CEO of the Cockpit #6:
CEO Squared

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The Dow is rebounding and tech stocks are on the rise, but the major air carriers' shares are in the doldrums. Who's really at the controls here? The Real CEO makes a cameo appearance in the latest

It's another normal day in the life of an airline aviator. Four legs, three gate holds, two crew meals in boxes, and one layover in Little Rock awaiting us at the end of our day.

This week's version of a co-pilot, Karl, has settled into his seat after doing a walk-around in the rain and we are awaiting our final paperwork and the friendly, yet firm slam of the cockpit door.

After the agent thrusts the final weight and balance forms at us, he or she normally recedes into the cabin and our erstwhile head flight attendant, today named Susan, goes through the litany of arming doors and the like on the intercom with her cohorts in the rear.

Then we can look forward to Susan telling us that the "cabin is ready for push-back" and closing our "door of doom" the new, reinforced cockpit security door that has come too late to make much difference in the life of an airline crew but soon enough to enrichen whomever manufactured it.

An Unexpected Guest In The CEO's Cockpit

"Gentlemen, can I get a ride with you to Newark?" a slightly reedy voice said from behind my right shoulder.

Damn, if it isn't Sherman Ledbetter, our airline's hard-working CEO! While I go by the moniker of "CEO of the Cockpit," when it comes to real CEO-ing, I have to defer to Sherman here. He has been our boss here at Trans-Sky Airlines for a little over a year after we finally got rid of Damien, the previous CEO.

"I've got a meeting in New York with some banker types this afternoon and there aren't any empty seats in the back," he said. "I'm hoping you'll let me ride along in the jump seat and talk pilot talk with you guys."

What Sherman just said immediately shows us how lucky we are to have him. Previous CEO types would always have a first-class seat reserved for them, even if it meant kicking off a paying passenger. I had carried the man he replaced from time to time over the years and you could always count on his having a first-class seat blocked out. He would also arrive at the gate in a company limo so he wouldn't have to mix with the "great unwashed," meaning the passengers. I always wondered how a person running a service business could figure out how to make the customers happy if he'd never met them.

The fact that our new CEO didn't sport a hatred of pilots was a good indicator. An even better sign was the fact that he knew where the bags were thrown and where the chocks go. He is a private pilot and had worked the ramp in his youth. He currently owns a share of a Cirrus and I hear he is a fairly good stick.

Introductions were made all around and as Karl showed Sherman all the official things things like where his oxygen mask was and how to do an emergency escape if he had to I put the weight and balance numbers into the FMS and got the flip book of V-speeds set up for our takeoff.

Let's See If These "Babies" Can Fly ...

"We really are heavy today. The plane weighs right at 149,500 pounds," Karl chimed in. "Lookie here, they have actually played the 'how many infants' game so we'd be legal for takeoff."

This "infant count" trick is a way for them to reduce the amount of weight allowed per passenger. I seem to remember from my ATP ground school days (I taught it nights at the community college to keep our baby in Tonka toys) that each passenger "officially" weighs in at about 170 pounds. I don't want to seem judgmental, but when was the last time in this day and age of "supersized biggie fries" and such has anybody seen a 170-pound passenger? They all look like an early 1970s version of Meat Loaf and are usually so famished they are noshing on whatever fat-riddled snack food they bought in the terminal as they schlep onto our airplane.

One hand is used for the snack and the other cradling a cellphone against their chubby ear so they can tell whomever it is you tell things that they are "getting on the plane" as they kick their carry-on up the aisle

The CEO Under Wraps ...

"I see you still have a high opinion of our customers," the real CEO said. "I hope that you are still obeying our standing in-company restraining order."

Karl shot a quizzical look back at a grinning Sherman so I had to admit that there was a sort of understanding between me and management that it would be best for all concerned if I had as little contact with the flying public as possible. Everybody figured that if I didn't make any PAs and stayed away from the cockpit door when it was time to say goodbye we could increase customer satisfaction by quite a bit.

I'll tell you what, Sherman; I'll stay away from the passengers if you'll stay away from those New York banker types.

"You've got a point there," he answered. "I'd rather eat a bucket of lukewarm squid pooters than spend any time with those guys. I'm trying to get our company out of their clutches and that's why I'm on this trip."

A Little Un-Asked-For Brown Nosing ...

Good for you, boss I can't tell you how happy this aging captain is to have you as our supreme leader. I already have the best job available in this company, so you'll know I'm not butt-smooching here when I tell you how great it is to have a pilot running this airline for a change. Of course, after the guy that preceded you, we'd probably be happy if Pewee Herman was running the shop.

Our last "fearless leader" was a man that Will Rogers had obviously never met. He was a guy that would go out of his way to demoralize people, waste money, and cut the hamstrings of the company while we suspect he lined his own pockets. We don't even utter his real name in pilot lounges anymore, we just refer to him as "Damien" and leave it at that.

He was a man who was open and forthright in his dislike of pilots. This, in my never-to-be-humble opinion, made as much sense as a wheat farmer hating his combine or a dentist detesting dentures. I don't know a single pilot who would cross the street to piss on this guy if he was on fire. The millions of bucks we paid to get rid of him were like a divorce expensive, but damn well worth every penny.

The Real CEO Invokes The Bandit

"Well," said Sherman, "Like Burt and Loni's breakup, that is old news and behind us now. We can look forward to shuffling off, hand in hand, into the airline sunset with big wads of cash in our pockets once I get these bankers out of our shorts.

Some of their ideas were really strange after 911," he added. "They wanted me to cut head count by 25 percent. How are we supposed to grow an airline if we lay everybody off? It's like selling the seed corn."

Since Karl here is pretty junior, I'm sure he appreciates that. It was a great idea you had to have the surplus pilots do marketing calls and promotions to get the customers to come back after the attack. Much smarter than what the other airlines did. Think of all the money that would have been wasted if you furloughed hundreds of pilots. The severance packages, the training required and that doesn't even take into account the nosedive in morale.

Let The Ass-Kicking Begin ...

"I took a lot of heat for it," the real CEO admitted. "Still, now that the economy seems to be turning around it is really nice to have our whole team in place. Plus, those extra pilots making those marketing calls really helped. It cost big in the short term, but now we're ready to kick some ass and take some names in the airline world."

The tug driver banged on the side of the airplane with the heal of his hand and, when he got my attention, gave me the "MAC salute" a resigned shrug of the shoulders as he pointed to his obviously non-working headset. We'd be using hand signals today for pushback although I'll be dipped if I can tell you what the "you're on fire" hand signal is.

"I've always wondered about something," said Karl. "Just what, exactly is an 'airline analyst'? You can't flip on CNN or MSNBC without one of those people telling the world how to run the airlines. Where do you go to get a degree in airline analyzing anyway?"

"That's the whole problem right there," said the real CEO. These banks and investment firms hire these youngsters called 'airline experts.' Their only qualifications, as far as I can see, is they have ridden on an airliner before and have subscribed to the Journal for a couple of years. Once an airline gets deeply into debt with these bankers, the opinions of these idiots are suddenly important and that, my friends, is when an airline is in real trouble."

The CEO Disses Clark And Biff

Well said, boss. I've never understood why some guy named "Clark" or "Biff," who wouldn't know an airliner if it sat on his face, suddenly gets the wisdom to tell us what we can and can't do. I mean, that big merger that Damien and them worked out a few years back seemed like a great idea to those people but it damn near put us out of business.

"That was a case of one set of bankers selling off their bad paper to other bankers," Sherman said. "It happens all the time. That's why I think it is important for us to work on getting free of owing them so much money. Of course, it is a balancing act. If we don't owe anybody any money it makes us a prime candidate for a takeover."

The tug driver was now twirling his index finger in the air like a demented Super Bowl player with a camera in his face and Disney World in his future, meaning we were cleared to start our engines.

Let's start both engines today, Karl. I know we usually taxi out on one, but it's a hot day and we're heavy. Having both engines running will give us more bleed air to use for air conditioning. On an MD-88 you can never get enough cool air over the people on a day like today.

The CEO Discusses Bleed Air

After we started the engines I flipped off the air conditioner auto shut-off. This device is designed to turn off the air conditioners and give the airplane some more power for flight if we lose an engine on takeoff. The trouble with it is, if you taxi a heavy plane on a hot day, the power you push up to get moving turns the air conditioners off just when you need the cool air the most. Even if you start both engines to taxi you always lead with the left motor and add just a little bit of the right.

The reason we do this is, if you push both throttles way up before you run the taxi and before-takeoff checklists you're likely to get "Bitchin Betty," our computerized nag, to yell something at us like: "flaps flaps!" or "auto brakes."

We took off, got cleaned up and flew through the hot, bumpy air up to about ten grand where I turned the autopilot on, hit NAV and let my seat back a little. It was still pretty bumpy so I hit the FMS override button and set 280 knots, our turbulent airspeed, for our climb. Hopefully it will smooth out so I can impress the boss with my aviation skill. Right now though, there are whitecaps on the first-class passengers' cocktails.

The Big Picture

Got any big secret plans for the airline that you can let me in on? I asked the real CEO.

"How about an early retirement program to get expensive, sick-leave-using old farts like you off the seniority list?"

Now, I know you're just teasing me, but I have to admit you're turning me on some. No, Sherman, I was thinking more along the lines of getting your highly valued pilots company cars, country club memberships, or at least a tote bag with the company logo on it. I can just see it 10,000 happy pilots driving their bright red company Japanese cars into the employee parking lot.

"I'm thinking more along the lines of getting you people some new uniforms," Sherman said. "You look like the captain of the Titanic in those heavy coats with the braid. We're thinking we can get you guys to look more modern if we go to something lighter and from this century."

I listened to Karl take a handoff from departure to center, put the "direct to Montebello" they had just given us into the direct-to page of the FMS and then gave Sherman the fashion suggestion of the century.

I think we should go with cut-off shorts, flip-flops and pith helmets

Sherman leaned forward in his jump seat, jokingly taking a quick sniff of my breath to scope out if I had been drinking. "Yeah, sure I'll bring that up at the next meeting of the teen fashion board," he said with a grin.

"Seriously," he added, "I'm considering something a little more trendy. Maybe we'll go with leather jackets like those Southwest guys have."

We were at cruise altitude now and it was smooth so I turned the seatbelt light off. Boss, I'm so happy you're running things around here that I'd fly naked if you wanted me to.

"NOBODY wants that to happen," quipped the real CEO.

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.