One of the benefits (?) of being an airline pilot is that you have the option of living where you want while working somewhere else. More traditional jobs usually require you live relatively close to your place of employment. Instead of a drive to work, I drive to the airport and then take two airline flights before I arrive at my base of operations on the opposite side of the country. So far it has been relatively easy making my commute flights (knock on aluminum/composite) . I always take the first flights available that head me in the right direction. I figure that it is better to spend a little idle time in close proximity to my base knowing that I will be able to check in for my flight rather than waiting until the last minute to make the commute and not really know if it will all work out. I guess I’ve just been doing this too long to depend on one option for getting to work.
This morning I got on my first flight at 7 am, jumpseating with the great folks at Southwest. There were a few empty seats in the cabin, so I even got a ‘regular’ seat rather than the one that folds down out of the cockpit doorway. I grabbed a window seat and was sending off my last tweets before the door closed when a man took the aisle seat. Nice guy. He asked if I minded a question. I hesitated, then I said sure give it a try. As much as I dislike it, I commute wearing my airline uniform. It makes the gauntlet through security marginally easier if it is obvious that you are an airline crew member. The down side is that you risk getting the ‘back seat driver’ comments and occasional inane questions.
This time the question was a reasonable one – about suitcases, of all things. My seatmate had been in a luggage store recently and there was a section of the display dedicated to airline crew luggage. What was the difference, he asked? Good question. I’m not sure I know the real answer, but I came up with a few possibilities. First, its a pretty good bet that the units are only available in black. They might also have a few extra pockets on the outside for miscellaneous stuff and they are probably a bit sturdier than the average bag. I know that mine has a heavy steel frame around it that makes it heavier, but ensures that it won’t get destroyed if it gets thrown in a cargo hold at the last minute. The model I have is also a bit taller than the ones I see training behind the average passenger. The problem that I most often see with people and their carry-on bags is that they end up packed so full that when they are laid horizontally are often too tall (thick?) to fit into the overhead. I imagine that with all of the new checked bag fees being levied we’ll work our way back to full overhead bins on every flight. (Then they’ll probably start charging for carry-ons.) Since my trips are in the 5 – 14 day range I need all the extra space I can get so I have a fairly tall roller bag. Since it is taller I can put more into it and still keep it thin enough to fit into any overhead bin. That seemed to satisfy his curiosity. Later on in the flight I noticed that he was reading one of the new Kindle 2 electronic book displays. We talked a little about it and he let me play around a little with the display options. He was reading a text on programming in C++. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to take the conversation farther, but I did come away with a positive impression of the Kindle.
Near the end of the boarding process we were joined by another man who claimed the middle seat. It turns out that he is also a professional pilot. We spent the majority of the one-hour flight talking about the state of the flying industry from his perspective. He works as what could be called a contract pilot. He is captain qualified in most of the Gulfstream models, though for financial reasons he has let his currency lapse on the G-V. He said he just went through recurrent training in the G-II/III and was still current in the G-IV, but would lose G-IV currency by the end of the summer unless business picks up.
I asked how he got his flying jobs and he replied that even though he has a resume on file with a couple of the big services, most of his work comes from friends and contacts he has made through the years. He calls his contacts on a fairly regular basis to see how they are doing and reminds them of his qualifications and availability. He has had longer (a year or more) jobs on Guam, in Deli, India and Frankfurt, Germany as well as several places around the U.S. He is maintaining his currency in the older Gulfstreams because he has found that a lot of the for-hire pilots don’t want to fly the older models. They sit around waiting for G-IV and G-V jobs to come available. It sounds to me as though he has found a niche and is taking advantage of the lack of competition. Today he was on his way to a 2-3 day job on a G-III.
He related that some of his employers would occasionally balk at the rate that he would quote for a particular job. Then he proceeded to explain the accounting that led to the rate he charges. His recent G-II/III recurrent training was an out-of-pocket expense approaching $13,000 when travel, lodging, meals and the simulator time were added in. Then he added in the cost of getting to or from a given job and the cost of insurance to protect himself and his license. These costs just cover the expenses associated with remaining qualified and getting to work but do not address general living expenses for maintaining a home and eating. The more that you fly, the more hours the fixed costs are spread out, but that hasn’t been the case for him lately. He said that he had not had a flying job since March and knew several other pilots in the same boat. In conversations with his AME recently (in the LA area) he found that the doctor’s aviation business had dropped off noticeably and learned that 2-3 of his fellow Gulfstream pilots were in the process of declaring bankruptcy because of the lack of income.
This is certainly not a great time for professional aviation. I feel extremely lucky to be in the position that I have, knowing that every month I’ll get some sort of pay check. Business always works in cycles and professional aviation will eventually come come back. The question is whether there will be experienced pilots to fill the vacancies. Remaining current and qualified and maintaining a network of contacts seems to be the best plan for now, but at some point the funds necessary to do that will be redirected to necessary living expenses and other forms of income will be explored. When the economy and business aviation begin recovering, will the draw of a flying job overcome the inertia of a steady, paying position in a replacement profession? That is a very personal decision and the outcome will remain to be seen.
For those of you more interested in the Amazon Kindle, this article from Mashable is an announcement of the release of a new, large-screen version of the popular electronic reader. The announcement is supposed to be made on Wednesday, May 6th, 2009.