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"For Many Airline Pilots, the Thrill is Gone"



Friday, October 15, 2004

For Many Airline Pilots, the Thrill is Gone
By CLAUDIA H. DEUTSCH
The New York (NY) Times


Neil Swindells, who flies a United Airlines Airbus 320 out of Chicago,
remembers why he chucked his job as a financial analyst to go to flight
school nearly 15 years ago. It was not just the prospect of a six-figure
salary for flying maybe 80 hours a month, or the lure of being in charge, or
the sheer fun of flying. It was, most of all, the glamour, the respect that
the pilot's uniform got from passengers and airline management (usually,
former pilots themselves) alike.

When United Airlines hired him nearly 10 years ago, "I thought I'd won the
brass ring,'' Mr. Swindells said. "It was my ticket to financial
independence, to socioeconomic status, to prestige.''

Today, that ticket feels like a trap. Only the lowest-cost airlines are
hiring these days, and they have never paid as much as the mainstream lines
like United, a unit of UAL. And a seniority system that bumps pilots down to
entry-level jobs when they switch airlines makes it costly to jump ship
among the so-called legacy carriers.

Of course, the airlines are in a trap, too. United and US Airways are
struggling to get out of bankruptcy; Delta Air Lines is poised on the brink
of it. Desperate to cut costs, they are turning to the pilots again and
again, seeking ever more concessions.

Not so long ago, even asking for such a vote would have been laughable. In
negotiations, the pilots called the shots. When the airlines balked, pilots
had many ways to bring them into line. In the summer of 2000 - when weather
and air traffic congestion were already wreaking havoc - United pilots
staged a work-rule slowdown. Numerous flights were delayed; United was
forced to apologize to customers; and the pilots won one of their richest
contracts ever. 

But today, while pilots still feel in command in the air, they increasingly
are feeling slighted, almost impotent, on the ground. Airlines have
extracted huge salary, work-rule and benefits concessions from them. Layers
of vice presidencies have been created at many corporate headquarters, so
that the chief pilot, the person who oversees all of the fliers, rarely
reports directly to the top anymore.

Pilots are not giving in without a fight. Northwest, for one, is pleading
with its pilots for $300 million in concessions. Pilots at US Airways, where
salaries have already been cut by an average of $89,000 a year, are refusing
to allow a vote on the company's bid for still more cuts. Delta and its
pilots have been at odds all year about the airline's bid for $1 billion in
cuts, despite repeated threats by Delta to seek Chapter 11 protection.

Without pilots to lead them, other employee groups generally sit back on
similar requests for cuts. But once the airline files for Chapter 11, the
sway that pilots have over their fate and those of other workers cedes to a
judge's control. And with it, the pilot's dominance is eaten away.

Gone, too, is much of the glamour, a casualty of the plummeting fares that
have made air travel available to the masses. "People used to wear stockings
and heels; we loved welcoming them to the cockpit, and hearing them say,
'Thanks, captain, you did a great job,' when they disembarked,'' said John
A. McFadden 3d, who flew for United from 1967 until March of 2000, when he
hit the federally mandated retirement age of 60. "Now you have to ask them
to put shoes on, and security issues keep the cockpit door closed.'' 

All airlines face that, of course, but as a group, United pilots seem
particularly galled. United was owned by its employees until its bankruptcy
in 2002, so the pilots not only felt on a par with management, in a sense
they were management. 

United and other airlines say that in a world where low-cost carriers are
grabbing market share, fuel prices are skyrocketing and passengers are
surfing the Internet for the cheapest fares, they have no choice but to cut
costs. But pilots say they have already given too much.

"The only idea this company has is to take more money from us,'' Mr.
Swindells said. "Well, I don't see the C.E.O. taking a 30 percent pay cut.
When they get their house in order, we'll look at further concessions.''


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