CEO of the Cockpit #68: Animal Stories

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Animals and aviation have always had a close relationship. You've got your Flying Tigers, your Mustangs, and even the venerable B-52 has earned the name "the BUFF," although I don't think that name refers to the American Bison.

I was thinking these thoughts recently at a dog agility trial where our Corgi was preparing to absolutely destroy and lay waste to the 12-inch jumping competition. I don't think anybody has ever named a model of aircraft "the Corgi," but there have been the Air Wolf and the U.S. Navy's Greyhound, and everybody knows what a dogfight is.

Our dog's agility coach, Kim, came up just then to remind me that we still had about a dozen dogs to go before our dog was in the hunt. She wanted to know how it was possible that an airline could lose a two-legged dog. She was referring to the recent story in the news about an airline losing a famous, two-legged dog for a pretty long period of time. The story had a happy ending: The dog and his owner were reunited and it made national news.

"It must have been terrible for the little guy," she said. "Imagine being in a crate in a noisy airplane and not knowing where you were."

That sounds like most of my piloting career to me, I said.

"Well, I think unless you absolutely have to have your dog fly it is dumb to crate it up and stick it in an airplane's cargo hold," she said. "Imagine having a hundred times the hearing ability of a human and then being on a noisy airline ramp. It must be awful."

When Airlines Lose your Dog -- and the Bubble ...

Airport in Snow

I'm not sure about this airline flying dog thing. I personally wouldn't subject my dog to that kind of experience, but lots of people do it with their pets all the time and see no problems with it. I know from the experience of hundreds of walk-arounds during my career that the dogs I see in their carriers on the ramp don't look very happy.

This must especially be true during what the airlines call "abnormal operations." When a snow storm or another bad weather event happens like it did recently and people are stuck on airplanes for upwards of 10 hours, imagine what the animals in the cargo bin are going through. Well, actually, they may have better conditions in the cargo hold. They have water to drink and can go to the bathroom whenever they please.

A heavyset man sitting next to his border collie overheard our conversation and began to tell me about his bad experience the week before on another airline. Why do people always feel like they can tell me how much their last trip sucked? Is the same thing true of doctors? Do people always tell doctors they run into all about their last operation and how bad it went?

Border-collie man was steamed. Apparently, he was stuck for five hours on a certain discount airline's jet while the aforementioned airline went belly up in the confusion of a heavy snow storm. There was no food, he said. Also, the bathrooms got very funky and the water ran out during hour number three. After all of that, they finally went back to the gate only to find that there was no replacement crew available and nobody was there to unload their bags.

"Just what is going on with the stupid airlines?" the man wanted to know. Kim looked like she wanted to know too. It is unusual for me to have two people interested in my opinion, so I decided to give it to them.

Don't Get Me Started ...

Ground Crew

It works like this, I said. Way back when, during the 1970s and 1980s and right up through today, everybody wanted very cheap airline tickets. Who could blame them? I don't; I want cheap stuff too.

After a long period of what economists would call "adjustment," the airlines all learned the hard way how to cut their costs to the point where they could offer the consumer a cheaper product. The air carriers cut salaries, took away vacations from their people and started charging their employees for things they had previously taken for granted. Things like medical and dental insurance.

To continue to cut costs, they laid off roughly two-thirds of their maintenance personnel. They contracted out their heavy maintenance to foreign countries on the cheap.

The ramp workers that should have been there for you during the storm had probably not shown up for work that day. You see, in the bad old days when your ticket cost a lot, the airlines could afford to pay a living wage to people who threw bags. People could actually raise families and send kids to college based on their salary from the airline for handling luggage.

Now, ramp workers are largely made up of minimum wage contract workers. A great deal of them are, shall we say, "newcomers" to our country and language. Why should they show up for work when there is a foot of snow falling and it is very cold? If they get fired they can get a job in fast food for roughly the same money and in a heated building to boot.

Kim jumped in at this point, probably to head off what was beginning to look like an hour-long lecture.

"You're not saying that people working at the airlines now are of a lower quality just because they get paid less, are you? And what about the flight crews?"

Some Clarity

Airline Pilots

I thought I better back-track a little. I think the people working on the airlines now are of the finest kind. It is hard to call out a back-up crew during an abnormal op if the crew doesn't exist because it was never hired or trained. It is hard to de-ice a lot of airliners in short time if you sold half of your de-ice trucks to save money. You can't have crew scheduling find available crews during an abnormal if you have gutted crew scheduling.

There used to be a two-way relationship in the airline industry and, for that matter, all big American industries. The company took care of you and your family, many times for life. In return, you had loyalty, respect and concern for the company that hired you.

Managers who were so hot to cut employee and other costs never considered that little bit of extra effort that a happy employee working in a service industry like the airlines provides.

During the last big winter storm I'm sure that a lot of various low-cost and bankrupt airlines employees heard the phone ring but didn't bother to answer it.

Maybe they thought that some of the dozens of vice presidents in the company who made sure that they got their pensions, performance bonuses and benefits guaranteed should show up and throw some bags. Why exert heroic measures for a company that clearly sees you as an expensive liability and not an asset?

The opposite may be true and I'm not seeing it because I'm too close to the issue. A lot of people think the airlines got in trouble in the first place because their pilots and other employees were overpaid. They think the airlines were pampered during the years of regulation and that made them soft and overpriced. I personally don't believe that, but as my wife says, I'm often wrong.

Even The Dogs Are Getting Bored

Border-collie guy was looking a little perplexed when he said, "So, you're telling me that airline pilots aren't being safe just because they get paid less now?"

No. I'm saying the exact opposite. Airline pilots, ATC controllers and every airline employee are trying to do the most professional job they can under the circumstances. They just can't change the circumstances. That is why airliners take longer delays now. In order to be safe, both the system and the operators are being extra cautious. That is a good thing.

I don't think safety is an issue. With the advent of CRM and other improvements, safety has been enhanced.

The de-icing rules and procedures are much better than they were a few years ago. That is sometimes why there is a big delay during a winter storm. Holdover times are adhered to and pilots go back to get deiced again when their holdover times run out.

When Bankruptcy Courts and Lawyers Run Airlines

Dog and Plane

The bad part is that because most airlines are either in or emerging from bankruptcy, it is all about money, not operations. From a financial standpoint, it may make sense to go belly-up once or twice a year because you don't have enough depth to operate properly.

People got what they wanted. They got less expensive tickets and itty-bitty jets to fly them. Maybe that is the wave of the future. I'm just saying that they really should not expect the same level of service they got when they paid much more for their ride. You can't get steak on a tuna budget.

There Will Be A Short Delay ...

The dog show was in delay mode as they cleaned up an accident near the A-frame obstacle. This looked like a good time to change the subject so I began to tell them both my story about when we had a killer, dual-personality German shepherd in the cockpit of our DC-8 back when I was an engineer.

During those so-called "good-old safe" days that old captains like this one keep going on and on about, we actually carried a dual-personality dog in the cockpit because we couldn't put him in the cargo hold.

Try to imagine this aging pilot before you as a brown-haired, eager, flight engineer and then try to imagine me with a huge, drooling, German shepherd on my lap during a three-hour flight.

The problem was that the dog's owner, after she told us about the animal's dual personality training, told us that the dog only took commands in the German language. As far as we knew, "gear up" might mean "kill everybody" in German ...

I quit telling my story because Border collie guy had wandered off and Kim was taking the dog-show floor with her Golden Retriever. For a short moment there, I felt like I was in the cockpit of a 767, or in the same room with my teenage kids. I was talking and nobody was listening.



Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.