Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Nothing but grey skies for senior pilots

An article published first in the New York Times, and now republished in the International Herald Tribune, paints a picture of the dreary mood in the cockpits of mainline U.S. carriers, particularly among more senior pilots whose pay and pensions have been cut drastically in the past few years.

The article, Nothing but gray skies..., quotes several senior captains about their discouragement and disillusionment.
"My philosophy right now is, I just go to work," said a US Airways captain who, before his company's troubles, always loved to fly. He recently flew a 6 a.m. flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Miami, then piloted a plane from Miami to Los Angeles the next evening, then a flight back to Newark, accumulating 15 paid hours for three days.
These days, due to "corporate belt-tightening" at many of the mainline carriers, airline pilots fly more hours but earn less money.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration limits commercial pilots on domestic flights - measured from pushing back at one gate to arrival at another - to eight hours a day, 30 hours in seven days, 100 hours a month and 1,000 hours a year. The airlines do not exceed those limits, but many now schedule much closer to them.

The FAA rules do not address the amount of time between flights, so a pilot could be in uniform 12 hours or more to accumulate the day's hours. There is a requirement for eight hours' rest time every 24 hours, however. And pilots acutely feel the difference between getting in a month's work in 14 days, compared with 18 days.

"They kind of bleed us out," the US Airways captain said, on condition he not be identified for fear of losing his job. Pilots for major carriers said they expected to be fired if they were publicly candid about the new conditions of their jobs.
The article goes on to say that senior airline pilots in dozens of interviews spoke of feeling depressed about their precarious financial situation and job insecurity.
A veteran United Airlines captain, who laments that when he retires in a few years his pension will be about one- fourth what he expected, said he had to shut it out of his mind to prevent the distraction from affecting his work.

After a recent takeoff from California for the long flight across the Pacific, that was all his first officer wanted to talk about. But the captain said he snapped back: "You know what, can we not talk about United Airlines? All it does is cause me frustration and anger, and there's nothing I can do about it. It churns my stomach."
One can only wonder at what point these pilots' anxiety and low morale might affect their job performance.
"The pilots are not a happy group right now," said Paul Fischbeck, a professor of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Fischbeck, who flew in the navy and has colleagues who went on to fly for the airlines, said the change in financial circumstances and job security were good reasons to be unhappy.

But Fischbeck and others pointed out that the industry culture is such that they must face the hardship on their own. Other workers with health plans might seek professional counseling. With pilots licensed by the FAA, however, "as soon as you sign up for it, it's on your record, and you're toast."

A US Airways pilot echoed that sentiment: "If it gets reported to the FAA, you can forget it, you're not coming back to work, until you go through a lot. The system requires us to deal with it ourselves. That makes it very difficult to go through what we just went through."
Nevertheless, the airlines are in one of their safest periods ever, statistically, with about one fatal accident for every fifteen million flights.
Airline executives say they do not know how to measure the effects on morale. At US Airways, a spokesman, Carlo Bertolini, said, "No one's going to deny that US Airways employees have been through a tough time, with layoffs, changes in work rules and steps lowering costs. A lot of these sacrifices came from employees."

But, he said, "we all have a stake in the safety of the airline. We're definitely confident that all employees always have safety at the top of their mind."

Pilots say the same but add that the change in schedules often means more fatigue.

"You can feel yourself getting to a point where you're beginning to make more little mistakes," said a senior captain at US Airways. "Most of the mistakes are caught very quickly, and most are very minor errors," he said. But, "at that level of fatigue, after weeks or months of this without a break, it's easy to make a major mistake."
Senior pilots who were flying in the days when their job carried both high prestige, large paychecks and generous retirement plans have experienced the most disappointment and dissatisfaction in recent times, but flying careers are still sought after.
Young people still dream of flying, and people who fly small planes still aspire to fly bigger ones. Legions of laid-off pilots hope to be hired back, even at reduced pay levels.

"They must love it," said Arnold Barnett, a professor of management science at MIT's Sloan School of Business, who said that airline pilots were reacting with more fortitude than other professionals might in the same circumstances. "I cannot fathom how faculty would react if MIT abolished tenure, increased teaching loads and cut salaries by 35 percent because 'market conditions' had changed," he said.
When I ask why they continue to fly, the pilots I talk to always tell me the same thing: It's in your blood.