When people learn that I used to be a naval aviator, they often ask me if I had considered being an airline pilot after I graduated from the Navy. As long-time readers may remember, I even toyed with the idea when I’d hung up my naval spurs for the last time – flying is in my blood. Went so far as to get an airline transport rating on my pilot’s license, out at 20 and into the commercial gig.
But 9/11 got in the way of that, then I made captain and by the time I’d retired last summer the idea no longer made much financial sense. Even with the increase of airline pilot mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65 a year or two back, I just didn’t think there was enough runway ahead of me to make captain and spend enough time in the left seat to make up for who knows how long as a co-pilot on reserve flopping down in a shared apartment in Atlanta or where ever, waiting for the phone to ring, flying the routes those more senior to you avoided on days they’d rather spend with their families.
Two weeks work a month sounds good until you do it, but it adds up to six months a year, which if it is not quite the same as a going on cruise every year isn’t so very far away either. And truth be told, that whole cruising at 35,000 feet on autopilot with your legs propped up was boring in a fighter. If it wasn’t for the occasional prospect of hurling myself at the ground at 500 knots to drop ordnance or the opportunity to jump into the middle of an eight ship air combat fur-ball, I don’t know how long I would have lasted, and it doesn’t matter how much they’d have paid me for it.
So yeah, you get spoiled. But there was another thing too: I always felt that the Navy – maybe not the corporate Navy, but the Navy all around me – valued my contributions as a person. That it mattered if you were good. That we all competed, in a friendly way, to be the very best we could be.
You have to cross thresholds of psychological stability, intelligence, performance and experience to get picked up by a major airline. But once you’re hired and clear probation you’re a number on a list and you advance by seniority. Guy ahead of you retires, and you move up one notch. Gives you the right to get off reserve, bid on a line, take a couple of days off over the holidays, eventually move to a different domicile or the left seat.
I used to put it to myself this way: If you were the very best airline pilot in the world – barring a landing in the Hudson after a bird strike – no one would know, or frankly care. And depending upon the company, you’re seen less as an asset and more as a cost driver.
I’m not judging those that went that way, but ultimately decided that it wasn’t for me.
This guy’s example is a part of the reason why:
He is now in the co-pilot’s seat in the 50-seat commuter jets he flies, not for any failure in skill. He wears his captain’s stripes, he explains, to make that point. But with air travel down, his employer cut costs by downgrading 130 captains, those with the lowest seniority, to first officers, automatically cutting the wage of each by roughly 50 percent — to $34,000 in Mr. Lawlor’s case.
Lawlor did it the hard way, paid for his own flight time, probably dragged banners up and down the beach or gave flying lessons. Eventually he got picked up by a commuter line and even made captain relatively quickly. But now he’s been sent back to the right seat even as others have been furloughed.
It’s a tough break, but it comes with the business model.