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.


Ryan said...

Good post. As you clearly stated, it's basically rolling the dice in this industry. Whoever thought Pan Am, Eastern or TWA pilots would be on the street looking for jobs? I know many pilots who got hired at Pan Am but decided to fly for a much smaller airline in Texas with orange planes. Guess who made the right decision? You just never know...


Tom said...

Well said.

Grayson said...

Wait I'm confused. Eye of Gustav, the Hurricane?

Just kidding yall.
Good post.

Rick Barlow said...

As I have told you personally many times in the past....your writing is phenomenal. When is the book coming out? Seriously!

Sam said...

Haha... thanks for the kind comment, Rick. I guess I'll have to decide to write the book, then put the time into writing it, then get somebody to publish it, before you'll be able to pick it up at the local Barnes & Noble. Sorry.