Thursday, September 17, 2009

Keep Your Nose Clean!

Of the several insightful comments to my last post, this one by Ron Rapp really struck home for me:
I would add another suggestion to your excellent list: if you do have a flying job, don't drop the ball there.

I mention this because many of us who are "in the pipeline" flying full time have probably been at that job for a couple of years, maybe more. These are often jobs which traditionally have high turnover rates. However, with the industry at a standstill, nobody is leaving. So nobody is upgrading. And that poor FO who's been stuck in the right seat for two years when he'd normally upgrade in 5-6 months might be getting antsy.

My advice: stick with it. Don't get sloppy on the job. Maintain a good work ethic. Why? Because someday this pipeline will start flowing again, and when it does, that Dream Job you're going to apply for may hinge on what your current employer says about you.
This is something that rarely gets talked about. Those of us working our way up the ladder tend to be very focused on our career paths, always planning that next move. Of course we learn along the way and strive to become experts at our current job, but that's pretty natural when your job, position, or aircraft is changing every year or two. You take a job, get really good at it, and move onto the next step. It's certainly not a bad thing, steady advancement, but we've become so accustomed to it that many pilots have no experience in cooling their heels at one job, one position, one airplane for an indefinite period of waiting for things to get moving again. Those who are unprepared, those who had been expecting best-case career scenarios, may find disillusionment, boredom, complacency, or even a disregard for procedures and regulations creeping into their professional life.

I have some experience in this. My last airline, Horizon, has had a very stagnant seniority list since 2001. When I was hired in 2004, upgrade times were finally falling and there was a lot of talk of further expansion. It never happened; by 2007, upgrades were approaching seven years. Captains would comment on how the most senior FOs tended to be the most difficult to fly with, those most prone to either Captainitis or being relaxed to a fault. I felt it myself as I gained experience and advancement remained well out of reach. I became frustrated, and it affected my attitude towards my work. Going back through the blog posts from my last year at Horizon, I can see it in my writing. It was one of the factors that prompted me to seek a change, with the final result being my move to NewCo.

Since I left Horizon, the airline has continued to shrink as they traded Dash-8-200s for a lesser number of Q400s; they're now talking of getting rid of their fleet of CRJ-700's by sometime next year. Fifteen percent of the pilot group is furloughed. The most junior Captain is a 2000 hire, with more downgrades (and furloughs) in the works. Unlike 2007, there are no options for trapped FOs to go somewhere else. They are stuck unless they leave the industry altogether. I keep in contact with my Horizon friends, and their frustration is palpable every time I call them.

While I was in Portland this week, I went to see my friends T & J. We go back to April 2004, when I was J's sim partner during initial training. Dawn and I became friends with her and her husband T, who was hired at Horizon about a year after us. We hiked, sailed, and barbecued together when we lived in Portland; now I try to visit them when I'm in town, but otherwise we talk on the phone every few months.

Within minutes of sitting down at T & J's kitchen counter to shoot the breeze, it was obvious that something was wrong. J was visibly distraught. The story soon came out: she had been the First Officer on the runway overrun incident in Bellingham last month. I felt a horrible sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as she recounted what happened. It sounded as though things were fairly normal right up until the end. The Captain, who was new to the Q400, simply carried too much speed and then floated a good portion down the runway. If he had just chopped the power they probably would have made it; the Q400 will land at almost any speed once you reduce power in the flare, and those 13' propellers are extremely effective in beta. In any case, they came to rest only 50 feet past the end of the runway, with no injuries and not much damage to the airplane.

Although she was both FO and PNF, J received the same discipline as the Captain: a two month suspension without pay. At least she kept her job; others in the same situation have not been so lucky. The FAA, too, is being lenient by accepting retraining in lieu of taking certificate action. Still, an incident like this on one's record is a big stumbling block on one's career path. As I listened to J's woeful story, it struck me that she may have just become another Horizon lifer.

That gnawing in the pit of my stomach was partly pity for my friend's plight, but also uneasy recognition that this could've just as easily happened to me. J is a good pilot. She did great during initial training and the Captains I flew with all spoke highly of her. I knew she was frustrated over the lack of advancement at Horizon, but was still positive about flying. Her mistake that night was not especially egregious; she probably should have been more vocal about the Captain's excess speed, but nobody is feeling particularly vocal at midnight after a long day of flying. We've all been there.

The reality is that you don't even need an accident or incident like this one to mess up your career. A FAA violation will do just nicely; even a simple Letter of Correction in your file will require explanation at all subsequent interviews. A firing, even from a basic job like flight instructing, can prove to be problematic. FAA and employer action aside, aviation is an amazingly small world, and like Ron hinted, there's a pretty good chance your reputation will precede you on job hunts. A good reputation is worth more than a logbook full of multi time.

So while everyone plays the waiting game, don't simply bide your time. Do everything you can to become an expert at your job, and then up your guard against complacency. As my friend's experience shows, a career-changing (or worse, life-threatening) situation can develop in a matter of seconds, and you need to be mentally prepared for it. In the meantime, you never know who's watching and how they will influence your career down the road.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Aviation Survivorman

These are dark times for a great many people in aviation (and outside aviation too, for that matter). Thousands in our industry have lost their jobs with little hope of finding a replacement, others have seen their incomes shrink with downgrades and displacements, and things could potentially get much worse with a few airlines - mainline and regional - teetering on the brink of oblivion. The economy seems to be getting better, but the twin threat of rising oil prices and an international flu pandemic leaves some of us wondering if that light at the end of the tunnel isn't just a freight train about to run us over!

As was heavily discussed in the comments to my last post, prospects are particularly bleak for the newest entrants to the piloting profession - those who have just completed their training, or are in the middle of it, or have just started. The traditional first timebuilding jobs are somewhat scarcer than in years past, and the few new openings are quickly snapped up by experienced, out-of-work pilots. With a pocketful of expensive licenses and ratings but little chance of getting a flying job that will support them or even build time, these pilots have to be frightened at the prospect of these conditions lasting for several more years. It's as if they are seeing their careers die before they ever began.

Here's the good news: aviation has been a cyclical industry throughout its existence. Things will get better, and when they do I think they will get dramatically better. The other thing to recognize is that there have been plenty of other downturns that resulted in conditions just like these, and many pilots, including those at the major airlines, have experienced similar stagnation early in their careers. The 70s, 80s, and 90s each had a number of slump years where nothing was moving for civilian pilots. The post-9/11 downturn was the worst of all, but it mostly affected pilots at the major airline level. Their misfortune resulted in large growth for regional and low-cost airlines, and that kept things moving for low-time pilots. We've become so used to plentiful opportunities for new entrants over the last 15 years that this downturn sounds to many like the thundering crash of the career door slamming closed, never to reopen. It will; it always has.

The intent of this post, however, is not so much encouragement as practical advice that new pilots can use right now. Most of the career advice out there, particularly from the eternally-optimistic flight training industry, assumes that jobs will be available and one will be able to advance one's career steadily, if not downright speedily. That's clearly not the case and vastly changed conditions call for drastically altered career strategies.

It seems to me that the worst of the carnage is over and, unless certain airlines go belly-up, we won't see large numbers of additional furloughs. Still, I foresee things remaining essentially static for several years until the first wave of Age-65 retirements begin and the economy gains enough traction to prompt widespread airline growth. Nobody is really going anywhere else; most are stuck in whatever position they hold now. Time is essentially frozen; we're all just playing the waiting game. That's a lot easier for those of us who have decent jobs and a livable wage; for the newest entrants, it's nearly unbearable. I suspect that many of these will give up and leave the industry before things turn around. Those who hope to still have an aviation career on the other side are engaged in a grinding war of attrition. Survival is the name of the game; putting oneself in a position to benefit from the upswing is an important but secondary consideration. The following are some tips that I think will help with these twin goals.
  • If you currently have a job outside of aviation, keep it. If you've already quit but have a marketable skill-set that will allow you to get a decent job for the next 2-4 years, concentrate on doing so. I know that most career-changers are getting into aviation precisely because they couldn't stomach their old jobs; you need to approach this with the mindset that it is a temporary, necessary step to launching your aviation career. You will quit as soon as you can get a full-time aviation job, but in the meantime it is necessary to have an income stream to live on, train on, and save some money for the paycut your first aviation job will inevitably entail.
  • If you have no marketable skill outside of aviation, consider going (or going back) to school to get one. You'll experience more than one downturn in your career and you'll be much better prepared for the next one if you have a second skill to fall back on. If the major airlines are your goal, most require a four-year degree anyway. Meanwhile, a few years away from this labor market isn't a bad thing; student loans, which will be deferred during your schooling, can include living expenses and even flight training expenses if your school offers aviation courses. I'm going to definitively say that you should stay away from expensive aviation programs like UND and Embry-Riddle; the student loan debt will be simply too crushing once you're out in the "real world," potentially making little money in entry-level jobs for several years. If you need to complete flight training while in school, look for a state school with cheap tuition and a small aviation department that contracts out flight training to a local FBO, and either get an aviation minor to go along with your non-aviation major, or take the aviation courses on an elective basis.
  • Don't rush your flight training. The flight training industry insists that because "seniority is everything," you ought to shell out ridiculous amounts of money for their accelerated 9-month programs. If you were beginning your training at the start of an upswing they might have a point, but in this case finishing early just means that much more time sitting unemployed, with more debt (or less of a nest-egg to live on)! If you can save money by searching out a good instructor at a smaller flight school and training part-time while still working outside aviation and paying as you go, you'll find yourself well positioned to make the jump to full-time flying as timebuilding jobs open up in a few years.
  • This is connected to the last point, but if there's any way it is humanly possible to complete your training debt-free or with as little debt as possible, do it. Jobs like flight instructing, freight dogging, and regional airline FO don't pay much, but it generally is enough for a single person (or married with a working spouse) to live on - unless they're also paying $500-1000/month to service student loan debt. Not having that hanging over you will really free up options later on, and right now in this industry you need every bit of flexibility you can get.
  • Building flight time after earning your ratings is important, but in the absence of available full-time jobs, concentrate on maintaining currency. Landing that first job with minimal flight time has always been tough, but it's a lot easier if you can show that you've been at least consistently flying. You may need to rent an airplane on your own dime a few times a month. Use the time to improve the skills needed for whatever full-time job you are pursuing. In other words, if you hope to get an instructing job, fly from the right seat and bring your sister along for free lessons.
  • There's a natural tendency to concentrate on full-time jobs that quickly fill the logbook and give you the satisfaction of living off of your hard-earned certificates. However, it may be a lot easier to find a part-time job that allows you to keep your non-aviation job while still maintaining currency. Flight instruction, banner towing, and skydiver hauling are three entry-level jobs that all tend to be a lot busier on the weekends. In the case of instructing it can be difficult convincing larger schools to hire you for weekends only, but it's more common at smaller FBOs, especially in rural areas. Being out at the airport at the time when most pilots are makes it that much easier to network and sniff out that full-time job you really want, anyways.
  • If you can't find anyone to hire you, consider becoming your own boss. Some schools and FBOs take freelance instructors, as do virtually all flying clubs. A more extreme example - but potentially very cost-effective - is buying your own airplane and setting up shop as a Flight School of One. The last few years a lot of larger schools and FBOs sold their older airplanes in favor of new-fangled glass cockpit equipment, and now find that they've priced themselves out of the masses' reach in the downturn. There is a niche to be exploited here by the savvy entrepreneur. You could potentially buy an airplane, do most of your training in it, instruct in it, and then sell it for very close to what you have into it. Your total cost of flying will be a fraction of what it'd be at an accelerated program and airplane ownership will give you a great deal more real-world experience.
  • Be willing to relocate, globally if need be. The aviation scene might be dead in your city but it may not be a state or two over. If you are a dual citizen or have the right to work in another country, take a very close look at any opportunities there; although the downturn is global, it's mostly US pilots that are suffering the triple whammy of a poor economy, lack of retirements due to age 65, and a glut of qualified pilots. Sponsored expat positions used to be limited to those possessing significant Part 121 command time in specific aircraft types, but this is changing; as foreign countries seek to become more self-sufficient in pilot staffing, they are starting to set up training programs for local pilots on their own soil, creating a need for foreign instructors. I realize relocation can be a problem for those with families, but let's be completely honest: by choosing an aviation career for yourself, you've already sentenced your family to sustained poverty, frequent absences, and perpetual instability. A change of scenery that gets you past the difficult early stages quicker is going to be better for your family in the long run.
  • Use this extra waiting time wisely. Don't just run out the clock waiting for things to turn around, actively do everything you can to prepare yourself for when they do. This doesn't have to be expensive; you don't need to fly twice a day at a 9-month zero-to-hero program to eat, sleep, and breath aviation. Read every text you can get your hands on, particularly regarding advanced subjects you won't necessarily cover in training at a small flight school. If you can develop a very thorough understanding of subjects like meteorology and aviation weather, aerodynamics, transport category systems, long-range and oceanic navigation, aeromedical and physiological research, and safety & risk management programs before you even apply for that first job, you'll be far ahead of the average pilot. Likewise, network relentlessly, both at the airport and online. In 2007's job market, basically any bozo with a pulse could get hired at an airline, but in an economy like this it takes knowing people to land even a flight instructing job. The contacts you make and maintain will prove even more valuable in subsequent stages of your career.
As I've written previously, I see a critical pilot shortage developing at the regional airlines in 2012-2014; this will present opportunities to make up much of what our profession has lost over the last eight years. In the meantime there are some tough times to slog through. Those who make smart decisions and survive will reap the benefits. If anyone has advice in addition to what I posted above, I'd like to hear it in the comments.