Ask the pilot

If you're a pilot, no matter how much skill you have, or how many lives you've heroically saved, the only thing that matters is seniority.

Published March 20, 2009 10:31AM (EDT)

Let me start by repeating something from last time.

"Also bear in mind that salary or tenure is nontransferable," I wrote in my March 6 discussion about the deterioration of pay and benefits faced by airline pilots in recessionary America. "If a pilot who is furloughed or otherwise cast off from one airline chooses to work at another, the seniority system dictates that he begin again at probationary pay and benefits, regardless of experience."

I'm repeating this passage because too many people seem not to believe it. I received a multitude of e-mails from incredulous readers. Such a statement must be false, they contend, or at least exaggerated. Yes?

Well, no.

Imagine you're an airline captain. You've been with the same company for 20 years now, and you're making a respectable if not spectacular six-figure salary. Then one day this airline goes bankrupt and closes its doors, à la Eastern, Braniff, Pan Am and no doubt others still to come. Suddenly jobless, you apply for a position at one of its competitors. Lo and behold, you're hired. Back to normal, right? Not quite. I'm sad to report that, in addition to the routine challenges faced by anybody who takes up residence with a new company, you will not be hired on as a captain, and you certainly will not be bringing in anything close to your most recent salary. A third of that is more like it, if you’re lucky. You take your place at the bottom of the seniority list, and the long, slow climb begins again. Compensation and benefits are fixed and nonnegotiable. Your annual raise, when there is one, will be based on longevity.

There are no exceptions. Not even if your name is, say, Chesley Sullenberger. "We're all proud of you, Sully. Sorry about the demise of US Airways. You'll be an asset to our airline and we're happy to have you. Unfortunately, you'll need to remove that fourth stripe from your epaulet, since with us you'll be flying as a junior copilot. Many of your captains, younger and far less experienced than you, will probably feel uneasy, but so it goes."

And in a lot of ways, that's a best-case scenario. One problem right now for nervous pilots at struggling carriers like US Airways, United and American is that virtually none of their competitors are actively hiring. On the contrary, there are currently more than 4,000 pilots out there either on indefinite furlough status or victimized by airline shutdowns (ATA, Aloha, etc.). And that number will be climbing, perhaps drastically, in the months ahead. Only a handful of regional carriers are still recruiting, albeit at a trickle, with opening salaries topping out at a princely $20,000 or so. Somehow I can't picture Sully taking up shop in the right seat of a 30-seater, working five days a week for $1,500 a month.

My own displacement stories have been less drastic but still frustrating and not much good for the bank account.

In 1994, around the time this photo was taken, I was a regional captain making about $35,000 a year. (At an airline where new hires were paid less than half that much, I frankly felt like a zillionaire and could splurge on trips to Peru.) But very soon the company went under, and just like that I was a first officer again, with a brand-new airline and a salary of $14,000.

Later in the 1990s I flew cargo for DHL. After four years I was earning nearly $65,000 when I left that job for a position with a major passenger carrier. Starting salary at my ultimate dream job was about $29,000 -- a 50 percent pay cut. To be fair, though, I'd be doing quite well in only a few short years, above and beyond anything I would have made at my previous jobs...

Except that I was promptly furloughed in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks. I was still in training when the layoffs were announced. I flew for a few weeks, and by Halloween I was down signing papers at the unemployment office.

Could I have returned to DHL? Maybe. At the bottom. Could I have gone to a regional? Maybe. At the bottom.

I spent the next five years writing columns instead.

(For more on how furloughs work, you can revisit this 2005 column. I'll also take this opportunity to remind people that, for the most part, regional affiliates operate independently of their major airline "parents." They are subcontractors. A pilot for United Express is no more an employee for United Airlines than the kid working at the concourse yogurt stand. With very few exceptions, there is no employee flow-through between a major and its regionals.)

One could easily say that experience, for all of its intangible value, both in normal operations and in those rare times of danger, is essentially meaningless to a pilot's destiny. Seniority is the currency of value. And because seniority has no value beyond the borders of a specific airline, pilots are fiercely protective of it. Nothing is more important than, as we call it, our "number."

All of a pilot's quality-of-life variables are assigned via bidding. You bid for position (captain or first officer), aircraft type, base city, routes, vacations and so on. What you end up with depends on your relative position within the ranks -- that is, your number: your number within the airline overall; your number in that base; your number within a specific aircraft category; your number, number, number.

How much skill or experience you possess, or how swell a person you are, will not earn you a raise or a better monthly schedule. Neither will how many lives you managed to save in the throes of some emergency. Only your number can do that. It's at once fair and unfair; the ultimate insult and the ultimate egalitarian tool. Dehumanizing, maddening and immensely important.

"Numbers" are a hot topic when the rumors of furlough swirl, or when employee groups are integrated during mergers. I've seen people visibly upset on learning that their relative position would drop by a meager percentage point or two as the result of a merger. One percent doesn't sound like a lot, but it could cost you, for instance, an upgrade from first officer (er, "copilot," if we must) to captain, and many thousands of dollars over time.

I know of no other profession structured this way. The arts and various free-agency fields present similar risks, but in the realm of mainstream trades there is virtually no comparison. Blue-collar or white-collar, help me out here ... teachers, doctors, engineers, architects, plumbers?

You ask, so why do pilots put up with this? "Why don't you guys get a union?" is something I hear from time to time.

Of course, most airline pilots already belong to large, quite powerful unions, which were primarily responsible for getting the seniority system going and for helping to entrench and solidify the protocols now in place. But unionization, broadly speaking, is not the problem -- nonunion airlines in America, I'll point out, are set up no differently. The problem is a pilot culture and mind-set that refuses to reconsider an all-or-nothing emphasis on seniority, and the absurd pay disparities that exist within a given airline's ranks. Captains should and do earn more than first officers, but the disparity within a position, and its being based entirely on longevity, is itself badly out of whack. Pilots do not earn merit-based tenure, and there are no apprenticeships or residencies in an airline cockpit. Thus there is something patently unjust about a junior first officer making, say, $30,000 while a more senior first officer, at the same airline, is earning $100,000 or more. Both have exactly the same job, with the same measure of responsibility.

Leveling the field through a more even distribution of salary seems a logical fix. Lifetime earnings would remain more or less the same, while those who need to switch companies could do so with a milder penalty. Easier said than done. It would require, among other things, considerable sacrifices from those ensconced in the highest and best-paying echelons of seniority. Try asking a senior captain -- thrice furloughed in his career, his pay reduced by 40 percent since 2001, his pension gone -- to sacrifice yet more merely to improve the lot of a new first officer. Good luck with that. And so the cycle is self-reinforcing. (The management of Florida-based Spirit Airlines recently proposed a scheme that would award certain captain upgrades based partly on subjective personality assessments. The idea is vociferously opposed by Spirit's pilot group.)

As presently constructed, the system made a lot more sense in the days before deregulation, when the industry was more stable. Furloughs and liquidations weren't nearly as common as they are today. You had your number, and your airline, and you hung with it; the payoff was there, eventually. You could (almost) bank on it. The danger of having to start over was comparatively remote. Today that danger is widespread, yet there are no protections, no insurance. The system has failed to adjust.

Overseas, incidentally, the picture is often different. Pilots who've gone the expat route to Asia and the Middle East, for example, don't need to be as "number"-conscious. While the situation varies from country to country, airline to airline, differences typically include promotions that are merit-based and salaries that are more evenly distributed. You might not make as much in the end, but neither do you make as little in the beginning. In many respects this is a better arrangement, but these jobs are, in other ways, often riskier than those at home, lacking many of the hard-won protections provided by unions like the Air Line Pilots Association. You can argue that collective bargaining has stuck us with a too-rigid seniority format, but it has also given us innumerable benefits, from protections against summary discipline, to legal and medical assistance, to countless safety initiatives.

Here at home, there have been murmurs about a so-called national seniority list, which might allow a more equitable sideways transfer between companies, but little has come of it.

Seniority should have its benefits, I feel, just as it does in a wide range of other professions. But it should not wield such enormous power over the life and livelihood of a worker -- particularly a well-trained and highly skilled worker who has labored long and hard to reach a certain level.

Now, hold on. Some of you are scowling, I know. You're scowling because here is this pompous pilot whining about life at one of the country's least-beloved industries. Airlines? Let them all go to hell. "Your industry doesn't care about me," wrote an e-mailer recently. "Why should I care about you or your job?"

And you're scowling because I'm supposed to know that life isn't fair, and what about the millions of other hardworking people in this country affected by this ever-deepening recession, many of them facing the specter of unemployment?

Before you click the Send button, I know, I know, I know. This isn't an entitlement tantrum, and I am well aware that there are far worse lots than to be stuck flying planes for a living, even at torpedoed wages. But this is an air travel column, and I'm trying to explain the nuts and bolts of something that is widely misunderstood.

Yes, these are scary and uncertain times for everybody.

And if my column isn't helping you feel better, try something else. Put on some music, maybe. And keep it topical...

I once opined, and will do so again, that the two greatest songs ever written about unemployment are the Clash's "Career Opportunities" and the Jam's "Smithers-Jones." The former, from the Clash's eponymous debut in 1977, is a raucous tear-down of the economic malaise in late-'70s Britain. I have to say it still sounds fresh and plays quite nicely in 2009 America. The latter, written by the Jam's Bruce Foxton, tells the story of a British everyman 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 very nice. Listen and you'll see. Though, all things considered, it might also give you the willies.

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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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