WRITTEN BY // David Manning
THE DECLINE OF THE AIRLINE CAREER
The once-envied lifestyle of jet setting glamour that airline crew members enjoyed has become merely a job…one of disappointment, heartbreak, and loneliness. Reductions in pay, benefits, retirements, and increases in work days away from home have created careers which will give airlines difficulty recruiting and retaining talented people in the future.
During my career as an airline pilot I’ve seen the airlines alter their business models from a high-end luxury service, to one of commonplace high-capacity basic transportation. The airlines made that shift without engaging their employees, and as a result, entered into a period of dramatic cost-cutting. With aircraft prices, airport facilities, and even fuel costs fixed for the long term, or changes such as fuel price volatility absorbed as a necessity for keeping the companies aloft, the only place left for airline managements to force cost-cutting measures was the employees, and the industry as a whole engaged and competed in a race to the bottom. Airlines successfully used the out-of-date corporate bankruptcy laws as a strategic business tool, forcing wage cuts, reductions in forces, increased flight time away from home, and the loss of basic promises such as health care and retirement funding upon career employees. The government, airline industry lobbying groups, and the court systems methodically restricted the use of union industrial action to counter the decimation of contracts with employees. In short, airline employees subsidized low fares.
In response to the trimmed-down bare-bones business models, airline traffic flourished and the flying public took to the skies in ever increasing numbers, as it was less expensive to fly to many destinations than drive their automobiles. However, this democratization of airline travel destroyed the very careers that powered the expansion. Pilots and flight attendants spent increasingly more time away from home than ever in the history of aviation. Flight crews and ground support personnel worked longer days, and nights, forced to do more with less. As airline companies ordered incredible aircraft which could fly halfway around the globe without stopping to refuel, they required overworked crews to operate the flights as if there was no difference from a short domestic hop.
This project is about the airline careers which were broken under this confluence of events. Massive computers calculate every condition in planning a flight, but cannot focus upon one critical variable–the men and women who work the flights. Pilots and flight attendants are flying fatigued, crossing multiple time zones, only to sleep in noisy airport hotels for minimal periods of time before returning to their starting points. These employees are exposed to excessive doses of inflight radiation on every long-distance flight, and exposed to exotic germs and bacteria along the way. Companies have reduced sick time allowances so that flight crews have to fly sick if they don’t want to suffer loss of pay. Companies reduce pay if a crew member is too fatigued to fly. Airlines have reduced or abolished additional pay for flying those long over-water flights, usually at night on the back side of the body’s circadian rhythm clock.
With the loss of employee retirement benefits, pilots were virtually forced to fly five years beyond their normal retirement age. Aside from having older pilots at the controls of jets, the career progression of younger pilots stagnated because their usual promotion cycles based upon retirements were delayed. As dramatic pay cuts were levied across the board, lifestyles at home changed, increasing the pressures families faced. Many families divorced due to financial or personal pressures. There were suicides directly linked to the career changes these employees underwent.
There is little sympathy, though, in political circles, where concrete changes could be made to force airlines to keep their promises. Low airfares meant that everyday families could be more mobile, and politicians are quick to claim a hand in providing low-cost services to their constituencies. What used to be an incredible career was now reduced to the thankless job of a modern-day gypsy, living out of a suitcase for two-thirds of their adult lives. Truly, the glamour is gone.