Kick or Stick Your Airline Career; What Would You Do?

By Robert Mark on March 25th, 2008

Normally, Jetwhine does not post pieces without the author’s name. This is an exception since this story is from an active line pilot. We’ve changed the author’s name to protect what is left of their career. Admittedly, this is a little longer than what we usually run, but I think it’s well worth your time. In conversations with other pilots, I’ve learned that this pilot’s perspective does not represent an isolated case.

What would you do if you were faced with the same decisions as this pilot? Feel free to pass this on to a friend who might be in Roger’s situation.

Rob Mark, editor

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by Roger Miller

Well here I am in the 18th year of service as a pilot for one of our nation’s “legacy” air carriers.

I am 40 years old, and have been doing some deep thinking about some career options at this point in my life. Over the course of my career, I have accumulated over 12,000 hours of flying time. I currently fly as a first officer on the Boeing 777. Up until 3 years ago I was a captain on the Boeing 737 for almost five years.

In terms of an airline career, I have much to be thankful for in what I have accomplished at my age. I love to fly airplanes, and thoroughly enjoy the flight crews that I work with. It is a love of aviation and a part of our jobs that I often feel goes unappreciated in the upper management ranks at my company. 777_topshot_375

Despite these positive career attributes, the reality of many issues is starting to make me think about a few things.

Since my date of hire, I have not held on to a specific contract for more than 3 years. Every time our pilot group has been able to negotiate a contract, we have found ourselves giving concessions in some form. During the 1990’s we went through an era known as the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). In exchange for pay and benefits, our employee group along with others would receive a controlling stake in the company after 6 years. A seamless contract renegotiation was also promised.

It all sounded like a good idea in the interest of long term stability and morale, so I voted for the deal. As time progressed, I started to feel a sense of pride as I watched my stock portfolio grow. I became excited as the close of the ESOP payment period came and the thought of a new contract would be entertained. The time came and went with little or no motivation by my company to talk to our pilot group. Our operation ran poor during the summer of 2000. Finally negotiations took place, and an industry leading contract was in place.

A Career Turns Ugly

As the start of the millennium progressed, nobody in their deepest thoughts could ever imagine the events of September 11th. All of us were stunned as those events unfolded. As a result of this my carrier started to park airplanes and furlough pilots at a fast pace. About a year later we declared bankruptcy. During bankruptcy our pilots along with other employees gave huge concessions in every way imaginable to help save our airline. Our ESOP stock portfolios were wiped out. Our pay, benefits, and work rules were substantially altered. Our senior management said it was all necessary to avoid liquidation. They told us there would be a “shared sacrifice” between them and us to make it thorough the crisis.

Eventually, the “perfect storm” of events came and went, and recovery started to appear evident. We emerged from bankruptcy two years ago. Furloughed pilots started coming back. Financial results started to look better despite high fuel costs. Management took HUGE bonuses in light of their “shared sacrifice” mantra during bankruptcy. As a result of this, a very bitter atmosphere among the group started to set in. Our union started a picketing campaign to protest many of the issues at hand. To top things off, a merger seems imminent with another legacy carrier. As many of you know, this type of event seldom runs smooth. About three months ago, the FAA changed the pilot retirement age to 65.

Decision Time

When this happened, I really started to think hard about my career as a pilot.

If I stay healthy, I have the potential to work another 25 years. Throughout the industry downturn, I maintained a subscription to AIR INC in order to stay abreast of everything going on in the world of pilot hiring. As I received various issues of Airline Pilot Careers magazine, and the monthly job update, I started to take interest in some of the information on the various cargo carriers. Two particular operations caught my eye as I read about their years of extensive profits and excellent job stability. Ten years ago I would never imagine that working for one of these would provide a high level of stability, compensation, and benefits. Sure, some parts of their operations are not as attractive and glamorous as flying for a passenger carrier, but the thought of career stability and respect above what our pilot group has been provided seems more important. As I further researched one particular company’s web site, I seemed impressed with the fact that they are one of the most admired companies to work for. A part of their corporate creed reads like this:

“We believe that people do their best when they feel the pride in their contribution…when they are treated with dignity…and when their talents are encouraged to flourish in an environment that encourages diversity.”

That carrier believes its people are its most valuable asset. Recruiting and retaining a winning team of employees dedicated to the company’s mission and purpose is critical to its ability to serve its customers’ needs on a day-to-day and long term basis. That’s why they offer one of the most comprehensive total compensation packages available, the site says. I’ve begun talking to pilots who work at some of the cargo carriers as well.

I actually believe that a “winning team” thoroughly exists among the ranks at my company also. The flight crews that I work with along with many other people in various departments are highly experienced and talented individuals. But when you have been through a situation like ours, your sense of pride and morale tends to diminish. A winning team needs a good coach in the form of senior management to set the tone to instill pride and morale among its players in order to win. Our stats recently have been among the worse in the industry.

As I preflight many of the battleship gray faded and oxidized airplanes with worn out interiors, I wonder what the game plan for us really might be. Many other carriers are moving forward with new airplanes on order. Our glorious carrier is starting to appear old and tired. Our “coaches” have moved on with their lives as they live a very lucrative lifestyle in spite of our lingering bankruptcy work rules.

As our contract negotiations draw near, I stand ready to stick with the team to do whatever is necessary to fight and get back what we have given up. As for the new players that I have seen come on board recently in the form of new hires, I hope they will join us. Many of these folks have come from the ranks of regional carriers where what they are experiencing now might seem like an improvement over their former carrier. It is important for them to realize that our current contract is nothing compared to what it was years ago.

So let me sum this up.

Most experienced players on my team would have extremely competitive qualifications to interview at the cargo carriers I’ve looked at. Outside of seniority, the recapture period for pay and benefits would be about 3 to 5 years depending on seniority. The demand for pilots worldwide is at an all time high. Many foreign carriers are offering very lucrative contracts as well.

Jumping ship – so to speak – for another airline at this point in a career might not be the answer for everybody, including myself depending upon what transpires in the next two years. There is no such thing as a perfect airline career, but the temptation to pick up the pieces and move on in the name of more stability might seem worthy.

What would you do? Kick or stick?

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12 Responses to “Kick or Stick Your Airline Career; What Would You Do?”

  1. Dale Kettring Says:

    Well, I also believed in the team, and worked hard to make that team successful. Then, about 7-8 years ago, management where I worked started turning nasty. Everything was about the “business model”, and things we needed to accomplish our jobs were disappearing. We were still expected to do our jobs at the same level, albeit, with very limited resources (including personel). It seemed as if most of what we were saving through our efforts were being doled out as management bonuses. People at the front line never seemed to share in management successes. I was fortunate. I was in a position to retire, though I had not planed to do so for another 5-10 years, health allowing. I quit, and am glad I was able to do so when I did since my team mates are enduring worse conditions than ever before.

    Kick or stick? Current business models dictate that everyone do what is best for that particular individual. If we are doing things strictly as “business”, then do what is best for YOU. If it is in your best interest to leave, then KICK. Management has made these rules, not the working men and women. Management of this sort deserves no loyalty, since they are showing none.

    Caveat: There are some good management teams out there. If you happen to be where that is the case, think long and hard about the consequences of leaving. It takes a lot of money to compensate for misery.

  2. Kick or Stick Your Airline Career; What Would You Do? | Airport Airline Team Says:

    […] Candice M. Giove wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptIn terms of an airline career, I have much to be thankful for in what I have accomplished at my age. I love to fly airplanes, and thoroughly enjoy the flight crews that I work with. It is a love of aviation and a part of our jobs that I … […]

  3. Edmonds Says:

    Let me preface my comment by saying I am not a pilot or associated with aviation in any way. Just a a fascinated spectator…

    I personally think it’s ridiculous the way the airlines treat their pilots. I learn what I can about the airline industry through books, magazines and websites like this one, and the things the airlines have put their staff through in the past 10 – 15 years is atrocious. As a “civilian,” I am wholly impressed by the skill, talent, and dedication displayed by the men and women who consistently and safely pilot the thousands of planes that are in the sky at any given moment, and think they should be appreciated and fairly compensated. While the executives collect their outrageous salaries and bonuses (which they arguably put in a lot less time and hard work to earn than those they oversee), they treat the talent who actually fly the planes like common easily-replaced bus drivers (no offense meant to bus drivers, just trying to make a point!).

    As the article implies, upper-level management’s pleas that everyone must sacrifice to ensure survival ring hollow when their own reward does not reflect the lean times they insist are upon the industry. They should be ashamed, but never will be, as their primary interest is lining their own pockets, not making sure those who do the actual work are taken care of.

    Sadly, most of what I’ve just said could apply to any number of industries. It’s the way business works, and probably won’t change anytime soon (especially since those in the best position to change these things are the same who would suffer most if things WERE to change). The higher-ups ride along on the backs of the underlings, allowing them to do the real work while they attend their “business” golf outings and “meetings” in the Bahamas, all while getting paid so much more to do so much less.

    Every time I hear a jet overhead and look to the sky in hopes to catch a glimpse and marvel at the technology and how far we’ve come, I feel a pang of regret that I’m not able to be one of the lucky few with the knowhow and skill to pilot such magnificent machines. Then I usually think about the other aspects of the job that aren’t as desirable (like those mentioned in the article) and realize that I sadly probably wouldn’t be willing to take the bad with the good.

  4. Mal Gormley Says:

    Kick & Become a Freight Dog. A buddy of mine nearby LOVES flying for FredEx. No more fickle, cranky pax to worry about. Case closed.

  5. jon regas Says:

    Ernest K. Gann left American Airlines for “the steamship airline”…book , “Fate is the Hunter”.

    And he ended up flying puerto ricans to New York.

    Read the book, you can’t win against “the numbers”.

  6. Grant Says:

    Your biggest responsibility is to look out for number one. In an ideal world, looking out for the team and looking out for number one would be one in the same.

    When the coach no longer considers himself one of the team, you’ll never be considered as such.

    Unfortunately, what the industry needs is a pilot shortage. A big one. Companies are going to have to recreate the teamwork environment as part of a way to make the job look attractive again, not to mention increased pay, benefits and overall working conditions.

    You have to do what’s best for you. If I were in your shoes, and money didn’t play a role, I’d kick.

    Of course if you need every cent of your paycheck, you’re in a bit of a corner.

  7. Rob Mark Says:

    I was lucky enough to work for some pretty decent folks when I flew for the original Midway Airlines.

    Now of course I don’t think I’ll say much about their intelligence since they drove us into bankruptcy and eventually shut us down.

    Most of us lost much less than our author here, some vacation and other items.

    But to the issue of the higher ups collecting, it hit us squarley between the eyes when they paid a few managers $25 or $30K to hang around after we shut down to clean things up.

    What really galled all of us is that these folks never gave a second thought to what the line employees had lost.

    We all did get money about six or seven years later from the bankruptcy court. As a pilot my take was $88.

    And our CEO David Hinson? He went on to become the Administrator of the FAA in DC.

    Go figure.

  8. Robert Mark Says:

    Grant’s comment just made me hit the keyboard again but his supply and demand issue really rings true, at least from a textbook economic sense.

    But look at some of the regional airlines that are absolutely seeing a pilot shortage right now. Some can’t even staff flights. Heck American Airlines and United both have cancelled flights because they don’t have enough pilots and they still treat people like dogs.

    I think it will take more than a pilot shortage to fix this kind of thing. It will probably take a prolonged strike and even then, management will be reluctant to agree to anything.

    While the folks in the office often call the pilots a bunch of whiners (Whine … mmm, I have to figure out a way to use that word) they were often jealous at the same time that they couldn’t become aviators.

  9. Josh Says:

    I normally don’t respond to any threads but after reading this I thought that I would put my two cents forward. Leaving a career that you love is always a huge decision and at the end of the day, you have to do what’s best for you. That aside, can anyone give a date or a date range where pilots have been happy with their working conditions? I’m not trying to be a smart ass here but seriously…
    After working for many years in a SOCC centre of a legacy carrier, I saw first hand how crews abused thier collective agreements and didn’t show any respect to the people on the ground. I must be clear and say that there are alot of great crews out there but unfortuneatley it’s the crews that abuse the system that make it bad for everyone else. Pilot CA got out of hand in the 80’s and 90’s. Everyone wanted to one up each other. With the LCC and 911, it all came tumbling down fast. There is not one person in this industry that hasn’t been affected by it. I guess what I am trying to say..is it really such a bad gig?? You may not be making as much as you once were but come on…is the grass really greener on the otherside?? As to your comments about the company caring more about the “business plan”…well without a business plan there is no future. Instead of fighting with management work with them. Costs are killing this industry. It’s not just management. The sooner you guys recognize that the sooner we can adjust our business model.

  10. Louis Says:

    Rob:

    This pilot must be in the top 30% of the pilot seniority list. He must be earning about $120,000 per year plus international override. The company puts 15% of his salary away each year on his behalf. If his was the only airline in the world and he had no comparisons to make, would he still be discontented?

    He also would make a lot more money as a harbor pilot (boat captain) or a major league umpire. If he had gone to medical school and decided to specialize in orthopedic surgery and completed his four year internship and residency followed by a one-year fellowship, he could get an offer to start at about $450,000 per year, perhaps in Honolulu at the ripe old age of 33.

    Jumping to the bottom of another list is risky. It appears the freight airlines offer much more job security (and presently a lot more money), but they will phase out their three-man aircraft and combined with the age 65 rule, he would move slowly up their list. FedEx and UPS have already stopped hiring.

    The freight airlines offer more money now which is frustrating to him and it’s difficult to determine if the passenger airline pilots will be able to recover to the freight airline pilot pay level, given the financial losses of the former and the profits of the latter.

    Conversely, the freight airlines will be the first to convert to a one-man cockpit or even a UAV to carry freight. The USAF estimates a good percentage of their bomber aircraft will be unmanned within the next 15 to 20 years, so the concept is not that far-fetched.

    I would stick around for the union showdown with management, for there surely is one on the way.

    Louis

  11. Scott R. Says:

    You will have to do what is right for you. It is unfortunate to have to consider a job change after all you have accomplished.

    I’m glad I did not get hired when I was originally interested in an airline career. Luckily for me, I did not have enough time when I was applying at the majors around 2000 or so. By the time I had the flight time, I wasn’t interested anymore and couldn’t have afforded a career change even if I had been.

    I’m thankful now I never got an airline job, as well as a handful of other flying jobs I thought I wanted but never got. Corporate flying has been rewarding and it is where I plan to stay.

  12. Marty Says:

    As usual in this business, timing is everything. At 30 years in this career, I gave up 20 years at my legacy carrier to become a freight dog. I sleep a lot better, and second year pay was more than what I made as an f/o (former captain) when I left. But all is slowing now and four airlines worth of pilots are out there to add to the competition for jobs. I firmly believe a major labor showdown is coming, outcome unknown. They took a good portion of my pay, all my pension, and in some cases now seniority is decimated (see USAirways arbitration), so what’s left except to burn the place down if I was still there? Major industry upheaval is coming again if oil stays where it is, and the coming pilot shortage may be mitigated by cabotage if foreign pilots are willing to fly here for pennies compared to our salaries. But during those sleepless nights when liquidation of my company seemed inevitable, my soul-searching revealed that for me I still love to fly,and this is still the best job in the world if I could sustain a living at it. Ride it out until something better comes along, keep yourself sharp and keep looking around this ever-changing business.

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