Friday, April 01, 2011

Growth and Rumors of Growth

Rumors are a constant fixture of airline life. People trapped in aluminum cylinders for hours on end will talk to pass the time, and seldom limit their conversations to unembellished, supported facts lest they die of boredom! Union politics, management backroom wheeling and dealing, the latest "stupid pilot tricks," scandalous layover love triangles - the topics are limitless. Nearly any source will do: buddies, friends twice removed, check airmen, assistant chief pilots, sim instructors, flight attendants, maintenance guys, some random guy who overheard a VP on his cell phone.

The most common rumors concern growth; new airplanes are perpetually just around the corner. Everyone wants to believe it, because everyone benefits from an instant shot of seniority. Without growth, the only way to move up is when someone else moves out. In times like these when the majors aren't hiring and Age 65 has the codgers "flying till they die," only growth has the power to turn FOs into Captains and reservists into lineholders.

Horizon's seniority list was especially stagnant, so growth rumors were constant; everyone desperately wanted them to be true. We were getting more Q400s; we were going to fly for Northwest. We were converting the Q200s to freighters and starting a cargo operation. We were getting Embraer 195s - in fact, engineers were in the PDX hangar figuring out how to modify the door to accommodate the E195! Bill the airport shuttle van driver said so!

What actually happened was that Horizon lost their Frontier JetExpress contract three years into a 12 year deal, brought those CRJ-700s back to the Horizon side and put them on unprofitable short routes, sold half of them, then sold all their Q200s to CommutAir, replaced them with fewer Q400s, withdrew from a bunch of small markets that couldn't support a 76 seat airplane, and then leased the remaining CRJs to Skywest to fly Horizon's former routes as Alaska Express. Horizon is 30 airplanes smaller than when I left in 2007.

There have been rumors at NewCo, too. We were going to fly as Alaska Express. WidgetCo was furious with Republic becoming a competitor by purchasing Frontier and Midwest, and was going to terminate their feed contracts and give the flying to us. For the last six months, there were persistent rumors of new JungleBuses, albeit a smaller version than we fly now. Management consistently denied specific rumors while coyly suggesting that our new ownership certainly opened the door to additional flying.

About a month ago I was flying with Jay, one of our most senior flight attendants and also the head of NewCo's flight attendant union. "So have you heard of any rumors of new airplanes?" he asked me before our flight to Vancouver. "Naw," I replied with a grin, "Not much. Just that we're getting ten airplanes from Australia and Italy and they're coming this summer." Jay nodded seriously. "Yes, that's basically it. The announcement comes out Monday."

I politely suppressed a chortle, because not once in my career has an "impending announcement" rumor come true. I quickly forgot about what Jay said, and indeed Monday came and went without a hint of an announcement. But a few days later, I was sitting at home when I got a call from Mitch, a Horizon friend who recently came to NewCo.

"Dude, you hear about the new planes!?" he asked excitedly.

"Suure! Pretty much constantly for the last six months!" was my sardonic reply.

"No, it's for real this time. Check your company email!"

So for once a growth rumor came true, and it was even pretty accurate. NewCo is getting 12 used JungleBusses, six from Alitalia and six from Virgin Blue, at a rate of one a month starting around June. NewCo will grow 33% over one year, from 36 aircraft to 48. I'd probably be more excited about it if I were on the cusp of an upgrade or was just about to hold weekends off or was nearly off reserve. But being a senior Captain, the growth will have very little impact on me.

I can't help but note that this isn't true growth, but a capacity reshuffling. Widget's available seat-miles are remaining essentially flat from last year. Some of our growth likely replaces Widget DC9-30s and -40s that were parked last year and the -50s that will be parked this year. As someone who would like to fly for Widget soon, that's not a good thing. I would rather see mainline aircraft replace mainline aircraft (and in a perfect world, replace regional aircraft too!).

For the most part, though, we're growing at the expense of Comair. Those poor guys don't seem to have a friend in the world. Widget management has been rather vindictive to Comair since their pilot strike ten years ago, and is now apparently intent on dismantling them piece by piece. Regional pilots are mostly sympathetic to the Comair pilots' plight but of course stand to gain from their misfortune. Widget pilots generally range from neutral to downright gleeful over the situation. There's a lot of bad blood there, much of which stems from a few very public spats the respective unions had in the late 90s and early 2000s. A surprising number of Widget pilots bear a grudge over the Comair strike itself, feeling that it cost mainline so much money that it helped lead to eventual bankruptcy. These are usually the same crusty old types who gripe about regional pilots working for slave wages; God forbid it's one of their slaves that revolts for 89 days.

So really what's happening here isn't any different from the situation with Alaska and Horizon and Skywest. Flying is being transferred from one carrier to another largely based on who pays their employees less money. It's the latest round in the twisted game of musical chairs that is the regional airline industry, and I'm not sure that grabbing a seat this time is really cause for celebration when you're still stuck playing the game.

That said, you can also look at it this way: Comair was going to lose that flying no matter what. Widget could have awarded it to Republic or Skywest or Pinnacle. I have nothing against those carriers (well, the first two anyways) and have friends at each, who I would be happy to see benefit from growth. But I have a lot more close friends at NewCo, and I'm very glad to see them moving up and gaining the quality of life that I've enjoyed simply because I got here a few months before them. I'm sure that at some point NewCo will be the one left standing without a chair, but like everyone else at the regional airlines, I hope that my friends and I are long gone when that happens.


Anonymous said...

Hey sam, is the time finally right to get back into aviation? I have a good nonaviation job that I have clung to during the recession, but I think now is time to finish my cfi and try to build hours. What do you think?

One sidenote- I have been reading about Pinnacles program to hire wmsu grads w/o interviews over more experienced candidates. I think this is a forward looking move by pinnacle to try and build a pipeline of new pilots, because of the scarcity of new commercial pilots they will need in the next ~decade. It will be interesting to see how the 1500 hours rules plays out. If there arent enough pilots available for the regionals I cannot see them just allowing the nations aviation infrastructure to come a halt.

2whls3spds said...

Gotta love the grapevine news network...

My bride (a Sr FA with a major airline) called the other night while on a trip and during a fast turnaround asked me to check on a rumor that they were being bought out/merged with another major carrier, supposedly someone had just seen it on the news.

Nope just another unsubstantiated rumor.

If you make something sound like you know what you are talking about, many people will take it as the truth. Then it takes on a life of it's own.


JetAviator7 said...


I just read an interesting post on about a Boeing 737 simulator in a mall.

It occurred to me that someone should create some small simulators that could be taken from mall to mall around the US (or from school to school) to promote aviation and learning to fly.


All Things Aviation

J. said...


It is unfortunate that the growth is at mainline expense but so goes the regional/major tug of war. The DAL scope clause allows it. Growth is a double edged sword for you guys especially as you are waiting to flow up, but essentially can't b/c of mainline shrinking. However, as someone who played regional airline musical chairs, I'd rather have a seat when the music stops like yourself, than not have a seat at all. I had a great round of luck playing that game at CHQ and it has paid off. I have tons of other friends at Comair that have not and for no other reason than just plain luck.
Stay positive, you'll be flowing before you know it!

Aviatrix said...

I thought it was going to be a story about you starting a rumour and having it come all the way around and back to you. Ever thought of doing that?

Anonymous said...

I once did exactly that. First day of groundschool at a new job, I said something to a friend of mine about "new aircraft" or something and timed how long it took to make it back to me. In a room of 30 people, it took about 10 minutes.