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Tag: United Airlines (page 1 of 2)

Regional pilot bonuses

If there was ever any doubt about the need for pilots, or the need to try and retain pilots, those doubts have been squarely put to rest.

In August, Piedmont, PSA, and Envoy, all of whom fly under the American Airlines banner, announced significant retention bonuses. All captains are to receive $30,000 immediately, first officers will receive $30,000 when they upgrade, all pilots who stick around for the flow to American will receive $70,000, and there will also be $50,000 biannual bonuses available, with the details to be announced.

This is a blatant admission that the pipeline of pilots is drying up. It might also be an admission of sorts by American Airlines that pilots are not sticking around to get the promised flow to the American mainline. While I don’t have the details about how this program will work, or what the catches are, this indicates that the adage that “money talks” is going to be put to a test.

For example, how long will an upgrading FO have to stay to receive and keep the $30,000 bonus? What if that FO decides to bid back to the right seat for personal reasons? What is the structure of the biannual bonus? And, perhaps most important to so many of the pilots at the three airlines: how long do they have to realistically wait to get a shot at American? If the wait is too long, the problem is not going to be solved, as those pilots who are experienced and marketable will apply to Delta, United, Southwest, et al. If I am in management at American Airlines Group, I would be trying to figure out what to say to get them to stay.

It remains to be seen whether Delta and/or United will feel compelled to do something similar. Make no mistake that while the pilots in question are flying RJs, these bonuses are approved and maybe even initiated by management, since they pay the bills. It is clear that they see a shortage on the horizon.

I recently had a pilot from American on one of my flights, and while this wasn’t yet public knowledge, the overall need for pilots is, and we were discussing the state of the industry going forward. Every major airline will tell you that they all have the same 4,000 to 5,000 who are viable candidates in their pool of applicants. What makes this such a challenge is that, for the first time ever, multiple carriers are trying to hire at least 1,000 pilots a year. Delta, United, Southwest all would love to train more than that, and JetBlue is not far behind. UPS, FedEx and the Amazon contractors (Southern and Atlas) all need experienced pilots. While the pay at Southern and Atlas is still below where it should be, there is reason for optimism that the pilots are on the verge of a new contract that will dramatically increase compensation.

It doesn’t take much to see that four airlines hiring 1,000 pilots each will quickly deplete the current pool of available talent. It’s important to realize that these aren’t just pie-in-the-sky numbers either. While the pandemic is not over, travel demand has rebounded, and people are ready to move. Airlines responded to the downturn by offering early retirement packages that helped avoid furloughs. Retirements are not going to slow down, and every carrier is ordering airplanes that will result in a net growth of their fleets. They wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t have confidence that the business would be there. In fact, in 2022, United will be taking a new airplane every three days. It’s been decades since the majors have seen that kind of movement.

This is going to create an incredible series of opportunities, but it will also put great strains on each company’s training centers. There will be positions open as instructors, evaluators, course content creators, and more. Recruiters will also be in demand. New and more airplanes will also open up opportunities for mechanics, which is another area of great staffing concern. But for us as pilots, this represents an opportunity to try as many different types of flying as you might care to experience. Ultra long haul, cargo, wide body, narrow body, charters, Boeing versus Airbus…it is all on the table. Some pilots will bid aggressively and fly every plane in the fleet, and others will find a niche and settle in for the long haul in one seat or one fleet. You certainly won’t starve.

I am curious to see the gotchas of the American Airlines Group deal with its subsidiaries, but I do think it is indicative of the state of an industry that needs to work hard to make learning to fly more accessible, more affordable, and more attractive. Let’s hope that this is just the beginning!—Chip Wright

The hiring boom is back

The pandemic may not be over, but it’s clear that people are no longer going to be as willing to lock themselves at home anymore. They want to get out, and they want to travel.

This summer has seen a major boomerang in travel demand that has strained all segments of the travel industry. In some places, getting a rental car will cost upwards of $800 per day for the cheapest car. In many places, restaurants are still struggling to reopen. And at airports, the airlines are bursting at the seams as they have gone from the extreme of parking airplanes wherever they could find a runway to land them, to suddenly scrambling for the most important of all assets: employees.

Virtually every airline did something to reduce their payrolls, and the pilot ranks were no exception. Some, however, may have gone too far. The early retirement offers and long-term leaves of absences that so many took left gaping holes in the staffing models of several carriers. It’s one thing at an company like Southwest or Spirit, where the fleet consists of one model and training can be spooled up pretty quickly, but it’s an entirely different animal at an airline like Delta or American, which fly multiple fleets, and the training has to be done in some kind of a logical sequence in order to properly rebalance the staffing numbers. The same holds true for the regionals.

Most of the domestic flying has returned, and if it isn’t back in full, most cities have had at least some of their service restored. Airplanes are full and ticket prices are increasing, both of which are good. But the impending pilot shortage that was kicking in only months ago is now very much back front and center. United Airlines has recently announced some massive aircraft orders, and while some of them will be replacement aircraft, much of it will be growth, which will necessitate more pilots. In a recently closed bid, United began to kick-start its recovery, and the airline is now hiring almost 50 pilots a week indefinitely. The bid that just closed will trigger at least a thousand training events, hundreds of which will go to pilots not yet on the property. Similar events will happen throughout the industry.

The majors all share one concern: They have a pool of what they consider to be qualified, acceptable pilots that sits at around 5,000 applicants, but that pool is pretty much the same at each carrier, since most pilots apply to multiple airlines. To use United’s projected hiring needs, that pool would be gone in two years. Obviously, some of it will be refilled with fresh applicants as they become competitive and apply, but it’s still a harsh reality that needs to be dealt with in some form.

For job applicants, this is all great news. The world has been through an event unlike anything we have ever seen, and while the work still must continue, the determination to take control of our own lives again is beginning to generate hiring cycles, which will create more economic activity and jobs. If a career as a pilot of any kind is your dream, there is no better time than the present. —Chip Wright

The beginning of the beginning of the end

As we enter the second year of the pandemic, there are signs of an ever-so-slow return to normalcy. In the last couple of months, airports are showing more signs of activity, from more crowded terminals to more flights arriving and departing. Airlines are cycling more airplanes in and out of storage, and more importantly, they are bringing some out of storage for good. At three U.S. based carriers—United, Southwest, and American—the Boeing 737 MAX has returned to service.

The three big federal payroll protection program (PPP) grants and loans have gone a long way to help stabilize the industry. Employees who were going to be furloughed are being kept on the payroll. Pilots are being kept current, and those who can afford to take some unpaid time off are being given an opportunity to do so. (Two of these PPP blocks have already been signed into law; the third is currently headed toward the Senate, where it is likely to pass.)

Now that the U.S. FDA has approved a third vaccine, we can pick up the steady march toward herd immunity in the United States while also sending extra supply to other nations that need it. This is critical for helping achieve a return toward normal levels of trade, travel, and tourism. It will take some time for the global economy to rebound, but once that recovery gains traction, it should be a steady improvement. Time will tell.

In the aviation sector, this is all great news. Few industries are as capital-intensive as the airlines with as few direct sources of revenue. A number of airlines have already failed, and more may well follow. But the best news is that several airlines that were talking about having to furlough are now actively spooling up their hiring processes.

During the pandemic, agreements were made with various unions to offer early retirement packages to employees, including pilots, and it now looks like there will be a faster recovery in some sectors than originally anticipated. Leisure travel will recover first, and maybe even fastest, as folks look to get away from home after feeling trapped for so long. Florida is open, except for cruises, and flights to and from the state are full and—for now—usually cheap.

Business travel will take longer to recover, but that might also make it more predictable and easier to manage. The international business community will take longer to return as nations slowly lift their travel restrictions and the vaccines begin to reach more and more people. That said, trade shows, meetings, et cetera, that were postponed or canceled will slowly be returned to the calendar, and advance tickets will be sought, bought, and sold.

All signs point to the beginning of the beginning of the end of the pandemic, with a nation and a globe full of people desperate to return to a more normal, familiar life. If this is indeed the case, the airlines have weathered an incredibly difficult path—one that would not have been possible without federal aid, but still they will have succeeded.

It’s too soon to say if the pilot shortages of 2018 to 2020 will return, or will be as severe, but I think it is safe to say that those who want to find a career in aviation will have the opportunities to do so far sooner than we might have thought even a few months ago, and that is indeed welcome news.—Chip Wright

UAL 328

On February 20, after the news of United flight 328 hit the airwaves, my phone began blowing up with people wanting to know if I was flying the airplane (no) or if I was on it (again, no).

In case you’ve been living under a rock or just consumed with the Kim Kardashian-Kanye West divorce, 328 is the Boeing 777 that departed Denver for Honolulu, only to sustain an uncontained engine failure shortly after departure. The crew declared an emergency and coordinated with air traffic control to return to Denver, touching down roughly 30 minutes after departure.

It’s understandable that folks want to know what happened, especially given the unusual pictures of debris that landed on yards in residential areas (the true miracle in this is that nobody was hurt on the ground). I have several theories about what might have happened, and all are realistically possible, but they might also all be totally wrong. One person on Facebook pointed out what appears to be damage to one of the fan blades on the engine, but it remains to be seen if the damage caused the explosion, or if the explosion caused the damage.

What I can tell you is that it will take months, if not a year, for the NTSB to come up with a probable cause. Until they do, it isn’t fair to anyone—the pilots, the airline, Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, the FAA, or any others that come to mind—to  pretend to know what did or didn’t happen, especially in a public forum such as this.

But I will say this: Events like the one on 328 are what we train for. We spend countless hours in classrooms and simulators discussing the myriad ways that normal operations can quickly go “abnormal” or “non-normal.” We brainstorm, we talk, we share, and when we get in the simulator, we get to practice dozens of possible scenarios in which a worst-case event is inflicted upon us. Some of them are hopelessly complex and borderline unsurvivable. Some are based on events that have happened in real life.

When we first start training in a new airplane or with a new company, we often make a lot of mistakes, and sometimes “red screen,”  which is the simulator version for a crash. But then we do it again. And again. And again. And for good measure, we do it yet again. Eventually, certain actions become ingrained; certain processes become second nature; and we tame the beast of unpredictability and the unknown. Our confidence in the equipment and ourselves grows. When training is complete, they trust us to let you, the flying public, to put your trust in us without reservation. And when training is complete, we continue to learn, to talk, to share what ifs. We do this every year.

I saw the word “scary” a lot. And I’m sure that the passengers were terrified, especially those that could see the engine doing things it shouldn’t do. As for the crew, my guess is that after a moment of unprintable words and an adrenaline rush, they immediately focused on what needed to be done.

First, fly the airplane. Identify for certain which engine is compromised, and to what extent.

Second, navigate. This flight was headed west, so terrain clearance over the Rockies was probably an early concern. The weather was good, which helped.

Third, communicate, first with each other, and then with ATC. Once an agreement was made on what the issue was, the appropriate checklist needs to be executed. One pilot likely took over the flying and radio, while the other handled the checklists.

Time was on their side. They were at a safe altitude, and there was no inclement weather to complicate the return to the airport. They had plenty of fuel. From what we know so far, the other engine was operating normally, and this is key: The second engine really and truly is a spare, and it really and truly can get a fully loaded airplane safely to an alternate airport. This is just as true over the Lower 48 as it would be had the issue occurred over the Pacific or the North or South Pole.

A far more dangerous scenario, and one we practice ad nauseum in training, would have been an engine failure on the takeoff roll, just before rotation (we call this a V1 cut). At that point, they would have been committed to getting a wounded bird airborne, navigating the transition from barely ground-bound as the wings generate lift, to airborne but with reduced power, which is one of the worst things a pilot can experience.

Losing an engine at altitude? I’ve dealt with this twice, and I’ll take that option over the engine failure on takeoff every time.

Kudos to the crew for a job well done. Years of training, expertise, and experience were put to use. We’ll get the answers about what happened in time, and our system will be better for it.-–Chip Wright

Airline-owned flight schools

United Airlines recently announced that it has purchased a flight school in order to train its own future pilots. This isn’t a new concept. Lufthansa has been doing this for years in Arizona, and Comair, the since-shuttered Delta Connection carrier, ran its own Academy in Florida for well over a decade. It was incredibly successful. An overwhelming majority of Comair pilots came from the Academy, which was sold a few years after Delta purchased the airline.

Is United’s move the beginning of a trend? It’s too soon to say, but it’s an idea that shouldn’t be ignored. While part of the goal is obviously to make money, the main motivator is for the airline to be able to exercise quality control over pilot trainees while introducing them to the airlines’ way of operation. When the Comair Academy was in existence, the manuals, checklists, procedures, et cetera, all mimicked the airline, and common sense says that the same will happen again. From day one, students will get used to using an airline dispatch process, maintenance write-up procedures, and the like. While a number of large schools already do this, in this case, it will be done to mirror the mother ship.

Getting their eyes on students from the beginning allows the airline to study their progression in both skill and maturity, as well as to try and determine if the student is cut out of the airline lifestyle. Bad habits can be avoided, good habits instilled, and solid decision-making skills developed. Those that show promise will be noticed, and may find themselves with an inside track to more desirable job openings at the airline in management, training, or other departments.

Other major aviation colleges and universities are working with airline partners to tailor curricula to suit the needs of their partner companies. The risk for the airlines in these partnerships is that the student may opt for a different carrier because of myriad reasons. When an airline owns its own school, it has a chance to choose the students and also embed them in the culture of the parent brand, thus making a defection much less likely, though a few will undoubtedly occur.

I can’t say for certain that this will be the beginning of a trend, but I would be more surprised if it doesn’t. The market for pilots is tight, and all of the airlines are competing for the same individuals. The sooner that a carrier can get that individual under their umbrella, the better. It becomes one less position that needs to be filled later, and being able to program that individual from the beginning is a huge advantage.—Chip Wright

Moving up

My company just finished a bid window for positions in various airplanes in various bases throughout the company. This can be a confusing process, so here’s a brief explanation of how it works.

Airlines have to look at various factors when it comes to determining how many pilots it needs and where it needs them. The easiest variable to predict is retirement, since it’s fixed at 65 years of age. After that, the airline has to look at the projected flying (referred to as “block hours”) that it needs to cover. This can be either short term or it can be long term, which might go out 12 to 18 months. There will be some variation that isn’t predicted, but most of the forecasting is fairly accurate, based on previous travel data, as well as known demand going forward.

Things get complicated when there will be a mix of fleet types involved, and a decision needs to be made to commit to one type of airplane. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes the expense drives the equation.

For instance, when Continental and United merged, the airline had to decide how to split the narrow-body flying between the United Airbus fleet and the CAL 737 fleet. Eventually, the decision was made to limit the ‘Bus to domestic and over-land flying only, and the 737 would fly all of the small narrow-body over-water routes. This was important, because it meant that the company could take all of the over-water equipment out of the Airbus, simplify maintenance procedures, crew training, et cetera. However, it also changed the way the airplanes would be allocated, which would mean a shift in staffing at most bases.

When something negative happens, a displacement occurs. That could be an airplane being retired from service, a base closure, a fleet transfer, or a furlough. Those pilots will follow established procedures to determine where they will wind up next.

When something positive happens, positions open up and pilots can bid. Usually, pilots who have been displaced get first dibs on a new position, but not always. The company can usually announce certain openings with a fair amount of certainty, but there is always an element of the unknown. For instance, if 10 new airplanes are being delivered, that is usually 100 new positions. However, pilots may opt to transfer, retire early, or use various mechanisms in a contract to bid for something, but to delay training.

Some of the guesswork is taken out because the company can look at previous bid runs to see what the pilot behavior is most likely to be. Again, this can be done fairly accurately, but not always. When a company is doing a lot of hiring, it can’t always predict the behavior of junior pilots. For this and other reasons, there are usually mandatory freeze periods after training in a new airplane. Typically, a pilot in new equipment has to wait 24 months before changing equipment or seats.

Movement is based on seniority, but when a number of freezes are holding senior pilots back, junior pilots can sneak in the back door to get a seat they may not have otherwise been able to hold. The common adage is simple: Don’t bid it if you don’t want it, because you just might get it!—Chip Wright

Dragging passengers

It has happened again: Last week, a passenger was dragged off a Southwest flight. Unlike the infamous United incident a few months ago, this passenger was carried off by police officers, and there is no “it wasn’t our flight, but one of our regional partners” argument to be made.

However, it does appear that the passenger in question had a number of reasons or excuses ready to go at the beginning of the incident as she tried to stay on the airplane, first claiming a severe allergy and working her way through the ever-popular “I need to get where I’m going.”

I can’t speak for what the policy is at SWA with respect to pilot actions in these kinds of incidents. Every airline has its own protocols to follow, and while the captain is generally considered the final word once the airplane leaves the gate, the final say-so is sometimes a bit murky at the gate. Gate agents don’t like having their judgment questioned after they’ve let a passenger on. Further, they don’t want to be blamed for a delay, and they don’t always know what a crew had to deal with once the doors close. That said, more than one agent has been guilt of trying to pass the buck and just get the airplane off the gate.

Flight attendants are the ones who have to deal with the passengers once the door is closed. They are on the lookout  for passengers who might be a problem, whether from intoxication, anger or frustration at broken travel plans, or a fear of flying or claustrophobia. If they sense that a medical issue could (or already has) materialized, they want to deal with it on the ground. In their mind, and with good reason, their preferred course of action is usually to have the passenger removed.

The pilots are in an odd spot at the gate. While they are clearly the final say once airborne, they have to trust others to do their jobs before leaving. Generally speaking, if the cabin crew wants someone off the airplane, the pilots will accommodate that request, and will often risk a scene to do so. Sometimes, passengers make it easy to make a decision by acting in an inappropriate fashion. All of this said, the captain is responsible for the safety of the flight as a whole, and anything that happens on his watch can be thrown back in his face—and will be.

I’ve had to deal with a few of these at-the-gate types of incidents in my career. Three stand out. They aren’t easy to deal with, they’re unpleasant for all involved, and while tact is often desired or needed, sometimes it just doesn’t help or have a place.

I wasn’t there for either of these two events. The crew, in my opinion, could have taken a stronger stance by simply announcing that the flight wasn’t going to go anywhere until the passengers in question removed themselves from the airplane. This is a harsh line in the sand, but it may be the most effective choice under the circumstances.

The chances are that another crew is not going to be handy to call to gate to operate the flight, and even if there is, once they hear about what is going on, they aren’t likely to step into a minefield by taking the flight. In my experience, even if the Chief Pilot’s Office got involved in something like this—either in person or on the phone—they tend to back up the pilots and agree that the flight will not operate until the offending passenger is removed.

A secondary option, though one that is not always available, is to push for an equipment swap if another airplane is available. This would require everyone to deplane and move to another gate. At the new gate, the gate agents and airport police can prevent the offending passenger(s) from boarding.

In the three cases that I can recall in detail involving passenger disruptions at the gate, one ended with a trio of intoxicated men agreeing to leave with no resistance when the police came on board. The second required intervention from a family member traveling with the individual in question, along with an assertive discussion with the gate agent, who felt she was going to be blamed.

The last one was the most similar to the UAL and SWA incidents. The passenger was a belligerent woman who was being extremely uncooperative and verbally abusive. To allow her to stay on would have undermined the authority of my flight attendant, and could have therefore affected her safety. I had to explain to the woman that we were having her removed and why, and when she began to say she wouldn’t get off the airplane, I made it clear we’d cancel the flight outright. I had to make the same comment to the gate agent, since he was pushing us to keep her. When he realized he’d be responsible for rebooking an entire cabin of passengers versus just one, he agreed to work with us.

All of this brings up another point that was lost in the shuffle of the Republic/UA debacle. Back in the day, regional airlines had their own gate agents. They don’t anymore. The agents are either contracted from a third company (and get paid around minimum wage) or are employees of the mainline brand. This often creates tension and a disconnect, because when situations like this arise, not everybody is on the same team. All anyone knows is that somebody at HQ is going to start asking questions, so everybody gets defensive.

As the pilot, it is best to remember who is ultimately going to be held the accountable, and for that matter, who has the most to lose. The answer is simple: It’s us. That’s no different in a Cessna 150 or a Boeing 747. If you’re willing to exercise the responsibility of being pilot in command in one airplane, you need to be ready, willing, and able to do it in all.

In either of these cases, it would have just taken one pilot to stand up and say they weren’t going to take a problem passenger. To emphasize how far this goes, the same can be said if the problem is one of the cabin crew. Fly for an airline long enough, and you’ll also have to deal with a flight attendant who shouldn’t be at work that day.

When it comes to the passengers, though, no matter how upset they are or how bad their day is going, once they step on the airplane, they have to behave themselves. They can file all the complaints they want later. But from entering to exiting, they need to play by the rules, even if they are asked to leave the flight. And as operators of the airplane, we need to recognize that everything we do is likely being recorded, and make sure that we do whatever we can to avoid someone being dragged off.—Chip Wright

Buying a new fleet

The Paris Airshow just wrapped up, and as usual, the various manufacturers jockeyed for some large orders. Virtually all orders that are announced at Paris and Farnborough are in place before the airshows, but the airlines and the manufacturers use the events to make a big splash, and this year was no different.

In the U.S. market, United announced an order for 100 new 737s and four new 777s. There was some hand-wringing over the UAL deal, because Scott Kirby, late of America West/USAirways/American, is known to be an Airbus guy, and there were rumors that UAL was going to announce a larger order of A320s and A321neos. So what happened?

Buying an airplane is a major decision for any airline, and for a global carrier like UAL or Delta or American, the narrow-body fleets are the backbone that support the global system. There are three major cost considerations. The first is the actual unit price. As with cars, this is negotiated. Nobody pays sticker price. However, this price is significant nevertheless, and it becomes the starting point for everything else moving forward.

The second major cost consideration is the operating cost for the airplane. This covers everything from fuel to scheduled maintenance to crew costs, and it also takes into account warranties on the airplane as a whole or on the various parts. Somewhere in every airline, there is a bean counter who has broken down to the penny the actual cost of each airplane under consideration, taking into account more variables than most of us can imagine.

The final cost to consider is the long-term cost, which includes the cost of integrating the airplane into the current fleet—especially if it’s a new piece of equipment or represents a departure from the current norm.

In the case of UAL, the bulk of the domestic fleet is the 737. The A320/321 fleet is much smaller and much older. Bringing in new Airbuses would have led to a dramatic increase in training for pilots, and would have negated much of the advantage of the larger 737 fleet, which operates from Saigon to the Caribbean, and from Alaska to Central South America. There will be a high parts commonality between the 737s in use and the new MAX versions on order. Both are known quantities, and both Boeing and Airbus no doubt made compelling pitches to UAL. If everything was truly equal, it may have been as simple as “Buy American.” But it’s almost never that simple.

Delta, on the other hand, will be introducing a new narrow-body soon when it takes delivery of the Bombardier C-Series. Taking on a new aircraft type is not without risk, as United learned a few years ago with the battery problems on the 787. New airplanes are frequently slowed by unexpected bugs, and the C-Series is not likely to be any different. Further, everything about the program is new: new parts, a new engine, new simulators, and new training programs for pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, dispatchers, and gate agents. A new airplane is expensive, and it takes time for the return on the investment to pay off. With luck it does. Today, UAL is ecstatic with what the 787 has been able to do, and the markets it has opened.

New airplanes are critical to get right, as the decision is one that will affect airlines and their passengers for decades.—Chip Wright

The non-rev dress code flap

Much has been made recently about the passengers who were denied boarding on a United flight because of the choice to wear leggings in lieu of something else. When the dust settled, it was brought to light that the decision to deny boarding was because the passengers were non-revenue pass riders. That is, they were using employee benefits and/or buddy passes to ride on a space-available basis.

The dress code at UAL is crystal clear about what kind of attire is considered acceptable for employees, their families and designated travel partners, and the friends to whom they provide buddy passes. Further, there are specific stipulations that must be met if those passengers are to be allowed to ride in first or business class as opposed to coach class. If there is any gray area or question about the acceptability of the choice of clothing, the gate agent will be the final decision maker. The fault in this case lies with employee who didn’t make sure that the passengers were in compliance with the dress code.

The ability to fly for free and to offer substantially reduced fare tickets to friends and family is one of the best perks of working for an airline, but it is a privilege, not a right. Further, it comes with certain expectations of decorum and behavior, one of which is the dress code.

Every airline has some form of dress code, and while the new norm is fairly relaxed—shorts are usually allowed—it is not a free-for-all. United, for instance, doesn’t allow flip-flops, and most airlines don’t allow torn (even by design) jeans or shirts, and none allow for any kind of profane, offensive or provocative material. And don’t assume that just because you got on the airplane you’re in the clear. The flight attendants can have you removed if they think the gate agent dropped the ball.

Pilots have another issue to contend with, which is attire that is acceptable for the cockpit jumpseat. Most carriers don’t allow jeans or a T-shirt to be worn if occupying the jumpseat. As a result, you’ll often see commuting pilots wearing their uniform, or perhaps the uniform pants with a collared shirt, especially if the flight is fairly full. Another option is to wear the uniform, but to remove the epaulets, wings, et cetera, from the shirt.

I try to avoid giving anybody my buddy passes because I just don’t think they’re a great deal, especially if someone is on a schedule. But if you get hired by an airline and decide to issue your buddy passes, make sure that your friends understand all of the rules associated with such travel. The dress code is important, and so is the general behavior, so spending a lot of time at the airport bar is not a good idea. To that extent, your friends or relatives shouldn’t brag to other passengers about getting such a cheap (or free) seat. Those passengers with such expensive tickets, after all, are paying the employees’ salary and helping to provide that benefit. Don’t throw it in their face.

I’ve known several employees whose pass privileges were suspended or revoked because of abuse. Some sponsored passengers who acted inappropriately or yelled at gate agents, and a few were caught trying to sell buddy passes for a profit (this almost always gets you fired). But, whether it’s a buddy pass or yourself, pay attention to the rules of the carrier in use. If you need to ask yourself if something is appropriate, it probably isn’t. When it comes to dress, be conservative.—Chip Wright

Talking mergers and airline politics

It’s common knowledge that religion, politics, and sex should be avoided as topics of conversation on the flight deck. That doesn’t mean those topics are avoided—far from it. But it’s up to the individuals involved to know how far to take a discussion before changing the subject.

But what about airline politics? There have been a lot of mergers in the last 20 years. Just at American, there are the Reno/American, TWA/American, USAir/America West, and USAir/American mergers to discuss. Delta and Northwest have legacy mergers involving Ozark, Republic, and Western. United has the United/Continental merger, and within that are Continental with Eastern, People Express, and the original Frontier, while United has some Pan Am history.

Southwest and AirTran have the sub-AirTran/ValuJet merger. Alaska and Virgin recently announced one, and there have been rumors for a while about Spirit and the new Frontier. JetBlue also has been mentioned as a target. The regionals have their own examples, as Skywest/ASA/ExpressJet shows. Envoy, which used to be American Eagle, is a who’s-who of former localized regional carriers.

Why does any of this matter? To the people involved, mergers often linger as a sore spot (or a not-so-sore spot) for decades. Mergers affect every employee group, with the pilots and flight attendants often in the nastiest fights because of the impact of the integrated seniority lists and new contracts. Some people just can’t let go of their anger.

If you want to navigate these conversations tactfully, you should do some research into what happened. For the record, research does not consist of scrolling through posts on sites such as Airline Pilot Central.

Seek out the various hearing filings and documents, as well as arbitration rulings that deal with the particular merger. Talk to the elected union representatives who were actually at the table in the discussions. Don’t just rely on the stories as told by the pilots you will fly with, but don’t totally discount them either. Arbitration rulings will be among the most informative, because they always include a summation of the basic facts, the arguments of either party, and the points of dispute, along with how the decision is reached. That said, there will always be people who simply will not accept the rulings of an arbitration panel, no matter what.

Mergers leave behind a lot of bad blood. Most employees can eventually let it go, but some can’t, and they view any questions as an attack on them or on their side. If the topic simply can’t be avoided, just let the person talk, or ask fairly specific questions, but start off by prefacing them with, “As you see it, how/why…” Use your questions as a way to gather information, not to point fingers. But at the end of the day, you may need to simply state that you are keeping an open mind because you didn’t have a dog in the fight and are just happy to be there.

I’ve never gone through an actual merger, but I was hired at United just before the seniority list was merged with Continental’s. It was a tense time, and I heard more about it than I wanted to, but in time, the immediate anger and concerns passed. But I studied the written arguments on both sides, as well as the arbitration rulings, and I made a point to see it from the perspective of both legacy carriers. And I’m also glad I didn’t have to participate in it. Now, when the topic comes up, I change the subject as quickly and gracefully as I can.—Chip Wright

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