A couple of weeks ago, my pilot friend, Mike* answered some questions for us about life as a pilot. The response was so huge that I asked him to answer some more for us, and he obliged. This time, we learn about unruly passengers, white-knuckle flying, and unions.
Have you ever denied boarding to a passenger, or had one arrested on arrival? If yes, what led up to that decision?
I've never denied boarding to a passenger, but I have had to have the police meet us at the gate. On descent into an airport in the southeast we had a passenger who was refusing to follow flight attendant instructions. He refused to put on his seatbelt, put up his tray table, and put away his laptop. As pilots it was a pretty easy decision. The particular flight attendant we were working with was one of our best. He was always extremely professional. When you work with someone of that caliber, these kind of calls tend to get much easier. You know that if the flight attendant like that is coming to you, they've exhausted all available resources and its time to get the authorities involved. If I remember correctly, this passenger wasn't arrested, but the officer said he was going to detain him for a while. Hopefully he rethinks his conduct on later flights.
Besides being away from home, what's the most difficult part of your job?
It is pretty difficult to answer this question with only one word, so I'm going to go ahead and say environment. Most of the things that passengers find unpleasant about air travel, flight crews are exposed to on a daily basis. We are subject to TSA screening, lengthy delays, and are faced with logistical challenges of trying to live a relatively normal life while on the road. I'm currently on a trip and the past two days were supposed to end with a deadhead to our overnight city. Both days our deadhead flight was cancelled leading to 4+ hour unpaid sits before we could catch the next flight. Airports don't tend to be the most relaxing places in the world. We do have our own crew lounges at most of our hub airports, but often those places can be even more cramped, noisy, and uncomfortable than the rest of the airport. On the other side of the coin we often have long days with no real breaks built in. Meals are usually the same overpriced food that you see in most terminals wolfed down before the passengers start boarding. It's difficult to maintain any semblance of a healthy lifestyle.
What's the most fun part of your job?
The most fun part of my job is the flying, without question. From the time the cockpit door closes to the time it opens, this is the best job in the world. Flying is the perfect mixture of art, science, and magic. It can also be quite a challenge, but that tends to be when it is most rewarding. I like the challenge of going up every day and trying to be as accurate as possible, while still trying to make it so that if the passengers in the back closed their eyes they can't even tell we're moving. There's not much that can make you feel better about yourself than fighting gusty crosswinds all the way down final, only to roll it on so smoothly that the only way you notice that you're on the ground is hearing the safety mechanism that prevents you from moving the landing gear handle on the ground engages.
Have you ever been told by management or a superior to do something you thought was unsafe? If yes, what was it, and did you do it?
Yes, but it has always been the result of a fundamental disagreement on what "safe" is. In aviation, there really is no black and white when it comes to safe and unsafe. Flying itself is inherently risky. You're in a large beer can that is designed and operated by human beings, risk is always present. As a company and an individual we have to decide how much risk is acceptable. People sitting behind a desk in headquarters have a very different perspective on things than those of us flying the line do. A good example is the role of an autopilot in our day to day operations. To someone who isn't a pilot, they may see the autopilot as something that allows us to sit back and be lazy. But to someone who has to fly five legs in one day or into specifically bad weather, the autopilot is a valuable tool. If you look at most aircraft accidents in recent years, they haven't been the result of poor stick and rudder skills. They are usually the result of one or more mental errors in the management of the flight. Having a plane with a working autopilot in specifically challenging conditions allows us to free up a lot of our brain power to make sure we're making safe decisions instead of just staring at some needles on a screen.
Thankfully I can honestly say that in every situation in which I have voiced a concern about something such as the above, management has done a pretty good job at coming to a compromise that makes all parties happy. I think the company knows that most pilots have a pretty healthy desire for self preservation and therefore are willing to draw the line when it comes to safety. I've heard that's not always the case with some airlines, and have even heard some second hand stories from my own company. But personally I have had pretty good experiences.
What has been your most white-knuckle experience in the cockpit?
I would say it involved flying through a thunder storm that we did not know existed until we were inside it. We were in cruise and in the clouds. We always fly around with the weather radar on so that we can keep an eye out for any storms that may exist. This day, there was a pretty good line of weather that was running up and down the east coast. Weather radar works on the principle that it sends out a beam of energy, it hits precipitation and bounces back. The radar dish then measures how much of what it sent out came back and gives you a rough idea of the intensity of the precipitation. Unfortunately, not all precipitation "paints" equally. The larger and more moist the precipitation will bounce back more energy than a cloud that is made up mostly out of ice crystals. In this case that is exactly what happened. The part of the storm that was at our altitude was all ice crystals and didn't paint a thing. In twenty seconds we went from 28,000ft up to 28,400, then all the way back down to 27,500. Our airspeed had gone from 280kts down to 240, then all the way up to 310. Our flight attendant said that passengers were helping hold him on the floor so he wasn't flying about the cabin. Up front the ride was so bad that we decided that the captain would work the yoke to try to maintain some semblance of control of the aircraft, while I would work the thrust levers to maintain as close to our turbulent air penetration speed as possible. Normally we work together with air traffic control to go around storms like this, but because neither of us could see it on radar, we had a difficult time plotting an escape route.
We finally managed to find a way out and had an uneventful rest of the flight. Once we finally got on the ground we wrote the airplane up for (so far) my only severe turbulence aircraft inspection. I really hope it was my last.
Colgan Air 3407 [Getty]
Is there an airline or plane type that you'd absolutely refuse to fly on, and why?
Here in the US, not really. Not all airlines are created equal, but I think after the Colgan crash in Buffalo the FAA has done a much better job at helping to ensure a better minimum standard amongst airlines. It's not perfect, but its still the safest way to travel.
What would you like the traveling public to know / clear up any misconception that people have about airlines or pilots?
Mostly I just wish that everybody knew how hard that most of the frontline employees at any airline work. We are all well aware that much of the time, air travel isn't exactly a pleasant experience. Just know that most of us are doing the best that we can with the limited resources that we have available. I feel absolutely terrible when I have a passenger approach me for help, but the only thing I can do is point them to the overflowing customer service line because I simply don't have the ability/tools to help get them what they need. Unfortunately the reality is that it all comes down to money. Airlines have found that customers are unwilling to buy tickets that cost over a certain amount. I'm not saying this to place blame, plane tickets are expensive! But this is why there never seem to be enough spare airplanes, customer service agents, gates, etc. I just ask that you not take it out on your flight crews or ground workers. We completely understand your frustrations and unfortunately are often powerless to help.
How do you feel about labor unions? Do they really benefit pilots, outside of helping negotiate pay raises? (assuming you're unionized) Have you ever needed the union's help on a matter with your managers, or do you know of an example of a coworker who has?
Aviation is an extremely complicated industry and as such I think it is absolutely crucial to have some sort of representation. When people discuss the plusses and minuses of union representation, pay is usually the most popular subject. There is actually much more to it than that. In fact I would say that if you look at the regional industry I would say that our unions have absolutely failed when it comes to financial compensation. I'll talk more about that after I hit on some of the more important aspects of representation.
Safety: Each pilot group that is represented by my union has a committee devoted entirely to safety. Whether it be concerns about maintenance, scheduling, or a departure procedure at a certain airport that pilots are having issues with, the safety committee works with the company, FAA, Air traffic control, and anyone else they need to associate with to address the issue.
At the heart of this is a program that the union helped develop in cooperation with the FAA called the Aviation Safety Action Program. Flying airplanes is an extremely complicated undertaking. It is entirely possible to be doing everything that you can to ensure a safe and efficient flight, but still end up making a mistake. There is also so much that goes into each and every flight that is completely outside of our control as pilots. With this program you can write a factual report of any potentially unsafe situation that you encounter and submit it. Every couple of weeks the FAA, company, and pilot union convene to discuss all of the reports. Provided there were no intentional actions that lead to the unsafe situation, the event becomes completely non jeopardy. Instead the focus becomes all three parties learning how to avoid this situation in the future. Some common report topics are misinterpretations of what ATC wanted from us, common maintenance issues, or even factors in our schedules that may lead us to being fatigued. The union played a huge rule in setting up this program and keeping it running. Their biggest role in this process is being a "gatekeeper." Each report is de-identified before it goes to committee, yet they retain the contact information in case they need to contact you to discuss the incident further. This is a fantastic program because it focuses on avoiding frequent problems that are common to our specific airline and operation instead of placing blame. A lot of great information has come forward thanks to this program because people are willing to provide a lot more details if they know the investigation isn't looking to place blame.
ALPA members hold an informational picket session. [Getty]
Support: The backbone to working at a unionized carrier is the contract that was negotiated between the company and our union. Contracts are huge and confusing documents, but they allow everyone to know exactly what is expected of them and what isn't. It outlines absolutely everything from disciplinary action to how promotions should be handled. An example of how this can be beneficial can be seen at two non union airlines over the past couple years. The management at both companies changed the cost and/or type of health insurance available to the pilot groups in order to save money. Most of us know the huge burden that can place on a family, especially when done with little to no warning. Most pilot contracts list out exactly what kind of health insurance plans can be offered and a percentage of how much of the cost can be passed on to the pilot. From what I have heard, this was the straw that broke the camel's back when it came to the JetBlue pilot group's decision to unionize. I have spoken to many pilots who work at non represented carriers. Their argument against representation is that "our management likes us, we have a good relationship with them!" That may be true, but all it takes is one change in leadership and all of that could change in an instant. It would be drastic and unlikely to happen, but if an "at will" company decided to, they could lay off their entire workforce and hire them back as newhires at year one pay. For me, paying 2% of my income is pretty good insurance.
In addition to having the contract to back you up, you also have many representatives to help you interpret it and make sure that it is being enforced correctly. I have had to get my union representatives involved in a few scheduling and pay disputes where the company was interpreting the contract incorrectly. An example of when I needed my union to help back me up was this past winter. Our contract states that unless it is the result of a cancellation due to weather or maintenance, the company has to do everything it can to get you home on the last day of your trip. Well mine was trying to extend me to take an aircraft to another airport so that it can have a heavy maintenance inspection. They were interpreting that as "due to maintenance" even though there was no cancellation. One call to my union representative and they went to work for me. I got home extremely late that night, but I got home. When the days spent in your own house are limited, it is very important to be able to finish work when you are supposed to, especially the times when you may only have one day off between trips.
Our union also has many resources that help support us in many other ways. Some examples are additional insurance in the case that we lose our license or medical certificate, a list of medicines that we are allowed to take while flying (there aren't many), specialized doctors who are there to help those who have failed their annual medical exam and help them get healthy again, etc.
Pay/Benefits: As I stated earlier, I think that this is one of the places the union has fallen short at the regional level. Right now the bargaining philosophy of our union is to let the individual pilot groups negotiate for their contracts. Lately this has lead to some airlines basically volunteering to take pay cuts in order to make their costs cheaper and win some of the bigger regional jets that are currently out for contract. All regional airlines are outsourcing. They exist because they are cheaper than paying the employees at a major airline to operate. Unfortunately the current model of negotiating has lead to a race to the bottom. The airlines with lower costs win the new flying. One might argue that these airlines are being rewarded for operating more efficiently, but that just simply isn't the case. Most contracts with mainline carriers include passing through many expenses through to the mainline partner. These often include fuel, larger maintenance expenses, and aircraft leases. So there really aren't many significant expenses left other than employee compensation, training, and day to day maintenance. The end result is airlines with more experienced, better compensated pilots, losing out on work to newer or smaller airlines with (in many cases) less experienced pilots.
Thankfully things are changing a bit. New pilot experience regulations combined with the fact that absolutely zero of the compensation concerns brought to light by the Colgan crash in Buffalo have been addressed have lead to increased difficultly for some of these airlines to find new pilots. Fewer and fewer people are willing to invest the $50,000+ to make the kind of money they can make as a manager at a fast food restaurant. This has lead to an increase in leverage for some of the larger regional airlines, unfortunately I think not everyone will be able to benefit from this. Recently, in an effort to help raise the bar, pilots from the three largest regional airlines have rejected concessionary or sub par contracts. Unfortunately as long as other, smaller pilot groups are willing to continue the race to the bottom, it may not matter. Until we are willing to all stand as one, our conditions will not improve.
So while I don't think it is perfect, I feel being represented in my workplace is important. It provides us much piece of mind and allows us to concentrate on doing our jobs to the best of our ability instead of worrying about things like office politics or other job related problems.
*Once again, Mike's name has been changed to protect his anonymity.