Pilot lounges are happy places containing the most entertaining bulletin boards available in the aviation world.
You can tell a lot about the state of the world and what time of year it is by just looking over what is for sale on the wall of a lounge. When you see motorboats, airplanes, and expensive motorcycles for sale you know it is just about income tax day. When you see dozens of homes for sale, you know a base is about to close.
When you see a Pitts Special for sale it generally has something to do with a divorce. Campers are exchanged between soon-to-be-retired pilots and ones who realized they can't afford the retirement they began.
You can peruse the announcement board and get a feel for how the pilot group is thinking. A chief pilot with only 150 hours in the captain's seat will always have his or her memos tattooed with references to his or her low time. Most company announcements will be decorated with huge "YGTBSM!!" notations; and even (and maybe even especially) ALPA announcements get the same incredulous treatment from the board readers.
This is especially true in an election year and is even more true in a pilot base that is about to be closed by the company to cut costs. The location of the base is classified for purposes of this discussion because, let's face it, I don't want to tell you and anyway the location is moot.
Suffice to say that my co-pilot, Jim, is none too happy about the fact that his base is closing and the flights from that city are so cut back that commuting is going to be impossible.
"I knew something bad was going to happen when they called me out on reserve to fly with you," he said. "It seems like my last six call-outs have been for other bases. I can't remember the last time I covered a trip for this base, so I knew something was up. How can they say they are going to grow the airline into profitability on one hand and with the other hand cut the flying jobs of over 400 pilots?"
Jim ended his little soliloquy by thumb-tacking a picture of his house in the 'burbs on the For Sale bulletin board: For sale, cheap! Make an offer!
This real-estate sell-off that is going on in pilot ghettos like Crystal Lake in Illinois and Peachtree City just south of Atlanta has an added feature that many people didn't see coming.
More than once -- as I traveled in my cheap pick-up truck through these areas on my way to tennis matches, yard sales, and drinking binges -- I've heard from non-pilots all about how overpaid and spoiled airline pilots were.
What they said may be true, but the fact that most airline pilots in this country are making roughly half the money they made in past years has direct consequences to the people in places like Crystal Lake and Peachtree City that aren't throttle pushers.
Consequences like hardware stores that are no longer able to sell the expensive snow blowers, real-estate prices that are plummeting because of hundreds of panicked pilots trying to get out from under houses that -- up until this year -- they thought they could afford.
Indoor tennis clubs no longer have pilot wives bedecked in bracelets and graphite racquets lining their lounges -- most of those poor girls are out looking for jobs so they can keep the house. High-end restaurants can't stay in business if people with high-end incomes are in short supply.
But the base closing was old news in the lounge today. Today's bull session turned out to be about politics. This was because Toby, an ALPA apparitor, was in the lounge to tell us all to go vote in the presidential election for the Democrat. Apparently, the Democrat candidate had actually answered a questionnaire from ALPA national. He had also promised us every single thing we asked for from his upcoming administration and some things we hadn't even considered.
None of this was a big surprise to anybody. ALPA is, after all, a part of the AFL-CIO, even though most of the pilots I fly with are politically conservative to the point of being a pain in the butt. Even so, a labor union is a labor union.
Personally, I think mixing politics with flying is always a bad idea, but you just can't avoid the fact that airline flying requires money and access to the airspace system of America, and politics is the best way to influence that.
When Toby finished his plea to a group of lazy-boy-sitting, tired and napping pilots who only wanted a half hour of peace and quiet before their next flight, he sidled over to the bulletin board next to me and said, "Well, I hope we can count on your vote for Kerry this November!"
Are you talking to me?
He had to say it twice, because for a moment I didn't know he was talking to me. I could have replied that maybe ALPA should be concerning itself with the fact that the base he was standing in was closing and that his pilot constituents were taking an almost 50% pay and lifestyle hit while he helped a non-pilot run for president, but what would be the point in that?
Later, as we went from flaps one to flaps up, ran the after-takeoff checklist and found ourselves in cruise, Jim and I found a few minutes to talk politics.
"I just don't understand where Dubya is coming from," said Jim. "How can a guy that is a fighter pilot just not show up for a medical? How can you blow off having the best job in the world? Just what the Hell was the guy thinking?"
That has been my problem with Bush as well. I had no problem with the idea that he had a drinking, partying past. I didn't even have a problem that he wasn't the smartest guy at Yale or that his Daddy got him his gig in the Guard. I can't imagine being an interceptor pilot and walking away from it without looking back.
Here is how I see the presidential candidates:
Both Kerry and Bush are against terrorism. Neither one seems to have a position on the fact that the only bulletproof part of an airliner is the two and a half foot wide cockpit door.
Neither one has a clue as to how to take the clown college that airport security has become and turn it into something useful. I dunno ... maybe they could start searching for weapons and stop frisking grandmas for bra bombs.
Kerry is all for labor unions; ALPA being a labor union has endorsed him. Bush thinks a labor union is a bunch of disgruntled grape pickers in California that want to buy Humvees and blow their union-garnered wages on flag-burning parties.
Bush missed out on the war in Vietnam by joining the Guard, becoming a pilot and then walking away from the best weekend flying job ever in existance. Kerry went to Vietnam, actually had people film re-enactments of his river bank war exploits and then came home to tell America that their sons and husbands were baby killers and war criminals.
I, on the other hand, joined ROTC to avoid the war and never had the guts to make a stand either for or against it.
Bush, while making a lot of noises after 9/11 to save the nation's airlines, has done bupkiss in that area. The federal support for the industry directly attacked on that day has been effectively withheld, and airlines that made the United States the envy of the flying world have been left to rot and fester and go bankrupt while congresspeople who haven't held a real job in their lives preach to them about free-market forces and high labor costs.
Both candidates don't seem to mind that most of our military airlift is by civilian carriers. The military has actually said they would have to charter foreign airliners to fly our troops to their next battle. Think about that for a minute. Your son or daughter is about to board the plane to take them to Iraq or Albania or whatever festering, third-world dump we are currently fighting in, and an Al Italia jet pulls up .. or an El Al Airbus, or maybe even an Aeroflot junker.
Meanwhile, neither candidate seems to notice that we don't have any significant number of military transport planes and that our main bomber --the airplane we rely on to take huge loads of bombs to future enemies -- is well over 50 years old and there is no replacement in the pipeline. Pilots flying the B-52 today could well be the grandchildren of the pilots who first flew it in the 1950s.
Using the B-52 as our main bomber is the same thing -- in terms of years -- as using a three-masted schooner to battle the Japanese fleet in World War II.
Kerry speaks French. Bush speaks Texan and fundamentalist Christian. Both are using both sides of their mouths when it comes to aviation policy.
The air traffic control system is on its ass and neither candidate has noticed or cares. The nation's airliners used to be manufactured by three major companies. Now there is one and it is losing almost daily to a French airplane builder, and neither candidate cares.
When passengers call my airline's help line for assistance they are speaking to someone in Bangalore, India, and neither candidate cares.
Both candidates seem to be for allowing pilots to have guns in the cockpit, but neither is very interested in making it easy for a pilot to apply for the program or to fund it.
"Well," Jim broke in, "at least you are keeping an open mind."
A ding from the back announced that our flight attendants wanted a word with me. It was a relief to both Jim and me that we were back to the usual and away from the political for at least a while. A passenger was having a nicotine attack during our four-hour flight and was caught by our On Board Leader (head flight attendant) coming out of a smoke-filled lavatory.
Being smoke-filled -- as it was -- we got the intercom ding at just about the same time we got the lavatory fire warning in the cockpit. It is amazing how quickly a quiet airborne conversation about politics can suddenly be interrupted by fire, smoke and idiotic, drug-addicted passengers.
The smoke roiling out of the bathroom panicked two or three coach passengers, which in turn made everybody on board a little edgy. A quick PA from their fearless captain explained it all:
"Ladies and Gentlemen, you may have noticed an odor of smoke coming from the back of the aircraft. We are aware of it too and have found it to be caused by somebody smoking in the bathroom. The cigarette in question has been put out, the smoker in question has been questioned, and the air should be clearing soon. Ironically, the Great Smokey Mountains are below us and you can see Bald Knob from here if you look out your window. Thank you."
Another crisis averted! It is amazing how quickly reality can trump speculation. I guess we'll just have to wait and see who is elected in November and hope there is an airline industry left to fly people to the inauguration.
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