Pilots on reserve are used to the phone ringing constantly. They’re the pinch hitters and relief pitchers of the airline world. I was signing in for my trip when the company called. It wasn’t scheduling explaining that my trip had changed—it was my chief pilot calling from his office a few yards away. “Let me walk across the hallway and we’ll talk in person,” I said. This wasn’t going to be a fun conversation.
From across his desk, my chief pilot told me the same story he’d shared all morning as he called other first officers. I don’t recall precisely his words, but the letter that came a day later has a forever home in my “do not trash” box: !It is for this reason that with sincere regret I inform you.!
I was furloughed.
We already had pilots on the street, and we knew more furloughs were likely on the horizon. We just didn’t know exactly when they’d happen. Many career aviators, jaded with the wary pessimism that becomes a defense mechanism against towering cumulonimbus and overreaching managers, view it as a rite of passage. I got my dose of it that steamy August day.
Furlough is just a $3 word for “layoff.” Everything in the airline world hinges on seniority. With seniority comes the ability to enjoy the better trips, domiciles, vacation dates and types of aircraft. Without seniority, you’re first on the list when the ax swings. “It’s nothing personal,” my chief pilot had said. Indeed, it was all spelled out in the contract between the union and the company. The new guys get shown to the door first. The most senior guys furloughed get the first recall when—or if—things get better. I was the eighth most senior pilot furloughed at my carrier: My new-hire class was where the company drew the line.
My dad had worked in construction when I was a kid. He was in and out of work as the jobs finished up, and I can recall plenty of times when he came home after getting word that his help was no longer needed. I had that same slump of the shoulders and thousand-yard stare as I walked from the chief’s office and off to fly the rest of my trip. Luckily, I had no dependents and a rental agreement I could walk away from at a moment’s notice.
In the middle of a historic pilot shortage, it’s still important to understand one of the less glamorous realities of the professional flying world: One day you may find yourself out of work. Airline hiring in the 2007-2008 time frame went from a massive hiring wave to a trickle in a matter of months. At many carriers, the flow of incoming pilots ceased altogether. The mandatory retirement age shifted from age 60 to 65, causing a five-year pause in retirements. A lot of legacy pilots had survived bankruptcies that gutted their retirement pensions, and they desperately needed the extra years to ensure a comfortable retirement. Oil surged above $100 a barrel. Routes flown by the little regional jets became unprofitable, and carriers like mine had to eliminate every cost they could. Trim costs, my company did, and pilots are a mighty big cost to any carrier.
Another retirement age change probably couldn’t cause as significant of a pause in career progression as it did in 2007, but other factors lurk out there. The legacy carriers are showing massive profits at the moment, which is great, but many regional carriers, still reeling from the global recession, struggle to break even. Even the mighty can fall in this business. Looking much farther down the road, what if single-pilot airliners come to fruition? Then, in theory, half the pilots would be looking for a job. The idea, today, is farfetched, but the carriage whip-maker was once securely employed. Flight engineers and navigators once had steady careers, too.
An encouraging word came down from management: “If you see an open job with us that you are qualified for, apply for it and mention it to your chief pilots. We will do our best to employ you anywhere your skills can be of use.”
A day after my trip, I sat across from one of our maintenance managers. He took one look at my rÃ©sumÃ© and offered me a job as a night shift mechanic. “You’ve got experience, you’re already on the company’s drug testing, and you’ve got a clean record. Of course, we’ll take you,” he said. Many joke that the most dangerous thing in aviation is a pilot with a screwdriver in hand. I set out to prove otherwise.
I spent the next 10 months working the night shift, and I learned what it’s like to be a non-pilot at an airline. After a month or two of changing tires and brakes, I signed up for a crew that did nothing but troubleshoot and repair MELs. In the airline world, dispatchability is key: If the plane doesn’t fly, it doesn’t generate revenue. Many minor failures can be deferred in accordance with the Minimum Equipment List, the book that dictates what failures the airplane can be dispatched with, any operational or maintenance considerations needed in the meantime, and how long the plane can fly before the deferred item “drops dead” or has to be repaired.
I explained to my new gang that while I was a mechanic, I was no electronics expert. They honored my request to avoid the more complex electrical stuff until I was up to speed. Instead of the complex world of relays, computers and electrical schematics, I started out with simple stuff like fixing lavatories. Suiting up for battle was key: The multiple layers of gloves are pretty obvious, and the trash bag taped up my arm to protect beyond the glove made sense, but when the lead saw me digging out an extra set of earplugs, he cocked an eye. They didn’t go in my ears.
If you can’t smell the mess, working with lavatories isn’t so bad.
Knowing how pilots operated the plane came in handy for troubleshooting work. For instance, the air conditioning packs can be finicky, at times. In auto mode, the operational test in the books said that when you turn the knobs to hot, the temperature should increase. When you turn it to cold, it should cool down. The book made no mention about temperatures stabilizing at a humane temperature. One plane varied between extremes of hot and cold, but a quick operational test by the mechanics passed every time.
I tried not to wave the “I’m a pilot” flag when I could avoid it, but most of the guys and gals there knew my story. Occasionally, someone would come up to me and say, “Is it true? Were you really a pilot here?” I’d nod and give them the abridged story. “I couldn’t believe that when the guys told me. I thought you were way too nice of a guy to be a pilot,” they’d say with a smile.
In late May, my supervisor greeted me with a slap on the back and a big grin. “I guess you’re about ready to saddle up again,” he said. An email earlier in the day had put a little spring in my step. My furlough was over.
Recalled To Flying
There were maybe a dozen of us seated in the classroom with coffee and donuts as class began bright and early Monday morning. Our Vice President of Flight Operations walked in at some point and looked contrite as he admitted that we shouldn’t have gotten furloughed in the first place. “If we knew then what we know now, you’d have never left,” he said. We all knew he meant well, but it hurt. My roommate and one other recalled pilot had worked as crew schedulers, listening to pilots complain about being tasked with flying the very trips they longed to fly. Another had constructed the metal detectors TSA used to screen passengers. One pilot had been installing satellite dishes. We smiled as we donned oxygen masks and smoke hoods. We laughed at the instructors’ tired jokes. We even tried not to groan at the training videos that took half of forever. We were delighted to be back on the job.
The syllabus wasn’t very long. We were in the classroom for a day or two, doing emergency drills and brushing up on company policies or procedures that had changed in the 10 months we were gone, and then we spent a day or two in the simulator. In water cooler conversations with the other pilots, we admitted that we’d been calling out checklists and fighting engine fires in our dreams the whole time. Going back through the simulator was a piece of cake. One of our instructors, learning I’d been wrenching on our flying machines, turned the briefing into a friendly game of Stump the Chump. He made it abundantly clear we’d passed the oral before he and I dug a lot deeper into the systems of the jet than most pilots do in the oral exam of any training event. We were all smiles as we returned to the line.
The timing on our recalls was critical: After 18 months “off-property,” the returning pilots would have to endure the full training regimen we’d faced as new hires. “The last of us showed up 17 months and a number of days later,” my friend Dan Boyle recalled. “We were right up on that deadline.”
In retrospect, our time on furlough was character-building. I used to live across the runway from Paul Schmidt, a pilot who had accumulated character the hard way: He was much too young to retire before the record screeched to a halt at Eastern Air Lines. He was with Kiwi, then TransMeridian. It was like a black cloud of bankruptcy followed him from job to job. He was flying the 727 at Kitty Hawk when he turned 60 and went back to riding sidesaddle as a flight engineer until they closed the doors on him in 2008. “Hey, only one of those was a furlough,” he said. The rest were bankruptcy cases that led to the companies ceasing operations.
Here’s hoping that pilots entering the field today can get by without such a land-mined career path.
Jeremy King is a regional first officer who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife, Amy. His logbook ranges from Aeronca to Zlin. In addition to tending the garden and minding a backyard flock of laying hens, he’s restoring a Piper J-3 Cub that hasn’t flown in 50 years.