Ask the pilot

Flying isn't much fun, but for now people keep doing it anyway. What can the airlines do to keep their customers happy?

Published June 27, 2008 10:50AM (EDT)

On June 14, an Op-Ed of mine ran in the Washington Post. The content was mostly a rehash of points I've been emphasizing on Salon over the past few months, basically summarizing how and why people take flying for granted.

The editors called the piece "Don't Hate the Airlines," a choice that was equivalent to affixing a big paper target to my head. I had it coming, I guess. And it came. Allow me to share with you my two favorite responses (much as I'm tempted to include the authors' names, we'll leave them anonymous):

"Your piece in the Washington Post is nauseating! I have typically flown to Hawaii, Australia and Europe several times per year every year. That has stopped, probably forever. The surly attitude of pilots and flight staff, the poor quality of service, the shabby state of equipment, and the cost are just simply not acceptable! The question that comes to mind, now that costs have been trimmed to the bone or so the airlines would have us believe, would be why pilots are paid $150,000 plus for working 20 hours per week doing the equivalent of driving a bus?"

And this one: "Fuck the airlines. There is absolutely no defense for delivering the bullshit product your industry delivers to the public ... I look forward to the day I take my last commercial airplane ride. You and your colleagues deserve what you're getting, and a whole lot more."

I received several more like the letters above, but these were the most hysterical. Obnoxious, insulting and to a large degree incorrect, they embody a sentiment millions of Americans feel.

The first one uses as ammunition a series of myths and misconceptions that, despite the best efforts of at least one online columnist, continue to thrive. Most irritating of these is the notion that the average airline pilot makes a healthy six-figure income while working minimal hours. I have taken on this subject several times before, but let's review.

Starting pay for pilots at a major carrier is around $30,000 per year. After roughly 10 years of seniority, provided a pilot is fortunate enough not to be laid off or see his or her company collapse, it will be at or near six figures. That's a major carrier. At the regionals, first officers make between $15,000 and $30,000 a year, varying with seniority. Regional captains earn somewhat more, but rarely do incomes exceed $100,000 annually. (Upgrades from first officer to captain are strictly a function of seniority.) The number of pilots who make upward of $150,000 is a small fraction of the airline pilots out there. They are the lucky ones who managed to hit one of the hiring waves at an opportune time.

And please don't forget that if a pilot is laid off or if the company liquidates, seniority -- which is to say salary and benefits -- is not transferable. Should the pilot find another flying job, he or she begins again at probationary pay and probationary benefits. Experience may be an important thing in some respects, but in other respects it is useless currency.

Meanwhile, the idea that pilots work only "20 hours per week" (similar numbers are parroted routinely by the media) is grossly misleading. Pilots are compensated only for the time their aircraft is actually in the air, not the time spent flight planning, waiting out delays, sleeping in hotels and so forth. Indeed that works out to around 80 hours each month, which is presumably where tallies like our letter writer's come from. Depends on your definition of work, I guess, but over the course of a typical month I will fly four multiday trips and be away from home for a total of approximately 300 hours, covering all or part of 15 calendar days. Sometimes more, sometimes a little less.

I'd rather not reveal exactly how much I earn, but let's just say that it's below six figures. It's a good living, frankly, but I am 42 years old and it took me 20 years to reach this point. During that stretch I worked as a flight instructor ($200 a week or less), regional pilot (my new-hire salary was $12,000) and cargo pilot ($60,000 in my best year). I've also been through two furloughs, and spent more than six of those years unemployed. At the moment things have never been better, but it could vanish faster than you can say "$200 a barrel." This week, word came down that United Airlines will be laying off 1,000 pilots. At US Airways, it'll be 300. This will be the second or third furlough for many of those pilots. At American, nearly 2,000 are already on the street. (And this is why I laugh every time the media talks of a supposed pilot shortage.)

I think of my friend Chris, age 29, who flies for US Airways Express. He is away from home 21 days every month and earns $18,000 a year, with $100,000 in student loans and flight training debt hanging over him. And yet, each time he walks down the concourse, no doubt there are people who eye him with a sneer. Just another overpaid pilot putting in his 20 hours.

And then we have this oft-repeated idea that flying jetliners is somehow easy -- or, as our friend puts it, like "driving a bus." This isn't a knock on bus drivers, but here's an idea: Let's find a bus driver, give him a few weeks of aircraft training, stick him in the cockpit of a 777 at the gate at LAX or JFK, and see if he can find Hong Kong. Assuming he makes it into the air, which is pretty doubtful, we'll throw in an engine fire, some wind shear and an assortment of system failures and other complications. The letter writer, of course, will have a seat in first class. I wish he had been there, sitting in the cockpit jump seat during the flight I detailed here. Pilots are paid for when things go wrong, not for when things go right; just the same, I cannot begin to describe the amount of knowledge and training that is prerequisite for even the most routine flight.

The second of our featured letters, meanwhile, is just plain belligerent. I have to ask, do people send messages like this to their doctors because the healthcare system happens to be screwed up? The next time the author goes to the hospital for a serious operation, I recommend he first send a note to his surgeon saying more or less what he said to me. Would he be comfortable with that, going under the knife? He doesn't seem to care that he could someday be a passenger on one of my flights. Depressingly, it will be my duty to save his ass should an engine explode at 160 knots on the runway.

As for what started all of this -- my suggestion that passengers take flying for granted -- I am not backing down. I cannot dispute that, on the whole, airlines flop miserably when it comes to customer service (more on that in a minute). However, if you think there is some terrible injustice in being asked to pay, say, $1,000 to fly halfway around the world, at 600 miles per hour, in a $200 million airplane, in almost absolute safety, you're being unreasonable.

Airline tickets cost roughly what they cost 25 years ago. We've gotten used to being able to travel on the cheap, reacting with shrieks any time fares tick upward. Alas, thanks mostly to skyrocketing petroleum prices, reality has caught up with the giddy fantasy spawned by deregulation. Fuel costs have risen tenfold since 1980 to become an airline's largest single expenditure -- eclipsing the costs of labor (long ago trimmed to the bone), aircraft leases and everything else. Economies of scale and advanced aircraft engines mean that flying will always be somewhat cheaper than it used to be, but the basics haven't changed. Even at maximum economy (airplanes, unlike cars, are remarkably efficient on a gallons-per-person basis), it still takes large amounts of fuel to move large numbers of people over large distances, using very expensive equipment. Flying will be getting more expensive. It has to.

But do I expect that millions of people will suddenly come to grips with this in a flash of epiphany? No, and to some extent they can hardly be blamed. At heart, the traveling public's resentment isn't about airfares. It's about service. It's about delays, cancellations, missed connections, security lines, lost luggage, dirty planes, crying babies, and all the assorted indignities that have turned flying into an uncomfortable, tedious and occasionally miserable experience.

Low fares and good service are to some extent mutually exclusive, but nevertheless there is plenty the airlines can and should do to address these things. What has thus far kept them from doing so is less about cost than a long-established culture of apathy and inertia. Record high load factors have allowed the industry to ignore its own mistakes. Flying isn't much fun, but people keep doing it anyway.

That, however, may be changing. The House Committee on Small Business estimates that the U.S. economy will lose $26.5 billion this year as a direct result of Americans choosing not to fly. This ought to be a wake-up call.

In a column earlier this summer I proposed that 80 percent of what people hate about flying could be assuaged in two fell swoops: by reducing the number of delays/cancellations and doing something -- anything -- to fix the nonsense of airport security. At first glance it might seem as though neither of these things is within an airline's direct control, but I beg to differ.

The congestion issue, which I explored last summer, can be substantially improved through better scheduling practices, including a reduction in the number of regional planes at busy hubs during peak periods.

As for security, I fail to see how the industry can remain comfortable with things the way they are. Granted, airlines tread a fine line -- there are liability issues, and carriers caught an awful lot of flack, most of it undeserved, in the aftermath of Sept. 11 -- but at some point they need to stand up and express outrage over what most of us already know: that the bulk of the Transportation Security Administration's checkpoint screening measures are pointless and absurd. They do not make people safer; they make people angry, all the while wasting billions of dollars and immeasurable amounts of our time. (This is above and beyond various other Department of Homeland Security protocols that burden both the airline industry and its passengers -- particularly those arriving from overseas -- such as the tedious gathering of passenger data and a new fingerprint collection requirement. According to the Air Transport Association, DHS proposes to stick the industry with more than $3 billion in additional expenses over the next decade.)

A third way for carriers to help themselves is by improving their horrendous levels of customer communication. Front-line staff (crews included) need to be better trained. At a gateside podium recently I watched as a woman, who had missed final call, nearly burst into tears after the boarding door was slammed in her face and a trio of counter agents then stood there ignoring her for over 10 minutes.

Finally one of the agents replied curtly, "We paged you and you didn't answer. Now we're busy." (One of the reasons she missed the page is because four public address announcements, together with the blather of CNN Airport News, had been playing over the loudspeakers simultaneously, making it impossible to hear anything.)

On another recent occasion, I was at an airport waiting to board a flight that had posted a four-hour departure delay. Three hours into that four-hour delay, at nearly midnight, the flight was canceled. There was no apology, and the explanation was some half-assed mumbling about "the weather." The moment the cancellation was announced, the agents vanished from the counter and went home, leaving a hundred or so people sitting at the gate with nobody to rebook them.

Similar things, I know, happen all the time.

Travelers don't want to be coddled, but they do want dignity, efficiency and a modicum of comfort. For as long as they are not getting it, anti-airline sentiment will grow hotter and hotter. Already, the loathing and distrust of airlines cannot be overestimated. It is, at this point, a feeling of resentment unparalleled in American business and industry. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, people resent airlines as much or more than they resent oil companies, politicians, certain lawyers and the rest of the usual suspects. Carriers ignore this at their peril. There will come a tipping point when a critical number of people simply refuse to travel.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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