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Quit Your Whining!

April 12th, 2006 · 6 Comments

An interesting article, here.

I’ll paste it here (emphasis added in bold, my comments in italics):

Don’t Put Joe Blow In The Cockpit
By Doug Robinson
Deseret Morning News

Call me silly, but when I step on an airliner, I like to know that the guys in the cockpit are the best, the cream of the crop, the cool Harrison Ford types who could land a plane on a postage stamp blindfolded in a snowstorm over the Atlantic while telling us, “Off to the right side of the aircraft, you can just make out Iceland through the fog.”

Okay, perhaps that’s a bit melodramatic. Simply put, the only ones who belong up front are the ones who’ve earned the right to be up front.

So when I read that Delta Airlines is getting chintzy with the pilots, that they are demanding that they take another huge salary cut and the pilots are going to strike, I get nervous. Go ahead, hold the peanuts, eliminate the meals and the pillows but don’t give me the second-string in the cockpit. Who wants Jon Kitna running the team when Carson Palmer is available?

Delta isn’t really suggesting “second-stringers” of any kind. They’ll still be the same pilots, only paid less. Much less. Okay, fine. Much MUCH less.

“People look at pilots like we’re prima donnas,” says Joe, a Delta pilot (not his real name). “But they’ve never been through a white-knuckle flight. They don’t have a clue what goes on out there or they’d freak. Ninety-five percent of the time your flight is going to be uneventful. The problem is when you get in a sticky situation, who is up front?”

Is Chuck Yeager available?

The point “Joe” is trying to make is that we’re experienced professionals who provide an important service to the public: safe travel.

Delta has lost thousands of pilots in recent years because of declining pay and benefits. Now Delta is asking pilots to take a 19 percent pay cut (the pilots countered with 14 percent), which, combined with the 32.5 percent pay cut they demanded and received 18 months ago, would add up to 51 percent.

“The last time they asked us to do it, their theme was — Do it once, do it right,’” says Joe.

They (management) did “it” once. They did “it” wrong. Now they want to do “it” again. Who’s to say they’ll do it right THIS time? I imagine Delta’s pilots don’t believe they will. Hopefully, they’ll do anything they can to keep management from doing “it” again. What the hell is “it?” Your guess is as good as mine, but I imagine “it” has to do with cost restructuring.

Joe is making about $100K per year now. That sounds like a good wage until you realize what it took to get in the cockpit. His education is about as rigorous as a doctor’s. Four years of ROTC and a college education. A year of pilot training, where only 17 of his 34 classmates made the cut. Six years in the Air Force as a fighter pilot. He required 1500 hours of flying time just to get an interview with Delta.

“It’s a highly skilled profession,” says Joe. “I thought it was bulletproof; I couldn’t be replaced fast. I guess I can. I made it against impossible odds and now I’m making what my plumber makes. The sky marshal makes 80 thou, and he’s there just in case terrorists rush the cockpit. We face wind shear, storms, zero-zero visibility on a regular basis. Air traffic controllers make more than some of us.”

I don’t agree with his notion that he can be replaced fast. Though many surely posses the knowledge and skill, few posses the experience level. However, his points about other industry professionals making more than the average airline pilot is spot on. Even though their training is less specialized (aside from the air traffic controller), their starting pay is sometimes quadruple what starting airline pilot pay is. At the regional airline level, that’s about $19 a flight hour (which works out to between $22,000 and $25,000 a year). At the major airline level, it’s as little as $35-$40,000 per year. Chickenfeed, when you look at the amount of training and experience required to get to those levels.

Joe has flown Delta for more than a decade, not counting the three years he was laid off and forced to sell real estate. Besides the educational requirements, Delta pilots must undergo a rigorous medical exam each year and flight simulator tests annually — “screw those up and you’re gone,” he says. Then there is the lifestyle.

Joe is gone 15-20 nights a month.

And right there is the primary reason we deserve appropriate professional-level pay. The time we spend in service to our airline comes directly out of the rest of our lives. There’s no getting off work at 5:00 to go home and have dinner with your families every night. There’s no “for sure” about getting to your kid’s baseball games or dance recitals. Sure, we’re highly skilled, but the time we spend away from our families is a big sacrifice. That sacrifice should be compensated for fairly.

“It’s not worth it anymore,” he says. “These (Delta pilots) are bright guys, and this is a horrible lifestyle. They’ve seen this coming. They’re getting master’s degrees or going to law school. The profession has zero glamour anymore. It’s a race to the bottom. If management had their way, they’d hire some guy for 20 bucks an hour.”

Joe’s a bit of a naysayer. He’s quite “gloom and doom.” And rightly so. His airline is going to hell in a handbag. My airline is not immune from this sort of fate in the not-so-distant future. To me, the lifestyle is still acceptable. I’m home half the month or more. I make a fair wage. I enjoy my job immensly. It’s still worth it to me. But I’ll be damned if there isn’t someone in the USA with a commercial pilot’s certificate who isn’t willing to sell out for 1/8 my salary just so he can say he’s an “airline pilot.” To think that an airline’s management wouldn’t get any ideas when the pool of such pilots is so deep is foolish.

He and the other pilots say they have to pay for management’s mistakes — and yet it was management that rewarded itself with $42 million in bonuses and pension trust payments in 2002 after a year of huge losses and cuts. When is the last time a CEO negotiated wind shear?

Chickenshit at the highest level. Managers at a failing airline should NEVER be rewarded with bonuses, ESPECIALLY when they’re asking their employees to take pay cuts. However, it isn’t solely management’s fault that Delta is in this mess. I’d at least partly blame a pilot’s union that negotiated an anti-company contract.

When Joe returned from his last trip he was stunned to see that most of the pilots had cleared their lockers for the strike. It saddens him. In the ’80s and ’90s, almost all the best pilots signed with Delta. Many are gone. Joe thinks his flying days might be ending.

It’d be sad if the Delta pilots do strike. It’ll be the end of that airline, almost certainly. But I imagine there’s a time when you have to say “enough!” Oh, and that whole “almost all the best signed with Delta” thing? That’s pure speculation. There are outstanding pilots at EVERY airline. Just because you’re wearing a double-breasted dinner jacket that says “Delta” on it doesn’t mean you’re “The Best Of The Best.” It just means you work for Delta. Oh and probably that you’re a bit anal-retentive, too.

“(A pilot’s skills) are hard to tell back where the passengers sit, but it’s obvious in the cockpit,” says Joe. “They can’t tell if someone is screwing up, but we sure can. They could find a ton of guys out there who would do it for the pay and benefits they’re offering now, but it wouldn’t be the same caliber that’s in the cockpits now.”

Though I understand the point he’s trying to make, it sure does come off like a load of self-righteous CRAPOLA, doesn’t it? Airline pilots, as professionals, deserve to be treated and compensated as such. However, the amount they are paid is not in direct relation to the caliber of pilot. I know a lot of damned good ones that make just enough to squeak by. I also know a few really bad ones making Captain’s pay at Delta.

This article is an interesting attempt at letting the general flying public know what it is really like to do our jobs for a living. The problem with it is that the article is laced with a lot of “holier-than-though” attitude from that Delta pilot. Though I’m sure he’s good at what he does, he needs to get it through his head that he’s not any better than any other commercial pilot. It doesn’t matter whether you fly a Navajo or a Boeing 747. If you’re paid to fly, you’re a professional. Most have the sense to act as professionals.

Part of acting like a professional is knowing when to quit whining.

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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Sam // Apr 12, 2006 at 4:59 am

    I think we need to get you a byline in the LA Times, GC…you could tell ‘em what it’s like without sounding like a pompous ass.

  • 2 John // Apr 12, 2006 at 5:37 am

    And while we’re at it, how about we tell passengers to quit whining, too?

    A big problem with the airline equation is the average adult will pay $50 in air freight to have flowers shipped to their mom. But when it comes time to fly their mom in for a visit, they don’t want to pay a reasonable amount to “ship” her.

    There’s no mystery why the world’s largest air freight company just reported a 35% increase in profits while most passenger airlines are running on razor thin margins or at a loss. You can’t operate at a loss and make up for it on volume.

    Geez, maybe I’m whining now!

    ;-)

  • 3 Gina // Apr 13, 2006 at 2:48 am

    Bravo, GC! You’ve made some great points…to bad Doug Robinson didn’t interview you. I especially liked your comments about how much time you spend away from your family which should be fairly compensated.

    It’s my understanding that pilots aren’t compensated for the entire time you’re “working”; but that your time (for pay purposes) starts and stops when you arrive and depart the plane. I was shocked when a good friend told me what his starting salary would be at an airline (yours in fact), but I didn’t question his decision to take the job.

    And there’s the difference between Joe Plumber and Joe Pilot; plumbers do the job because they want the money, pilots do the job because they love to fly. I understand the shaky ground the airlines are on, but I think it’s unfair that they take advantage of the passion most aviators have (don’t even get me started on bonuses…).

  • 4 Capt. Wilko // Apr 16, 2006 at 5:37 am

    Interesting article.
    I’ve been talking with my wife, a nurse, about this for a while. She makes a good living and deservedly so. She studied hard, works night shifts and put up with a lot of crap (literaly) to get where she is. But in different ways so do airline pilots, spending tons of money on training and taking sometimes dangerous jobs teaching on questionable equipment or flying checks for dubious operators. Not to mention to huge responsibility you guys take on with every flight.
    As a non-pilot she doesn’t feel comfortable with the fact that the two guys or gals in the front of an RJ together make less than she does. Wonder why nobody else thinks about that. Maybe because people now days will do just about anything to save an extra $9 on their airfares…
    I agree that the whining isn’t very professional. However, there’s plenty to whine about and from some of the points of view out there, things don’t seem like they are going to get any better.
    The way I looked at it was that salaries had swung so high they were bound to go through some sort of a correction. Seems that’s pretty much out the window now.
    Do you reckon things will come back up and stabilize? Pay, especially at the regionals, can’t possibly dip any lower.
    And finally, I wholeheartedly agree with your comment about management at failing airlines. Reminds me of the newspaper that ran almost side-by-side headlines on Northwest pilots taking a massive pay cut and a separate story about management at the airline pocketing a collective $50 million bonus. Nice…

  • 5 Anonymous // Apr 17, 2006 at 4:37 pm

    I think that with your last statement, you said it all … NO SNIVILING!

  • 6 GC // May 24, 2006 at 5:54 am

    Great comments, everyone.

    Sam,

    I’m not sure if you’re being sarcastic or not. I’ve been called a “pompous ass” quite often around the house here. Heh…

    John,

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. People brag about how cheaply they can get their airfare, then bitch about not getting an inflight meal.

    Gina,

    Thanks for understanding the profession as you obviously do. We pilots DO love to fly, and I belive that truly is part of our overall compensation package. However, you can’t feed or clothe your kids on passion for the job. So I’m “forced” fly for money.

    It’s a hell of a compromise.

    Wilko,

    I think you’re right in that we’ve been seeing “salary correction” over the past five years or so. I do think they’ve now dipped artificially low in a lot of cases, however. The time will come when they start to inch back up towards a better average, but I don’t think we’ll ever see the disgustingly anti-company pilot contracts of the late 1990s ever again. Thankfully.

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