Sunday, August 24, 2008

Eye of the Storm?

"NewCo? Why the heck would you go to NewCo?"

My friend (and one-time sim partner) Jill asked me that in June of last year. Dawn and I were at a barbecue at Jill's house, and quite a few other Horizon pilots were there. As tends to happen when pilots gather, the talk soon turned to flying. I'd mentioned that I was working on getting a one year leave of absence to fly Metroliners for Ameriflight. Everybody agreed that was a pretty nutty move. Almost as an aside, I mentioned that I'd recently put in an application at NewCo. Nobody knew who they were except Jill, whose father was a 747 Captain at RedCo. She knew about the flowdown in place at NewCo, and merger talk was already swirling around RedCo. I could understand her disbelief that I'd give up a stable job with one of the best regional airlines to gamble on a startup with such an uncertain future.

Going to NewCo was indeed a roll of the dice - the ultimate outcome of which, I hasten to add, is still very much in question. For the moment, however, it's a very good place to be. It's one of the few airlines still hiring. There are actually quite a few airlines that are furloughing pilots. Horizon is one of them, as they transition both Q200s and CRJ700s out of their fleet and replace them with fewer Q400s. My friends still at Horizon are facing 10 to 12 year upgrades. Lately I've been calling them less and less frequently; not only is it rather depressing to hear their woes, but I feel like I'm gloating when I update them on my situation.

When airline pilots get stuck at struggling carriers or get furloughed, they rightly tend to chalk it up to a stroke of bad luck in a volatile industry. When luck goes their way, though, many hold it up as proof of their superior genius. I can make no such claim in this case. Dawn actually had to talk me into attending my NewCo interview. How could I know, a year ago, that oil prices would double and make three quarters of the regional airline fleet obsolete? The only thing I can take credit for is seeing the handwriting on the wall at Horizon, and even that was staring me in the face for several years before I could bring myself to admit it. As early as January of 2005 I had a good friend leave Horizon for Skywest and strongly urge me to do the same.

The reality is that most people looking to get hired at their first airline will throw out applications to every regional hiring, and will accept the job at the first airline that hires them. Where their career goes from there is utterly luck of the draw. The seniority system prevents one from switching companies without significant penalty, so one's fortunes are inextricably intertwined with the those of their employer - which can change daily in this industry! I feel horrible for all those who went to quality airlines like Horizon or ExpressJet and are about to find themselves on the street. Many are younger kids who can move back in with Mom & Dad if all else fails, but a significant portion are mid-life career changers with families to support. NewCo is hiring some of these pilots, but there aren't many other places to go right now. Many will flight instruct or fly freight at below-poverty wages. A few of those will die in the process. Such is this industry. The public perception of us as overpaid grandees grows in irony by the day.

As for me, my fate remains to be seen. For the moment, NewCo is an oasis of calm. I'm enjoying Captainhood immensely; I'm advancing in the ranks steadily as junior pilots upgrade. I even have a pretty decent line next month. This all may well prove to be merely the eye of the storm, as the combined RedCo/WidgetCo might yet furlough and flush every current NewCo pilot off the property. I'm more optimistic than I was a few months ago. RedCo and WidgetCo pilots have already negotiated and approved a joint contract which contains a three year no-furlough clause effective the date of merger closing. RedCo management and their union signed a letter of agreement (LOA) that puts several programs in place to mitigate furloughs until then. It already eliminated the expected furloughs for this fall. I don't think any of this will save me if the economy goes south in dramatic fashion, though.

It's instructive that the very favorite moments in my job occur when I'm disconnected from the earth's surface, when the industry's woes and union politics and dealings with other employee groups that've been screwed over a few times too many all melt away into the ether and I can simply enjoy moments of rare beauty shared by the few of us lucky enough to call the sky home. I experienced such a moment early yesterday morning, just after departure from Louisville. We climbed through a thin layer of clouds in the lower flight levels, and everything turned very pink for a moment, illuminated by the rising sun. Then we broke out into a brilliantly clear sky with a continuous gradient of color ranging from orange in the east to cobalt overhead and a deep purple in the still-dark west. The pink layer of wispy clouds rushed only feet below us at tremendous speed, and I caught our shadow ringed by a brilliant halo bouncing back and forth. In that moment it didn't matter who I flew for or how stable my job was. It made me very happy to think that halfway across the continent, a Horizon pilot would experience a similar moment and enjoy their job every bit as much as I do.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Airline Refugee Camp

"So what'd you do before this?"

It's a pretty standard question asked between pilots flying together for the first time, usually in the early stages of the trip. Inquiring about each other's background opens a rich vein for conversation, but also gives a Captain the means to gauge his FO's experience level and adjust his style accordingly. At most regionals, the majority of FOs are at their first airline. The more experienced FOs might answer the last job question with a reply of "I did the corporate charter thing for a few years," or "I was a freight dog for a while." The average response would likely be "I flight instructed for a year." The last few years, God help us all, the answer could even be "I just passed my commercial-multi checkride!"

NewCo is an interesting exception to the rule. Our hiring minimums are very high for a regional (ATP minimums with 1000 multi); that, along with the recent glut of furloughed pilots industry-wide, means that almost everyone came here from another airline. Nearly every regional and even a few majors are represented. Just to list the people I've met or flown with: ACA (Independence Air), Air Wisconsin, American Eagle, ASA, ATA, Big Sky, Champion, Chautauqua, Colgan, Comair, Commutair, Delta, ExpressJet, GoJet, Horizon, jetBlue, Mesa, Mesaba, Midwest, NWA, Piedmont, Pinnacle, Republic, Shuttle America, Skyway, Sun Country, Trans States, and a few others I'm forgetting. A good visual representation of that diversity can be had by going to our crew room and looking at the flight bags on the racks, all adorned with stickers from the above airlines and airplanes from the B1900 to the B777. I jokingly refer to NewCo as "Airline Refugee Camp."

A lot of cockpit conversations center on what life was like at each other's previous airlines. Although I've found that pilots worldwide are amazingly similar creatures, every airline does have its own unique culture. It's influenced by a number of factors, including geographic location and whether most pilots are natives or immigr├ęs, commuters or living in base, average crewmember age, working conditions, level of unionization, size of crews (one flight attendant vs two or more; it has a huge effect on crew dynamics), etc. This can vary significantly by fleet. Horizon was dominated by Captains who were older family men native to the Pacific Northwest, and that greatly influenced the culture there. However, the Q200 crews had a number of (relatively) young Captains who were not native, many of whom were hired from UND, and that gave the Q200 it's own unique culture. There are some regionals where a majority of pilots are young, unmarried, away from home, and flying with flight attendants of the same demographic; this gives a few airlines a frat house or even summer camp feel. As an example, when a pilot from a certain RedCo Regional was arrested on a layover a few months ago while drunkenly stumbling around the woods wearing nothing but a wristwatch and flip-flops, with a similarly attired flight attendant, nobody from that airline was too surprised. Most regionals lie between the extremes of this airline and Horizon, and the differences are interesting to talk about.

Besides being a good source of conversation, our pilots' various airline backgrounds give an interesting peek into how different companies do things. Each airline is so standardized and you get so used to doing things a certain way that you forget there's more than one way to skin a cat, and feline epidermis removal methods vary pretty widely across the industry. When we come across a situation where NewCo's procedures seem strange, invariably I'll say something like "Hmm, at Horizon they did it like this..." and then the other guy says, "Wow, at Comair it was completely different, we did this...." The same goes for aircraft idiosyncrasies. I'm coming to realize that the JungleBus was designed by throwing together various features from Boeings, Airbii, Bombardiers, previous E-Jets, and the odd Antonov or two.

Everyone had their own motivation for coming here. Some, like me, were stuck in the right seat on a stagnant seniority list. Some were furloughed, or in the process, or had seen the handwriting on the wall. Many were originally from Minneapolis or the upper Midwest and looking for an opportunity to come home. A few were retired and looking for some extra income. For more than a few, life was so bad at their last regional that any change was necessarily an improvement (here's looking at you, Mesa!). A lot of our pilots have suffered career setbacks and you might expect that to lead to embitterment, but I've found most are just happy they were able to make the jump to NewCo. Giving up one's seniority and years invested in an airline is tough to do, so I like to think that our pilots are a proactive bunch by nature and that contributes to the optimistic mood here even as we face the possibility of a mass furlough as a result of this merger.

Although being an "Airline Refugee Camp" is the defining characteristic of NewCo's culture now, that will probably change. Eventually the flow of furloughees will dry up, and a new generation of experienced flight instructors and freight dogs unable to get a regional job for years will fill the ranks. Alternatively, it's possible that in a year or two NewCo's roster will be filled with RedCo and WidgetCo furloughees and the Camp will have an entirely new band of Refugees. As for the rest of us? It's never too late to add "freight dog" to one's resume!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Long Way Home

Well, if I have any readers, I haven't abandoned my blog. My lack of attention to it even has a good excuse attached. Our internet at home (which is to say, the neighbor's wifi that we've been mooching off of) has been down for several weeks, and I've been doing a CDO line so there's no time for updating at layovers. My online time has been limited to an hour here and there at coffee shops.

I need to start carrying a notepad with me to write my posts. That's how I did it in the beginning, but a year or so ago I started writing all my posts from within Blogger. That coincided with a decline in the frequency of my posts, as it takes a pretty conscious effort to begin a post in Blogger whereas random scribbling in a notebook will often turn into something decent. I can actually feel my "writer's muscles" atrophying. Just as skipping the gym for a few days makes it that much harder to go back, not writing for a while really affects ability and motivation. I miss it, so I need to change my habits to write often even in the absence of regular internet service.

I left you last time with a photoblog from Paris and a hint that the return leg didn't go quite as planned. I'm only now calm enough to write about it objectively; at the time I was almost too angry to speak, much less write. It shouldn't have bothered me so much, because we've had a pretty good string on non-revving luck the last few years. It was just the manner in which we got stuck an extra day in Paris that made it seem disproportionately awful.

I had five days off of work, a long weekend of Friday through Tuesday. We flew out on Friday afternoon, on RedCo's direct MSP-CDG flight that arrived early Saturday morning. For our return, RedCo had two flights on Tuesday, CDG-MSP and CDG-DTW. Both were too uncomfortably full to depend on them for getting me back to work in time. However, WidgetCo had several quite empty flights leaving on Tuesday. We settled on a CDG-JFK flight leaving at 9am Tuesday morning, as it had over 90 seats available. Due to the impending merger, we fly for free on WidgetCo; however, we still have to get paper tickets for their flights. I did this and listed on their reservations system before we left the States.

That Tuesday, we woke up early, packed, and descended into the Bastille station of the Metro, which we used in conjunction with the RER for the hour-long commute to Charles de Gaulle Airport. We arrived at the airport before 7am, which was more than two hours early - enough time, we thought, to make the fight.

Alas, French bureaucracy colluded with universal airline worker indifference to frustrate best laid plans. There were two 767's worth of passengers queueing to check in at the WidgetCo counters, with two (later three) agents to check them all in. The queue snaked back and forth several times, then out and around the corner of the check-in desk for a total length of perhaps 200 or 300 feet. It moved at a glacial pace. There was actually a separate desk for non-revs, but we had to stand in line with the regular passengers until our passports could be checked by security personnel. That took over an hour, at which point we were put into the steadily lengthening non-rev line. By the time we got to the front, it was 35 minutes to departure. "You're too late" was the unsurprising verdict.

No worries. There was a WidgetCo flight leaving almost three hours later for Cincinnati with over 40 seats open. I asked to be transferred to that flight, but the agent brusquely noted that our paper tickets said New York, not Cincinnati. Nevermind that they're free tickets, or that every other airline accepts non-rev tickets for approximately the same stage length no matter the printed destination. He wasn't going to let us get on that airplane unless we had paper tickets that said Cincinnati on them. He pointed us in the direction of the WidgetCo ticket counter. We grimly left the line we'd spent two hours in and joined the queue at the ticket counter.

"No, we can't reissue tickets here. We're not allowed to touch them. You'll have to have the RedCo ticket counter change them." I duly trekked down to the RedCo counter, which was closed. It shared counter space with Air France, so I asked an Air France ticket agent whether they could reissue the tickets. "We can't, and we actually staff the RedCo ticket counter. They can't reissue them...but they should be able to issue new tickets if you call your company." Ah-hah, now we're getting somewhere! I ran to a nearby convenience store, purchased an international calling card, hunted down a pay phone that'd actually accept it, muddled my way through the French instructions, and called the RedCo non-rev line. Finally, a piece of the puzzle fell into place. Armed with the ticket code, I ran back to the now-open RedCo counter...where I spent another half hour in the queue. Finally, a supervisor came out from the back office to help me.

"I'm sorry, we cannot issue staff travel passes here."

"Uh, you're a RedCo station, right?"

"Yes, but we use Air France personnel and software. We're unable to issue paper tickets."

"So, um, I'm limited to the two RedCo flights, eh?"

"They're completely full. Perhaps you can come back tomorrow? Actually, tomorrow is pretty full. Thursday perhaps?"

By now we'd been at the airport for nearly four hours and I was getting a tight knot in the pit of my stomach. I returned to the pay phone to list us for the direct flight to Minneapolis, which left at 12:50pm. If we missed that one, there was a flight to Detroit at 2pm. We trudged back to the same long queue that made us miss the first flight, since the WidgetCo check-in was now also RedCo check-in. It was all handled by the same Air France agents. The security personnel insisted that we stand in line for the passport check again, then sent me back to the ticket counter for a bonus round of queue standing because they wanted to see a paper ticket. The RedCo ticket counter of course confirmed that the security agent was wrong and our paperless ticket was sufficient for travel.

Somehow we still had enough time to stand in line, check in, go through security and customs, and arrive at the RedCo gate with time to spare. When we checked in, I inquired about the loads and was told that it was marginal. "Ok, so if we miss this one, can they bump us to the Detroit flight or do we need to relist?" I was told that we could be carried over, same as at any other station.

The Minneapolis flight was full indeed. A few non-revs did get on, but we were several numbers away. There were only a few RedCo agents there (and again, they were incognito Air France agents); the lead agent was openly hostile to non-revs, at one point exclaiming "I am really getting sick of you standbys!" As soon as the flight closed, she made herself scarce. I summoned one of her underlings over and asked to be transferred to the Detroit flight leaving in an hour. "I can't do that, but you can have them do that at the Detroit gate."

We picked up our backpacks and humped it over to the Detroit gate, in another wing of the terminal some distance away. It was deserted when we got there; to our dismay, the first RedCo agent to show up was the one who was sick on standbys.

"We were listed on the Minneapolis flight and didn't make it. Can you transfer us to this flight?"

"Well, are you listed?"

"No, we were told we could be transferred."

"They were wrong. If you're not listed, you're not going."

Mind you, this is completely contrary to the way things are done at every other RedCo station I've been to, but I was quickly finding that they had their own way of doing things here. I ran to a nearby pay phone, retrieved the trusty calling card, listed us for the flight, and returned to the gate.

"Sorry, I can't check you in now. Check in closes one hour before the flight. You're not getting on."

It took every ounce of restraint in my being not to lunge across the desk and strangle the woman. By her rules, one would have to list and check in for the Detroit flight before the Minneapolis flight even left! It got even worse when the DTW flight went out with several empty seats. The agent was absolutely indifferent to our standing.

I made another international call, this time to crew scheduling to inform them that I wouldn't be at my home base for reserve the next day. They told me there was a chance I wouldn't get used, in which case everything would be fine, but for now I was still on call as of noon.

We weighed our options. The RedCo flight loads the next day looked bad, and they wouldn't get me to MSP in time anyways. There was one flight out of Amsterdam that'd get me into MSP in time for reserve; the loads were ugly for that one too, but we still considered it. I even bought train tickets to Amsterdam (210 euros) before we realized that was a lot to spend for a long shot and we'd be getting into Amsterdam late at night without a bed. I checked the WidgetCo flight to JFK for the next morning, and it was quite open. That got into JFK one hour before a RedCo flight left for MSP. If everything worked out right, I'd be home only a little into my reserve period.

At this point it was 4pm; we'd been at the airport for 9 hours, with nothing to eat or drink, standing in lines with heavy backpacks on our backs most of the time. We were too exhausted to take the train back into Paris to enjoy our extra night. I refunded the train tickets and we went to the CDG Hilton. Note: if you're ever stuck in CDG, the Hilton has an awesome airline crew rate of 79 euros (vs a rack rate of 750 euros). That was an interesting experience, seeing how far the Hilton goes to insulate their American clientele from ever realizing they're in a foreign country. The faucets were even American-style, with hot on the left.

Wednesday morning, we got to the airport three hours early, and had no problem getting on the rather empty flight. Our "luck" broke down at JFK, where we landed on time but had a nearly one hour taxi in, making us miss our connection to MSP. The next flight left at 5:50pm with an arrival time of 8pm. I was staying in close contact with crew scheduling this entire time, and they were doing everything in their power to not assign me a trip. Unfortunately, they took several sick calls in quick succession, and told me they needed me in MSP for a IAH flight with a scheduled departure time of 7:05pm. I told them the MSP flight was pretty full and wasn't scheduled to get in until 8, at which point I'd have to race home to get my uniform. They positive spaced me and told me the flight would be waiting on me. At this point I was in full-blown panic mode, with images of my impending firing playing out before my eyes. Dawn left on a flight to DTW at 4:45pm, assuming she'd get to MSP after me.

I could expend more words on that JFK-MSP flight than everything I've written so far, but it's a very long post already. Suffice it to say that severe thunderstorms compounded the usual JFK silliness, and I spent more time on the JFK-MSP flight than the CDG-JFK! I arrived in MSP at 3am. Fortunately, the guy I was to be flying with was having commuting troubles of his own, so they weren't holding the IAH flight just for me. He still hadn't arrived when they junior manned someone to take my place, so in the end I didn't delay the flight any worse than it already was. I still got a MFA ("Missed Flight Assignment") on my line. Strictly speaking, I was in compliance with our contract's commuter clause so I shouldn't have been subject to any discipline, but the company claimed it didn't apply and I wasn't going to have the first test case be an extreme example like coming back from Paris. In any event, I was pretty impressed with the way NewCo handled the discipline: they referred it to our union's Professional Standards committee, which contacted me, got my side of the story, and told me to be more careful in the future. Case closed.

The fact is, there were three flights with open seats that we couldn't get on for various reasons. If I have to be more careful than having three open flights, I'll never be able to go anywhere. However, I have learned one crucial lesson: when France is involved, be ridiculously early and carry a plethora of backup passes for every conceivable situation.