Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I Want Happy Pilots

Yesterday marked the resumption of labor talks between the parent company of American Airlines, AMR Corporation, and its flight attendants union. Considering the fact that negotiations on a new contract began in 2008, it’s either remarkable that the two sides are still talking to each other, or it’s shameful that it’s taken this long to reach an agreement.

About a century ago, unions actually symbolized progress in this country, as workers joined forces to stop worker exploitation by industrialist power brokers. Unions pushed for humane working conditions, decent pay, and an end to child labor, among other things, all in an effort to make workplaces safer and jobs worth keeping.

But like anything else, too much of a good thing can wreak havoc on the system it’s supposed to help. For example, a significant share of the blame for the implosion of America’s auto industry rests with unions that demanded much but delivered little. New York's transit unions, specifically for the Long Island Railroad, run notorious benefits rackets for their members. There are critics of airline unions who say that the worker bees at companies like American Airlines just don’t understand they’re asking for more than the airlines can pay. Times have changed, and the industry has to cut back and do more with less.

Do the Airline Unions Have A Point?

That argument, as a plea to the workers for joining with management on common ground, succeeded once before, right after the 9/11 attacks, when the entire airline industry was suddenly in free-fall. Flight attendants, aircraft maintenance workers, and pilots all agreed to reductions in pay and benefits to help American Airlines ride out the air travel bust.

However, as economic conditions began to improve, some greedy executives started getting bonuses that amounted to millions of dollars. While that payoff made perfect sense to MBAs used to Wall Street-esque "compensation", the unions thought they had been bamboozled, and wanted their lost pay restored.

So far, it hasn’t been, and that’s one of the problems keeping the flight attendants’ union in talks for two years. But the real battle won’t be with the cabin crews, it will be with the people in the cockpit.

Pilots Get No Respect

Talk about an under-appreciated workforce: the pilots at American Airlines have watched along with the flight attendants as corporate accountants and other inner-circle golden children at HQ have gotten their millions in bonuses. When the pilots – often as well-educated, professional, and highly-qualified as the white-collar pencil-pushers in corporate – tried to complain at the inequity, they were told, “oh, these guys in corporate are really valuable to AMR. They tricked us into signing employment contracts with these huge bonuses in them. We need to pay them all this money, or they’ll leave us and go to another company where they can get even more money. That’s how the game is played.”

While that argument works in other industries, it likely won’t fly with airline pilots. I'm no aviation expert, but it seems the airline industry may be unique because its business model isn’t the typical power pyramid. Most companies have authority and responsibility that runs from the top down, and executives in such companies expect to be paid in accordance with the value they provide the organization. However, at an airline, only one employee cohort stands between life and death every minute of every day, and that cohort receives extensive, exhaustive, and continuous training to remain at the peak of their game and literally keep their customers alive.

It's Not Rocket Science (Technically)

Think about it. An airline’s business is flying planes. The more people you fly safely, the more money you make. Here’s the trick question: who does the flying?

Plane by plane, one to three people in a cockpit fly dozens and hundreds of passengers whose very lives actuarians can quantify in dollar amounts. Hour by hour, as hundreds of planes crisscross the globe, an airline’s very existence hangs not on the marketing presentation going on in Conference Room B, nor the finance committee’s executive retreat in Vail, nor the human resources roundtable on gender roles in the workplace. American Airlines day-to-day existence as a company depends squarely upon each and every pilot in every cockpit of every plane in service.

Can you think of any other industry with a class of workers whose job is so critical yet, surprisingly, so marginalized?

"We Love To Fly, And It Shows"

I don’t know about you, but when I fly, I want happy pilots in that cockpit! I want pilots who think American Airlines is treating them wonderfully. Obviously, their lives won't be perfect, but I want pilots who have trained hard and have the professionalism to be able to handle all sorts of in-flight situations. I want pilots who are rewarded for their skills, encouraged to remain diligent, and respected for the value they bring their employer.

When I fly, I don’t care if my pilot’s compensation doesn’t fit the conventions of corporate America. If an airline thinks their airfares will be too high if they pay pilots what they’re really worth, then maybe some trimming among the headquarters’ ranks needs to happen instead. Isn’t part of the capitalist system based on workers being paid what they’re worth to the company? Who decides who’s worth what?

Now, I’ve heard the stories about pilots earning $200,000 and flying one or two trips a month. I’m not saying that the pilots union doesn’t need to clean house, get rid of scheduling loopholes, and get their members to fly right. After all, my position here depends heavily on pilots being professionals, and American Airlines has a right to expect fixes to valid problems in any union.

Neither am I saying that all ivy-leaguers and MBAs are bad people. Their expertise helps airlines run more effectively, and contributes to the many ancillary responsibilities airlines have to their employees, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the flying public.

However, the fact remains that no headquarters executive can save the lives of anybody aboard a jetliner going through windshear. There’s not one person at any AMR facility anywhere in the world that can land a plane with only one engine. Do you know why? BECAUSE THEY’RE NOT FLYING THE PLANES! The people upon whom rests the very survival of any airline are the pilots.

They’re literally the lifeblood of an airline.

And every time they get into the cockpit, shouldn't they be as happy as they can be?

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