If I Were an American Airlines Pilot

By Robert Mark on October 8th, 2012

There’s no small amount of irony in the fact that American Airlines axed the contracts of their pilots just a few hours past Labor Day last month. Kind of adds insult to injury. I feel for the pilots having been around to watch the ugliness of Midway 1’s disintegration after failed Chapter 11 attempt in 1991. On the other hand, as the owner of a small business, I’ve also been an American Advantage customer for decades. It’s a tough spot actually.

After the past few weeks of maintenance write up, pilots calling in sick and generally bad airline publicity, I was thinking about the point the pilots might be trying to make to the management people at DFW.

Certainly they were fed up with being asked to absorb more cuts. They were also saying there really still is a line in the sand, despite what the management people and customers on the outside might think. I don’t think this is going to be Eastern Airlines all over again where employees shut the company down for good, but I do think management everywhere might just have called the death of organized labor a bit early. There’s life in them yet … and that’s not all bad either.

I think I actually heard the pilots speaking for an entire industry of airline employees who, much like the American taxpayer, are simply fed up with taking it on the chin every time the economy coughs, hoping someone will do the right thing. Even the Democrats took a bit of a whipping a few weeks ago when Chicago teachers struck the district for a week and embarrassed Mayor Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s former Chief of Staff.

Of course working at an airline isn’t as much fun as it used to be. It’s not all about the money though. It’s also about respect. Here’s a fact. If you treat employees like dogs to be brushed aside when they get in the way of your plans, don’t be surprised when a few of those hounds turn around and bite you some times.

American’s former CEO Robert Crandall said something interesting recently about respect at American Airlines and I thought he too was talking to a much wider audience. “Every employee – from fleet service to chairman – deserves the respect of every other employee,” he told a pilot who wondered whether there was a future for anyone in this business. “Respect requires courtesy, and any employee, or any employee group that speaks ill of another renounces their own claim to either. And finally, respect implies a willingness to settle disputes within the context of the protocols of law and process that free societies from the grip of anarchy.”

Airline pilots tend to be conservative “red” people whom actually do find unionization an uncomfortable “blue” quandary at times. But they’re also pretty pragmatic, so when airline management see pilots and other employees as an annoying bunches of whiners, people who just don’t understand that the airline would run much better if they’d simply shut up and do their jobs, well … they just get riled up.

Pilots, just like flight attendants, mechanics, ramp and customer service people aren’t what’s getting in the way of success, well at least not all the time. They’re the reason airlines have customers at all. Airlines can run without management (OK, perhaps not as well), but try running one without mechanics to fix airplanes, or pilots to fly them, or cabin attendants to beat back some of the loonies who buy tickets these days.

The signal the AA pilots are sending is that they could shut the company down if they wanted to. So can the flight attendants, or the mechanics or the ramp workers. Folks can become kind of unpredictable when they’re cornered so be careful how far you push.

As Bob Crandall also said, everyone needs to start realizing what’s at stake and that individuals can make quite a difference to the solution. It works much the same way for some of those idiots we seem to keep reelecting to Congress hoping they’ll get it right the next time … both blue and red.

No one can have his or her way all the time. So now that the pilots have made their point, I hope they’ll be successful back at the negotiating table and realize that they need the management folks almost as much as management needs them.

At least this is what I’d be thinking if I were an American pilot.

Rob Mark, Publisher



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27 Responses to “If I Were an American Airlines Pilot”

  1. Chaz Says:

    Airlines and fractional Operations management seem to continually forget who is on the pointy end of the spear. Pilots, gate agents, flight attendants and maintenance technicians are in the front of the revenue generators (passengers) every day. Executives tearing up labor contracts seldom see passengers or have any idea what the public thinks of their service.

    Irritate these employees long enough and a downward spiral will be the result. Be careful of short term solutions that produce a long term disasters.

  2. Ray Winslow Says:

    Reality for American Airlines pilots:

    The airline pilot job has changed.

    I am speaking from my pilot experience from 1957 (first solo) to 2009 (end of paid flying career).
    Exerience: Crop duster (Stearman), Naval combat aviator (F8,A4), Continental Airlines (B727,B737,B747,B777,DC9,DC10), Corporate (G2,G3,GIV), flight instructor off and on.

    Any time wages for the same type job vary 4 to 1, there will be trouble.

    Over the last 50 years a pilots job has required less experience and knowledge. I know you do not want to hear this, but it is a fact. 707’s flew around the world as we do today, but without all the great runways, landing systems, auto land, Nav aids (anybody remember the navigator except in a B17 movie?), super simulators, and auto trip down emergency procedures. Like it or not we are well on the way to: pilots not required. The one pilot/drone cargo plane is almost here.

    All this makes clear that pilots easily trained, employable with less experience, is a hard fact. This in extreme happened to the grocery checkers, beep, beep! The pilot’s salary is under pressure and American will have to make a jump in that direction to survive.

    The job has become less desirable with all new aircrft operating under two pilot rules which require more work periods per month, and requiring more staffing. This too adds to pilot’s demand for more compensation and pressure on companies to reduce pay and staff per cockpit.

    I can only say that I did enjoy a portion of the hayday and relieved to no longer be fighting these battles. (4 furloughs from two airlines, 3 periods of military leave)

  3. Steve Johnson Says:

    Ray Winslow’s comments are right on the mark. The times and the jobs have changed.

  4. Anne Pitts Says:

    As a retired American Airlines non pilot employee I enjoyed reading the article and agree with it, as well as the responses wholeheartedly. American lost its way when Bob Crandall left. Like many employers in the U.S. for A.A. the bottom line is the bottom line and employees are liabilities, however without them there is no bottom line.

  5. Bob D. Says:

    It’s probably worth putting in the rest of Bob Crandall’s statement

    “In recent days, the airline has not run well, and it seems clear that is true in whole or in part because pilots are expressing their unhappiness in various ways intended to reduce the systems reliability. Such actions (1) are disrespectful of other employees, customers and management, (2) are dismissive of the protocols of dispute resolution, (3) reject any notion of accepting responsibility for the decision to turn down the LBFO and (4) imply that the pilots believe their business judgments about what is and is not competitively sustainable are superior to those of management.

    In my opinion, these actions are very ill advised. If the pilots want respect, they must be worthy of it. Among other things, they must recognize that threats are contrary to law and protocol, must accept responsibility for their own actions and must acknowledge the rights of those with leadership responsibilities. Additionally, it seems to me, they should think very carefully about whether their actions are consistent with the long term interests of the community of which they are a part that is, the Company and the long term well- being of themselves and their families.”

  6. EO Says:

    Mr Winslow is right on… After 34 thousand hours and retired airlines but still in aviation things have changed… Some for the better and some for worse. I would have to ditto Ray’s words but if it is in your blood, to fly is though to beat…

  7. Chaz Says:

    Bob D,

    I respectfully disagree with your conclusions.

    1. Management has a way of telling other front line employees that they need to sit down and be quiet. Management knows how to run the airline while sitting back in the dugout behind the lines.

    2. Dispute resolution under the Railway Labor Act is not like any other labor negotiations. guess which way the law leans in these negotiations. It is pretty one sided. You cannot strike without jumping through an inordinate number of hoops even with an airline is solvent.

    3. In bankruptcy the court and the company are in the driver’s seat with offers that are in this case a gun to the head of the contract protected employees.

    4. Many pilots have a lot to offer and are in most cases told to sit down and be quiet.

    Time will tell whether management’s long term decisions will be vindicated or if these actions are nothing more than a knee jerk reaction to kick the can down the road one more time before coming back to employees to ask for more concessions.

  8. AAguy Says:

    As an AA pilot, I simply cannot stomach what is happening here. I would rather see this airline fail outright then continue to give give give back. Tired of all this BS.

  9. Joe in Calif Says:

    The pilots have essentially put AA on death watch. Sure, it may get better but the reputation is trashed. There are many folks who have non-ref tickets who will need to fly but thats air traffic liability – AA has already spent that money. The problem is what do future loads look like – they can tell if there is a crisis coming. We saw this reality when they announced last week that they were going to explore merger with USAir (or is it America West in reality?]. In any event – the pilots have screwed their retired colleagues since when the merger happens, the AA DB plan will get shifted to PBGC and retired pilots and those from 55 and up get screwed. End of story.

    I’m not a seeing a way out for American right now. Old airplanes, old flight crews, cranky old flight attendants and ground staff that for the most part, could care less. When the WSJ came out and told people not to book through the holidays – thats gotta kill what hope was left.

    AA management sucked. Crandall was no genius – he was only first – and the hub and spoke idea has had its hey day. AA management was greedy, they lied, they cheated and are and were incompetent for the most part.

    AA tried to cost cut by hammering its employees – and the employees – not seeing the writing on the wall – took it personally. It was not personal – its business. Business has this unrelenting need to earn a profit or you are no longer in business. You can only play so many games but most of the people working today started in the 1980’s – and deregulation was not so bad for the big legacy carriers back then. Times have changed. Air travel is like bus or train travel – no glamour no pride no one cares enough to wear shoes anymore it seems. It is a commodity business – and employees in a commodity business don’t get paid what professionals get paid.

    I am a pilot. I flew USN and then took time off and now fly for myself. I gotta tell ya flying a fully equipped modern GA airplane today is not like a mechanical radio Skyhawk and ADF in the 1970’s. . . we have radar onboard, traffic, geo-ref approach plates – life is good and while flying requires the same amount of judgment it always has – it requires less skill. Like every industry where technology does the drudgery .. .

  10. George Schwarz Says:

    If a company has a union problem, it’s because it has management problem.

    The top managers are just that now, managers instead of leaders; and therefore they have lost sight of what makes a company good.

    The mantra that business is a convenient way of saying that it is profit without regard to balancing revenue with accomplishment. In short, the question is not “How can I maximize profit?” It is “How can I make enough profit to provide for this company to prosper, improve market share and serve my customers with happy employees.

  11. Bill McClure Says:

    Everyone has an opinion, don’t they? The fact is, if you are not in this particular lifeboat, I really don’t think you can say what “you would do”. The context here is the financial survival of thousands of employees and their families. And let’s not forget: AA is only the latest to take their employees and creditora to the cleaners. As a retired pilot from this airline, I grieve to see what this company has become. I’m not sure at what point management began to see their employees as the enemy, but it has been a long time. Lost in all of this is the courage and dedication all flight crew members exhibited after 9/11, when their service helped keep the nation running when everyone knew the system wasn’t anywhere near safe. I knew almost everyone of the Flight 11 crew that were first to die that day. Indeed, the finger of fate came rather close to my world as well.
    Also lost is the fact that the employees at AA have already sacrificed repeatedly to “save the airline”, billions of dollars of concessions. Their reward? The first chance management got to take their multi-million dollar bonuses they did, and the rank and file got nothing. Is that right? Is that American? Well, today, I’m afraid it is all to common.

    It revulses me to see some Waldo Waterman claim that those young whippersnappers aren’t as good as we were back in the day. My career straddled both eras, from the more or less primitive 707 to the 777. The job simply changed, like most others. In many ways the job got far more complex, more knowledge necessary in areas that had not previously been part of the profession. I wonder how some of the crotchety old captains I flew with “Back in the Day” would have adapted to this new world.
    I am sure business interests would love to see the pilots be good boys and girls and take their punishment. Punishment for being at an airline where the fault is mostly with management that never figured out how to adapt. JetBlue, Southwest, UPS, Fedex all pay their employees, including their pilots, well. Better business plan, better and leaner management.
    It is not helpful to see pontificating on this subject without understanding what the story really is. Sometimes it is worth a fight rather than to tuck your tail between your legs and whimper.

  12. WP Says:

    I have no doubt that AA pilots (and other employees) are fed up with the downward spiral from a labor perspective. Nonetheless, as someone who has flown 1.5M miles on AA since Sept 11 (and spent six figures on plane tickets), it is the height of disrepect, if not arrogance, and misplaced anger to make paying customers miss meetings, weddings, job interviews, family events–you name it–just so pilots can p*ss on management. The slow taxi, mainentance write-ups, calling in sick, etc. tactics don’t just cost the airline, they cost your customers. Not a winning game plan.

  13. Retired AA Guy Says:

    Bob Crandall was an airline guy. We may have fought at contract time, but he always had the best intrest of AA and the industry at heart.

    Don Carty asked us for a pay cut in 2003 and we gave it to him. Our reward? Bonus’s for management. Not to mention a purchase of a bankrupt airline ( TWA ) while in the throws of a post 9-11 recession.

    Then Gerard Arpy who gutted our domestic network and over code-shared to the point of making us non-competitive.

    The BK was not the employee’s doing, but current management wants more from from the employees. Is it any wonder that the pilots said “enough”?

  14. WP Says:

    Mr. McClure,
    You make a very important point about the professionalism and courage that AA flight crews demonstrated after 9/11. That is why the current situation is all the more distressing.

    I remember flying on AA the week after the 9/11 attacks. I was on the concourse in New Orleans and there was NO ONE on the concourse. It was completely, totally empty. There were maybe a dozen passengers on that flight. The crew was shellshocked, but they were there, flying.

    With all due respect sir, the recent “protest” actions of the pilots make these otherwise courageous and professional aviators seem impetuous and immature. A kind of “I’ll show them” attitude.

    There is a stange subculture among frequent flyers, those of us who live on airplanes. There was a time when being a FF on American was actually a status symbol within the subculture. Strange, but true. After the last few weeks, you don’t admit that you fly American. The airline is seen as a basket case that is causing its own demise.

  15. Robert Mark Says:

    Of for heaven’s sake “Joe in Calif.” … the pilots didn’t put American on a death watch. Both sides have had a hand at trying to prove who’s brass is bigger.

    And changes to the industry? Sure they’ve occurred, but what difference does it make now?

    The question is what both labor and management are willing to do at this point.

    The winners SHOULD be the customers, but unless all sides get together pretty soon, those folks will disappear and the rest won’t matter.

    If that means employees, management and shareholders need to back up a bit, they might all do it if they thought everyone would share in the grief for the same common goal.

    But that’s never the way the game is played, is it?

    So go ahead and blame the pilots, or the flight attendants or the mechanics or ramp workers or anyone else some of you have chosen here and see where it gets this formerly astounding airline.

    You and management just might be right all the way to Chapter 7.

  16. Edwin Says:

    Management at AA is what is killing that company. Like the one person said, executives have no idea how bad of a customer experience AA is giving. I refuse to fly AA and Airtran, but now that Airtran was acquired by Southwest I will probably take them off the black list of horrible aviation providers. That leaves only AA, which hopefully will go out of business, nothing against any of the employees that keep the planes flying, but all because of the managers and executives and how greedy and petty that have made that company.

  17. Bob D Says:


    You mention that you respectfully disagree with my conclusions. Thanks, I appreciate that except for one thing, I did not make any conclusions. My post was a comment from Bob Crandall, so the person you disagree with is Mr. American Airlines, Mr. Crandall, (who is much more knowledgeable than I am) and not me.

    AAGuy, a pilot, says “I would rather see this airline fail outright then continue to give give give back.” My suggestion is to resign right now, today, and look for a job elsewhere. It will be much easier to find one now than it will be after the airline fails outright and all those other pilots are looking for work too.

  18. AAguy Says:

    No, I don’t think so. Either things are going to turn around here, or I’m going down with the ship (figuratively speaking). I’ll fight till their is nothing left to fight for, resigning means they win and I lose. We are all in a sense wounded animals backed into a corner, don’t know what other response can be expected.

  19. DS Says:

    @Robert Mark; please explain to me how making more than $100,000 a year with great benefits (compared to most other industries) while having a week off each month is “taking it on the chin”? Especially when there are millions of people that are qualified and willing to do the job for much less. Also, regarding “Airlines can run without management…” has to mean that you must be completely irrelevant to running your “small business”. BTW, UA tried having the pilots run the airline and that didn’t work out too well. Nice of you to selectively omit the parts of Crandall’s letter that don’t fit your narrative (and thanks to Bob D for rectifying your misrepresentation). Finally, the only ones threatening to take AA into Chapter 7 are the pilots (see AAGuy’s post and many others around the web); if they can’t win they’ll take their ball and go home; and to hell with the 80,000 other families who’s livelihoods either wholly are partly depend on the company’s survival not to mention the long-term customers that have continued flying AA despite the declining service. To participate in the equivalent of a 5 year old’s temper tantrum is anything but “professional”, and for you to condone it detracts from your credibility.

    I find it peculiar that no one has mentioned the role that Union Management has played in this mess. They’ve been telling union members for decades that the company doesn’t respect them (whether or not it’s true) and demonizing (or casting as incompetent) every company employee that isn’t a member of their union. Do you think this has anything to do with the mistrust between the employees and management? The self-serving union management deserves a lot of the blame for this and other airline failures.

    Finally, I have to chuckle at all the pilots and other union members who now show so much “respect” for Bob Crandall (whom they called “Darth Vader” when he led AA), on this and many other message boards. I was present at the AA “President’s Conference” at DFW circa 1993 when the pilots stood up en masse and walked out during the middle of his presentation in protest of some real or imagined grievance. For those same pilots to now say that he “was an airline guy who knew his stuff” calls into question not only their past judgement, but their present judgement as well. Union members always blame management when things get tough and are loath to accept any of the blame or to recognize changing market conditions. This begs one final question: what are the odds that the airline industry has attracted all the worst managers in the World?

  20. AAguy Says:

    >>To participate in the equivalent of a 5 year olds temper tantrum is anything but professional

    I’m open to thoughts on how to better our situation. Civil disobedience has caused change in the real world, I don’t see how this is any different.

    >>Finally, I have to chuckle at all the pilots and other union members who now show so much respect for Bob Crandall

    I know of nobody who wants anything less than to kick him in the pants

    >>Union members always blame management when things get tough and are loath to accept any of the blame or to recognize changing market conditions

    I hate having to be in a union. Our contract is the only thing that stands between us and the company. The contract is the only vehicle we have for even communicating with anyone in the company. There is no other vehicle for communication. It’s like the company is a third world nation, without an embassy (contract), there are no formal channels of communication. As much as I hate having to be union, I can’t help but think about how much worse off we could be without it, how badly we would be walked over.

  21. Robert Mark Says:

    Dear DS:

    As you righted mentioned with your salary comment, everything can appear much different depending on your perspective. You are absolutely correct that that kind of salary is nothing to sneeze at these days.

    But this argument is about much more than simply money. While I never intended to purposely mislead anyone about Crandall’s remarks, it was the comment about respect that support my point and the reason I used it.

    One problem I see here endlessly is how black and white these issues become. If I’m right, you musty be wrong. In this day and age that idea is just silly.

    I’m perfectly OK with someone telling me I’m out to lunch with my thoughts if they can make a good argument. I’m not too old to learn something which is why Jetwhine has existed continuously for six years.

    To your comment about management though … actually, if I can make myself irrelevant I’ll b e a truly happy guy because it would mean I’ve hired some astounding people. And I’m OK with that.

    Your last point about the responsibility the union plays in this mess is a good one and should be mentioned. A union, heck any big organization I think, at some point can stop serving its original purpose and start focusing more on protecting its turf.

    That’s where individuals come in, I think. They need to speak up. For the most part though, pilots don’t speak up, union members as members don’t speak up and heck even the average citizen no longer speaks up about much of anything until it hits them individually.

    Did you know that if we tallied up the number of people in America who are registered to vote, but choose not to because they think it doesn’t matter, their numbers would exceed the number of people who classify themselves as Republicans and Democrats put together?

    So who on the management OR the union member side will have the courage to be a bit gray (read compromise) in a world where everyone sees American’s issues as black or white?

  22. Robert Mark Says:

    And to AA Guy’s comment, I’d ask how now how the lack of communications of which you speak has survived this long. Maybe management created the culture that is content with little or no communications and perhaps the union likes that to some degree as well, but while you’re not management, you are still an employee.

    Are you the only pilot at American who thinks communications with the company needs to improve … and that perhaps using the union as a filter right now is not the best solution?

  23. AAguy Says:

    If you ask anyone in management at any company whether or not they are approachable to speak with or have an open door policy, of course they are going to agree.

    But in practice, this is not the case. American would like nothing more than to destroy the union, pit employee against employee, destroy pensions (done), and literally reduce compensation to that of regional airlines.

    There interests lie with serving themselves first, then serving their shareholders. The employees are simply tools to be tossed around, fired, furloughed, defeated, whatever. Whatever it takes to get them inline. On the other hand, its the pilots job to negotiate the best deal they can.

    But I say this to you, you cannot have the companies, passengers, or employees best interests at heart when you destroy one group than give yourself a fat raise.

  24. @williamAirways Says:

    Seems to me the moral of this story is, if you’re a pilot, you’re sheep for the slaughter. If you’re management, you get to slaughter the sheep and get the multimillion dollar bonuses.

    Let this be a lesson to all you kids out there. Don’t be a sheep. Get educated and be management.


    (Sorry, had to lighten this up a bit.)

    On a more serious note, when and if AA goes under, this surely will solve any “pilot shortage” issues out there for at least a few more years, no?

  25. Robert Mark Says:

    Great point @williamairways — It is amazing to me that for a bunch of people who are used to taking command in all things airborne, that they often settle for the the status quo when times get tough.

    I don’t mean that every pilot should stage a wildcat strike when they’re unhappy, but when things don’t seem to be headed in the right direction, as AAGuy mentioned, most employees still seem to depend upon someone else — union, management, regulators — to decide their fate.

    Even when it’s not working, most sit there and say “What can I do?”

    My two cents is that we can ALWAYS do something. No one forces us to sit back and accept anything. Change might not be easy for sure.

    But in the end, we still have more control over our lives than we believe.

    Imagine if we thought there was nothing we could do if a stick-shaker goes off on approach?

  26. Joseph Says:

    Rob Mark says: Airline pilots tend to be conservative red people whom actually do find unionization an uncomfortable blue quandary at times.

    And Ray says: Any time wages for the same type job vary 4 to 1, there will be trouble.

    One would assume that pilots understand Econ 101.

  27. Maynard McKillen Says:

    Mr. Winslow has it. The times and the jobs have changed. Time was an executive would at least make a pretense of acting in the best, long-term interests of the company (first, and not after, consideration of the hit to his bonus), and would occasionally make his actions match his words.
    But the reality that golden parachutes protect management from the consequences of poorly informed, short-term thinking mean that executives have no real skin in the game, have nothing to lose, unlike employees who face the public.
    Well sure, an exec might see his net worth drop a few perecentage points, and might become the subject of a few unflattering exposes, but reputation is a commodity in the corporate stratosphere, easily purchased and “managed”.
    We’re all accustomed by now to the lack of transparency, accountability and accessibility that attend then achievement of executive status. It is the prize for going corporate, the penultimate ego-gratification.

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