Friday, December 11, 2009

Just a little Bit

Recently it happened; I knew it would eventually. In the fallout after a Northwest Airlines flight crew accidentally lost communications with ATC and over flew Minneapolis-St. Paul airport by over 100 miles, I just knew that sometime in the future, an airline passenger would make a rude remark about it in my direction.

I asked the lady finishing her meal if the seat next to her was taken. I was waiting for my pizza while commuting home through Chicago’s O’Hare airport. “I don’t know, are you drinking?” was her reply. I could feel my facial muscles in disappointment as she further stated “do you have a laptop? Where are you going? Are you going to Tampa Bay?” In complete disdain and eye roll mode I exasperated to her “Please. I’m commuting home to where I live, and I’m not drinking, I’m in uniform”. All the while I was asking myself, telling myself, that she is kidding. Right?

My pizza came, albeit with a soggy crust. I was hungry so I squatted down on the stool, popped in my earbuds with my back to my offender, and tried to get over it. The music intended to soothe my frayed nerves was short lived. I felt a soft pat on my back, then another. I knew without looking that it was this lady again, wanting to accost me, or talk, for some reason. Being the gentleman that I am, I obliged her. It turned out that she was fairly nice, but talkative and opinionated, finishing a glass of wine to prime her tongue.

Her husband was a private pilot and wanna be airline pilot, so she just knew everything that goes on up in the flight deck. She knew a little in any regard. We chatted for a while and she told me about her two sons, how blessed I was to have two daughters instead, and how her husband was a retired Marine but he still won’t get rid of his uniforms (don’t know why that’s a problem). Excepting her first comments, she was actually very nice, and she had a Christian cross necklace on, so at least we had the same God in common. It was strange how I was seemingly making friends with this fellow traveler who moments before I had classed as very rude, all without her apologizing or clarifying that she had been kidding me. I wouldn’t be surprised if I get comments of that nature again in the future.

In this age of high technology, everyone thinks it’s so easy to be an ‘expert’ on anything. Google it, look it up on Wikipedia, read about it on the internet, and you’re an instant layman on any subject. The saying ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ hasn’t changed in value, though. The vast capability technology gives us, coupled with easy access to information, has somehow given others a license for ridicule and lampoon when human failings break through the system we trust, as they will always do. The average Joe thinks that just because the jets are so automated, that ‘they can fly themselves, and even land themselves’, that it doesn’t take the same level of skill, discipline, and judgment, and leadership as it used to. “So easy, even a caveman could do it?” I definitely don’t think so.

All in all, it shows a lack of respect that travelers have for pilots these days. Then again, by their own actions and appearances, pilots have tended to show a lack of respect for their profession as well. It's not just the pilots though; I also point the finger of blame at the management and leadership of the airlines. I can? Sure I can, this is my blog. Yes, I think both parties have a share in this.

Here are a few axioms that are current in the industry, common to others as well:

"When they pay me like a professional, then I’ll act like a Professional." I don't agree with this one, but it is common in 'the way of the world'. This is a poor attitude to have, and I've written about this before. When it comes to transporting precious human life through the air, this attitude should be invalidated. The intent should be that professionalism, and thus safety, shouldn't suffer, whether you're flying a puddle jumper or a 747. In fact, the per flight hour safety record of the nineteen seat twin turboprop commuter airlines is virtually the same as that of the majors, and these fellas are some of the hardest working and least paid airline pilots there are. I know, because I was one of them for two years. Being less of a professional just because you feel you're underpaid is itself the epitome of unprofessionalism.

However, airline pilots do make significantly less that they did in the past, mainly because of federal deregulation of the airlines (which occurred under Carter but came to final fruition under Reagan) and the consequent competition in the free marketplace. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in bankruptcies and the rise of the 'low cost carriers', things got even worse for airline pilots. Major airline pilots now make one-half or less of what they used to, basically. According to data published in my pilot union's latest newsletter, when corrected for inflation, a 1982 Captain of a 44 seat turboprop would have made more than twice as much today as regional jet Captains are now at our current airlines. When adjusted for inflation, a Republic Airlines (the original Republic Airlines mind you) Captain of a Convair 580 would make $171 per flight hour now, compared to about $70 per flight hour a 50 seat RJ Captain currently makes. Airline pilots get paid for approximately 1,000 hours a year, so you can do the math.

(Free market Conservative Capitalist steps in): 'Time out now, Craig. You blamed airline management, and now said they (the government) deregulated the airlines, which in turn forced them to compete more with each other in the free marketplace. It's only logical that airline managements would try to reduce their costs in order to remain competitive, which is what they've done. So what's wrong with management responding to the new market established by deregulation, and why haven't you blamed the government?' Nothing, I suppose. You can't blame someone for trying to defend their standard of living, however. I try to strike a balance between understanding the economic stance of the airlines and establishing what I need, not necessarily want, to get by with and provide for my family. Regarding the government, it is what it is, and they are a few voices calling for regulation of the airlines again, I don't think it will occur though. The intent of deregulation was to reduce the cost of airline travel and make it more affordable for more Americans, and that goal has been achieved.

"You get what you can negotiate, not what you deserve." In capitalism based, free market economy, this holds true, like it or not. Whether you like it depends on how well your company is doing and how much you can negotiate, I suppose. For example, FedEx and UPS pilots currently have excellent pay, the best in the business and substantially better than the passenger airlines, because they've been able to negotiate it, based on the incredible profitability their companies have had in the 2000's.

Regional airlines have been buffeted by extreme pressure to reduce their labor costs, and in many cases have caved, my airline being no exception.  Regional airlines have been pitted against each other to compete to be awarded or keep the share of flying they do for their parent carrier.  This is called 'whip-sawing', and it hardly existed before deregulation and the rise of regional, or 'contract' carriers.

Airline management has conflicting priorities: one is to maximize profitability; the other is to operate a safe airline. At some point, pushing pilots, real human beings, not machines, to do more and more with less and less in order to save money does affect safety in a negative way.

My bottom line, the bottom line, IMO, is that even though airline pilots make substantially less than they used to, professionalism shouldn't suffer. Safety, or perceived safety, shouldn't suffer either. ALPA, the largest airline pilots union, and airline pilot groups everywhere are in large part responsible for the excellent safety record of the airlines, not airline management. Of course, some airline managements are more attuned to their pilot groups concerns regarding safety than others. Our unions and pilot groups should and will continue for fight against the degradation of professionalism in the flight deck. The honor of our profession and the traveling public's trust is at stake.


rhinosky said...

Well stated. I've been in this industry as a pilot for 10 years and certainly thought I would be better off by now. While the rest of the country weathers a recession over the last 2 years, airline employees have seen an industry recession since Sept 11 2001 (One year after I started my career in the airlines). Those who stick it out have earned my respect.

Shannon said...

Good post honey. Respect for anything can be hard to come by these days.

Flying Kites Mom said...

Excellent post- your professionalism and integrity shine through. I always (if possible)stick my head in the FD to say thank you- I imagine that you don't hear that enough and you should! LS-P