Wednesday, May 21, 2014

First Day of School

April 7, 2014. I was already awake when my cell phone alarm clock started beeping at 6am, and when the automated wakeup call came a few moments later. I lay in the dim dawn light of my hotel room, thinking. I'd been dreaming of this day for 20 years. There wasn't really anything to be nervous about, but my heart was in my throat. I had slept fitfully through the night. It was the first day of class at a major US airline. My new airline.

I got up, showered, and fretted about what tie to wear for a good 10 minutes before picking the one I'd planned on all along. Outside of my room, I ran into Jack P. He and I had been in the same basic indoc class at NewCo, though that was only a one-day event (most of it was done via computerized distance learning). Jack and I ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant, eying a similarly attired group a few booths down who looked like they could be our classmates (they were). After breakfast we found the rest of our suit-and-tie-clad counterparts milling in the lobby, having shown up early for the early van to the training center. On the first day of class, nobody was going to risk being late.

The van dropped us off at the front door of the training center. This is a large brick four-story building that turned out to be a bit of a misnomer, for it only hosts a portion of the airline's training activity; there is a similarly sized annex next door, and several stories of the two operations buildings across the street house flight simulators, briefing rooms, & instructor lounges. Indeed, the pilot new hire classroom was not in the training center itself, but up three floors, down a long hallway, across a footbridge to the annex, and halfway down another long hallway. A line pilot who was early for his recurrent training graciously showed us the way, marveling all the while at the sheer volume of new hire pilots and flight attendants in training (currently 600 FAs, he said!). It's been a while since this airline has seen such a hiring boom.

We were all 45 minutes early for class, leaving plenty of time for chitchat. I noticed, with some dismay, that the class immediately split into its constituent parts. There were ten flow-throughs from my airline, 9 flow-throughs from another carrier, and 5 off-the-street hires from Skywest, ExpressJet, and Pinnacle. All of the flow-throughs had been hired at their respective former airlines around the same time (several, like Jack and I, on the same day), and therefore most of them knew each other already. That said, you can go months or even years without running into someone who is right next to you on the seniority list, and so the only person I really knew well was Richard, my sim partner during JungleBus initial training in 2007. I chatted with acquaintances for a while, then broke off to meet a few new faces. The first person I chatted with, Roger, recognized me as "the Flying columnist," and to my dismay started introducing me as such to our classmates. I wasn't trying to hide the writing - I was certain my new airline was aware of it - but had hoped to stay "under the radar" during basic indoc. That said, I appreciated hearing fellow pilots saying how much they enjoyed my articles. It's about the closest I've ever come to minor celebrity!

The manager of fleet-common programs arrived right on schedule, we took our seats, and he gave us the first of what would be many warm welcomes to the airline throughout the day and week. "We're so glad you're here!" and "You're getting in at a great time!" was sincerely uttered so many times that it became a bit of a running joke by the end of basic indoc. We went around the room and introduced ourselves, our background, and why we chose to come to this airline. I mentioned I had been hired at Horizon on April 7th, 2004, exactly ten years prior, and that Dawn and I had traveled the world on this airline and had been treated very well over the years. I was struck by the fact that at 32 years old and with 10 years of airline flying, I was one of the youngest and least experienced of the 24 new hires. Most of the others were in their upper 30s to lower 50s, with 15+ years at the regionals. Also notable was that only a few had flown in the armed forces, and none had come straight from the military, which would have been unthinkable in a major airline class this size only a few years ago. This is of course a partial consequence of the flow-through programs and may change as the flowups dwindle later this year, but even in the classes before and after ours that had few flowups, pure military hires made up half or less of the off-the-street hires. This is an enormous shift from previous hiring waves. I think the airlines still prefer military pilots, but there just aren't a ton of them leaving the service compared to previous eras.

The first day of indoc, and indeed much of the first week, was comprised of presentations by various managers and heads of departments. I was surprised at how high-ranking many of the presenters were; there were several VPs who took the time to welcome us aboard. My second impression was of the sheer size and complexity of many of the departments involved, several of which would have been handled by a skeleton crew of a few people at most regional airlines. The presenters seemed very aware of this, and several times we heard the refrain: "We are not the regional airlines. We know how some of your previous airlines were run and how they might've treated you, and you have to leave that in your past. We do things differently here." On the third day, we toured the operations center, an enormous room that houses domestic and international dispatch, load planners, maintenance control, crew routing, meteorologists, radio communications specialists, the duty pilot desk, and more. It was an eye-opening and humbling look at what it takes to make one of the world's largest airlines run - and for every person on duty in the operations center itself, there are another five or ten working elsewhere in the operations complex. As part of the tour, each new-hire got to sit with a dispatcher for an hour while they worked their flights. It was one of the highlights of my week, and it made much of what was subsequently discussed in class make a lot more sense.

Lunch was catered the first day of class, and the new-hires started to mingle outside of their earlier groups. I met Nick, a Skywest Brasilia check airman who I'd share a few beers with while getting Windows running on his Mac later that week, and Lindsay from ExpressJet, a friendly gal who seemed to already know everyone in the training department thanks to a Women In Aviation scholarship that had provided a type rating course in the airline's B737 flight simulators. By the end of the day I had talked to most of my classmates and several of the instructors who would be teaching later in the week. My heart was no longer in my throat; my suit felt lighter. Everyone I met made me feel welcome, like I belonged here, regardless of flow-through status. With the anxiety gone, I actually enjoyed myself, recalling how often I had dreamed of this day over the years, and pinching myself at my good fortune to be here now.

Looking back over this blog's archives from late 2008 into 2009, during the merger and recession I had fully expected to have this airline's pilots flow down to NewCo, displacing me onto the street and likely sending me to China to find work! The fact that this never happened, that I enjoyed some great years of good seniority insulated from much of the regional industry's turbulence and have now seamlessly flowed up to my dream job even after NewCo was sold off, can be regarded as nothing more than the product of extremely good luck and perhaps a few nudges from my guardian angel. Likewise my decision to go to NewCo in the first place, when I had been planning to take a leave of absence from Horizon to fly Metroliners for Ameriflight (and nearly blew off the NewCo interview until Dawn talked some sense into me!). I look at the winding path that took me here, and there are so many twists and turns that could have easily gone another way. I'm thrilled that things turned out the way they did, but am under no illusion that my good fortune is the product of my own intelligence or hard work. Yes, I put in my time and made the decisions that seemed to be best at the time, but there are a lot of smarter and harder-working pilots than me who are still stuck at the regionals. The good news is, I don't think they'll be stuck for long. All of the US airlines are hiring, and several (including mine) have already revised their hiring numbers upwards several times this year. I've had friends with zero turbine PIC get hired at major airlines recently.

I'm trying to avoid triumphalism because I'm keenly aware that many 1999 and 2000 hires thought they were set for life, only to wind up on the street a few years later. The airlines have always been boom-or-bust, and have typically careened from one to the other with little warning. The same will likely hold true this time, and nothing in particular says I and my friends won't be caught in the bust whenever it comes. But for now at least, times are very good at the majors, and I want to encourage those who are still toiling away in the lower levels: keep up the good work. There's light at the end of the tunnel. You'll get there, and when you do, it's an absolutely amazing feeling.


Tom B. said...

Nice post Sam. I remember when we talked over email 7-8 years ago about you possibly going to China. As a follower of your blog since it started, I'm so happy for you and excited to see a post about flying the mad dog. Have fun!

Anonymous said...

Charming post. I wish all my students would show up for class the way airline pilots do, 45 minutes early! -- Ben Read