One advantage of being an airline pilot is the use of the cockpit jumpseat, even when flying on personal business. And there are rules, including not speaking until spoken to. Of course, once you get the CEO of the Cockpit started ... .
October 25, 2002
This seems to be the month that I'm destined to "ride the rails" as a jumpseat squatter. First, I had to sit on the rather small jumpseat of a rather small airliner, and now I find myself ensconced on a 767 jumpseat, traveling back from Hawaii to the real world.
My two cockpit buddies for today, Captain Joe and Co-Pilot Sam, are only a little miffed that there are no seats in the back of the airplane today and that they are stuck with me for the five hours between the Sandwich Islands and the mainland. So far, I have tried to make their ordeal more comfortable by being their galley slave (getting them coffee) and the keeper of the "bar of doom" on the cockpit door.
There are a few customs that come with jumpseat riding that probably ought to be mentioned right away.
The first rule is that the captain is the person who decides who rides on that seat. Only FAA Inspectors and Secret Service Agents have an absolute right to sit there without the captain's permission, and even that is based on the captain's approval, because the captain could simply refuse to fly the flight. This means that even if your best friend is the captain, you better damn sure ask his or her permission to ride on the jumpseat.
The next rule is: no snitching. You are not there as an enforcer of the FARs and company rules. If they want to read Cosmo while aviating, which is against company policy, keep your trap shut and whip out something to read for yourself. If they want to play "Twister" or listen to CDs or even watch a movie on their portable DVD, mind your own business. The only exception to this non-interference rule is if you think you are going to die or if they ask for your help.
Another rule is that you let them start and lead conversations. It is their cockpit and you are just begging a ride, so spare them your life's history unless they ask.
Finally, don't piss off the girls. If you are a jerk to the flight attendants, your crew will suffer for it in subsequent legs. Just be nice and get along with everybody.
As usual, probably because of my huge ego, the subject of our conversation naturally turned to me.
"So, how was that cockpit of the RJ you flew on the other day?" asked Joe. "I hear they have lots of TV screens but it really falls short in other areas."
The cockpit of the RJ I flew in did seem a little smallish, but I was happy for the free ride back home. When you're in the seat you are pretty close to the console, and if you ever have to get out of the cockpit in an emergency, you are pretty well screwed. This is because the only escape hatch from the cockpit is a door in the ceiling - they don't have windows that open - and that door, if released, will smack you right in the head.
The guys flying the RJ were of the nicest type and were really professional. They used a hot-mike kind of intercom to talk with each other and to me, which meant I had to wear a headset, but other than that the ride was fairly normal, if you don't mind how underpowered the jet appears to be or the fact that the weather radar didn't seem to be worth a bucket of warm spit.
"What was wrong with the radar?" asked Sam.
Nothing at all, unless you want to detect dangerous weather. During our ride, the RJ guys were actually looking out the windows as their primary way of getting around the weather. The radar didn't show any of the level-five thunderstorms until we were about 30 miles from them. This sounds okay if you're doing 130 kt, but doesn't really work if you're doing 500. I'm not sure if they were working the tilt wrong or what, but the radar really didn't show much of anything. The guys said it was way underpowered, and they were very cautious about trying to get through lines of weather with it. They did a fairly good job though, and got us around the bad stuff.
The RJ passenger cabin looks like a little MD-88 cabin, and I can certainly understand why the public likes it. As a pilot though, I'd like it more if it had a little more power. Once we were out of about 14,000 ft, it couldn't climb more than 400 fpm or so. Now I understand why they vector me around RJs when I'm climbing out in my MD-88.
I've spent quite a bit of time flying Cessna 172s for a living, so I know that the RJ is a big step up for most pilots, and I'm sure it is a great airplane. I'm just glad with my weak weather skills that I have a decent radar in my Cajun Clipper.
Sam was just finishing up a position report to San Francisco when the conversation turned to the broader subject of "what is wrong with the airline business and how can we fix it."
"I think the main thing we are doing wrong," Joe said, "is cutting back so much on everything. I always thought that when everybody else was contracting we should expand. That would mean we could get their airplanes on the cheap and grab a lot of market share when things turn around."
That makes sense to me, but I think we are under the false assumption that airline managements really manage airlines. I think the real airline managers are all retired, except for Kelleher, and if he doesn't cut back on the drinking and smoking he'll be gone soon too. They don't build airlines now, they build balance sheets. If the managers could get any money for all our airplanes and invest in rubber doggie vomit and make a profit, we'd all be selling canine barf at the terminals and not traversing the Pacific.
The people who say they manage airlines are really trying to please a bunch of "airline analysts" in Wall Street and the government, from which they are begging for loan guarantees. The last thing on their mind is actually managing airplanes that are full of people who want to go places.
"I think you're right," Sam chimed in. "Our current CEO has three years in the airline business? What was he doing before that? Didn't he run a mutual fund or something? The last time we had an operations-oriented leader in this company was a very long time ago."
I have to admit that you would have to love the airline business or be crazy to stay in it nowadays. Still, some people manage to make a lot of money and it isn't just because they "control labor costs." That bromide about how labor costs are killing the airline business is a load of steaming crap. If managers would spend more time working on improving the product and less time bitching about what we make I think we'd all be lighting our cigars with hundred-dollar bills. Besides, we've furloughed about a thousand pilots from this airline how many vice presidents have been laid off?
Joe and Sam looked at each other but said nothing because they sensed that one of my airline-renowned rave-outs was on the way. They were right ...
Here's what we gotta do. First we need to take every chief pilot, flight-operations manager, and front office zoom-dweeby out of their cubicles and let them squint at the light of day. Many of them are good heads, but a lot of them have decided that they really don't like flying, and have made our lives miserable by producing reams of memos that mean nothing to us but keep their pathetic careers afloat. A lot of people say that it is safer to keep them off the line, but really, why keep them at the airline at all? Most of their jobs could be done for about $200,000/yr less by competent clerks.
No pilot with less than 10 years line-flying should be in an office telling other line pilots how to do it. Same thing for senior management. Hell's Bells! What in the wide wide world of sports is a mutual-funds manager doing running an international airline? Are you telling me there was nobody around that could run an airline that had actually been around one for more than a few months? I'm sure this new crop of airline management people did a great job at the Swiffer Sweeper Corporation or whatever, but this is a business that carries people at eight-tenths the speed of sound through the atmosphere! We're not mopping floors or selling canned pasta here, people ...
Which leads me to the next part of my never-to-be-asked-for advice for airline managements: We act like we've got no product, or at the very least that our product sucks. Why is that? Why are we in this mad frenzy of cutting fares and giving the public the impression that traveling across the world in an air-conditioned, pressurized cabin is worthless? My God, we're not selling leaky condoms or ginzu knives here. Airline travel is a valuable product and, as a group, airline managements are not only destroying the quality of it by these stupid ticket prices, they are destroying its future.
As an industry, we should tell the world that we have something to sell that is very valuable. We sell time. We sell the fact that I can fly from Hawaii to Los Angeles in four and a half hours today and not have to put up with a long boat ride like our ancestors. We should sell the fact that a business person from New York can meet in-person with a Japanese business person and get back home in only a few days. Admiral Perry took much longer than that to close his first deal.
We should no longer be afraid of what we sell, and as a profession, I never want to see pilots apologize for the money they make providing this product.
Sam and Joe looked like they were in pain so, following my own jumpseat rule, I shut the hell up.
"I think the airlines are just too big to manage effectively," said Joe. "What works and makes money for a 767 won't work for a 737 and yet all we talk about is 'standardization.' We have no fleet plan unless you call the random grounding of a lot of our fleet after we've bought the damn things a 'plan,' and marketing can't seem to get out of their own way. I'd suggest we divide the airline up into four competing teams and reward the winning team, meaning the team that made the most money, with a huge bonus."
I had to agree with Joe on that one. One of the side-effects of the airlines being run by life-insurance salesmen and human-resource graduates is that nobody who works in operations thinks anymore. They're really not allowed to. In the past, an agent could make a customer feel better right away with a free upgrade or at least a free drink if we screwed up. A mechanic could solve a problem on his own, and a shop assistant in the big hangar might come up with an idea that would save the company millions. Now, they are told to mind their own business or, worse yet, send along a memo.
Splitting up the company into competing teams would make everybody conscious of the bottom line and, better yet, service. With the advent of RJs, the split-up has already been done, but it has been done wrong. Instead of building a strong team, management has pitted us against each other and taken our minds off of two things: One, the basic business of the airline world, and two, how screwed up the current managers have made it.
We were beginning our descent into LAX, and finally something came up that worked at making me shut up. Dinner had arrived in the cockpit. Sam, Joe and I enjoyed the end of our leg together in the silent slurping of barbeque chicken and diet Coke. Airline troubles come and go as well as their managers, but one thing remains true in both the Navy and the world of flight: "A bitching ship is a happy ship."
Based on that saying, I have to admit that my cockpit is probably the happiest of all.
| With apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote The Autocrat of the
Breakfast Table, and P.J. O'Rourke, who penned The CEO of the Sofa.