The airlines are a weird industry in a lot of ways. One of them is in the area of competition. If you pay any attention to the advertising or the talking heads on TV, you would think that the airlines are hyper-competitive in every respect, such as price, frequent flyer programs, providing the worst service for the most money. And they are. Sort of.
The exception is when it comes to what they actually do: the flying, and specifically, the pilots. That isn’t to say that pilots are not a competitive bunch. We are. But when it comes to flying, safety is involved, and we don’t mess around with that. If you ever need proof, just spend a few minutes listening to air traffic control in a busy sector when the weather is bad (log on to LiveATC.net when the Northeast is getting hammered, and listen to chaos). Pilots will readily pass along pilot reports about the rides, turbulence, breaks in a line, or wind shear on final.
There are areas in which pilots will look for bragging rights, and in many cases, it’s obvious who the bragging rights belong to. Once you are in the industry, you become immersed in the details of what makes one company better or worse to work for than another, and you begin to understand some of what the public doesn’t. Airline work rules, pay, schedules, domiciles, commuting—even the vagaries of the chief pilots and what they like to enforce—take on a different meaning once you have begun the lifestyle. Figuring out who gets paid more is easy, but figuring out which work rules are better isn’t always as obvious. But in the end, it becomes pretty clear pretty soon which airlines are run well and are a joy to work for versus those that are looked down upon.
But when it comes to the two guys in the front actually doing their job during the course of a flight or a day, there isn’t really any competition. Part of that is because the airlines operate their flights in much the same manner. But more importantly, nobody is going to deliberately compromise the safety of another. When a line of thunderstorms exists that runs from Canada to Mexico, everyone tries to help each other find the best place to jump the line. There is no thought of, “Well, let’s trick these guys into going into a Level 6!” It simply doesn’t happen. Instead, the updates are a live feed of what’s a good idea and what isn’t.
The best example I can think of is bad weather over a major hub, especially at night. If holding is in effect or if delays are piling up, pilots usually want two pieces of information. First, in rain, they want to know what kind of wind shear or convective activity to expect. Second, in snow, they want to know what the braking action is. And sometimes, it just takes one flight to voice that funny gut feeling that others already have. “We’re going to divert for fuel/weather,” is one call that usually triggers a chain reaction. Once one crew makes it, everyone seems to like the idea. But with wind shear or snowy or icy runways, the pireps become a lifeline of critical information.
When it comes to safety, cooperation trumps competition…every time.—By Chip Wright