Ask the pilot

Furlough: The worst cockpit terror of them all! What if it happens to you?

Published May 26, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

In a column last July I proposed that the Clash's "Career Opportunities" and the Jam's "Smithers-Jones" are the two greatest songs ever written about unemployment. The former, from the Clash's eponymous debut in 1977, is a raucous tear-down of the economic malaise in late-'70s Britain. It was later reworked to sweet hilarity on the "Sandinista" album, where it's sung by a chorus of young boys over a tinkling keyboard. The latter, written by the Jam's Bruce Foxton (not Paul Weller as many people assume), tells the story of a British workingman who arrives for work one morning, optimistic and "spot on time," only to be summoned into the office and summarily handed his walking papers.

"I've some news to tell you,
there's no longer a position for you 
sorry Smithers-Jones."

The song implodes around the word "Jones," in a crash of orchestral beauty. It's quite nice. And it also gives me the willies, because I know the feeling. Technically, from a pilot's point of view, I can say that "Smithers-Jones" is the best song ever about getting furloughed.

"Furlough" is a term that appears now and again in this column. Perhaps not everyone understands. In aviation parlance, furlough has a very specific definition. It means losing your job, for an indeterminate length of time, through no fault of your own. Whatever you call it -- being laid off, made redundant, placed on involuntary leave -- it's an unwelcome and entirely common phenomenon. In the rickety profit-loss roller coaster that is the airline industry, furloughs come and go in great waves, displacing thousands -- sometimes tens of thousands -- of workers at a time.

When it happens, a portion of an airline's pilot seniority roster, which is to say everybody at the bottom, as determined by date of hire, is lopped away. If cutbacks determine that 500 fliers have to go, the 501st man (or woman) hired now becomes the company's most junior -- and most nervous -- crew member. Some pilots are fortunate, getting on at just the right time and sliding through a long, uneventful tenure. But it's not the least bit unusual to meet pilots whose résumés are scarred by three or more furloughs, some lasting several years.

Furloughees remain nominal employees, presumably to be summoned back when conditions improve or attrition warrants their return. When and if that day comes, assuming the airline that cut you loose stays in business, you're brought back to the fold in strict seniority order -- the first pilot out is the last pilot back. How long can it take? The last heavy-duty furlough cycle, dovetailing nicely with our last economic recession, stretched from the late 1980s into mid-1990s. During that period, some USAir/US Airways pilots waited over eight years for recall.

Following the announcement of cuts, pilots are usually given notice of at least 30 days, but at smaller nonunion airlines it can be literally 30 minutes. Bargaining agreements stipulate the details, such as length of remaining benefits or severance pay, if any. For probationary employees at the bigger airlines, a month's wages are a typical parting gift. Unions such as the Air Line Pilots Association often arrange for healthcare options and help crews find positions at other carriers.

In 2006, with the airlines in such a wild state of flux, it's difficult to calculate exactly how many airline pilots are currently on furlough. According to AIR Inc., an aviation employment resource company, the number was 10,390 at the end of 2005, down from even higher totals in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001. The industry's ongoing woes no longer have much to do with the 2001 attacks, but the red ink and pink slips haven't disappeared.

"Our latest membership inventory shows 4,625 pilots on furlough status out of 61,100 total," says ALPA spokesman John Mazor, whose organization represents crew members at four of the nation's five largest carriers. "About a year ago, a separate tally showed net furloughs since Sept. 11 running over 7,000, or about 11 percent of our membership." A decline in furlough percentages isn't all good news. Many pilots have left the occupation entirely, or have settled for lower-paying jobs with the regional airlines.

Pilots aren't the only ones affected. Flight attendants too suffer regular furlough cycles, and airline staffing as a whole is down 70,000 workers from 2001 levels. "But if you're looking at the overall effects of the economic tsunami on pilots," adds Mazor, "don't forget the downgrading. Those who keep their jobs often get bumped down, so even those who manage to hang on find themselves in considerably diminished circumstances."

The domino effect within the ranks brings on serious training and staffing disruptions, which is why furloughs aren't always implemented even when a carrier is struggling. Captains become first officers; wide-body crews are kicked to domestic short-haul; the simulators fill up and instructors work overtime.

As regulars to Ask the Pilot already know, should a furloughed pilot take another airline job, there is no sideways transfer of experience or salary. Your original position and pay are meaningless. You become a probationary first officer making probationary wages -- anywhere from around $15,000 to $30,000, with very few exceptions. And you might be asked to resign your existing seniority, formally severing ties with airline A in order to convince airline B that you're worth the training investment. Alternatively, you can be expected to sign a contract stipulating your repayment of training costs. A pilot, even one in difficult financial straits (or bored out of his or her mind), needs to think very carefully before relinquishing a position that took years to achieve.

As it happens, for all the bad news coming from the largest carriers, cockpit hiring in general is currently very strong. AIR Inc. predicts that 10,500 positions will be available this year alone. The thing is, a majority of these positions will be at regional carriers, and will fall at the low end of that salary range listed above. Many furloughed pilots refuse to accept a job flying a turboprop or a regional jet for $17,000 -- not out of pride, but out of necessity. And even if he or she wants one, it's often the young, fresh-faced kid, hungry for opportunity and destined to stick around longer, who'll get the nod before some disgruntled refugee from United or Northwest. Experience, in this case, can work against the veteran flier.

If you're lucky, you might hook on with JetBlue, Southwest, FedEx or a few others, where benefits and pay for new hires are better than average. The trick is getting your application noticed in a stack thousands tall. And luck is a relative thing in such a historically unstable business. Today's successful upstarts, à la JetBlue, are tomorrow's Chapter 7 liquidations, and vice versa. There was a time not long ago when Eastern Airlines was the world's largest carrier this side of Aeroflot. Braniff had expanded its network as far as Singapore and Hong Kong. Pan Am and TWA were household names. Air Florida, PeopleExpress and New York Air were rising stars. Today each of those airlines has a tombstone in the post-deregulation cemetery. Say what you will of a seat in the cockpit, it's not a place for those who value a predictable career. (A number of those aforementioned USAir/US Airways pilots returned to work after eight years, only to be furloughed again in 2001.)

As the Wall Street Journal recently showcased, many displaced pilots have headed overseas, where well-paying opportunities abound. In India and the Middle East, where several growing airlines are hungry for crews, jobs come with numerous perks, including housing and tuition allowances. But again, get in line. My own applications to Emirates and Qatar Airways, both of whom actively recruit expatriate fliers, were rejected out of hand. These companies look for experience in high-tech cockpits, preferably as pilot in command, and have little trouble finding it. My own experience levels, mostly in turboprops and old cargo jets, are no match for major-airline castoffs whose logbooks brim with advanced Airbus and Boeing time.

Coming up slowly through the ranks, from flight instructor to regional pilot to freight hauler, I'd heard all the sad stories and followed the trends, fully aware of the industry's cyclical scourges and inevitable rounds of layoffs. But while it's easy to grasp these dangers intellectually, it is something else altogether on the day you're given notice and asked to return your I.D.

In the summer of 1994 I'd been a four-year captain at a rapidly expanding regional airline when, suddenly and unexpectedly, paychecks began to bounce. Our final day of operations, about a month later, was one I'll never forget: the sight of police cruisers encircling our planes, people crying and workers flinging suitcases into heaps on the tarmac. I was only 27, and the drama was hardly the stuff of the Pan Am and Eastern debacles, but just the same it was heartbreaking.

OK, that's skipping a step -- direct to liquidation with no actual furlough. That would come several years later.

In 2001, gainfully reemployed at a successful freight carrier, flying regularly to Europe and making the first living wage of my life, I interviewed with one of the big passenger airlines and was offered a position. Switching jobs at this point required abandoning pay and seniority, but I accepted with no hesitation for what was presumed to be my dream job. And pragmatically speaking, why the hell not? The mid-'90s, after all, had been the most profitable and expansive era of commercial aviation since the Golden Age of Ballooning.

People sometimes ask me what was going through my mind on Sept. 11. I remember many things about that morning: the enormous black cockroach I saw crawling across the platform of the Government Center subway platform at 7 a.m.; chatting briefly with the United Airlines stewardess on the ride to Logan, whose name I never got and, who knows, may have been headed for Flight 175. But the moment of truth came that afternoon, as I watched replay after replay of the implosion of the World Trade Center from a dumpy motel room in Charleston, S.C., where my flight from Boston had diverted. While I don't wish to sound selfish and disrespectful toward those whose fates were immeasurably worse, I knew I'd lost my job.

About a month afterward, at the conclusion of my final flight, I gave my 737 an affectionate whap on the fuselage as I headed up the Jetway. With fewer than a hundred dream job hours accrued, I was packing my uniform in a plastic bag and calling a toll-free number to file for unemployment.

Adjusting to having one's livelihood yanked away, even temporarily (so they told us, over four years ago), is influenced by various factors, most of them of the cold hard fiduciary variety: money in the bank, a spouse's income, a military pension, a fallback career or side business, panhandling. For pilots, remember, it's the bottom of the seniority list that's lopped away, where the majority of people are still settling in and making comparatively little money.

Below is some necessary advice for people setting their sights on this mad profession:

Expect it will happen to you too. Before putting both feet over the flight line, come to grips with the possibility of one or more periods of extended downtime. And recent events have proved the inefficacy of the "no furlough clause" and other supposed safeguards built into collective-bargaining agreements.

Pilots can reduce the risk of layoff by embracing the lucrative but less-than-glamorous realm of cargo flying. If the greasy glare of warehouse lights at 4 a.m. doesn't cramp your style, you can hunker down on one of the virtually recession-proof seniority lists at FedEx, UPS, etc. You won't be signing autographs for little kids, and your circadian rhythms might graph out a little funny, but if Mohammed Atta and his cohorts didn't wreak havoc here, I can't imagine who or what could.

When it happens, relax; it's not the end of the world (yet). Don't join any religious cults and don't make voodoo dolls of your most recent employer's corporate board. Don't take a job flying unexploded munitions out of Liberia, and, as gloomy as the future might seem, do not sell your wings, hat or flight case on eBay. The FBI won't like that, and you might need them again.

Commitments permitting, take advantage of your free time. Explore business and educational opportunities -- like starting an air travel column or writing a book. If you have any leftover travel privileges, hit the road while they last. (If and when I fly again, my captain might ask what I did while on the street, and I'll answer that I wrote a book and went to Timbuktu. It will almost have been worth it for the chance to say that.)

One of the often-repeated admonishments during furloughs is that a pilot needs to maintain currency and keep his or her flying skills from turning to driftwood -- advice I have entirely ignored (though I do live the thrill vicariously by writing about it). On the face of it, this is a perfectly sensible recommendation. However, before digging out those "Will Fly for Food" signs, there comes a point when groveling for flight hours is, well, something less than dignified. A job flying DC-4s in the Yukon, simply to prove your allegiance to aviation, is not necessarily going to impress anybody, especially if it's not covering the grocery bills.

In any event, better times are nearing, right?

Airline balance sheets aren't a whole lot healthier than they were in 2002 -- and they stand in stark contrast to the booming profits (and record hiring totals) less than a decade ago. I'd like to say there's a turning point looming just ahead, but conflict in the Middle East, the specter of terrorist bombings, and the soon-to-be-skyrocketing price of petroleum could mean we're yet to hit bottom. And plenty of Americans, not just pilots, will be singing the out-of-work blues.


Re: Sept. 11 conspiracy theories

"There's a good reason why people are coming up with theories about 9/11: We have been given barely any official information. I'm sure if I had some magical crystal ball, I'll bet I'd find out that the story we have been told is mostly true but has some major eye-openers that have been hidden from us. But since the government has not seen fit to give us enough information, I simply have no idea what the actual truth is. Therefore, anything is possible in some sense.

"A few days after 9/11, a friend of mine said with total confidence that the Bush government had arranged this to happen. I told him he was crazy. He also predicted almost to the letter everything that happened since -- bin Laden getting away, an endless war in Afghanistan, an endless war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, the wiretapping ... A few weeks ago I wrote back to him and I apologized. I said I still didn't believe that the Bush government had done it -- but that he had been unerringly accurate on everything else so I now had to concede the small possibility that this was true.

"So this is where I'm at, as a skeptical rationalist -- unable to completely refute the idea that the U.S. government murdered thousands of Americans for their own political advantage. It's very sad."

-- Tom Ritchford

Portions of this column originally appeared, in somewhat different form, in Airline Pilot Careers magazine.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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