Thursday, May 14, 2009

In Another's Words

Well, as with the last few posts, looks like I will take the steps of our fair President and backtrack a bit.  I have been reading up on and watching a lot of the hearings on the crash of 3407 and I am willing to back away a little from supporting the pilots in this case.  It looks like there were a lot of poor choices going into this trip as well as lax industry standards that combined to cause this crash.

I ran across this editorial from a pilot on the internet and thought this person really captured the frustrations of the airline community when hearing the berating of the pilots and airlines during this investigation.  I noticed that no one commented on the last post, and I know this is a touchy subject.  It just happens to be the subject that I am concentrated on right now.  I hope you all bear with me.


"I'm a pilot for another regional carrier (not Colgan, or any company owned by Pinnacle Holdings...the company that owns Colgan). So many people don't understand the life of a regional airline pilot, I almost feel obligated to give some insight here.

To become an airline pilot it's almost impossible to gain all the licenses and experience necessary to get hired without racking up at least $50,000+ in student loans for training, including all your books, equipment, other materials, fuel, instructor fees, renter's insurance, etc. You could easily get a bachelors and masters degree at most state schools for less. 

My first year in the regional airlines I made $28,000 before taxes, and that's at the top end of the scale. And I spent about $2000 of that (7% of my paycheck, about 10% after taxes) on uniforms, luggage, and other equipment just to be able to do my job. I got lucky in that when I got hired we were in the middle of a hiring boom, and I never had to sit on reserve duty (where you only make a minimum monthly guarantee pay most of the time). Had I not been hired when I was, I would have probably made $20,000 per year or less. Most of the captains I'm flying with now made less than $15,000 their first year in the industry.

The passengers obviously provide our paychecks, just like customers in any other industry. But, the flying public wants their $69 one way tickets. In my opinion, flying should never be less than at least two or three times the cost of driving the same distance. Let's say I flew you 1000 miles (a pretty common distance, even for a regional carrier). If you drove it, at $2.20 per gallon and 25 MPG in an average car/suv, it would cost you about $90 in gas, $100 for a hotel (because the average person doesn't drive 1000 miles in one day). The trip would take you about 17 hours by car averaging 60 MPH. Double all those figures for the return trip, and you would have paid close to $400 not including food or other incidentals, and taken four days of your time. But, the flying public demands that we provide travel for that same distance for about $300 or less for a round trip. And, we can get you there in about two hours (as opposed to two way). You can avoid the mileage and wear and tear on your car, fly your 1000 miles, for 25% less money, and 90% faster time. Then you could do your business, turn around and come back in time for dinner. Yet, the public goes into uproar if ticket prices go up. 

So, "thank you", Mr. and Mrs. U.S. flying public, for demanding the lowest airfare in the world, and for my minimum wage paycheck. I would buy you a beer for your caring and compassion, but you can't buy that with food stamps. Oh, and while I have your entire family's life in my hands, flying through thunderstorms, ice, rain, and snow in some of the most congested and complicated airspace in the country on less than three hours of sleep, please feel free to keep sending up your complains about how hot or cold it is, the seats are uncomfortable, my bag won't fit in the overhead, why is the seat belt sign still on, there isn't enough leg room, it's too bumpy, this is taking too long, blah blah blah.

It takes a special kind of person to work in this industry. These days being a pilot is viewed by the public as being not much more than a glorified bus driver. So, until ticket prices go up, wages increase, work/rest rules are improved, and the industry regains some of its exclusivity, it will never attract the caliber of individual the public expects to see at the controls. Until that happens, the flying public has made the airline industry about the almighty dollar rather than actually serving the customer. The same is true in crew training. I can can tell you from experience that safety is always our number one concern, but not far behind in the list of priorities is completing the flight on time. We fly with substandard and/or broken equipment on a daily basis because you, as the flying public, want your free meals, hotel stays, and free travel vouchers if the flight is delayed or cancelled. The maintenance guys could delay a flight by 45 minutes to change a tire, because it's so worn that one more landing would make the thing explode. And, all we get from the passengers are arms thrown up in frustration and comments about how "ridiculous" this is. Yet, you still want to pay peanuts for your ticket.

So, yes pilot training in some places might be considered substandard compared to the ideal level of proficiency the public demands. The airline industry likes to boast about how well pilots are trained and how safe it is. What they really mean is that the pilots are trained well and safety is held at the highest standard given the available financial resources and associated costs. You can't have your cake and eat it too. If you want airfares cheaper than dirt, that lack of cash flow trickles up to all levels of the individual company, including training for pilots and maintenance personnel, as well as making the industry as a whole unattractive to the most qualified and capable people.

The pilots of Colgan 3407 might have made some bad decisions, and it cost many people their lives. I prayed for their families and hope it never happens again. But, those pilots' level of training and arguably lack of experience is a direct result of the demands of the flying public. While I go to work every day, trying to make the best decisions possible and keep my passengers as safe and comfortable as I can, I know Colgan 3407 will not be the last or the worst accident we'll have, maybe even just this year. And, what I cannot tolerate is the public's constant complaining, insistence on perfect performance and better safety, while also demanding cheaper fares. Do you go to a BMW dealership and demand quality parts, power, and German engineering for the price of a Kia? Probably not. So, which one do you want? Quality or economy?"


  1. I fly a lot. Regional flights are a part of my life at least monthly. This terrifies me. I want a cheap flight...sure...but not at the expense of my safety. Thanks for posting this. I don't know any pilots, and it is nice to hear their perspective. I don't complain as a passenger, but I will be sure to thank my pilot on the way out next time :)

  2. Quality please! Interesting.