Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Old Guy

Larry is, in many ways, a very typical specimen of an airline pilot of a certain age. He has been flying for quite a few years, and has the head of grey hair (thinning just a little on top) to prove it. He worked his way up from the "commuter" airlines back in the day, flying the ubiquitous Beech 1900. He was then hired by a major airline, where he progressed through the 727, 737, and 757 before upgrading to Captain on the 737. He flew scheduled service and charter, domestic and international; he crossed the North Atlantic a number of times but mostly bid for mainland-Hawaii runs, which were the most convenient trips to commute into from his home near Denver. Now in his 50s, Larry has reached the point in his career where all those years of hard work start to pay off, and for his last ten years or so, he enjoys a top salary and his choice of work schedule.

Or rather, that's what he was looking forward to until his airline, ATA, hit financial troubles and shut down, abruptly putting Larry out of a job. Now he is a junior First Officer for NewCo, flying the JungleBus for $23 per hour - far less than he made flying the 19-seat Beech all those years ago, when adjusted for inflation. On his last trip, Larry flew with a 28-year old Captain who has a mere five years of airline experience and who has never been a Part 121 Captain before - namely, me. Now, one could expect Larry to be fairly bitter over this turn of events, but he's taken it in stride, and is in fact a rather pleasant guy to fly with. The same has been generally true of the many other ex-ATA, Midwest, Aloha, Champion, and United pilots I've flown with, all of whom have paid their dues and worked their way up the ladder only to be thrown back to Square One.

Larry's situation is not uncommon in the airlines today. There have recently been a lot of "old guys" who, having nearly reached the pinnacle of their careers, have seen the rug yanked out from under them. This isn't exactly a new phenomenon: twenty years ago, there were plenty of senior Braniff, Eastern, and PanAm pilots who went from hero to zero almost overnight. That said, those three failures were the result of circumstances particular to those airlines, and there were other airlines that prospered around the same time or shortly afterward. In short, while these pilots certainly lost a lot, they at least had viable options for making a living for the remainder of their careers.

What is different today is that the remaining major airlines who might otherwise form a safety net for these newly unemployed "old guys" have farmed out a huge portion of their flying to the lowest bidder. The only airlines really prospering and hiring in the last few years are those regional carriers who specialize in snapping up small-gauge flying from the major airlines whose pilots have been coaxed or forced into relaxing the amount of outsourcing permitted. The common thread connecting these regionals is that they offer starting pilots wages that break historical lows going back to the very dawn of the airlines. Experience matters for naught; if you're a new-hire, with 250 flight hours or 25,000, you start at poverty-level wages.

In jobs like computer programming or mechanical engineering, for example, experience pays. These jobs are not unionized, and productivity is closely linked to proficiency. At the airlines the relationship is not so clear. A very experienced pilot might hold up a flight in a situation where a newer, more company-oriented pilot might gladly launch into the wild blue yonder. Over the short term, the less experienced pilot's approach will probably save the company money, but in the long term the more experienced pilot's caution may well result in more safety - and more profits. In America today, sadly, the primary corporate focus seems to be on next quarters' profits, and a completely free market would likely reward less cautious pilots. This is the way that it was in the early days of the airlines; this is what gave rise to the pilot's unions of today. Unfortunately, in striving to establish a system whereby rewards come through longevity rather than malleability to management's wishes, the unions have created a system wherein overall experience is utterly ignored.

There has been no shortage of theoretical proposals to rectify this situation. One long-standing idea has been the establishment of a national seniority list, whereby a national union - presumably ALPA - would essentially become a crew-leasing company. A pilot could easily move between companies, keeping their longevity intact, choosing the employer whose contract paid the most for their overall experience. Ten years ago this idea was being pushed by those at the regionals, who (with equal parts foresight and self-interest) reckoned that this would neuter the whipsaw mechanism then being laid in place by major airline management teams. It was most opposed by the highest-paid major airline pilots, such as those at United, who figured this was a scheme by lesser-fortunate pilots to weasel their way into hard-earned contracts like their own. Ironically, the national seniority list idea was most recently floated at ALPA-National last year by a group of United Airlines pilots who have realized that their management has no intention of running a long-term profitable airline.

A major problem with a national seniority list is how you would implement it from the beginning. The USAir-America West merger is a hopeless mess because of the wildly disparate demographic makeup of the two pilot groups involved; an all-encompasing national integration would be the same situation writ large. How do you reward experienced pilots at failing airlines without upsetting much younger pilots at newer, aggressive, and profitable airlines? How do you account for a regional lifer Captain's greater experience without setting back a former regional Captain who took the calculated risk of jumping to a major airline? Very much like the move to Age-65 retirement, this is the sort of proposal that everyone can get behind so long as it doesn't set them back personally! Ultimately, any remotely fair integration would result in most pilots feeling like they got screwed, and would likely result in the mass decertification of whichever union had the audacity to propose such a scheme in the first place. This is a debilitating roadblock even before you consider how you'd get the various airline management teams to agree to such an arrangement in the first place. The right to hire whomever they please is a management right that has gone unchallenged thus far and one that they reserve rather jealously; without a costly and fundamental change in who controls hiring, management would simply hire the most junior and thus cheapest pilots, and the result would be even worse than the current situation.

Another proposal that I have heard is to decouple F/O and Captain seniority lists and stop automatic upgrades. Under this proposal, both regional and major airlines would hire both First Officers and Captains off the street; perhaps even narrowbody and widebody seniority lists at the majors would be separated. The advantage is that those most experienced in each category would naturally advance to the next-highest paying category, regardless of which airline they'd been employed at last. Guys like Larry who have a lot of experience but have suffered a major career interruption could pick up almost where they left off as soon as other airlines began hiring Captains. It would stop the phenomenon of pilots flocking to airlines with inferior contracts in hopes of a quick upgrade. This is actually not a new idea: it's virtually identical to the way that many foreign airlines hire expatriates. These airlines generally offer excellent contracts despite being mostly non-unionized; without the lure of fast advancement to larger aircraft or a quick upgrade, they must compete for qualified pilots on pay and benefits alone.

This system has important benefits to airline management that might make them more likely to sign off on such a radical change. Stagnant seniority lists are the bane of many companies: they artificially inflate labor costs through increased average longevity. A system in which pilots on a stagnant list could make the jump to another company without suffering a major pay setback would tend to even things out. Under this system, management not only keeps control over hiring but gains control over upgrades. This is actually one reason such a system might give many pilots pause: it undoes some of the protections of our present seniority system and gives management the means to reward cronies with quicker advancement by hiring them for Captain or Widebody positions ahead of those with known pro-labor attitudes.

I've had my own thoughts about what an ideal system would look like. The following proposal has been developed over the last few years and I've talked about it at length with other pilots (both in person and on various web boards). I think longevity ought to be done away with altogether, and that there should be a set formula for pay across the industry according to position and aircraft size. My suggestion is an annual base salary of $40,000 for Captains and $30,000 for FOs, with a capacity override of $1/hr/seat for Captains and $.75/hr/seat for FOs. This payrate would increase annually at the same rate as inflation as calculated by the government's Consumer Price Index. A pilot's earning power would increase throughout his career as he progressed to larger aircraft, but if one ever found himself in Larry's situation, at least he'd still have a livable wage. Just so you don't have to do the math, here's a table of annual earnings for various aircraft types based on 80 hours per month:

Aircraft CA FO
Saab 340 (30 seats) $68800 $51600
CRJ-200 (50 seats) $88000 $66000
JungleBus (76 seats) $112960 $84720
A320 (148 seats) $182080 $136560
B757-300 (224 seats) $255040 $161280
B747-400 (404 seats) $427840 $320880

While these rates are a big jump from todays depressed salaries, they are not out of line with historical airline payrates adjusted for inflation, and would not actually add that much to the price of a ticket. As an example, this payscale would add $2.60 in cost per passenger on a RedCo 757 from SFO to MSP (assuming 80% load factor, 8 year FO, 12+ year CA). This is additional cost that can easily be passed onto the passenger without hurting demand. The important thing in making the extra cost palatable is that it would apply industry-wide; every airline would be on an equal footing where crew costs are concerned. Management would also gain the advantage of fixed labor costs that are 100% known for years to come, and never having to negotiate new labor contracts.

The only way this system would work is if it were 100% universal across the industry (at least in the U.S.) and that's where the biggest roadblocks are. First, it would need to be adopted industry-wide basically simultaneously, which is simply not possible within the confines of the Railway Labor Act (RLA); it would need to be repealed for this plan to have a chance. Secondly, there would always be new startups that attempt to undercut existing airlines by offering pilots less than the standard rate, and there will always be pilots who jump at the "opportunity." The only way to discourage such behavior would be for the unions to gain power over the hiring process and ban the hiring of those pilots who have worked for less than standard wages. Thirdly, this would require a huge amount of cooperation - and indeed, devolvement of political power - not just from the various MECs within ALPA, but also between ALPA itself and the various independent unions, including a few with historically antagonistic relations with ALPA (APA, USAPA). In short, changing the industry over to a Guild system would require a lot of leadership and political will that simply is not there. I've come to the conclusion that my proposal, like the national seniority list, is a utopian idea that has zero chance of success in the real world.

That's not to say that more modest changes will not be made. In 2006, ALPA formed a Fee-For-Departure Task Force composed of representatives from various regional airlines, particularly those affiliated with WidgetCo. They've been exploring ways of more closely cooperating and preventing management from whipsawing them against each other, including a minimum standard contract and better portability of seniority and longevity in transferring between airlines. The reality is that ALPA should have been thinking about this a decade ago, but late progress is better than none at all. It'll be interesting to see if anything concrete comes out of the task force, and whether some of the ideas spread beyond the regionals. I hope so. I enjoyed flying with Larry a lot, but couldn't help but see in him myself in 30 years.

35 comments:

Jonathan B. said...

Larry sounds like a great guy, but he got what he deserved for being in a union. Live by the union, die by the union.

In the non-union real world the rest of us live in, he'd be your superior because he's better qualified. And if he weren't after all those years, he wouldn't be working. Basing pay and seniority entirely on how long one has worked at a given shop is insane and corrupt, and you eventually get what you deserve when you play that game. Unless you're incompetent and don't want to compete, why would you like such a system?

The greed of unions (admittedly combined with the incompetence of management) are destroying the airlines just as surely as they destroyed GM and Chrysler.

Sam said...

You might be interested to know that the exact same system is used at all the non-union airlines in the US. The management is free to put any pay scheme they wish into effect, so long as they can still attract qualified pilots, yet they choose to go with the same "insane and corrupt" scheme. What say you to that?

I'm not defending the practice, I made it pretty clear in my post that I think there has to be a better system. I just don't think that being unionized is the only holdup. There's a lot of resistance to change throughout the airlines, not simply within the unions. But you seem to have a certain agenda...I'm pretty sure of where you place the blame for everything screwed up with this industry.

Jonathan B. said...

What say I? That it is no coincidence that the practices in a union dominated industry are adopted by the few non-union shops around.

The non-union shops could never attract pilots if they didn't at least offer the union-style seniority scam. Nobody wants to actually have to perform if they don't have to. Trust me, I'm not faulting you guys for taking advantage of what you've been able to get away with. If there were a company that hired engineers and guaranteed to pay them $500k a year if they just lived long enough, I'd work for them.

Why would you work at Midwest and have to actually compete for your job based on ability when you can work at NWA and just get promoted by not dying?

The presence of unions in one part of the industry distorts the system for everybody. That's why a better solution would be not a universal union, but the abolition of unions. We don't allow anti-competitive actions by groups of companies, we shouldn't allow it by labor groups. Anti trust laws should go both ways.

GreenPilot said...

hey sam,

another quality, thought-provoking post. what's the solution for someone about to enter the fray? look for non-union regional, or take my chances? it's a scary world, and I havn't even finished flight school yet.

jeff said...

". Nobody wants to actually have to perform if they don't have to."

Jonathan, in my experience you couldn't be more wrong. Most folks want to do a good job.

"The non-union shops could never attract pilots if they didn't at least offer the union-style seniority scam."

There are low hour pilots lining up for jobs at the commuter type carriers and the legacy companies. It doesn't matter if the offer "union scam" seniority or $18K a year. The unions may not be the solution to the problem of low time, under trained pilots, but they aren't the reason this problem exists either.

Jonathan B. said...

"Jonathan, in my experience you couldn't be more wrong. Most folks want to do a good job."

I agree completely. But wanting to do a good job, and wanting there to be actual consequences for that are two different things. Most people I know don't like the pressure of *having* to perform, even though they all try hard at their jobs.

"There are low hour pilots lining up for jobs at the commuter type carriers and the legacy companies. It doesn't matter if the offer "union scam" seniority or $18K a year. The unions may not be the solution to the problem of low time, under trained pilots, but they aren't the reason this problem exists either."

You might be right about that, for sure. Maybe non-union companies could do just fine with hiring if they didn't offer the seniority system, and maybe we'd still have seniority systems even if the whole industry were non-union. I'm not trying to be an anti-union ideologue. It's a bad idea I hate, not unions inherently. The only thing that leads me to blame the unions was that you don't see seniority systems in industries that are non-unionized.

Jonathan B. said...

"But you seem to have a certain agenda...I'm pretty sure of where you place the blame for everything screwed up with this industry."

Missed this little bit of bait the first time. Did you not see my comment about management? I imagine everybody who disagrees with you has an agenda?

Anyway, I do have one. I think integrity is a good thing. That's my agenda. I have no skin in this game; unions aren't a factor in my industry and so I never deal with union members nor do I have the option of joining one. You, on the other hand, are the higher paid boss of a man who is probably better than you at your job, thanks entirely to your union contract. And you're hoping a bigger union might be the answer. Which one of us has the agenda?

Anonymous said...

Sam, I think you might be your own worst enemy on this one. One of the systems you mentioned, a nationwide seniority list is basically mandated free market labor. By imposing the list you are essentially forcing corporate to pay pilots according to experience and skill (in theory), which is exactly what happens when you get rid of the unions altogether.

Unions came about as a way to protect the rights and interests of labor from overly powerful companies. That isn't the case with airlines. Customers book flights through Internet clearing houses based solely on price and schedule, which pushes prices lower and negates any positive consequences if being a "better" airline than the next. Unfortunately the corporate culture and eager pool of new pilots allows it all to happen despite the inevitable result. The notion that it's all the airlines' fault is wrong too, since the abundance of new talent is willing to go as far as paying for their first chance to fly at an airline.

Oh, and I work at an essentially union shop, and the union makes sure I do well financially, so no agenda here. Just wanted to throw my two cents in.

Tim G in MN said...

"Larry sounds like a great guy, but he got what he deserved for being in a union. Live by the union, die by the union." JB, you have to admit that staement does make it seem like you have an axe to grind or something. Are you also suggesting that as we make life/career choices we should only pick a path that doesn't lead us to a union job, abandoning a vocation that may be a lifelong dream, or at least better suited for? I guess Larry, like most of us, didn't really have the foresight to predict the future when choosing his career, but followed his heart. Saying he got what he deserves for being in a union seems a little harsh. Your indictment of the union system may be well founded, or crap, but whichever it is it's not Larry's fault. (No I don't believe in being a victim all the time either. At least Sam is coming up with alternative ideas to change the status quo. Go Sam!)

Mostly thoughtful discussion here folks... how do you take it to the action level now?

Best wishes to all.

Tim G in MN

JP said...

I can't say that I totally disagree with Jonathan about some of the problems with the seniority system in our industry. I would be lying if I didn't sometimes feel a little miffed that I'm flying with Captains that "outrank" me because they were burning holes in the sky in civil aviation and earing a seniority slot while I was landing F-14's on a pitching carrier at night. It was humbling to go from flying a high performance fighter to running the plumbing on a 727...but I knew what I was getting into when I joined this industry.

Union or not, I do take issue with Jonathan's statement that all I have to do is "not die" to move up in pay and seniority. My entire career can end if I bust a medical exam or a check ride...so besides "not dying" I have a lot riding on being the best aviator, maintaining my proficiencies, and my health.

Cheers...

Jonathan B. said...

"JB, you have to admit that staement does make it seem like you have an axe to grind or something."

Of course I have an axe to grind with anything I don't like. I have one to grind as a passenger being flown by members of an industry who hold the safety of my family in their hands and yet do everything they can to avoid having their career success dependent on their proficiency. I have little respect for that.

"Are you also suggesting that as we make life/career choices we should only pick a path that doesn't lead us to a union job, abandoning a vocation that may be a lifelong dream, or at least better suited for?"

Not any union, no. As I said, I'm not religiously against unions. But yes, I would give up a dream if the way the entire industry worked was corrupt enough. And I did. I'm a 400 hour pilot, and was working on my commercial like a lot of people with a dream of being a pilot. The more I learned about how the industry worked the more disgusted I became. So, I went back to school for applied physics and I'm glad I did.

Jonathan B. said...

"My entire career can end if I bust a medical exam or a check ride...so besides "not dying" I have a lot riding on being the best aviator, maintaining my proficiencies, and my health."

Apparently you can fail quite a few of those and still make captain in time to spin in a plane loaded with passengers. If you're that worried about being the best aviator for the sake of your career, I'd suggest you're wasting your time.

But I respect that you do it out of pride, and I suspect the vast majority of your colleagues take similar pride in their performance. That fact that they do so is the only reason aviation is as safe as it is.

greg said...

When I started in this industry I was anti-union as well. I had the same feelings Jonathan has.

Now that I have been in the industry for a short while my feelings have changed. Not only for my own greedy interests of wanting to afford at least a little bit of food for my family, but also for what this industry would become if the current crop of managers were left un-checked.

I do not like some of the captains I have flown with who think themselves gods of the sky and see me as a pee-on just because they have been with our employer a little longer. But it is scary to think of a system where pilots are promoted based on following the company line. The company line that publicly says safety is important but privately encourages workers to just get the job done and as cheaply as possible.

There are times and industries where unions are necessary. I would rather this not be the case, but now is a time they are necessary in the airlines; if for nothing else than at least slowing the airline's race to the bottom.

Jonathan, the saying 'walk a mile' aptly applies here. As you do, I don't much care for unions. But please actually work as a pilot before judging them so harshly.

Jonathan B. said...

"Jonathan, the saying 'walk a mile' aptly applies here. As you do, I don't much care for unions. But please actually work as a pilot before judging them so harshly."

Greg: Your point is well taken, and I'm sure I'd feel differently if I kept going as a pilot. Maybe I'd hate the system more, maybe I'd appreciate the need for it less. But there are two other sayings that apply the other direction: "Two wrongs don't make a right" and "You don't need to eat crap to know it's not going to taste good."

Just because management at airlines are some of the lowest forms of life on the planet doesn't excuse the unions from abusing their power. I can certainly understand the unions fighting for reasonable pay and work hours, etc. But when the union leaders throw the junior members of the union under the bus (at $40k a year, is the union helping you or screwing you?) so that the senior pilots can live the dream.

No offense, but getting paid $250k a year to push buttons less than half the days a month on the easiest airplanes to fly in the world is ludicrous when your fellow pilots at the bottom of the chain are getting paid $40k to fly the hardest jobs. That's absolute bullshit. I don't need to walk a mile in your shoes to know that; maybe you need to step out of them to see it, though.

There aren't a lot of fields where the senior workers get paid five times that of the junior workers, except maybe finance and management. Which is one reason I put unions and management in the same basket. They're all abusing their power and the people that suffer are the customers. Despite the accusations thrown at me, the truth is I'm the only guy here, most likely, who's not so personally affected by any of this that I can be impartial. My problem is that I can't stay out of arguments when I see bad ones made.

Anyway, I'm not sure how I ended up fighting a comment forum of pilots. I've never personally met a pilot I didn't like, and as I said, I know you all take your jobs very seriously. I don't know how a group of people I like so much, in general, could arrive at a system that's so messed up. I suspect a lot of this was foisted upon you by people who truly do have an agenda.

Anonymous said...

From what I know of the topic, the whole system of organizing pilot labor seems basically the same as that of railroads' train crew. Which, I believe, was a system developed back in the 19th century. I kind of have to wonder if it makes sense to continue with a system developed for 19th century railroads on 21st century airlines, or if there's some better way (even for railroads).

Anonymous said...

What are your thoughts about the upcoming representational issues with Compass pilots. It appears the Delta MEC is looking to divest the Compass group, making it easier for the corporate to sell, or merge, the airline. Most Delta pilots want the opposite. They hope Delta will merge Compass, returning flying to mainline pilots and allowing Compass pilots to enjoy their longevity at the parent company. What is your take?

Anonymous said...

What about a simple ban on carriers outsourcing flights to regionals?

Also, the big issue seems to be the two-tier pay scales of the regional and mainline pilots, who do the exact same thing: transport people.

I don't care how big the equipment is, I just care if the guy up front knows how to work it safely. Captains should get paid one thing, and first officers another, regardless of aircraft type.

Dan said...

Compare it to non-union corporate america. A complete incompetent fool can get paid MUCH more than you... while they get to take 3 hour lunch breaks, work 4 days a week... We are talking hundreds of thousands more. Just because they have the right last name, or were born with rich parents... At least Nepotism is kept to a minimum once on board at an airline... (Not saying it doesn't help get you a job at an airline though...) It is alive and well at every corporate job I've been to.

Fair? I think not. No system is perfect. Office jobs suck too.

Jonathan B. said...

Sounds real nice, Dan. Very compelling in every way, except for the fact that you're pulling that little picture entirely our of thin air. America is far less aristocratic than it used to be. Every job I've ever had, my boss was a self-made person from humble means, making less than twice what I was making. Maybe the CEOs and high ranking corporate officers are making a lot, but those positions are essentially winning lottery tickets.

The real unfairness is that people born in poor circumstance just don't get a good education, and thus get low paying jobs that are low paying because anybody can do them. While that is unfair, there is at least an economic supply/demand argument to be made that somebody with a PhD from MIT might be a little harder to find than somebody who can clean the floors. In either event, it is an unfairness that is woven into the fabric of society, a situation entirely different from a that where two people are paid vastly different amounts for doing the same job.

Can't Afford C172 Time said...

Those who created the system reside at the top. People born into money have more of a safety net to fall back on therefore allowing them to take more risks (and/or work at Daddy's firm or off of his connections). Since risk is required for significant gain, an honest hardworking person born into an honest hardworking family will never see significant gains due to being unable to take risks without that safety net to fall back on. Every action by the government, and corporation has one purpose and with the same result. To make the rich richer and to make sure the poor stays poor.

Can't afford c172 time said...

Because behind every great fortune is a crime. Never forget that - it's always the truth in this world.

Marshall said...

Regardless of whether the seniority system is a union idea or not, it makes sense. It is nearly impossible to compensate pilots based on their "experience." Tell me, who should earn more: the 6,000-hour furloughed 737 FO hired as a FO by a regional with 150 hours in the Dash 8, or the 3,000-hour Dash CA with 1,200 hours in type? The FO with more total time but less time in aircraft type should make more? Why? He has less "experience" in the Dash than the captain, who has half the FO's total time. If Sam has 1,800 hours in the EMB170 and Larry has 600, isn't it proper that Larry earns less? Depends on who you ask, I guess. Plenty of high-time pilots have crashed or violated the FARs. Plenty of low-time pilots have excelled. Experience as a basis for promotion is a slippery concept when it comes to pilots.

This is why seniority-based pay systems make some sense for pilots. Pilots are basically interchangeable. If a 757 pilot gets in a car accident on the way to the airport, the airline can get a reserve 757 pilot to fly the plane the same way the original pilot would have. One can describe the reasons why one lawyer is better than another. Same goes for engineers, firemen, doctors, scientists, etc. However, if you look at a pilot group with, say, 500 qualified 757 pilots, it would be near impossible to articulate why Pilot A should be promoted over Pilot B, C, D, etc. It would be absurdly expensive to assign airline employees to try to grade pilots on each and every flight, not to mention highly subjective. So, it is fair to assume that any pilot who doesn't get violated by the FAA and passes their checkrides is just as good as the other pilots.

This is why non-union airlines adhere to the seniority system. Not out of fear that they couldn't get qualified job applicants (in this job market, are you kidding?). It's because giving out promotions and bid prefs based on some vague notion of pilot "experience" is just unworkable.

Jonathan B. said...

"This is why seniority-based pay systems make some sense for pilots. Pilots are basically interchangeable."

The truth is, all professions are somewhat like this. Even lawyers and engineers. That's why job descriptions call for a "software engineer conversant in PHP and C++" not "James Smith." The thing is, they find a way to promote and hire based on something other than a single seniority number. How? Peer review, performance reviews from bosses, grades, previous pay, skill set.

You can criticize this as imperfect, and it is, but one should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Seniority is like throwing your hands up and saying "we can't really do a perfect job telling pilots apart so let's just act like complete idiots and pick the most arbitrary, one-dimensional ranking possible."

Maybe if there weren't contracts codifying this stupidity, people might get creative and start coming up with ways to rank pilots. You could have better pilot testing during simulator check rides, you could offer continuing education for pilots, similar to what the software development industry has. You could get credit, for example, for taking an advanced upset recovery class.

If the people in the industry even used a tiny bit of their brains coming up with ways to let pilots differentiate themselves, do you think a guy who couldn't even recover from a stall would have made captain of a regional airline? And if he had, maybe it would've been because he took a bunch of supplementary training classes where he got to practice more stalls in IMC in a simulator.

Marshall said...

Pilots are different. You can't swap out one vascular surgeon for another two hours before a major surgery. You can't substitute one lawyer for another two hours before opening statements. Well, I guess you could, but I wouldn't want to be the patient or the defendant. Even computer engineers, you usually can't replace one SDE with another a day before a build lockdown. But if you need a pilot to fly from Newark to Dublin on two hours' notice, no problem. Pilots are highly skilled, but their skills are completely interchangeable, at least within their airline and type.

When you write about extra training and such, you're referring to professional development. Many pilots do that anyway, but training ain't cheap and airlines don't want to pay for a bunch of extra training if no law requires it. Besides, what you've described misses the point of why airlines pay pilots. Pilots are paid to get pax from Point A to Point B, and to respond to emergencies. Are you saying that because Capt. Striver is a former Blue Angel and he attends private spin training in an aerobatic Cessna, he deserves to be paid more than Capt. Chill who took the civilian route and prefers to spend his days off with his kids but who passes his checkrides just like Capt. Striver? What if Capt. Chill has 2,000 more hours in the 757 than Capt. Striver but for a prior airline? Doesn't his direct experience trump Capt. Striver's extra training? What if Capt. Striver has better on-time performance? What if Capt. Chill deomstrates better risk assessment and avoidance? The list goes on. Plus, who do you layoff first when the economy goes south: Capt. Striver, who runs up the airline's training tab, or Capt. Chill, who doesn't but performs just as well?

As far as the Buffalo crash goes, I sure as hell don't know why Capt. Renslow apparently did what he did. I do recall, however, that a very, very experienced KLM 747 crew caused the single greatest airliner accident in history on Tenerife by starting their takeoff roll without verifying runway clearance. The point is, I wouldn't point to a single accident, no matter how horrific, as a rationale for scrapping an imperfect, but workable compensation system. I think Sam has posed some good alternative ideas, but simply throwing out seniority entirely is not the way to go.

Marshall said...

And look up the term "whipsaw." It partly explains why pilot unions are basically impotent when it comes to regional pay.

AccessVegas.com said...

You can't attach anything to the rate of inflation. In this Obama era.. we may be headed for massive inflation.

And... no company would want to tie themselves to that.

Don't get me wrong... as someone who's income depends on people flying and who understands the huge voluntary learning (and money) that it takes to become an ATP, I would love to see the best person for the job actually in the job.

You are correct... if someone in another industry gets laid off, they can get another job based on their years and experience. The airline industry should do the same.

But attaching the rate of inflation to pay would be a deal-breaker for any company.

Ted Newkirk
CEO, Managing Editor
Access Las Vegas Shows

Becca said...

Yeah, the system sucks. But don't glamourize engineering. When the airlines layoff, they have to furlough you and hire you back. When Boeing lays off its engineers, sometimes in the thousands, the very next week its usually hiring new ones fresh out of college at half the salaries... or my favorite, a defense contracter loses a contract to the new one. The old contracter lays everyone off and the new one (who bids the contract with a management team only) hires them all back at lower pay and benefits (how do you think they one the contraact in the first place? their lower personnel costs allowed them to bid a lower price). There's no union to protect against things like that.

Anonymous said...

I think there's actually a very, very good reason why management should not be determining which pilots are the "good" ones: management has a very different idea of "good". Pilots, in addition to being interested in getting more money for less work (like anyone) are also very, very interested in not dying. Management, on the other hand, has a much less immediate and personal interest in not having their planes crash, and a much more immediate interest in saving money. Imagine if pilots got paid a bonus for burning less fuel. Then they'd have an incentive to take an absolute minimum of reserve fuel, and to avoid diverting at any cost. So when they come upon a thunderstorm, they might try to go around or over it, where a pilot without their bonus on the line would just land somewhere and wait out the storm. Guess what: you get Pulkovo 612.

Tim G in MN said...

Jonathan B. said...


Of course I have an axe to grind with anything I don't like. I have one to grind as a passenger being flown by members of an industry who hold the safety of my family in their hands and yet do everything they can to avoid having their career success dependent on their proficiency. I have little respect for that.


Not any union, no. As I said, I'm not religiously against unions. But yes, I would give up a dream if the way the entire industry worked was corrupt enough. And I did. I'm a 400 hour pilot, and was working on my commercial like a lot of people with a dream of being a pilot. The more I learned about how the industry worked the more disgusted I became. So, I went back to school for applied physics and I'm glad I did.

11:15 PM


Fair enough.

Tim G in MN

ALPA said...

Please, everyone, remember this and just about any other profession' is a game called "who gets the goodies, and for how much $?". Imagine for a minute if management were required to live a lifestyle identical to pilots, ie, 6 month "check's" to see if your still proficient? (how would you do THAT for management btw?), followed by the same physical medical checks as pilots (how's YOUR BP/glucose/urine/eyesight et cetera chief?)then have them spend 4 or more days a week "away" from home, they check into work Monday but stay at a near bye (cheaper) hotel for the nights between working 12-14 hour days rather than go home each night. Now to this add supervisors over them who will threaten them with displacement, termination or other discipline if they do not do their exact bidding? Interested in the position? Oh and your hourly income or even salary will be matched to the lowest industry "average" so as to remain competitive. Object to anything?; as "the Don" would say "you're FIRED!" because the company just replaced you arbitrarily for a co-worker who said yes and objected to nothing (read that, agreed to fly in any weather/with any aircraft mechanical discrepancies/ fatigued to the point of exhaustion) ....not even at the expense of your family who was on his/her flight that day.

Now do you see why pilots are unionized?

Senior Captain said...

Another good post Sam. I'm still working my way up to the Airline pilot level, but I can already see that the profession will be limited until pilots become unified. Everybody is willing to support change as long as it doesn't affect them too badly. The fact is that these are tough times, but they aren't gonna get any easier. I'd rather make a sacrifice now if it means that x years down the road, everybody will be better off.

Fred said...

As usual and as I have opined in comments, Sam, I'm going to come down on the side squarely against unions. Like Jonathan B and for the same reasons, I agree: "live by the union, die by the union."

I'm happy to say that I know one engineer about to be hired on at Boeing, but finding out he was required to join a union, rejected his appointment. That's putting your money where your mouth is, and he's doing quite well now, thank you very much.

Larry does sound like a great guy though! :-)

Anonymous said...

There are two aspects of the life of an airline pilot that I don't understand.

1) Compensation seems to be based primarily on seniority.

2) Pilots frequently live far away from where they are "based". In other words a pilot who flies in and out of Denver may live in Portland or vice versa.

I am not saying that either of these practices is bad per se, but just that I don't understand them and they are not the only option.

It seems to me that in theory, the best pilot should be paid the most, not the most senior pilot. Now I know that it may be hard to tell who is the best pilot, but to give raises to people based primarily on their seniority doesn't seem like the best approach. Why is a 20,000 hour 55 year old pilot better than a 10,000 hour 45 year old pilot? Why should he earn more? It seems more like an approach that a teacher's union would use.

Most people live in the cities they work out of. It seems that pilots frequently live in a different place than where they work from. The net effect of this is that for many pilots one has to add a commute to and from the hub they work from to the beginning and end of their flight. Now I can understand not wanting to leave a city after having established a home, kids in school, friends, etc. Still most people factor this in when deciding what job offers to accept and many companies pay to relocate valuable employees.

Sam said...

I've been following the conversation here with interest while I was on a motorcycle trip to the west coast (have put 3500 miles on the BMW so far in July!) but haven't had the time to formulate my own responses. Here are a few thoughts.

The system isn't as grossly "corrupt" or "unfair" as some would have it. While you can compare the first year regional FO making $20k to the thirty year FedEx CA making $250k and see a huge disparity, it's really an apples to oranges comparison. If you look at the difference in longevity for a single aircraft type, or for similar longevity across aircraft types, the disparity is much smaller. For example, a 12 year DL 757 FO makes 20% more than a 2nd year DL 757 FO. A ten year JungleBus CA makes 32% more than a one year JungleBus CA. And a 12+ year 747 CA makes only 38% more than a 12+ year DC9 CA, on an airplane with nearly 400% the capacity!

There are really three primary sources of pay disparities in the industry: the great variation in aircraft sizes (and therefore revenue-generating capability), the difference between FO & CA rates, and the artificial longevity-reset and virtual B-scale put in place through the outsourcing of small narrowbody flying to third parties.

As for the first, the idea that a pilot should be paid according to the potential for his aircraft to generate revenue has been a long-standing principle in the industry that was largely responsible for the increase in pilot wages as aircraft exploded in size from the 40s through the 60s. I think it has a sound economic basis. In deciding who gets to fly the largest aircraft and therefore make the most money, I think experience is an excellent metric as it results in the most passengers being flown by the most experienced pilots. Now, right now we use seniority as an imperfect gauge of experience; of course it only measures experience at that company, which is to my mind the main failing of the current seniority system. The idea that some have floated in promoting the "best" pilots frankly betrays a pretty huge ignorance of the airline world. Management's idea of the best pilot is the one that doesn't question their dictates and makes the fewest waves. Go back and read my "Saying No" post and understand that many pilots have been harassed by management for doing exactly the sort of thing I did. Seniority isn't perfect but I'll sure as heck take it over a system where management decides who the best pilots are and promotes accordingly.

OK, maybe that's a bit of a straw man. I think Jonathan B was envisioning some sort of neutral system free of management interference that automatically ranks pilots according to the preciseness of their sim profiles perhaps, or the fewest unstabilized approaches in their FOQA data. Again, while I'm happy to have people of all backgrounds post here, this idea betrays a lack of airline experience. While we all like to think of ourselves as "the best," I think it's safe to say that a good 75% of airline pilots have nearly identical levels of proficiency. The system is actually designed to produce perfectly interchangeable pilots. The airlines only hire those who have demonstrated that they are teachable, train them all the same way to a uniformly high standard, and regularly test them to make sure they continue to meet that standard. I fly with a lot of FOs and it is very, very rare to see one distinguish himself from the pack, in a good OR bad way. The superpilots who are simply on a different plane from everyone else are either rare or airline flying just doesn't give them the chance to shine, and those who struggle are just as rare and don't often slip through the cracks. The one FO I flew with at NewCo who was noticeably below average was let go shortly thereafter. This is nothing like general aviation, where you DO have pilots of pretty wildly varying abilities sharing the same sky.

Sam said...

On the FO vs CA pay issue: as a general rule of thumb, FO's make 60% of the pay of a CA in the same aircraft type & of same longevity. It's been that way a long time, with the idea that a CA's greater pay comes from the greater responsibility that comes with signing for the aircraft. That's still true, but in recent years FOs have come to share greater responsibility from company, FAA, and legal system standpoints. I do think the gap ought to be narrowed, perhaps with FO rates being 75% or 80% of the CA rates. Realistically it probably won't happen, and yes Jonathan, that is mostly due to the unions and how they operate, I'm sad to say.

Lastly, I've pretty much beat the outsourcing thing to death so I won't harp much more on it here except to say that it is responsible for the most shockingly low pay, primarily first year FO pay in 30-70 seat aircraft. It's worthwhile to point out that this situation is of management design, not the unions, and the unions' main offense was not recognizing the situation as it developed and taking strong action to head it off.

Eh that's about all I have to say for now, maybe I'll respond to some of the individual posts/questions when I have time.