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.