If we're careful, fellas, we can all walk away with a little money.
Poorly paraphrased, thus opined a well known poker playing humorist.
What the economy needs is, at best, meditation and yoga or at worst, Xanax and shock treatment. It's as if we all know that we need to relax enough to regain the faith required to lend, spend build and buy. As banks start to report actual earnings and other economic indicators start trending in better directions, we begin to see hints of improvement. So, the best thing you can do is, well..tell your friends. And relax. Did I mention that??
It's no surprise that we have heard nothing from the players in the fortunately former administration. Let's welcome their silence while looking forward to better times. It's much more important to embrace reconstruction and renaissance than it is to cast blame that only feeds resentment.
So, spring is surely here; rebirth, growth, temperate surroundings abounding. We now have a direction. And a director. Optimism begets optimism. We are all learning economic terms and nomenclature that we would have been happy to leave to the CPAs. Let's not forget to enjoy all the good things that are happening between the reports on GDP. Airfares are low. Gas is back in our comfort range. Now that you've saved a few bucks, get out there and enjoy fruits of your frustrations and fears. It can only be a good thing for you..and the rest of the world. And how often, in your lifetime, can you say that you are truly the foundation for economic stimulus and recovery? On behalf of your neighbors, thanks.
With All It's Faults..
Going to work has certainly become more complicated in the last few years. Like so many other technical professions, flying is inundated with rules and regulations. After September 11, 2001, the rulemakers became hyperactive and introduced meaningless, irrelevant and counterproductive procedures that were generated from knee-jerk reactions. (Emphasis on the jerk.) For example; why are they taking nail clippers away from the (armed) pilot that is going to be behind a bulletproof door, in a cockpit with a crash axe and, by the way, complete control over the jet? Paging Mr. Common Sense.. But, with all it's faults...
It's still a great way to earn a buck. I still consider it good fortune that I get to fly somebody else's jet around the world, stay in decent hotels and not take a briefcase-load of work home at night. Yes, there are responsibilities and obligations that can be onerous. When a pilot is on-call, their lives are not their own. When pilots (and flight attendants) are out of town, they are missing birthdays, anniversaries, dance recitals, concerts, quiet nights and dinners, etc. We live in our jobs and can be away from home for half of the month. In a thirty year career, that means sleeping in your own bed for only fifteen years. There's a lot to be missed. By the same token, when we are home, we are there to take the kids to school, pick them up later, go to the soccer game and help with the homework. It's a different kind of balance compared to the average forty-hour-a-week lifestyle. So, with all it's faults...
Not all of my colleagues agree. Some are even leaving the profession in search of more stability, better compensation and more nights at home. Certainly, labor contracts have been rewritten to accommodate the economic realities and changes in aviation (and to pick up the pieces created by the failure(s) of airline management to recognize and respond to these realities). These employee concessions are not likely to be refunded or rewarded with anything other than continued employment. So, the quality of the gig has changed. Some say it went from being a great job to a good job. For those that were in this business before 9/11, they can certainly relate to that statement. But there are plenty of people that are pursuing the profession. And we need them.
The pilot shortage is here. The military is no longer the primary source of trained pilots that the airlines have counted on to fill their own ranks. Flight schools are maxed out in training and are having trouble finding flight instructors to teach their students. These instructors are being snapped up by the regional carriers at increased rates to the point that they have lowered the requirements for initial employment. Carriers from overseas are sending their students to U.S. flight schools because of the advantageous exchange rates and the overall reduced cost of flying on this side of the Atlantic. So, for those people with the passion to fly, this is a great time to train and prepare for the career. Because, with all it's faults...
It's still a great gig.
Attitudes at Altitudes
Safety And the Airlines. Safety Versus the Airlines.
Pilots don't go to work and strap on broken airplanes. It just doesn't happen. (Knowingly) So where and when is safety compromised?
Most of the time, the perceptions dramatically outpace the realities. Rules and regulations often attract greater attention and garner more scrutiny than the billions of nuts and bolts that are really quite secure. The easy way to reconcile this in your head is to consider the fact that pilots, the folks ultimately in charge of your safety, are also in charge of their own hides. We have a vested (and mutual) interest in getting to our shared destination. So, what's the current beef?
Well, there are suggestions that FAA and the airlines are a bit too cozy with each other. In an effort to support the economic requirements that are linked to operational continuity (keeping the airline running), FAA and the airlines must observe, recognize and respond to issues that could have an impact on safety. No problem. The inherent design in airline operations allows for this kind of interaction and supervision while concurrently taking care of the passengers needs (the most important of which is..safety. A resounding DUHHHH should be heard..).
While all of this sounds incredibly obvious, any airline employee can regale you with stories of passengers who were angry because of a delayed or cancelled flight due to mechanical issues. To you, the more reasonable passenger who understands that longevity and good health trumps bent airplanes and emergency evacuations (and I'm sugar-coating here), thank you. Please share that sentiment with the unenlightened. After being 5 minutes late on one flight, a disgruntled passenger told me that we wouldn't have been late if I didn't go all the way around the (one) thunderstorm. To avoid embarrassment for this chap, I didn't mention (though I wanted to) that, had we not circumvented mother nature's worst phenomenon, being late wouldn't have been an issue at all. You can fill in the blanks. Honestly, most of you get it. Thanks.
So, does everything always work on all airplanes? Clearly, the answer is no. How many times has your reading light been out or your seat back fail to recline? (Take a moment to tell the flight attendant so they can take care of the problem for the next passenger...which might be you.) You may have been on flights where one of the lavatories is out of service. For things that are not visible to passengers, there are many mechanical items that can be "deferred" because they are not considered critical to safety. For example, if the cockpit indication for a particular hydraulic pump is unreliable, the maintenance department might have determined that it's an indicating problem and not a pump problem. If the Minimum Equipment List (MEL) allows for deferral, than the flight can legally and safely depart. These kinds of items must be repaired within a certain time frame. In a case like this, because there is so much redundancy with other pumps and, in some cases, three or four other independent hydraulic systems, there is no compromise to what is deemed safe. This issue doesn't even come close to approaching the line between what is safe and unsafe. When airlines are doing well and there is ample time, money and personnel to take care of the problems, MEL items are scarce. During times when all three of these assets are in short supply, the MEL deferred components increase and we all experience more mechanical delays and cancellations. It's Economics 101. But, for the things that you can't see, (and the aviation maintenance team can see) you have every reason to feel comfortably assured that nobody is willing to compromise their professional commitment for the sake of schedule or management or political pressures.
So, is the current flap unreasonable? No. This is how thorny issues rise to the surface. But, generally speaking, generalizations rarely work. It is, perhaps, not as bad as the media are making it out to be but it needs to be addressed. The additional reality is that airlines are under financial pressure to trim costs. Increases in jet fuel prices are wreaking havoc since they are up almost 700% in the last ten years. My airline will spend almost $9.5 billion in 2008 for fuel. Just fuel. And the public still demands the cheap fares of a few years ago. And pretzels. And hydraulic pumps. Who can blame them? I picture parents leaning over a kitchen table full of receipts and credit card bills, wondering where the money is going to come from to keep everybody happy. Choices have to be made. In the meantime, airline employees have been pressured into working more for less. Airline management still rewards themselves with multi billion dollar bonuses. Management gets wealthy while the employees manage the day to day operations. Try being a gate agent in Miami when the La Guardia flight is delayed. It's a good way to add a few new expletives to your lexicon. Who needs nuclear fission when we have angry New Yorkers? If we could only turn that energy into jet fuel...
But is airline travel still safe? Safer than ever. Quoting the happy statistics of recent years is helpful and encouraging but you want to know about your flight tomorrow. If you remember that I have people waiting at home for me too, you are sure to understand that we are all in this together.
Andy Simonds has been writing about aviation and complaining about general public injustices for twenty five years. Lots of editors have suggested using the DEL key prior to sending new material but he's a slow learner. When not flying airplanes for a major international air carrier, he spends his time learning and performing an eclectic repertoire of music from around the world. As an admirer (and nephew) of the world class photographer, the late Fred Picker, Andy continues his pursuit of supporting fine art photography.