A informal meeting of the minds (such as they are) takes place each year where folks from many walks of life -- but connected by aviation -- discuss the state of the industry and relations among pilots, mechanics, and more. AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit tells the tale.
April 10, 2005
The sun had gone down, the evening air show was over and it was time to for all tired pilots to bed down in their campsites at the Sun 'n Fun campground in Lakeland, Fla.
After a full day of roast-corn eating, trade-fair attending and craning our necks to a 45-degree up-angle, you'd think that everyone would be eager to take off their big belt buckles, remove the baseball caps with their airplane's "N" number on them and hit their respective sleeping bags.
I was sitting around the Coleman lantern with a group of people that showed not the least sign of fatigue. They were wired on sweet iced tea, pumped up by the day's activities and ready to talk until dawn.
The Annual Sun 'n Fun Summit
It is a little-known fact that there is a high-level aviation summit that takes place every year at the EAA fly-in at Lakeland. No surprise that I am a member of it, but you may be surprised to learn that out of six or seven people I am usually the only airline pilot.
Our group varies in membership from year to year, depending on who can get away for a few days in April to head to Florida, but it is usually an eclectic mix of big-business people, airline people, aerobatic junkies, warbird-owning oral surgeons, and the occasional female representative of one of those areas.
Imagine a circle of lawn chairs around a camping table loaded with cheap, salty snacks. You'd be amazed at what is discussed here and how it sometimes leads to real ideas that we can take out into the world and use.
Tonight, we have a movie actor who works with general aviation and kids when he's not making movies, an ATC controller from Chicago, an aircraft salesperson who sells high-end, single-engine airplanes, an FAA guy from the head office in D.C., and your humble, airline-schlepping, high-time, gray-haired servant.
We usually had at least one military pilot in attendance but this year all the military pilots we knew were deployed overseas.
With the possible exception of the upper-level FAA guy, none of us was a politician, which really cut down the bravo sierra. All of us cared deeply about flying and most of us have been doing it since we were teenagers.
We were all, more or less, successful in our various endeavors so we could also leave out the usual griping and whining about what each other's income was and how we didn't deserve it. After the year we airline pilots have had I was grateful for that and said so, which led to the first subject of the night.
The Greener Pasture Problem
Strangely enough, our movie-star member brought up the subject of the jealousy and sniping that is so common in aviation when it comes to jobs and income.
"I've seen this kind of thing in the entertainment business," he said, "but not to the degree I see it in aviation. Instructors think that charter pilots make too much money, charter pilots envy corporate guys and almost every pilot out there thinks airline fliers are overpaid. In the acting business, we are happy when a star gets a $20-million deal because it raises the bar for everybody. In flying, it looks like you professional pilots are your own worst enemy."
The FAA guy, who had given checkrides to every type of pilot during his career, agreed.
"I've flown with all sorts of pilots, from private applicants to 747 type-ratings, and I have to agree that when it comes to the so-called brotherhood of aviation, most pilots don't take part."
"Civilian general aviation pilots are looked down upon by military pilots," he continued. "Airline pilots are regarded as overpaid scum by local FBO prop jockeys, and even we FAA people have caught a hint of the disdain that most people in aviation hold for us."
The CEO Chimes In
The powers-that-be, whoever the hell they are, probably want it that way. I'm not talking about any great conspiracy, but you have to admit that much of our world is very messed-up.
Seeing that my comrades were both confused and intrigued by what I said, I continued.
Personally, I think the world we live in is totally backwards, upside-down and disorganized. We pilots and other aviation professionals -- but especially the pilots, have done almost nothing to look out for our profession or ourselves.
In the acting world, there is a lot of cut-throat competition but at the end of the day there are minimum pay guarantees for every performer, from a walk-on in a commercial to a star of a major motion picture. Union scale has a meaning in that industry and nobody blinks at paying actors.
Meanwhile, in our little world of aviation, people still begrudgingly pay CFIs around $20 a flight hour when they gladly shell out $85 an hour to the guy that works on their lawnmower or air conditioner.
Most corporate pilots work for much less than they deserve because they always know two things: First, their corporate flight department will be the first thing to go in a downsizing; and second, there are pilots out there who will gladly do their job for half or less of the money.
Even military pilots face some grim facts. More likely than not they are going to be deployed way more than they expected, and new military pilots entering the system have to sign on to such long service commitments that the idea of a second career as an airline pilot is less and less likely for them.
Not All Doom and Gloom
The air traffic controller interrupted me with a little well-deserved sarcasm.
"Ah, boo-frickin-hoo," he said. "We controllers are trying to keep metal from meeting metal and we are still using radar and computer equipment that the East Germans would have sold as scrap. Most post-strike controllers are nearing retirement age and the few of us that haven't already gone out on a disability are about to. You guys that get to fly for a living don't know what stress is."
I was glad that our controller friend was so adept at reinforcing my point, so I jumped back in to the conversation.
He Ain't Heavy ...
Do you see it? There it is again! Almost every facet of aviation has a bad thing to say about every other facet of aviation and we all suffer for it. Even ALPA members snipe at each other. The RJ jocks say that we big-airplane drivers are overpaid, and guys like me -- flying 767s and bigger -- can't wait to blame the RJ-flying regional carriers for everything that has gone wrong with our careers.
Meanwhile, we all spiral down the tubes. Some areas of aviation are thriving, but most are fighting each other over the scraps left behind by managements and government officials that think nothing of paying their lawyers $500 an hour but balk at an airline pilot or flight instructor affording a house.
Your very definition of "thriving" changes with time, who you are working with and what your expectations are. New pilots in their 20s thinks that 30 grand a year to fly 1000 hours is pretty nice. Then they have a kid or two and realize that their garbage man out-earns them and is home every Christmas.
Then they notice that, while their garbage man (or woman) gets guaranteed cost-of-living increases and fully paid health insurance and retirement, most pilots are facing pay cuts, no benefits and possible furlough.
I'm not talking just about airline pilots here. Like the rest of you around this table, I've paid my dues and done a number of jobs, from lineboy to CFI to charter to 767 jock. All of them were fun and I wouldn't have done it any other way if I had it to do over again.
The public always confuses our love of flying with our need to do well and survive. For every pilot working there are two other people telling the world how they would fly for free.
Is ALPA the Answer?
"So," said the aircraft salesperson, "are you saying that the Airline Pilots Association is the real answer to the problem? If you are, I disagree. If anything, the pilot unions have hurt the rest of the system by fostering a class mentality. In their view, airline pilots are better than everybody else. It's no surprise to me that other pilots are lining up to take your job for half the pay. Why not? What has ALPA ever done for them?"
Thank you for helping me make my point. That is exactly what I've been trying to say and you said it better than me. The problem with ALPA is that they only represent airline pilots and only a few of those.
The CEO's Brave New World
Let's imagine another kind of association. What if -- and I know I'm blue-sky dreaming here -- what if we all said, "Enough already!" and came up with another kind of organization to represent aviation professionals?
I don't mean a pilot's union, or a mechanic's union, or even a controller's union. I'm proposing an all encompassing organization that helps look out for every professional member of our craft.
Imagine a world where airplane mechanics made more money than the guy who changes your car's oil at the dealer. Imagine CFIs who could make a career of teaching with expectations of being able to raise children, own a house and fund a retirement. Cast your mind on a world where you can enjoy flying five people in an Aztec without hating the guy flying 300 in an Airbus.
Every time someone in the media or from airline management or even your sales director at the aircraft dealership told you that business was bad and it was your responsibility to give back money and benefits to fund their next bonus you could laugh at them instead of fight with your co-workers over how much to give them.
Aviation isn't the only business that eats its young, but recently it has been one of the more self-defeating endeavors.
What we need is a national, all-encompassing organization like the American Medical Association or the Bar Association. From day one of their aviation career everybody needs to be a member and have a vote. It is pointless to only represent airline pilots when they are only a very small fraction of the total population.
A Minimum Wage for Aviation Professionals?
"Aren't you talking socialism?" asked the FAA guy. "Why can't market forces dictate what aviation professionals get paid?"
That again is my point. Because we are all out there alone the market forces aren't dictating our fortunes; the least able and corrupt managers are.
If actors, government employees and the like have minimum floors of compensation why can't mechanics, pilots and FBO workers? Even French fry cooks have a minimum wage. Let's establish a minimum wage for pilots.
I'd suggest that we make the pilot minimum wage equal to whatever car dealerships charge for an hour of labor in their repair shops. A CFI would do quite well if he or she could clear $85 an hour.
Not worth it? What is worth more to a person: Staying alive during a cross-wind landing or having the electric windows in their jalopy work?
It is all a matter of public expectations.
Our little bull-session was winding down and the nightly outdoor movie was about to start. The show tonight featured our actor friend; some story about Air Force One getting taken over by terrorists.
I'm sure we'll meet at the same campsite next year with the same gripes and concerns. Aviation hasn't really changed since the first person said they would fly the Wright Flyer for free just to build some time.
Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.