CEO of the Cockpit #14:
The New Year

It's been a tough year at the airline, and next year is looking even worse. But AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit knows that one way to break the cycle of gloom is to make resolutions about your own life and let the airline take care of itself.


Another layover, another motel restaurant, another inane discussion about whatever with the co-pilot “du jour.” With the end of the year looming and tomorrow night’s New Years Eve – a Jackson, Mississippi, layover – on the horizon, it seems time to reflect back on the past and project myself into the future.

“My plan,” said Melissa, this trip’s co-captain, “is to avoid getting any phone calls, mail, or other messages bearing the word ‘furlough.’ There have been way too many of those things flying around, and even though I’m 200-numbers senior to their announced cut-off, I have a payment due every day on something or other, and need this job, so I’m worried.”

Just hearing those sorts of numbers makes me feel bad. For all the position cancellations and other setbacks I’ve endured during the past 25 years, I’ve never faced the prospect of a layoff. Like all blue-collar jobs, the airline pilots of the world always end up paying for the gaffes of others.

It is all over the media right now. “Labor costs must be lessened if airlines are to survive, say airline analysts.” That is so dumb as to not even merit my attention usually, but since it is so prevalent and since our nachos aren’t here yet I guess I’ll comment on them.

The troubles that the airlines are going through are very similar to what a certain church’s leadership is trying to handle. Both the church and the airlines are losing money hand-over-fist due to something they personally did not do and something they only have very marginal control over at best.

Melissa rubbed her forehead and groaned. She, no doubt, had been warned by other co-pilots about my idiosyncrasies, and was exposed to one of my rave-outs without so much as a third person at the table to shield her or a beer to numb her senses.

The Church and the Airline

“Okay, I’ll jump in here … ” she said. “Just what do the airlines and the Catholic Church have in common when it comes to facing bankruptcy?”

Their problems arise from the same root cause, while they both careen down a path toward the courts. They are ignoring the real reason they are in trouble and are concentrating instead on side issues not germane to what’s really happening to them.

The church’s problem doesn’t arise from having too little money to pay off the people that are suing them for sexual abuse. Their problem is the public perception of too many priests sexually abusing people. In the same manner, the airlines’ financial problems aren’t happening because pilots and other employees are being paid too much; their problem is that they aren’t getting enough money for what they sell.

Both groups, religious and secular, are actually making the problem worse by not addressing what is really wrong. No airline has ever cost-cut its way to profitability, because every time they get their costs down, the next round of fare-cutting begins and the cycle starts over again.

Pilots and their pay is an easy target to attack for three reasons. First, most people resent the fact that pilots get to fly for a living, something that non-professional pilots and others don’t view as work anyway, which leads to a sort of class-envy mentality.

Second, when pilot pay is portrayed in the media they always talk about what the most mega-senior captains flying the biggest equipment make, not the average. “How can their pilots justify making $200,000 a year when my job at the Jiffy Lube only pays $30?” The media and the public, by either ignorance or design, leave out the majority of pilots in this world that barely eke by. They leave out the fact that people on the bottom of our seniority list are eligible for food stamps.

The third and final reason pilots are easy and fun to attack is they can’t fight back by changing jobs. If the CEO of “XYZ airline” totally screws the pooch and ruins the company, he or she can bail and will probably get a nice job ruining another airline. One airline I’ve heard of paid tens of millions of bucks to make a bad CEO go away. He is now making more, unemployed, than his replacement, the current CEO that is trying to clean up his mess.

Pilots are wedded, for good or bad, to their seniority number, and for that reason are pretty much unable to leave one airline job that sucks for a better one.

I find it ludicrous that the same government that made our costs skyrocket after 9/11 then turns around and refuses to help out either by shouldering some of the costs for the new security they mandated or by providing some of those government-backed loans they promised.

For example, after 9/11, the military has been expanded, and rightly so. Has the Commander-in-Chief gone to the military pilots and demanded a pay cut from them so the government could avoid a deficit? For that matter, has Congress given itself a pay cut until the government is “profitable” again? Heck no; as a matter of fact, Congress just voted itself a pay raise!

How dare they then demand that the employees of the airlines that have taken it in the shorts since 9/11 cut their pay in order to qualify for a government loan? Why should the ramp guys who are trying to raise a family lose their benefits and pay while their elected representatives vote themselves more loot and then bitch about “airline productivity”?

Saved by the Beer

“Thank God!” said Melissa, for two very good reasons. First, our pitcher of beer, which was long overdue, had arrived, and second, our crew of flight attendants joined us at our table, leading to an abrupt end of my temper tantrum.

Charlene, Frank and Joseph joined us at our booth just in time to share our wings, nachos and beer.

“I’ve been shopping,” said Charlene (big surprise), “while Frank and Joseph were at the gym working out,” (another big surprise).

During the second pitcher and the third plate of wings, the conversation turned away from post-Christmas shopping coups and was redirected to what our resolutions for the New Year were going to be.

“You mean besides bidding around this guy?” asked Melissa, while pointing at me with a wing-stained pinkie.

“Yeah,” said Charlene, who had obviously also heard about me. “I mean New Year’s resolutions having to do with our airline jobs. Like, in my case, I plan on avoiding flying to Moscow during the winter months, and also plan to get my boyfriend to marry me before he gets out of law school.”

“I’m getting my moped overhauled,” interjected Joseph, missing the airline-oriented feature of our conversation.

“I’m getting my surfboard refinished” said Frank, who had obviously just gone to his clue closet and found it bare.

As we listen to the sound of the point of our conversation “whooshing” over Frank’s and Joe’s heads … blank stare from both … I’ll run down a few things I’ve promised myself for the New Year. I only have a few items and have listed them using indelible ink on the back of this wine list …

The CEO Resolves

First, when I go to 767 captain’s school next month, I promise myself to be prepared when I get there. I’ll have those aircraft limitations memorized, will remember my CAT III minimums, will have two or three new pairs of khakis to wear to class, and promise to not be a smart-ass for at least the first two days.

This resolution is harder than it sounds. Usually, I go to an initial school with the best intentions, but during the first day around the second coffee break, I find myself looking down the barrel of two weeks of intense training crammed into eight weeks and start thinking fondly of high-powered rifles and wondering if there is a bell tower on campus.

Most non-airline pilots don’t understand this and wonder how we can bitch and moan about a school that gives us a free type-rating, pays us while we are in school, and even gets us our own motel room while we are there. They have never sat through six hours of op-specs or heard the same, lame ground school joke for the 26th year in a row.

Next, I’m gonna finally get myself a new airport car. My Dodge van has gone over 300,000 miles and is ready to head for the elephant graveyard. In this case, the elephant graveyard will be our airline’s Vice President of Flight Ops personal parking space at headquarters.

An older pilot friend of mine did this, years ago. He parked his beater in the space around 5 a.m. when he was reporting for his last simulator ride. Taking his keys, his license plate and any other ways the car could be traced back to him he flattened all four tires and left the car there to “rest in peace.” He told me it took them three weeks to tow it away.

Next, I promise to cut back on layover beers, layover wings and layover cable and satellite television. All these things rob me of precious usable brain cells and I just don’t have that many to spare.

I promise myself to never be the first airplane to leave holding and “see what the weather is like on the arrival.” I’ve flown the “weather ship” too many times. Let the younger pilots figure out if there really are severe thunderstorms on the Civet Arrival.

I will never do “pound night” at the London, England, layover in Brighton ever again, although I will attend Lesbian Karaoke Night on Thursdays at the pier.

If I can control this at all, I plan to never, ever, be on reserve again and have to face a 2 a.m. call-out to a four-day trip. Thirteen years on reserve is more than enough and I can’t do it anymore.

I will never attend a company road show or day-long ALPA meeting again, even if they offer me a free lunch. Both types of meetings last way too long and always occur on a nice sunny day that could be better spent on the golf course or working in the yard.

I am old enough now that I will stop looking at female flight attendants with lust in my heart and will treat them more like my daughters, because they are just about that age anyway.

I am also old enough and far enough along in my airline career to realize that I’ve bought my last flight bag, have lined up my last initial airplane school, am probably based at my last pilot base, and have largely become irrelevant in the grand airline scheme of things.

Finally, if the airline offers any kind of decent early retirement package to get rid of me, I’ll do my co-pilots and others junior to me a huge favor and go for it like a starving cheetah after a slow, fat gazelle. I will then go back to flight instructing for a living, where I have probably belonged all this time anyway, and teach fuzzy-faced, acne-encrusted teens how to do a turn-about-a-point and a three-turn spin to the left.

As I finished my list, I realized that once again, I was talking to myself. Joseph, Frank and Charlene were halfway out the door in a neck-and-neck race to see who could “slam-click” first. Melissa was still physically present at the table but had that look of ennui that I have learned to expect from my victims.

Oh well, to bed early tonight, because tomorrow night we do New Years Eve in Jackson, Miss, and will party like it is 1899!

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.