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February 28 , 2011

In this Issue...

The Way It Has To Be, Part 2  

ALPAWatch Think Tank Paper

The Way It Has To Be

Part 2 of 5


This is Part 2 of The Way It Has To Be, Making the Case.

Click here for Part 1 and the entire Paper, The Way It Has To Be


Making the Case

Does high or low pay really affect airline safety? How?
January 24th, 2009 Captain Sullenberger of the famed US Airway’s flight 1549 eloquently addressed a congressional committee.  He laid out his concerns about the future safety record of the airline industry.  He clearly let it be known that he believes the current economic status of the airline pilot’s careers will lead to degradation in safety.  Captain Sullenberger concluded his statement with this simple but very accurate statement. 

“In aviation, the bottom line is that the single most important piece of safety equipment is an experienced, well-trained pilot.” 


His venue did not allow for him to fully explain why and how he believes this is true. (Click here for Captain Sullenberger’s complete testimony)  Captain Sullenberger can no doubt complete his thoughts on this subject and ALPA should ask him to do so.  In the meantime, here is ALPAWatch’s assessment.

There are three issues that go to the heart of this subject; Performance, Retention and Attraction of major airline pilots.

A public statement that high pay improves airline safety by assuring high performance on the part of pilots, and conversely low pay assures low performance falls flat.  It falls flat because that argument is not only simplistic but ludicrous.  Positive or negative correlations do not prove or disprove causation.

Nonetheless, the above statement is probably true.  Why?  Airline pilots are professionals, but that alone does not explain the great lengths they go to, to assure a safe operation.  Airline pilots jump through thousands of hoops everyday to safely execute their jobs.  Why?  Partly because they know those hoops make the operation safer.  But the bigger reason is to assure their continued employment.

As airline pilot professionals, we do everything we can to assure the safe outcome of every flight.  We don’t take chances.  We know that the best way to stay out of trouble in an airplane is to never take unnecessary risks.  That attitude carries over into how we conduct ourselves as employees.  Think about all the things you do just to make sure you stay out of trouble.  You never want to find yourself in the Chief Pilot’s office.  Most pilots don’t even want him/her to know their name.  The question is, why?

Think about all the things you do to make sure you are not the reason for a delayed or canceled flight, leaving the house early, back up flights, checking and rechecking your schedule.  Think about how you conform with the thousands of rules in the FOM that have nothing directly to do with safety, but have plenty to do with protecting your job.  Why do you do it?  Even though you might not have consciously thought about it, you do these things because you realize that this job is not replaceable, or at least that used to be the case.  The combination of compensation, lifestyle and seniority system made this job irreplaceable.  Even with all the missed Christmases, missed children’s activities, and thousands of nights in hotels, few ever quit this job.  Most considered quitting sometime in their careers, but viable options for similar pay were not available.

That is changing.  What if we lived in a world where it was replaceable?  What if your friend or neighbor said he could start you tomorrow at his firm for similar money?  Every night at home, holidays off, no roller bag attached to your hand, not having to take off some of your clothes to get into the office, no tests every year to see if you get to keep your job, no threat of having to go back to introductory wages if your employer runs your company into the ground.  Would pilot turnover (currently unheard of in our industry) increase?

The gap between what the airline profession currently has to offer and what other professions of similar education and responsibility pay has been working against the pilot profession for decades.  The Wall Street Journal ran an article in 2000 showcasing the top 10 professions that gained and lost the most earning potential in the 1990’s.  Airline pilots topped the list of losing the most earning power.  What do you think a similar study will show for the past decade?  Combine this loss of earning potential with no current plan to change it and the fact that other professions continue to pay more and more and you have a situation that is unlikely to attract the same caliber of people as it once did.  And don’t forget about fewer and fewer pilots available from the military. Those that are attracted don’t have the Delta, United or American at the top of their wish list for employment.  Today its FedEx, UPS and Southwest.

When this career provided the compensation, lifestyle and respect it once did, it was a job so good that no one in their right mind would do anything to risk losing it.  This is a tough industry with rigorous standards; standards that are demanded without question or exception.  Airline pilots, as a part of their everyday professional life, faithfully live up to those standards, and that is one of the greatest proponents to safety there is.  Pilots constantly study, review, and prepare themselves mentally and physically to perform all the required tasks as flawlessly as possible.  They come to work at any hour, at any location in the world, totally ready to do their jobs…and all completely unsupervised.  They do this partly out of professionalism but also because if they do not, they will have problems with their employer.  And as conservative as pilots are, they know that problems with their employer could lead to losing their jobs.  And that is unconscionable, unconscionable because there is no way to replace an airline pilot career.  It takes a lifetime to become a major airline pilot with any seniority.  If you lose that job, it’s over.  There is no recourse.  This looms large in the minds of pilots.  The self governance this factor plays in improving safety is incalculable, but most certainly it is a great contributor to safety and to assuring a stable workforce.
But what if that was not the case?  What if there was turnover, voluntary or from pilots being fired?  What if you could lose your job and easily replace the money?  What if there was an alternative career--a career that would pay the same or more?  And as an added bonus you are home for Christmas and Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July and you will not miss you kid’s birthdays, school plays and soccer games, etc? Have you ever flown with someone that would quit this job for those reasons if only there was a career alternative?  Are you one?  What problems might turnover cause for the future safety of the airline industry?  Without a plan to widen the gap between what a major airline pilot career has to offer and competing professions, the industry will suffer.

Turnover in the pilot profession at the major level is something the industry has not had to deal with in many, many decades.

Turnover would be damaging for two reasons.

First, it would break the experience base. Break that base and it will take decades to repair. The continuous flow of experience from 20 and 30 year Captains to First Officers is an immeasurable, intangible element of airline safety that can not be over emphasized.  With respect to airline safety, government requirements, technology improvements, more reliable aircraft, even exceptional training, all are secondary to the critical importance of experience.  At the major airlines that experience has been handed down in an unbroken chain for over 80 years.  Break that chain and you sail into uncharted waters.

Repairing a broken experience base rather than preventing a break from occurring, will require much more time, money and possible lives.

Second, turnover by definition means that pilots will be leaving their jobs.  When people are considering changing jobs/careers they are generally not as concerned with losing the job they have.  Would pilots of such a mind set approach their jobs with the same sense of professionalism and safety that they do today?  Would they be as worried about finding themselves in front of the Chief Pilot?  Would they miss a trip for personal reasons?  Would this decrease the stability airline managers expect and depend upon to operate an airline?

Might they take unnecessary risks in an airplane because they were not worried about getting fired?  The answer to all these questions is yes.  The lesser paid airlines and other segments of aviation provides us with many examples of this behavior.

We can get a glimpse of what turnover might do to safety by examining other areas of aviation that do not benefit from an unbroken experience base.

Commuter airlines.  The turnover at the commuter airlines is legendary, mostly because of low pay and poor working conditions.  Some get hired by the majors, but most simply go to other more rewarding careers.  They have never really enjoyed an unbroken experience base.  Their safety record reflects such.

Corporate aviation.  It seldom experiences unbroken experience base.  It often has the most up-to-date technology in aircraft.  Its safety record is nowhere near that of the major airlines (a ratio of accidents to either flight hours or flights).

General aviation.  This is mostly a single pilot; learn as you go, trial and error operation.  It has an abysmal safety record.

Statistics show that commercial airlines are the safest segment of aviation while owner flown has one of the worst safety records.  Why?  Many reasons but pilot behavior and experience is certainly a big one.  One large contributor to owner flown accidents is referred to as “get there’itis.”  I have an important meeting to get to, the weather is bad but I’m going anyway.  I must get to that meeting.

Airline pilots are often confronted with similar dilemmas.  You are taxiing out and you have a mechanical issue.  All your experience tells you that the problem is not serious and has almost no chance of impacting the safety of the flight.  But the rules say return to the gate for maintenance.  If you go back to the gate, you miss your commute flight home and that will cause you to miss a big event you have planned with your family.  You return to the gate.  Why?  You return because you know that not following the rules could lead to employment problems.  But if that was not a concern, what decision might a pilot make?

There is no way to know how many times a day this kind of scenario plays out.  And almost every time, the right decision is made.  The positive impact this has on safety is impossible to calculate, but obviously a poor decision would have a negative impact on safety.  And in aviation, isn’t the tie breaker always decided by “which is the safer course of action?”

So isn’t also true that the safer course of action, with respect to the pilot profession is to return this profession to a stable and sustainable position?  Wouldn’t this help ensure that the pilots of the future will continue to make the right decisions?

We know that in the past, an airline pilot’s compensation, lifestyle and respect attracted the pilots we have today.  What we do not know is if this profession will have the same highly trained, highly skilled, and most importantly highly experienced pilots in the future.  If not, it is doubtful that the industry will enjoy the same stability of long term pilot employment and safety that it has for decades.  Should the industry take that chance?  In aviation, we always err on the side of safety.  If we know one method is safe and different method is proposed, we stick with what is known to work, unless this new method can be proven to be safer.  We know that the pilot compensation, lifestyle and status in place for decades gave the industry the pilots we have today.  We know that works.  The current level of compensation, lifestyle, and respect the pilots of major airlines experience today may not provide the same levels of safety and stability in the future.  In aviation, when it comes to safety don’t we always stick to proven methods verses taking a chance on the unproven?  Why should this aspect of safety be dealt with any differently?

Yes, flying will always attract new pilots, but what kind?  How many of tomorrow’s pilots will stick it out for a full career?  How many will put themselves through the years of sacrifices it took to get a major airline job.  How many will pay $ 100,000 in education for a career that might not ever pay $100,000 a year?  What will happen if the industry cannot attract the same qualified applicants it once did?  What will airlines do? Lower their hiring standards?  Hire the pilots they once considered unqualified? Pay more?  Even paying more will not solve the problem if the industry waits too long to address this issue.  If the industry waits too long to correct this problem, it may not matter what the industry offers for pilot compensation because the pilot candidates they once had their pick of, simply will not exist. Right now, the pipeline is still full of experienced pilots. That will change.


Part 3 will cover

  • How do you explain the negative correlation of safety records having never been better while pilot compensation has been drastically reduced?
  • Changing the mindset of pilots and ALPA about their career and the union

To read the entire Paper click on The Way It Has To Be


Thank you again for participating in ALPAWatch.  With the participation of pilots such as you, ALPAWatch will be successful in obtaining the Union Leadership that the Pilot Group deserves, and in doing so regain our fair compensation, our quality of life, our future, and our dignity.