Ask the pilot

The pilot seniority blues. And, what happens when avians and airliners collide?

By Patrick Smith

Published October 18, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

"Do you mean," someone wanted to know following last week's column, "that a pilot with 15 years experience on a 747, upon switching companies, would have to start over as a brand new rookie? Is this industry standard?"

That is exactly correct. I say again, there is no airline-to-airline transfer of skills or salary. If, whether by choice or through the forces of bankruptcy or layoff, a pilot takes a position at another airline, he resets that fancy watch of his and begins again at zero. Yes, this is industry standard, and it's one of the reasons pilots are often so militant when it comes to labor issues.

Thus, the hours in a pilot's logbook are a valuable thing, so long as it's within the context of a specific company's ranks. Otherwise they are so much dust, useful for posterity or perhaps a quantitative gauge of proficiency, but worth little when it comes to earning a salary or maintaining quality of life.

Another reader asked, "Why don't you guys get a union?" An earnest thought, but likely to offend ALPA, APA, IPA, and the other acronymic entities that represent most airline pilots, even those at the smaller carriers. At this point we are well entrenched in the seniority system, and there is rarely, if ever, any talk of overhauling it.

At a typical large airline, a probationary pilot will earn about $30,000, while those topping off the list -- almost always gray-haired captains nearing the mandatory retirement age of 60 -- bring home almost ten times that amount. It's these fellows the airlines, and sometimes politicians, make examples of during contract negotiations, but in truth they make up a tiny fraction of all the pilots out there. The trick is to get yourself established -- grab yourself a seniority number as quickly as possible -- and hope for the best. The rewards come later, not sooner. And on the way, be prepared for a multi-year layoff or two and all the cyclical scourges of the industry.

Risks are inherent in many professions, sure, but earning all the needed licenses and ratings, at least as a civilian, is extremely expensive, and you will not be recouping your outlay anytime soon. Many pilots are well into their 30s, or older, before earning any kind of respectable blue-collar salary. And you can forgo any plans for a predictable career.

Example: One pilot, let's call him Patrick, is 24. His family has mortgaged its home and drained its savings to finance his flight training and education. He has been flight instructing for three years, pulling down about $200 a week. He is soon hired by the commuter affiliate of a major airline, and in his first year will make $13,000 flying multimillion-dollar turboprops. His most impressive W-2 in a four-year stint with this same company shows a little over $35,000, just before the airline declares bankruptcy and shuts down, bouncing a few paychecks on the way out.

So Patrick takes a job with another regional carrier, starting off at about $15,000, this time flying sophisticated, 42-passenger planes for a company wearing the subsidiary colors of one of the world's biggest airlines. Eventually he lands a position flying cargo jets, beginning at $22,000 and finishing up, four years later, at $60,000 when he leaves for his dream job at a large passenger airline. Starting pay will be around $30,000 and he'll be assigned the dregs of routes and schedules.

At 35 he's got a lot of making up to do, but things look fairly promising. However, a feisty gaggle of Islamic fundamentalists have some plans of their own, and, well, the next thing our pilot knows he is out of work and collecting checks from the government (and an online magazine). Can't he fly for another airline? Sure, except it's pretty much only the smaller regionals who are hiring, where he can look forward to ... well, see above.

And so on.

We were told our flight was canceled because of "thunderstorms in New York." But weather reports and cellphone verification with family there revealed no such thing. Do the airlines lie to their crewmembers too, or only to their customers?

This gets back to people's general distrust of the airlines, which I've talked about before. In my own experience, however, I cannot cite a single case of an airline actually lying, either to crew or customer. I've heard my share of muddles and misinterpretations, but never an intended lie.

During lousy weather, mechanical breakdowns, etc., complicated information is transferred from one department to another -- from, say, air traffic controller to dispatcher to crewmember to gate staff. Each of these departments is familiar with its own procedures and terminology, and almost always something is lost in the translation.

Believe it or not "thunderstorms in New York" can mean a number of things, and does not necessarily imply actual rumbles and lightning over LaGuardia. It can mean, for instance, that along the routings to New York there are serious weather buildups that flights are being forced to circumvent, resulting in delays and cancellations as the dominoes topple. This is minced into "thunderstorms in New York."

How are pets carried below deck treated? Is it true that they are kept in unheated, unpressurized sections of the plane?

At 35,000 feet the outside air temperature is about 55 degrees below zero, and there is not enough oxygen to breathe. Even worse than economy class. Transporting animals in these conditions would not please most customers, especially those who actually like their pets. So yes, the lower holds are fully pressurized and heated.

Controlling the exact temperature in these compartments is not always easy, depending on the airplane type and especially during hot weather. The holds can heat up substantially during ground operations. For this reason some airlines embargo the carriage of pets during the summer months, but in general the temperature range is well within their comfort zone.

Why do I have to open my window shade for landing? And why are the cabin lights dimmed?

You are asked to raise your shade so you can see through the window. Not for the view, but to help you remain oriented (which way is up, etc.) if there's an accident. Further, it lets you see what hazards exist outside (fires, debris and such), which would be important during an evacuation. Additionally it lets light into the cabin and makes it easier for rescuers to see inside.

Dimming the lights helps your eyes adjust to darkness, so if anything happens and it goes dark, you're not suddenly blind while dashing for the exits. Also it makes the emergency path/exit lights more visible. These might be the only lights you see in an emergency. And as with the shades, it allows you to see outside for orientation. With the cabin lights burning brightly, the glare would make this impossible.

What happens if a bird hits a plane? Can a bird actually cause a plane to crash?

I've never considered the idea of a bird hitting a plane, but you never know (martyrs to the cause of ornithological superiority?). As for planes hitting birds, that's another story. So-called bird strikes happen from time to time, and usually the damage is minor or nonexistent (unless you're talking from the bird's point of view).

Sometimes, though, it's serious. A military 707 crashed in Alaska several years ago after hitting a formation of geese after takeoff and suffering multiple engine failures. A Lockheed Electra operated by Eastern Airlines crashed in Boston in 1960 after a flock of starlings damaged three of its four turboprops. And more recently, an engine on a TWA 767 suffered an uncontained failure during takeoff from Tel Aviv in 1999 after ingesting a gull.

Engines are the most vulnerable components. Birds don't "clog" an engine, but can bend or fracture the fan or compressor blades, causing power loss or failure.

Airframes, including the power plants, are tested for bird strike resistance, while at various airports, especially those along the coast, everything from scarecrows to shotguns to border collies are used to keep populations from interfering with operations.

You mentioned your musical influences in last week's column (seems an odd bit of background for a pilot). Give us five songs we can listen to through our annoying plastic headsets.

1. Credence Clearwater Revival, "Travelin' Band"
"737 comin' out of the sky ..." Ahead of his time, John Fogerty pays tribute to the world's bestselling jet, long before it was such.

3. The Clash, "Tommy Gun."
"Waiting in the airport till kingdom come." Something we can all relate to.

3. The Replacements, "Waitress in the Sky"
Young punks from Minnesota piss off the flight attendants. This is from the 1985 album "Tim." Republic Airlines, at the time a hometown carrier based in Minneapolis, was changed to "Reunion" in the song.

4. Brian Eno "Burning Airlines"
"I guess Regina's on a plane, a Newsweek on her knees." What, she's not ordering a couple of "Successories" pictures from SkyMall?

5. Hüsker Dü, "Turn on the News"
From 1984's "Zen Arcade" album, Grant Hart sings, "Airplanes are fallin' out of the sky ..." As I've written, we should come to grips with the fallibility of our flying machines.

This list will easily be expanded to 50 or so by the dozens of submissions I'll be hit with. There are obviously many others out there, but the above are some picks from the author's own collection.

When it comes to the mention of specific models, it seems the Boeing family is the most musically inclined (I can think of at least two other songs mentioning 747s). As far as I know, no singer has given credit to any Airbus type. Somehow the Airbus brand just doesn't lend itself lyrically.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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