Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Sixteen Again

At my new airline, as at Horizon, many of the captains I am flying with are my parents' age or a little younger. Most of these have adult children and part of the standard "getting to know you chit-chat" is inquiring how many kids they have, what they do for work, what their marital status is, and whether any grandkids are on the way. Most of these children's lives were spent while their father (or mother) worked at a major airline. Which is to say: most had an upper-middle-class upbringing, often involving private schools and world travel and the chance to attend a good university. They tend to fall in either the brilliant-and-going-places category or else good-for-nothing-and-probably-moving-home, at least in their parent's retelling. What I not yet heard is even a single example of a child who is now an airline pilot. This makes sense, in a way. Most captains in this age bracket have offspring that came of age around or just after 9/11, when the airlines were in full economic free-fall and pilot group after pilot group was facing bankruptcy or liquidation. Nobody in this situation would encourage their kids to follow in their footsteps. Many have said as much.

Lately, though, I've also flown with quite a few newer captains who've been with the airline for "only" 14 or 15 years. These pilots suffered the effects of 9/11 much more acutely than their senior brethren; many spent months or years on furlough, and they've stagnated in the right seat since. However, their kids were young at the time and are just now getting to the age where they have to pick a career field. Surprisingly, I've flown with three or four younger captains whose kids are actively pursing being an airline pilot. They're either taking flight lessons, are planning to, or are a Private Pilot already, and are selecting an aviation college for their advanced training. All have their parents' enthusiastic support despite the formidable costs involved. Some of this is probably attributable to the upbeat attitude around my airline at the moment. There's a lot of hiring and upgrading going on, the company is making a lot of money, the profit-sharing checks are handsome, and the pilot contract has been slowly inching up towards pre-9/11 levels. My friends at other major airlines report that morale there is considerably worse, understandable since they're all still working through the merger glitches that my airline had to deal with five years ago.

It's made me wonder what I would do if I was sixteen again and looking for a career to pursue, knowing what I know now. When I was sixteen in 1997, the major airline bankruptcies and furloughs were starting to fade from memory, profits and hiring were on the upswing, and Kit Darby was declaring that the biggest pilot shortage in history was right around the corner. I loved flying and thought I was good at it. The idea of flying heavy iron across the world fascinated me. Flight training was a lot of money even then, but I figured the eventual payoff justified it. Had I been able to predict 9/11 and its fallout, had I known that payrates would be gutted and retirements stolen and huge swaths of the domestic networks outsourced to lowest-bidding regional airlines and flown for inferior pay with zero job stability, I'm not sure my decision would have been the same. Had I foreseen it would take 15 years of hard work and low pay and cross-country moves and occasionally dangerous flying to get to the majors, I might not have taken the leap. If my gift of prophecy had included insight into the runaway executive pay in this country coupled with the continuous shrinking of the middle class, I might have gone to business school.

It's probably good I didn't know the future, because I've enjoyed life and flying over the last fifteen years despite the career bumps along the way, and I seem to have arrived at the majors at a good time. But what would I tell a sixteen-year-old version of myself starting out right now? That consolidation has ensured continued profitability and stability at the remaining major carriers for years to come? That the mandatory retirement numbers are incontrovertible and the pilot shortage is real this time? That the upheaval in the regional sector will have played itself out by the time he's qualified and he can expect a more defined, secure career path? Or would I say that the inexorable march of automation has ensured the continual decline of the airline pilot's worth, or that the capacity discipline exhibited by the major airlines of late will attract new entrants and fresh upheaval, or that cabotage is inevitable and the US airline industry will go the way of the US maritime industry? Hell, for all I know airliners could be pilotless in 30 years. By the same token medicine could be automated by then, tort reform may put thousands of lawyers out of work, or the revolution could come and MBAs will swing from every lamppost. I don't know what's going to happen.

I do know this: Aviation has been an unstable, irrational industry since the day Wilbur cracked up on Flight Four and will likely continue to be thus for a long time to come, consolidation be damned. Even in the salad days airline pilots were known to bitch about pay and working conditions, and will continue to do so until they're finally replaced by robots. Very few pilots will have smooth careers from beginning to end. Most of those getting into aviation for money, lifestyle, prestige, or excitement will find one or all of those things lacking at some point in their career, and it may be enough to kill whatever love of flying they had in the first place. For those who love to fly, though, and can't imagine doing else, the joy of flight transcends what's going on in the industry at any given moment. If you are that sort of person, and you can be happy despite low income, birthdays and holidays spent away from family, and uncertainty about the future, you are probably well-suited for a career in aviation. The good news is that at some point along the way, there's a good chance that you'll happen into a sweet well-paid gig that affords a decent lifestyle. As long as those things are considered side benefits, and the flying is the main goal, it's still a pretty decent way to make a living. Of course, if you're an airplane-mad sixteen-year-old like I was, you probably don't need some old codger to tell you that.


Anonymous said...

Great read, thanks Sam
Matt from KDSM

Jimmer said...

Hey Sam, would love to hear your thoughts on the "Pilots of Instagram" in your next post, or somewhere down the line. Lots of controversy swirling here...

Sam Weigel said...

Jimmer - Yep, I definitely wanted to weigh in on that considering my post this summer about the new regs concerning inflight PED usage. The regs aren't any more widely understood than when I wrote that post, and the steady stream of inflight pics I've seen on facebook and elsewhere made that Quartz story nearly inevitable. See my newest post. Thanks!

Raymond Curry said...

What is certain is you have done well from that point, and it shows. Getting into flight school was quite a tremendous thing, more so as a stepping stone to scoring what you really want in life. That, if anything, is what is really going to take you to the skies, right? Thanks for sharing that! All the best to you!

Raymond Curry @ Holstein Aviation