by Bart Jackson
‘America’s airlines are in a race to the bottom — sacrificing passenger safety, comfort, and reliability,” says pilot and former Princeton resident Bill Goddard, who flies Boeing 777s for one of the nation’s major airlines. Major airlines are putting on the happy face in ads and inviting the public to look how cheaply they’re doing it, but this veteran pilot, based in Newark, says that those economies are exacting a price, both from the flying public and from airline employees.
This is the time of year, more than any other, when legions of fliers — a good number of them casual fliers — test the skies. The Air Transport Association of America estimates that 25 million people — more than 2 million a day — will have flown between Friday, November 17, and Tuesday, November 28. USA Today reports that this is going to be “the busiest Thanksgiving air travel period ever.” And that’s not all. “The always-heavy Thanksgiving air travel season, beset by new and old problems, could be one of the roughest ever this year,” says the UPI, adding that “the industry is faced with new or stiffened security rules, additional flight delays, and more checked luggage.”
According to Goddard, the planes these holiday travelers board are increasingly staffed by overworked, over-stressed pilots, serviced by outsourced workers, and run by airlines with eyes focused intensely on the bottom line. He has never wanted to do anything but fly, but for the first time in his career he finds that he is not really enjoying it. Echoing the sentiment of so many packed-in, delayed, fearful passengers across the country, he says that “flying isn’t fun anymore.”
Many of flying’s traditional illusions crashed on 9/11. The tragedy of September 11, 2001, delivered a swift kick in the profits to the entire airline industry, and the ripples continue. Amid everything else that occurred, a shocked nation experienced a brief vignette of life in America with no airplane service. During the next three days, neither freight, passenger, nor recreational planes flew overhead. Meanwhile, the FAA, the major airlines, the military, and the responses of a highly emotional public changed forever the experience of commercial flying virtually everywhere around the globe.
For Bill and his wife, Leslie, that day held its own special terror. In his 30 years working for almost a dozen airlines, Bill had put himself mentally in that 9/11 cockpit scores of times. Through the early 1990s, he had flown across the Middle East for SaudiAir, until the old joke about Caucasian SaudiAir pilots being nicknamed “Targets” became a little too real. Now he was flying 777s out of Newark, passing the World Trade Center almost daily. Leslie, also a pilot, served as with another one of the major airlines, as a captain flying 767s out of Los Angeles. She had shared flight school with 9/11 pilot Jason Dahl and she had flown his route, a non-stop to Los Angeles out of Boston that crashed into the World Trade Center.
But according to Goddard, 9/11 brought only a revolutionary spike to an evolutionary change that began almost 30 years ago. Many of us remember those good old days, when svelte young stewardesses smiled and offered coffee, tea, or milk. Captains invited youngsters up to the cockpit to grip the steering wheel. And even if you were going to go camping upon arrival, you wore a suit on the plane. Flying was special. Prices were steep, but you were soaring thousands of miles in a few hours and arriving on time.
Those were the good — and bad — old days before airline deregulation. Prior to l978, commercial flying was treated as a public utility. Airlines were merely very well regulated terminal management centers, and there were several upsides to this system.
A ticket from Newark to San Francisco was a solid promise. If your flight was canceled, you could take it to the next airline counter and catch a seat for no added cost. You could keep and transfer the ticket virtually forever. By contrast, today’s cheaper ticket is generally not honored by any airline other than the one that issued it, and carried no protection against cancellations for any reason at all.
Among the downsides of regulation was the fact that air routes were parceled out nearly permanently, allowing no room for new airlines or expanded service. This would mean that airlines operating a given route sometimes fly half empty planes at a loss to provide a fixed schedule of service.
Then on October 24, l978, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Airline Deregulation Act. Airlines were allowed to set their own prices and competition determined the routes. The Federal Aviation Administration set and enforced the guidelines. Everything worked fabulously for awhile. Production soared as new routes and airlines came to the fore. Prices plummeted, saving the flying public $10 to $15 billion annually. Airlines got to fill up empty seats by discounting fares. And best of all, accidents dropped 20 percent compared with pre-deregulation levels.
But gradually, toward the end of the 1980s, aviation, along with many other industries, adopted two distressing trends: mega mergers and the isolation of senior management. With this came several hallmarks that Goddard and many other pilots are calling the race to the bottom. Airline executives eyed the workforce as an obstacle to corporate profit. This led to steady layoffs and outsourcing. The shock of 9/11, which led both business and leisure travelers to re-think flying, escalated the airlines’ fiscal distress. The less revenue there was to fight for, the harder senior managers fought to grab what they could.
To understand how safety, security, and the whole flying experience have crashed, Goddard invites us to take a look deep into the airlines’ corporate structures. Maintenance engineers and mechanics who used to work as proud salaried employees for their airline, found their jobs outsourced to maintenance firms, most of them based in India and Brazil. The planes come in, get serviced according to a checklist, and are pushed through the hangar. Gone is that extra measure of safety that comes from well-paid professionals who sees themselves as caretakers of American’s — or Continental’s, or United Airlines’ — fleet.
Airport personnel are being put under the same pressure. The wheelchair attendant and the curbside check-in person are no longer airport employees. “That $5 you give the individual at curbside is not a tip,” says Goddard. “It’s not payment to him for special services. It is money going directly into the outsource firm that contracted to provide the curbside service.”
Those beleaguered folks behind the counter are still airline employees, but at most major air counters they are doing the work that 2.5 to 3 people did before 9/11. Most have also experienced salary cuts of up to 40 percent. The lines grow, you wait longer, and self-check-in machines don’t seem to help. Also, if you are getting the vague feeling that flight attendants are no longer as perky as they used to be, think how much you would smile with a starting salary recently cut back to $1,000 a month.
All of these salary cutbacks were deemed essential after 9/11. Never mind that the federal government voted the major carriers $4.5 billion to recover from the three flightless days after the tragedy. Continental alone got $500 million. Airlines’ senior managers went to the unions and asked for sacrifices to avoid bankruptcy or massive layoffs. Grudgingly the unions gave in.
With the pilots, it began with money. Pilot salaries in all major airlines came down by double digit percentages. Goddard’s peak salary, reached just before 9/11, while he was working for American Airlines, was $240,000. Last year, he made $114,000. In addition to working more for substantially less, he will be worse off in retirement, because his pension was rolled back and permanently frozen to the amount of his first year with the airline.
After salaries were squeezed dry, managers went after the pilots’ schedules. For years, pilot schedules were fixed by the old tables of flight, duty, and rest intervals set by the FAA. But most of these had been determined in the l950s, before the jet age, and actually didn’t apply in the 21st century with the longer flights, increased stress, and fewer fuel stops.
“This meant that the FAA had abdicated flying safety to the collective bargaining process,” says Goddard. Airlines, desperate just to keep fiscally afloat, pushed the pilots harder. Pilots continually complained of cumulative fatigue and of never being able to catch up on sleep. Goddard, who lived in Princeton until recently, was forced to move to Secaucus to be closer to his Newark base. (Critical of his employer, he has asked that his real name not be used, although he is allowing the use of his photograph, and that of his wife.)
Jet Blue recently talked the FAA into letting its planes try a scheduling experiment. If the airline could just push the flight time rule of eight hours maximum before relief to 10 hours, it could squeeze in a coast-to-coast round trip with one crew. What a saving! The FAA allowed it, but the pilots complained that they were exhausted and that the 10-hour shift was unsafe.
So were the major airlines truly devastated by 9/11? Department of Transportation statistics says yes. In 2000 scheduled airlines received payment for 665,513,000 flights out of American airports, flying a total of 15.5 billion miles. In 2002, 53 million of those passengers stayed home, and total flight miles dipped by one fifth. Passenger revenues fell by roughly a quarter throughout the industry. Bankruptcy and layoffs spread.
Yet as belts were tightened and axes fell, the stories started to trickle down. United Airlines CEO Glenn Tilton, who took over as head of the airline in 2002, three months before the airline filed for bankruptcy, voted himself a 40 percent raise at the end of September, along with a contract extension through 2011, after asking all employees to agree to pay cuts. American Airlines had frozen all pensions back to the workers’ first-year, entry-level figure. But the top 200 senior managers were spared. Their pensions were separated out of the list of bankruptcy assets.
Gordon Bethune, Continental’s CEO, swore that he would never declare bankruptcy or have major layoffs if the unions would return $500 million to the corporate pot. They did. Two years later, on December 31, 2004, Bethune retired, taking with him a bonus of $30 million — six percent of the money the workers had scraped together. As corporate greed was publicized, worker morale plunged.
Today, in the five major airlines, a 40 percent turnover rate is common. Yet interestingly, the numbers of passengers and passenger miles are higher than ever. Like the dot-com crash, aviation was an industry too necessary to die. Americans have returned to the air.
The FAA has instituted security procedures to keep them safe, the most recent of which strictly carry-on liquids. But investigations keep turning up carry-on bags full of knives and guns, and unauthorized people strolling onto runways. Big gaps in security remain, including the failure to screen most of the cargo that rides in the planes’ bellies, just beneath passengers’ feet.
“Yes, I’m scared sometimes. I know just what can and what can’t be detected in luggage,” says Goddard. “I realize I could be carrying a bomb in my cargo area.” He admits that most pilots are control freaks. They view weather and mechanical failures as controllable challenges. But bombs lie beyond their control, and they all feel it.
United Airlines has finally adopted what the pilots have been shouting for since hijackers first burst into cockpits on 9/11: a bulletproof, ram-proof door separating the galley from the passengers. This allows the pilots to go to the bathroom without giving the signal to a hijacker. The problem is that the doors cost $100,000 each, and even though United has offered to share the technology, no airlines have taken the airline up on the offer. The alternative method is to have a 95-lb flight attendant stand by the bathroom when a pilot is inside, and if an armed hijacker advances, she is to yell “Door!” to the pilot and hurl herself at the attacker. For $1,000 a month? Probably not a dependable system.
“For the first time in my life, I can honestly say, flying just isn’t as much fun anymore,” says Goddard. Now, at age 50, however, Goddard is not planning any sudden career moves. This has always been his beloved industry and he will stick with it. Son of a military freight pilot, Goddard aimed at a flight career since childhood. When his father died during a mission over Vietnam, Goddard, at age 12, went to work for a small airport in San Bernadino, California. By age 18 he had his pilot’s license and began flying professionally for Apollo Airlines out of San Bernadino, then Wings West based in San Francisco.
He met his wife when they were working for World Airways. It was a long distance romance. World Airways shifted to strictly charter fights, leaving Bill to seek work abroad with Malaysian Air and later SaudiAir. The distance shrunk when he signed on with his current airline. He is based in Newark, while his wife works out of Los Angeles. “We’re probably together about 10 to 12 days a month,” he says.
Even with the cuts, flying with one of the Goddards, or with any of their fellow commercial pilots, is still the safest way to travel. There are cautious couples who fly in separate planes so if one crashes, the other will survive to tend the children. Yet few parents take separate cars to soccer games out of the same concern, and this despite the fact that car accidents are responsible for 94.6 percent of all transportation deaths, while the odds of death by airplane are 0.00003 percent.
Besides, think what you are doing. You are spanning the entire Louisiana purchase or Alexander the Great’s empire in a matter of hours. You are bursting earth’s surly bonds miles above the clouds. In that miracle, over all that distance, how upsetting should an hour’s delay be?
And after all, there are — for now — the free peanuts.
#h#A Day in the Life Of an Airline Pilot#/h#
Stuck in traffic on Route 1, heading for a day at a desk, do you ever think you might want to swap lives with Bill Goddard? There he is floating on air, all that respect, cheerful flight attendants, stewardesses, and huge machinery at his command, not to mention all those free peanuts. Well, check out a 777 commercial pilot’s daily grind and see how much of it is filled with the bright stuff.
Somewhere in Secaucus, Saudi Arabia, or New Delhi, Goddard wakes up. Moving freely around the globe, being on the move much of the time, he admits, is part of the thrill for him, but it takes a special kind of person. For a 10 a.m. flight to New Zealand, Goddard hits the airport about 8 a.m. He files his flight plan, reviews the manifest, and performs about an hour’s worth of paperwork. This is the beginning of his “duty time,” as opposed to his “flight time” — the number of hours in the air.
This discrepancy has proved a big bone of contention between pilots and airline management. Since 9/11 airlines have been pushing to extend the duty day from 14 to 17 hours. With new expanded fuel capacities, they say, this schedule is necessary for maximum global reach. Pilots’ unions such as the Air Line Pilots Association, however, are calling for an updating of what it terms “antiquated FAA rules.” They seek a maximum 14-hour duty day, a flight limit of 8 hours between rest periods, and a minimum of 10 hours off-duty every 24-hour period. How far can a pilot be pushed before jet lag and fatigue clouds his judgment? Do we want to find out?
After the paperwork is done, Goddard moves on to one of his favorite tasks — the walk around. He tours his plane, inside and out, kicks the tires, tests the flaps, thumps the gauges. “We love to worry about fuel and windage and such,” he says.
The outside work done, Goddard consults with his crew and slips himself into “the smallest executive office in the world.” Cheek by jowl with two fellow officers, he straps himself into a form fitting basket and begins a seemingly endless checklist. Then comes the news over his headset: Bad weather in New Zealand will delay the take off one hour.
He slouches. This extra hour will come out of his sleep time at the other end of the flight. But it could be worse, the problem’s not with the plane, which would mean beginning the whole inspection process all over again. (Meanwhile, stressed counter guardians are trying to quell airport rage at the gate. One of the job’s veterans recalls when the airlines would break out free champagne in such cases. Alas, no more.)
Finally, Goddard is given the go ahead. Passengers are loaded, announcements are made, and the plane is trundled into the runway waiting line. Then, at last, the take-off. The myth of autopilot is exactly that, insists Goddard. All three pilots in the cockpit are constantly calculating and making adjustments. Courses change as swiftly and unpredictably as the weather. And the pilots love every minute of it.
“We are not so much paid for what we actually do,” says Goddard, “as what we can do.” He cites an instance of two friends who, while flying a DC 10 to Europe, saw first one, then a second, engine blow. With deft alacrity, they were able to dump unnecessary fuel, turn the plane toward the nearest port, and bring aircraft and passengers safely to earth. Fellow pilots were less amazed than the flight engineers who assured them that it was impossible to fly a DC 10 with two of its three engines down.
A little more than 11 hours later, Goddard guides his plane onto the New Zealand tarmac. He has been able to make up some of the hour delay.
Exiting after all the passengers and crew, he debriefs and fills out the perfunctory paperwork. His body clock tells him it is 11 p.m., and after 13 duty hours, his shoulders are beginning to slump. On his way out he is picked for random drug testing. He groans. Since pilots must wait around for the test results, this means up to another 90 minutes before he can reach that delicious bed at the nearby hotel.
While the FAA may have grown more lax about the amount of flight time pilots can rack up without rest, there is no easing of the agency’s anti-drug vigilance. For automobile drivers, the legal blood alcohol limit in the strictest of states is .08 percent. Pilots must show themselves below .02 — meaning not one short beer a full 24 hours before flying. An 0.2 to 0.04 test sends the pilot home. Up to .08 measures out the real trouble, including an FAA hearing, with the pilot’s license in jeopardy, followed by psychological counseling.
Any indictment for driving an auto while under the influence goes on a pilot’s permanent record. “I only wish the FAA were as fastidious about the cumulative effects of fatigue as they are about drugs,” says Goddard.
The following day Goddard and his crew will man the return flight from New Zealand. Later in the week, he will get several days off in a clump and hook up with his wife in Los Angeles. Throughout the month, he will be away from home approximately 390 hours — about double the amount of time that the Route 1 commuter spends on the job.