Thursday, August 31, 2023

The Lost Generation of Pilots

 Back in 2014, I wrote an article that has continued to attract comments and interest. It was originally published on the now-defunct, but I retained a copy on my blog. The article deals with the fallout of the September 11 attacks and the Great Recession on the ranks of aspiring professional pilots.

I got my start as a flight instructor and was hired into my first airline job at Atlantic Coast Airlines, a United Express and Delta Connection regional partner, in 2002. ACA became Independence Air as it tried to become an independent carrier amid United’s bankruptcy in 2004. I was quickly furloughed (i.e. laid off) with our first child less than a year old. I was hired at Atlantic Southeast Airlines, another Delta regional, and eventually went to CitationAir, a fractional (timeshare) jet company owned by private jet manufacturer, Cessna.

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(David Thornton)

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Several of my predictions came true. The wave of airline retirements that loomed in 2014 is a reality in 2023. The hiring boom was delayed by the pandemic but is now here. The airlines are feeling the pinch of the 1500-hour rule and a decade of almost nonexistent flight training.

Interestingly, all three of my old companies, like, no longer exist. Independence Air couldn’t survive the competition with the major airlines and the oil price spike of the Iraq War. It went out of business in 2006. ASA, owned by Delta when I worked there, was sold to another regional airline ExpressJet. The two companies merged in 2011 and ExpressJet filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations in 2022. CitationAir ran into trouble after the Great Recession and ceased operations in 2016.

There’s a saying that the way to make a small fortune in aviation is to start with a large fortune. The history of aviation is littered with broken companies and the businesses that I’ve outlasted represent only a small fraction of the total.

After my second furlough, from CitationAir, I enjoyed a stint as a simulator instructor before transitioning to the world of corporate aviation. I was relatively new to corporate flying when I wrote “The Lost Generation of Pilots.” I’m now five years into my second corporate aviation job, this one at a large flight department in a major company. I’m really happy with my current job and not very interested in going to the airlines, even though I do get the occasional inquiry as I wrote yesterday.

At this point, I don’t plan to try for an airline career, but I can’t say that I haven’t thought about it. Anyway, enjoy my nine-year-old take on the Lost Generation of Pilots.

A friend and former coworker recently remarked to me that, as professional pilots who were starting our careers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we were part of a lost generation of pilots. We began our flight trainingwith the plan to move quickly from the regional airlines to the cockpit of “heavy iron” at the majors. Everything changed after September 11, 2001.

Aviation’s lost decade started with the terrorist attacks of September 11. Almost immediately, airlines stopped hiring and started furloughing pilots. Less than a year after the attacks, the airline bankruptcies started with a filing by US Airways in August 2002. Many airlines were only beginning to recover when the second half of the one-two punch, the 2008 recession, landed. Before the wave of bankruptcies was over, almost every major airline would be affected.

The airlines used the bankruptcies to negotiate with unions for reductions in employee pay and work rules. Pay rates were decreased at most companies. For some pilots who were downgraded from captain to first officer, the cut in pay approached 50 percent according to the N.Y. Times. Changes to union contracts meant that pilots worked more for less pay. Generous pension plans were dissolved and replaced with 401(k) plans.

The economic crisis also set off a wave of airline mergers as companies sought strength in combining operations. Amid falling ticket prices, companies merged to strengthen their route structures and reduce the number of seats available in hopes of driving up prices. The smaller number of airlines also meant that fewer pilots were needed.

Pay cuts and loss of pensions may have contributed to the decision to change the “Age 60 Rule” as well. This controversial rule, first established by the FAA in the 1950s, required that airline pilots retire when they turned 60. In 2007, President Bush signed a bill into law that changed the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots to age 65. Overnight, the airline hiring outlook changed drastically as thousands of senior airline pilots nearing retirement found their careers extended by five years. This meant that, with little growth in the industry, airlines could put off hiring new pilots for another five years. For first officers already flying with the airlines, it also meant that their upgrades to captain would take years longer than expected.

By 2012, when senior airline captains began turning 65, a career at a major airline wasn’t as attractive as it had been. Pilots who now had stable corporate flying jobs or who were senior at regional airlines often did not want to take the cut in pay or to lose their good schedules to start over at a major airline.

Airline Pilot Central reports that the current first-year pay for a United Airlines pilot is $66 per hour. This sounds like a lot at first, but the pay is for flight hours only. The United contract specifies a minimum pay of 70 hours per month. This works out to about $55,000 per year. For most pilots, it would take years to return to their old pay rates.

Airline Pilot Central also reports that the most junior captain at United was hired in 1996. As retirements increase, future new hires might upgrade quicker, but most can expect to spend a long time in the right seat. The numbers for other major airlines are similar to those of United. For companies like Southwest, Spirit, and JetBlue, the upgrade might be quicker but starting pay is lower.

In addition to the pay cuts and quality of life issues, many pilots of the Lost Generation are skeptical of the stability of the airlines. After having seen two horrific cycles of long-term furloughs, few are willing to risk a stable corporate or charter flying job to go to the bottom of an airline seniority list. Airline seniority means “last hired, first fired.”

Returning to the airlines would also likely mean the loss of precious free time to pilots of the Lost Generation. Airline pilots can live anywhere, but they must commute on their own time. For many, this would mean spending days off commuting on airliners. With the high passenger loads common in today’s airline industry, commuting as a standby passenger would be an uncertain and frustrating way to get to work. The alternative would be to move to a lower-paying job.

Along with good salaries and quality of life, many of the pilots of the Lost Generation have found that our priorities have changed. As we have aged, flying heavy airliners to the far corners of the world is less important than being home to watch our children grow up and make a life with our spouses. Flying is not as important as it was when we were 20 years younger and our logbooks were several thousand hours lighter. It has become a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

For pilots who give up their current jobs, willingly or not, the airlines still provide an attractive career path. For those who take this path, the rewards can be attractive. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that airline pilots and flight engineers (themselves an endangered species) earn a median income of $114,200 annually. For those at the top of the profession, captains of large jets, shows a median income of $122,014. As airline pilots gain seniority, they typically work less as well. A crewmember on a heavy airliner on transoceanic trips might reach his maximum monthly flight time in two or three trips.

As more and more airline captains reach the cutoff age of 65, the airlines will have to look harder and harder to find qualified pilots to fill their cockpit seats. Recent rule changes that require more flight experience and a reduction in flight training since 2001 mean that those seats will soon be hard to fill. The shortage of qualified pilots may exert some upward pressure on pilot salaries.

Nevertheless, for many pilots of the Lost Generation, an airline career is not in our future. It simply wouldn’t be worth the reduction in pay and the upheaval in our lives. After more than a decade of watching our industry undergo gut-wrenching change – and finding ourselves changed in the process – we’re okay with that.

This article is dedicated to my friends and former coworkers at Independence Air and CitationAir [and now ASA as well], many of whom are part of the Lost Generation.

From the Racket News

A swing and a bunch of misses (thank goodness)

 It has been 14 years since the last fatal airline crash in the US. For the white-knuckle flyers, that may seem hard to believe but the the crash of Colgan Flight 3407 on February 12, 2009, which killed 50 people including one person on the ground, was the last time an American airliner went down. The safety streak is amazing considering that major crashes happened every year or so prior to 2009 and the stringent safety practices in the industry paired with good fortune deserve much of the credit. Now, many wonder if that streak may be coming to an end after the FAA reports that near misses are becoming more common.

Among the stories of recent near misses are a close call between a Southwest airliner and a FedEx transport in Austin in which the two planes came within 100 feet of colliding and another incident in Boston in which a private jet took off without a clearance causing a conflict with a JetBlue airliner on approach. A New York Times investigation this week revealed that such close calls are far more common than most people are aware, with at least 46 near misses in July.

A Southwest 737 at Chicago Midway airport (David Thornton)

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The Times analyzed NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) and found that reports of near misses had doubled in the past decade. The Times admits, however, that “it is unclear whether that reflects worsening safety conditions or simply increased reporting.”

Let’s talk about the ASRS. NASA also deals with aeronautics, for those who don’t remember the first “a” in the acronym. The ASRS is a long-running self-reporting system that encourages pilots, controllers, and other aviation workers to report errors or unsafe conditions anonymously. In exchange, the reporters are offered immunity from punitive action (with certain limitations). In the aviation community, the ASRS form is known colloquially as the “get-out-of-jail-free” card for inadvertent mistakes or rule violations (with an emphasis on “inadvertent”).

Having said that, the Times is right to be suspect about the data reported to ASRS. I’d say that there are probably more near misses than are in the database because pilots are only likely to report problems that they think the FAA already knows about. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” could describe the attitude of most crews to violations that aren’t likely to bring on an FAA enforcement action.

The flip side is that the number probably isn’t a lot higher than the Times estimate, at least not with respect to airliners. The nature of jet and airline flying is that most of it occurs in controlled airspace and at airports with control towers. The majority of the time, airline and other jet flights are in radar contact with ATC, which is monitoring their distance from other aircraft.

In its response to the Times article, the FAA said that it welcomed the scrutiny and pointed out that near-miss incident reports are on its website, just not compiled into the form that the Times used for its article.

“The FAA maintains extremely conservative standards for keeping aircraft safely separated. Safety experts follow up on all events — even those in which no collision was imminent or even possible — and evaluate them for safety risks,” the FAA added in its statement. “The agency publishes this information on our website, updating it as new information becomes available.”

Air traffic control (ATC), which was itself enhanced after the 1956 collision of two airliners over the Grand Canyon, typically takes most of the responsibility for separating aircraft that are operating under instrument flight rules (IFR). This would include the vast majority of jets and airliners of all types. Minimum separation varies by phase of flight with cruise flight requiring larger separation than the congested areas around airports, but minimum separation is often several miles horizontally and/or 1,000 feet vertically. It’s no surprise that most near misses occur near airports because that’s where the airplanes are.

In recent decades, technology has come a long way in providing an extra margin of safety against near misses. The Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) displays the location and altitude of nearby aircraft to pilots in the cockpit. If the TCAS units, which actually communicate between aircraft, sense that a collision is possible, they will even coordinate and issue resolution advisories (RAs) to their respective pilots.

Since TCAS works primarily in the air, there have also been enhancements to airports to help prevent runway incursions, simply described as going onto an active runway without an ATC clearance. A variety of lights and signs are available at many airports to alert pilots to the proximity of runways and even whether the runway is safe to use. Some airports even have surface monitoring equipment that allows controllers to track the location of taxiing aircraft and vehicles.

The weak link in these systems is the human component. Aviation systems have become so reliable that accidents are almost always traced back to some sort of human error. The incident in Austin was apparently the result of a controller who issued a takeoff clearance to Southwest while the FedEx freighter was on a three-mile final. In normal circumstances, this would not have been a problem, but the Southwest crew took an inordinate amount of time (about 30 seconds) on the runway.

The Boston incident seems to have been the result of a “brain fart” in which the pilot of a charter Learjet took off without permission. A common procedure is for ATC to clear aircraft to “line up and wait” on the runway to facilitate a quicker takeoff. There is still a requirement to wait for an actual takeoff clearance, but the pilot of the Lear mistakenly (he says) thought he heard the controller clear him to take off rather than hold in position. This incident bears a striking resemblance to the most costly crash (in terms of lives) in aviation history when two Boeing 747s collided on the runway at Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1977.

Ironically, the Lear crew may be able to submit the incident via the ASRS and escape severe punishment for their mistake. The ASRS submissions often allow crews to be sanctioned with remedial training for honest mistakes rather than losing their licenses. Many companies have similar amnesty programs for internal errors as well.

There are several reasons that near misses might be on the rise, although they don’t necessarily apply to the two headline incidents. Chief among these are labor shortages at both the FAA and the airlines, which means that new hires may lack experience and old hands may be overworked. While there are stringent rules aimed at preventing fatigue, a legacy of the Colgan crash, even legal work schedules can be fatiguing under certain circumstances. Even the major airlines, which for years have had a steady supply of experienced regional airline and military pilots to draw upon, are increasingly having a hard time recruiting enough new pilots to replace pilots reaching the mandatory retirement age.

The pilot shortage is at least partly a result of the Colgan crash as well. In the wake of that tragedy, Congress increased the minimum experience for airline pilots to 1,500 hours. That experience can take years to amass and, combined with a dearth of airline hiring in the decades since the September 11 attacks which dampened pilot training, the result is a severe shortage of qualified pilots.

To underscore the severity of the pilot shortage, I’ll note that I frequently get emails and cards inviting me to apply for airline jobs. As I was writing this, I got one such invitation from a regional airline offering a direct-entry captain position. Normally, airlines operate on seniority and a new hire would have to wait years before upgrading to captain.

A few years ago, such solicitations were unimaginable. The airlines had more pilot applications than open slots and it was almost impossible to get an interview. Today, some airlines hire more pilots in a month than they did over a period of years in doldrum decades.

Forty-six close calls in a month is a tiny number given the hundreds of thousands of flight hours generated by airlines and private aircraft in the US every month. The FAA website estimates that there are 45,000 flights handled by the ATC system every day. If only one or two of those come into close contact, the overwhelming majority are still very safe and clear of conflicts.

But that’s still a massive problem. While midair collisions are rare events, they also tend to be catastrophic when they do occur. For that reason, the FAA is going to be driven to do something.

One obvious solution is to educate pilots and controllers about the problem. In the past, such educational pushes have been used to reduce the number of runway incursions and altitude deviations (when an aircraft is not at the assigned altitude). Cockpit Resource Management (CRM) is also an educational concept that was born out of a number of crashes in which crewmembers didn’t speak up to contradict the captain. Sometimes just being aware of the increased risk is enough to reduce occurrences.

Regulation is another possibility. There is a saying in the aviation industry that the Federal Aviation Regulations are written in blood. Many of our rules are based on behaviors or accidents that have killed people in the past.

An obvious path here is to increase separation requirements for aircraft, especially in busy terminal environments. The downside to this approach is that more separation can mean fewer operations and more delays at the busiest airports.

Ultimately, the responsibility for safely operating the airplane is on the pilot’s shoulders. When humans err, it is often up to other humans to identify the problem and take action to avoid a catastrophe. Despite all the gee-whiz electronics in the cockpit and around the airports, it was the quick instincts of the FedEx and JetBlue crews who averted disaster.

Those instincts are honed by years of experience. That’s what passengers expect when they see an airline pilot and that level of skill and judgment is what airlines are paying for when they negotiate lucrative salaries for their pilots.

But the problem goes back to the shortage of qualified pilots in the labor pool. It’s easy to train a pilot to manipulate the controls of a jet. Consider that the military puts neophyte pilots at the controls of some of the most high-performance and sophisticated aircraft on the planet with only a few hundred hours of training.

Experience, judgment, and good situational awareness, especially in high-workload environments, are harder to teach. And that’s where both pilots and controllers can find themselves in trouble.

From the Racket News