Friday, February 07, 2014

On The List

Ask a regional pilot what his or her career goals are, and about 75% of the time they will answer "to fly for a major airline." This can mean many different things. They may mean simply that they wish to fly a mainline-sized airplane, and a national carrier like Allegiant or Spirit might fit their plans quite nicely. They might mean a large airline with thousands of pilots and multiple crew bases, making domestic majors like jetBlue and Southwest worthy destinations. The designation could include freight companies like FedEx and UPS, or overseas airlines like Emirates. Niche majors like Alaska or Hawaiian may be tempting targets. But for many, the ultimate goal is to be hired by one of the remaining consolidated legacy carriers: Delta, United, or American (still in the process of merging with USAirways). These airlines offer good payrates, a variety of equipment, a mix of domestic and overseas flying, and significant career progression due to older pilot groups that will retire en masse in the next 15 years. Alas, there has been precious little pilot hiring at these companies over the last 13 years. Until now, getting hired at one has been akin to winning the lottery.

When I got hired at NewCo in 2007, I was aware that there was a flow-up/flow-down agreement between NewCo and the company I then called RedCo. This was a product of RedCo's bankruptcy and the compromise they reached with their pilots' union in order to form NewCo. At the time RedCo had thousands of pilots on furlough, and it was believed that many of them would staff the JungleBuses at NewCo. Therefore, NewCo pilot slots were reserved for current and future RedCo furloughees. In return for this measure of career uncertainty, off-the-street NewCo pilots were given flow-up rights whenever RedCo was hiring: 20 pilots a month, up to around 100 pilots a year, only after upgrading and completing 30 months of service at NewCo.

Ultimately, by the time NewCo started flying RedCo had recalled most of its furloughees, with the result that only four RedCo pilots ever flew for NewCo; the rest of us were off-the-street hires, and were given flow rights to RedCo. For some, this was the entire attraction of NewCo. I was more skeptical. The history of flow agreements between regional and major carriers had not been promising; they tended to only work in the downward direction. I correctly suspected that a merger was in the works, and thought there was a much better chance of me being furloughed due to flow-downs than of me flowing up to RedCo or its successor company. It was a risk I was willing to take because I figured I would get a JungleBus type rating and 1000 hours of turbine PIC before that happened, and the alternative was indefinite stagnation at Horizon. When the merger was announced and the bottom fell out of the economy more or less simultaneously, I started looking into well-paid JungleBus jobs in China pretty seriously.

But a strange thing happened: the combined airline never furloughed. They were seriously overstaffed for years, and came perilously close to furloughing several times, but their new joint pilot contract preserved both flow-up and flow-down, and the training costs of flowing their pilots down to NewCo were huge. By 2010, traffic had recovered sufficiently that they decided to hire 300 pilots; 60 of these were NewCo flows. Just before they left, NewCo was sold off to the company I call Osage Holdings, again endangering the flow. The agreement was in fact cancelled for future NewCo hires, but all pilots then on property retained flow rights. The movement afforded by the 2010 flows gave me excellent seniority the last few years while we've all been waiting for [the major airline] to hire again.

Within the last two years, [nameless major airline] has really started to hit its stride and reap the benefits of industry consolidation: restraining capacity, rightsizing equipment in each market, elevating yields, and ultimately raking in record profits. They began shifting capacity from regional carriers to mainline as industry conditions rendered the regionals increasingly irrelevant. Along the way, their pilot overstaffing evaporated even though few pilots left during the 2007-2012 retirement freeze. Many people thought they would hire in 2012. They didn't, and ended up seriously understaffed on several categories over the summer of 2013.

I was in a bar in Cape Town when I got the news on July 15th: [nameless major airline] had announced pilot hiring would commence in the fall. The wait ever since has seemed endless. The hiring moved to January as hundreds of military leave and deferred-return furloughees filled the autumn classes. I got my flow letter in October while at the Interline Regatta in the British Virgin Islands. I received a FedEx envelope with newhire paperwork to be completed just after Christmas. I got a class list with a choice of aircraft and bases to bid at the end of January. And finally, this last Monday, February 3rd, I became pilot number 11,648 on a 11,649-pilot seniority list. It's still hard for me to believe after all that has happened. I do indeed feel as though I've won the lottery. [Nameless major airline] is expected to hire at least 300 pilots this year, and it's likelier the number will be closer to 600. Absent another economic meltdown or 9/11-type event, mass retirements mean they will continue to hire for another 15 or 20 years.

It's not time to break out the champagne just yet, though. Due to one of the provisions of the flow agreement, NewCo is retaining me for "operational necessity" until April or May, at which time I'll be released to Basic Indoc training. After that I have ground school and then simulator training on my awarded aircraft, the "Mad Dog". After six and a half years of Junglebus automation, passing Mad Dog school will take a lot of hard work and knocking the cobwebs off my old freight-dog skills. Then its off to IOE ("Initial Operating Experience), learning to operate the old girl within the new system. After that I'll be commuting to reserve in New York City, and will be on probation until February of next year. During this time I am essentially an at-will employee. My greatest fear is that [nameless major airline] will take exception to my blogging or my writing for Flying Magazine; they're famously protective of their image. I'm not willing to stop either if I can help it, so I'll just keep writing professionally, objectively, and as honestly as I dare, and if it causes problems we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Other than that, all I can do is work hard to learn my aircraft and the system, and try to make a positive impact on everyone I work and fly with. It's going to be an interesting year!

In honor of my next aircraft, an interesting video of some of its features and quirks:


Anonymous said...

Congratulations Sam. Hopefully we will have an opportunity to read your excellent writing for years to come. Cheers from Poland. Marek

Alex said...

Fantastic news Sam. As someone who is just changing airlines next month I have an inkling of what you're talking about so I hope it all goes amazingly!

Tom B. said...

CONGRATS Sam!! As a long time reader going back to your freight dog days, I'm really happy for you, and glad you took the risks you did (without having to go to China!). Take care and good luck.

D.B. said...

Good luck! As a passenger in the back, I love the MD-80 series - only a 20% chance of getting a middle seat! And as a pilot I enjoy their hot-rod performance. I'm sorry to see them slowly being phased out.

Anonymous said...

Good work....what a great achievement! Long time reader so have followed your progress with interest. I hope you can keep up the blogging/writing!

jsterner said...

Way to go Sam !!Congratulations.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Sam. I love the Mad Dogs. My airline is replacing them all with those joystick specials. They just don't have the same soul.

Anonymous said...

Congrats, Sam! Way to sneak in that detail near the end of a long-ish (but still very interesting) post.

Widget is lucky to have you; my guess is there are few regional pilots with the same high-level understanding of the industry, language/writing skills and of course piloting experience that you regularly demonstrate in this blog. I hope it can continue.

Good luck!


MarkH said...

Congratulations Sam, I guess I won't get the chance to see you on the Newco E-175s at YVR.

Sam Weigel said...

Thanks all for the congrats & well wishes!