilt. The big, old, tough Boeings were forgiving. You can stretch safety, and sometimes you don't get caught. Why? Because you can skate on by.
And bad operators can skate. Good operators often aren't rewarded for their good efforts on safety. And even when something does go wrong, they're not held accountable because the insurers step in. They take care of the issue. The bad actors are free to go forward and fly again. If you wanted any evidence of that, it's the secretary of transportation standing on the Everglades, on the backs of the downed ValuJet plane.
And there really is no accountability that you expect from a true free-enterprise system, and that is that the bad are allowed to fail. That's part and parcel of the free-enterprise system. But in aviation, the bad don't fail. The bad go to bankruptcy court, come out washed. Every seven years, it's like a pilgrimage. They go through the bankruptcy court. The bankruptcy trustee wipes out the debt, often wipes out what's owed to hardworking pilots and flight attendants and everybody else.
And this is an industry that simply does not work. It does not operate in the free-enterprise system. So why do we pretend that it does? It doesn't. It operates in this gray area. It's partially regulated. The government pays for a huge hunk of it. The government now pays for security. The Aviation Trust Fund pays for air traffic control, and the runways and the airports -- you can't even get an airport anymore without -- I mean, we get a new airport in this country, what, every decade or so? And then you have to float the bonds, and it's run by a regional airport authority. That's not free enterprise!
So there's really nothing in this system that is free enterprise -- except the red ink.
Then just when it sounds as if she’s on to something, Schiavo up and calls a state of the art aircraft a “puddle jumper.”
Unlike basketball where free agency enables players to move freely among teams seeking the best deals, the pilot profession severely penalizes lateral movement.
The seniority system gets blamed for protecting bad pilots, but it also takes away bargaining leverage even during times of shortage because it requires that they start over at the bottom even if it is at a better airline. They are married to the company and dependent upon its success for their careers more than any other employees.
An airline pilot’s bad decisions can’t be saved by a parachute, neither nylon nor golden but CEOs manage to play musical chair amongst themselves.
It is for this reason that ALPA can take credit for many of the advances in safety such as improvements in navigation, equipment that helps avoid midair collisions and Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT) and work rules that take into account things like the body’s circadian rhythms and thus prevent schedulers from treating pilots like cogs in a machine. They have even instituted immunity guaranteeing self-disclosure programs that help to prevent accidents by providing researchers with data they would likely never see because so many slip-ups are never caught by the regulators. As the ones who typically arrive at the scene of an accident before anyone else, pilots had a vested interest in using their clout to force these improvements into law long before CEOs, lawyers, passengers, law makers and bean counters ever recognized the benefit. Through the years, ALPA’s motto has been: Schedule with Safety.
The crashes of regional airliners have thus far been unable to bring about any significant improvement. The recent crash of Colgan 3407 is prompting legislators to require regional airline pilots to have 1,500 of flight time before flying for an airline, but no consideration is given to the quality of the experience. Such a rule might harm schemes like the one at Gulfstream International, which has had no fatal accidents, but it would not have affected the Colgan 3407 flight, where the crew exceeded those qualifications. Training also escapes scrutiny, and no one is asking why the crew responded to a stall resulting from a decay in airspeed on approach and performed a recovery technique suited to a tail-plane stall resulting from ice around the very time operators, with FAA approval, were starting to introduce this seldom met phenomenon into their training curricula.
Following some prominent regional crashes in the mid-‘90s, Congress passed the infamous Pilot Record Improvement Act of 1996. Rather than look at training or working conditions, airlines were going to be made safer by tracking bad pilots and screening them out. Improvements wouldn’t be made to training, only the keeping and sharing of records. Under the law, before a pilot can be employed by another carrier, his current and previous employers must release all training and disciplinary records. The pilot is supposed to be offered the opportunity to dispute anything negative but releases his company from liability for any inaccuracies transmitted through paperwork reflecting judgements made through very subjective criteria. Not only does such a policy prevent a pilot from quietly seeking employment elsewhere, but it hampers whistle blowing and has been documented as a pilot retention technique at regionals like Trans States, where failure rates were up to 80 percent are used to show the FAA they had really high standards. Even more absurd, the law doesn’t require the airline doing the hiring to even consider what’s in the information packet when it arrives, and applicants from the military are exempt.
Regional airline industry growth came about as a result of circumventing expensive labor contracts at the mainlines, but now they are exerting a downward pressure there to the point where Sullenberger’s retirement depends upon re-telling his story for an income. Is it practical for every pilot to ditch a jet at the end of his career in lieu of a pension? This story will get old really fast.
Flying on Regional Airlines is inescapable domestically unless passengers restrict themselves to Southwest Airlines. With Sullenberger and Schiff advising against becoming pilots for even major airlines, how do the regionals expect to fill their cockpits now that the carrot of eventual employment with a major airline is less attractive and more elusive with airlines shifting more of their flying over to regionals?
After decades of telling pilots that the next hiring boom is around the corner and subscribing them to glossy career magazines with interview prep questions, statistics to compare themselves to, resume writing services, featured airline of the month articles, etc, the premier counseling service AIR, Inc. closed its doors on 2/13/2009 with the words: “It has been an honor and a privilege to serve you during the past 20 years. However, the current status of the airline industry and the economy has made our business unsustainable, and we are closing.” Prospective pilots just aren’t going to get this kind of pep talk from their guidance counselors.
The prospect of a job with a major airline has motivated many regional pilots to keep their records clean by flying safely, but now as despair sets in we’re seeing the effects of low wages.
Flying has been described as hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror and that is why complacency is the biggest killer.
When Comair flight 191 lined up with the wrong runway at 7am in Lexington, Kentucky the crew made a fatal error that costs the lives of all but the first officer by over running a runway that was too short to their plane to become airborne. Their complacency was fed according to the NTSB by:
a failure to use available cues and aids to identify the airplane's location on the airport surface during taxi and their failure to cross-check and verify that the airplane was on the correct runway before takeoff. Contributing to the accident were the flight crew's nonpertinent conversations during taxi, which resulted in a loss of positional awareness and the Federal Aviation Administration's failure to require that all runway crossings be authorized only by specific air traffic control clearances.
The first officer apparently grew impatient waiting for a major airliner to recruit him and took this job after working at Gulfstream International.
Pinnacle Flight 3701 was a repositioning ferry flight with no passengers that turned into a deadly joy ride to exploit the capabilities of an empty regional jet. On the way up to the CRJ-200’s maximum altitude, the crew ignored several warnings and induced a flameout of both engines. From 41,000 feet their time in the glide seems like an eternity next to Sullenberger’s but fear of reprisal kept them from declaring an emergency. A prompt declaration would have given them preferential handling by ATC and several viable options. Instead, as their boredom turned to terror, and they tried cover up their recklessness with more deviations from standard operating procedures. In the end, they overflew four diversionary airports and crashed and burned two miles short of the fifth behind a row of houses in the dark. Both pilots had worked for Gulfstream International and had presumably given up hope of working for a major airline.
Prior to the crash of the aforementioned Colgan 3407, the crew had been chattering about their appalling working conditions. The captain was a demoralized former pilot at Gulfstream International.
After the decline of the entire profession which resulted from the shift to regional airlines, we now find ourselves in a mess with no way out. The bottom has yet to be reached.
Last year, Gulfstream International was fined $1.3 million for falsifying crew member flight times. The very airline that has employees paying to work for them can’t seem to exploit then enough, and now has pilots flying beyond FAA limits. That fine, added to one incurred for the ignominious distinction of being caught using car parts on their planes, has forced the company into bankruptcy, and yet they continue to fly.
Jobs at the majors are too few and increasingly too unattractive to entice pilots to work for food stamp wages at the regionals which now make up the backbone of the domestic airline system. Nobody but a fool would invest the time and money necessary to become an airline pilot with these limited prospects. Some will continue to fly and slowly pay down debt or because, while Burger King may pay better, leaving aviation even temporarily could make all their efforts for naught. Along with flight time, employers want to see currency and recency of experience. They want to hire pilots who are working as pilots and pilots not flying find it difficult and expensive to get themselves re-qualified.
It’s doubtful that the airlines will be able to fall back on the supply of social engineered military pilots soon to arrive with new tolerances. Last year, the Air Force trained more pilots to fly UAVs than fixed wing aircraft. Until the fantasy of unmanned airliners comes to fruition, these pilots are best advised to stay in the service because for now only the electronics department of Best Buy or the local hobby shop will appreciate their skills with radio controlled aircraft. The stagnation and low pay at the majors offer little enticement for entering civilian aviation and the demands of regional aviation with its compressed training schedules can be a rude awakening. When the parent company of American Airlines and American Eagle (AMR) got the Eagle pilots to sign an 18 year contract it did so not by offering better working conditions at Eagle but rather offering the carrot of a potential “flow through” of its senior pilots to American. The unanticipated events of 9/11 brought, instead, a “flow back” of junior American Airlines pilots, like Brian Schiff, to American Eagle. Flowing back as well were some American Airlines new hires with very little civilian time who found it difficult to get through training.
The saddest thing about this story is that we didn’t need to go down this path. As mentioned before, Southwest Airlines does not use regionals. All passengers with Southwest tickets fly on Southwest even on short routes, something which demonstrates that the term “regional” as applied to aviation is probably a misnomer. Southwest is a product of the deregulation environment to be sure, and it’s never been a glamorous affair for passengers who are loaded as if into the back of a cattle car. Yet, while they provide very competitive airfares to the consumers with the most productive employees in the industry, its crews are among the most unionized and best compensated, and Southwest has never had an unprofitable quarter.
None of this was an accident. Southwest’s founder Herb Kelleher invested a lot of time and money into creating a culture employees were proud to be a part of. This is reflected in its NYSE abbreviation: LUV and by the renaming of its Human Resources Department to “People Department.” If anyone doubts Southwest’s commitment to a business philosophy at odds with the mindset of a Harvard MBA graduate, pick up a copy of Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success and read, if nothing else, chapter headings like: Hire for Attitudes and Train for Skills, Act Like an Owner, One Great Big Family, and Customers Come Second.
Kelleher’s belief was that if an airline treats its employees right, the employees will in turn treat the travelers right. It is a radical concept but one that has given birth to an enviable Esprit de Corps which shows no sign of waning.
[FTL1] Flying the Line. The First Half Century of the Air Line Pilots Association by George E. Hopkins
[FTL2] Flying the Line vol.2 The Line Pilot Crisis: ALPA Battles Airline Deregulation and Other Forces by George E. Hopkins
This article appeared in the April 2011 issue of Culture Wars.
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