Thursday, September 3, 2009

Follow-up to article/my husband's story

First, I apologize for the formatting/gaps in my article post. I tried to edit them out, but they appeared anyway once I posted the article. I have never read this guy's column before, but really liked this article explaining furlough/seniority and how generally screwed up the whole airline profession is. I felt the author very accurately described the industry, better than I can, and also shares my general opinion and point of view on things. The author's history with airlines seems kind of similar to my husband's.
My husband's history is as follows: In high school he took his first flight lesson, got hooked, and then his parents basically continued to get him trained as a pilot. He went to college, but actually didn't major in aviation. He's got a BS in MIS (management information systems- which is kinda computer science mixed with business). This is kind of funny because we had always said that it was a good thing that he majored in something other than aviation, so that he'd have that to fall back on if his aviation career crapped out, but it turns out, it hasn't helped in the least to have a degree in something else. We think the reason is because MIS is the kind of degree you graduate with and immediately apply the degree in your field. He's been a pilot since graduating college (15 years), so he never went out and got a computer or business related job. With a field like computers that is ever changing, have a degree in MIS is kinda useless if you've never worked in the field and the programming you know how to do is stuff learned 15 years ago. I digress. So anyway, he graduated from college and did what I gather a lot of pilots do and became a flight instructor. From there he got hired at a small freight operation, flying a prop plane that carried bank checks and lab samples. It was dangerous work and he flew alone at night a lot. He built up his hours and then applied to several airlines, mainly regional carriers, which is where many pilots start their careers before going to major airlines. He got hired at a regional (ACA) and within a couple years made Captain. He was a Captain for 7 years, which is what he was doing when I met him. At the time I met him, he was basically making as much as he's made in his career (we didn't know that at the time!).
Now, at this point I feel like I need to explain Regionals vs. Major carriers and what I know of that dynamic. This is all information I've gathered from my husband and/or what I know of the industry and I'm just going to give the "big picture" as I know it. I'm not sure I know whether Regionals created themselves and marketed themselves to the Majors or if the Majors expressed the need for Regionals and then they were created (kind of a chicken/egg question). All I know is that at some point they were created and mainly handle the flying to and from smaller airports for the Majors. Regional pilots are paid much less than major airline pilots. Literally, starting pay is less than $20,000 a year, and this is common. The reason is (at least the way I understand it) that there are now a LOT of Regionals and they compete with each other to get the flying contracts with the various Major airlines. Well, the most attractive thing they can do is say "hey, I'll fly for you for less than the others will" to get a contract, which in turn translates to paying their pilots peanuts in order to do so.
Which brings me back to my husband's career. He was at one of the highest paid Regionals. Which spelled disaster, because it meant that no Major would want to keep them despite their professionalism and good track record, because they were too expensive. Might as well go with a low-paid cheaper Regional to save money. Which, let's face it, all airlines need to save money! So, my husband's Regional fought with their major carrier and decided to do something different. They created their own airline called Independence Air.
They already had a huge amount of employees and planes and they decided to go ahead and separate from the Major airline and become their own airline. It was a good idea in theory. They got very creative with the marketing and the cool thing about them was that all the employees were totally psyched about it as opposed to most airline employees around at the time who were totally disgruntled in a struggling industry. My husband loved it. He was happy to go to work and excited that they were trying something different. The problem was, Independence failed. They ran out of money. Their strategy had been to do the low-cost thing and instead of slowly growing as business got better, they started out with so many people and planes that they were too big and were flying half empty planes around while they tried to build recognition and get people to fly on them. They failed. So like the author of the article explained, my husband, with tons of flight time at this point, and 7 years as a Captain, was forced to find employment at the bottom again. Which he did. He actually found a job within two weeks of Independence going under, which made me so proud. The problem was that it was another Regional Airline, and he was a First Officer again, and had the worst schedules, crappy pay, and also all the guys he was flying with were totally disgruntled. He hated it there.
Then he heard about another airline starting up that was trying to do the new/modern progressive thing. It was called Skybus, and they had a lot of the ideas Independence had, only this time they would not start out huge, they would grow gradually, so he thought it could work.
He weighed his options and decided to go there because he was already at the bottom at the Regional so he wouldn't be taking a pay cut, he knew upward movement was looking to be very slow at the Regional, and if he got hired at Skybus and they succeeded, he'd be very senior and be upgrading to Captain quickly in an Airbus (big plane!). He went for it. My husband is obsessed with following airline news, which I think a lot of pilots are. He was like this when I met him and still remains so, even furloughed. Well, he closely followed Skybus's financials, and eventually decided that things were not going well and started predicting they would probably end up tanking like Independence had. Luckily, based on the applications he had put out to a lot of airlines a couple years before, he ended up getting a call from Continental right as he was starting to worry that Skybus didn't have a future. He took the job at Continental and again was at first year pay (this is three years in a row now). After 9 months they furloughed him.
He hasn't flown since.


Lexi said...

Wow, this is totally random but I came here today through Caitlin's blog, and read your about me section. When I saw you and your husband lived in DC (where I'm from) while he was working for an airlines that went under, I immediately thought it had to be Independence! My mom worked for ACA for years (she's a recruiter) and was involved in Independence from the ground up. It was such a crush to her and everyone there when they went out of business:( Since this was posted 2 years ago, I'm hoping your husband is flying now! Best of luck to him, I know plenty about how terrible the pilot job situation can be, since I have a mom whose worked in HR for airlines for 15+ years!

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