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!


Scheets said...

Great post. I'm not sure if I have posted here or not, but I am a very active reader of your blog. I find your stories very interesting, and this one does not disappoint. I love knowing what the "real" life of an airline pilot is like.

I'm sure you have received much recognition for your first posts on this blog, but I just want to say thank you. They have helped me so much to whether or not flying is something I want to do as a career. If anything, this blog has encouraged me to do it. Of course, with the current industry, I am looking to get a degree in something else in case something goes wrong. But I wanted to say thank you for being a loyal blogger all these years. It's been an interesting journey to follow.

BTW, I have a student pilot blog if you want to check it out. Also, if there is anything else I should know that you have left out of the blog before I fully invest myself into this, please email me. Scheetj@culver.org. If you're busy, I understand.


Javier said...

Hello Sam!

I just found your weblog when searching for "freight dogs" on Google and... what a nice find! I'm impressed with the quality of your posts, and as a frustrated pilot I drool reading you.

I always wanted to become a pilot, but when I was a kid I thought it was way too expensive for my parents to pay the studies, and I just took the idea out of my mind. Then I studied computer science engineering and yeah, that's what I do for a living. Nevertheless I'd love to fly, and I hope to get the PPL some day.

I'm 28 years old and I think it's too late to start now, but I fly online on IVAO as much as I can... I just love it. As I learn procedures, checklists, rules, different types of aircraft, weather conditions, etc. I miss the real component of the thing, the human part, how someone who sweats, breaths, etc. feels in the actual cockpit, starting from the beginning of his/her career, taking decisions, going through a lot of experiences and stages, sharing the same passion...

Well, I just want to thank you for sharing all these words with us, and I encourage you to keep up the good work and always bring a notepad with you so you can write down all these magnific thoughts to later publish them.

Read you in the next post,


Rick Barlow said...

Sam, you wrote:
"Most regionals lie between the extremes of this airline and Horizon, and the differences are interesting to talk about".

Ouch. Hey we are not the Geezerigional you think we are, we had (thank God) our share of "fun people" in our past too ya know! Why sonny back when I was your age, we'd have us some humdingers I tell you, you litt'l whippersnapper you! (grin) You just missed them all, that's all.

Grayson said...

'Airbii' and 'feline epidermis removal'. Hmm, it's a wonder that pilots don't get therapeutic benefits. Interesting post though, good to read you back.

Sam said...

Haha sorry Rick, it wasn't meant to be taken as a diss. I had a lot of fun flying with you and the other Geezer captains at Horizon ;-). It was a pretty big shock coming to NewCo and flying with Captains under 40; it's even stranger to be a Captain at 27 and flying with FOs my age or younger. Even so, NewCo has much less of a "party culture" than a few other infamous regionals.

Taken any hikes up Mt. Helena lately? :) Will be going to MSO and FCA a several times this month, love getting back out into God's Country!

Sam said...

To be precise, Rick, I'll be in MSO on the 6th and 13th, and FCA on the 22nd and 29th. Have long layovers on all those days, let me know if our schedules match up anywhere.