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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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

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