Friday, December 02, 2005

Election Results

Well I got trounced...which is not really such a bad thing. Unions seem to bring out the very worst in people with grown men ending up sounding like school children. So let the other guy trudge down to union hq and field phone calls from crybabies who feel put out at having to do their job.


Just checked in after not posting for a few months. Sorry about that. Found 23 comments to a recent post and thought I must be a genius...but it was spam. So I've turned on the word verification on comments to prevent spammers.

Campaign Speech

I recently ran for our union domicile chairman and here is my campaign speech:

My name is Robert **** and at the risk of an intervention, I’d like to ask for your vote for domicile representative. When an organization is facing challenges, agility and focus are traits that are essential for survival and success. These times are very challenging for the airline industry but as the old proverb goes, with challenge comes opportunity.

I am concerned that our union may be losing its focus.

John O’Sullivan, former editor of National Review, recognized that any organization which is not tightly focused on an easily quantifi able goal, will over time suffer mission creep. Instead of doing a few things well, it will do many things poorly. O’Sullivan’s Law, as it came to be known, seems to be at work in our union just when we can least afford it. Our mission statement lists three goals of the union: contract negotiations, contract maintenance and enforcement, and promoting professionalism and safety through communication. It is through this third avenue that much mischief occurs. Endless tail-chasing, bickering, and navel-gazing over non-essential activities is a luxury we can no longer afford. And we certainly cannot afford it at almost $200.00 per hour. Let me be clear: the (few) things that Swapa elects to do it should do exceedingly well. The rest should be tossed or done on a truly volunteer basis.

Here are some thoughts on a few itemso of recent interest:

Pay Givebacks: Any talk of pay givebacks prior to the company even bringing up the issue is silly andsaid, he has no intention of asking for our raise to be returned. Nonetheless, the call for givebacks has a good chance of being made within the next year or two as fuel hedges expire. If and when it comes, I will be adamant that any cuts be made equally across all employee groups if at all. The idea that pilots should give up more because we make more should be sent back to its origins in Russia, China, and San Francisco.

Preferential Bidding: I am skeptical of the concept. While the principle seems benign, I fear it could well turn into a Trojan horse concerning our work rules. The Law of Unintended Consequences can be a harsh teacher as any pilot who reads our contract has found out after a chat with scheduling during a reroute or JA. What seemed like plain English only a few minutes before can suddenly have an entirely new meaning. The devil is in the details, but with PBS the details are written in computer code owned and administered by the company. In any event, PBS should be thought of as a work rule concession to be negotiated for other benefits to the pilot group.

Age 60 Retirement: I am in favor of the age 60 rule being repealed but against the use of any mandatorily collected union dues being used to fund lobbying efforts. There are two simple reasons: It is still a controversial topic among the membership, and it is peripheral to the mission of the union.

Budget: We have clearly blown our budget by wanting more union than our dues will support. Metastasizing committees concerning everything from jumpseat to the military are great to have around, but they bleed funds and distract the BOD and executives from the core mission of contract negotiation and maintenance. Conversion of the Secretary/Treasurer position from a pilot to a full time financial expert would be a priority as would the conversion of non-core committees to true volunteer status. Ultimately, dues should be reduced from 1% to perhaps .8% or even less.

Safety: The question I’ve always asked is that if we as pilots feel that our employer runs the operation in such a manner that we need to deduct several hundreds of thousands of dollars from our paychecks to bring it up to snuff, isn’t that a sum that perhaps the management and stockholders of the airline should shoulder? ASAP has clear benefits, but I’m unsure about the rest.

Information and Communication: Spending nearly $100,000 on the Reporting Point and another $214,000 on the web site simply seems redundant to me. The newsletter should be in electronic form only. The Government Affairs committee is a great clipping service but seems expensive at $100,000.

Thanks for your consideration.

Sunday, August 28, 2005


Lots of ink has been spilled over the recent mechanics' strike over at Northwest. The WSJ seems incredulous that in an incredible dancing bear fashion, the airline looks as if it will weather the strike of a major skilled employee group with nary a ripple. Heretofore, such a strike would routinely bring an airline to its knees because such a high fixed cost/low margin business model could not withstand the loss of even a few days of revenue. That the flight attendant and pilot unions did not join in is given as evidence of a new enlightenment on the part of labor.

I don't see it quite that way. The airlines and unions are merely coming to face with a new reality.

The entire airline sector is currently in a tailspin. Since 9/11, the sector has lost billions of dollars and laid off thousands of employees. The remaining airline employees have seen their paychecks trimmed 25% or more with a concurrent loss of work rule protections meaning they're working a lot harder for a lot less money. The Northwest mechanics were facing 25% pay cuts along with furloughs for half of their membership. Knowing how union leadership operates, those type of cuts almost necessitated a response leading to a strike.

Unfortunately for the union, there already existed thousands of unemployed airline mechanics on the street willing to work for even those reduced wages. The pilots and flight attendants correctly realized that their jobs and careers were truly on the line. They surely don't like it any better than the mechanics but this is an example of being mugged by a cold hard reality. They are surely also looking forward to a time when they'll be able to fight another day.

Northwest is also using this opportunity to reorganize their maintenance operations to utilize third party providers to accomplish non-routine maintenance such as aircraft and engine overhauls. This will insulate them further from future union activity.

There are still massive losses within the sector accompanied by over capacity and one or more players still need to exit the market. The race now is to not be the last finisher in the race. Two men running from a bear each realize that they don't need to be faster than the bear; just the other runner.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Do You Feel Safer Now?

Lots of ink has been spilled on the issue of airline security since 9/11. So the question to ask is are airline passengers any safer after the untold billions of dollars which have been spent on security in the aftermath or have we all lost our collective minds? From the view through the peep hole in our new carbon/kevlar bulletproof doors, I'd have to say yes....and yes.

First the good news: There hasn't been a hijacking or bombing of a US airliner since 9/11 and maybe this is even due in some part to the creation of the TSA and its mind numbing bureaucracy. But we don't know if outside of Richard Reid, the terrorist who failed to light his shoe bomb, whether Al Queda has even tried to attack airliners since 9/11. And it must be noted that Reid was foiled by an on the ball flight attendant and not any security measures put in place by the government.

A large element of security is the perception that is given to the enemy by existing security measures. Perhaps by installing such a Byzantine, impenetrably dense (stupid, not thick) security system in US airports, we have successfully telegraphed to prospective terrorists that we are serious about security and that any attempt to breach it will fail. Perhaps, but unlikely. My feeling is that while jihadists the world over head to the terrorist superbowl in Iraq, few resources are left for planning new attacks on US soil.

As far as the actual effectiveness of our current security measures, one need only look to Israel, a country which is actually serious about airline security to find our measures wanting. For starters, US airports and airlines are simply too numerous to secure in any meaningful way. Airport screeners must be successful 100% of the time while the terrorist need only be successful once to cause a disaster. Secondly, in spite of the carnage committed by 19 young Arab men, political correctness still holds the day when it comes to any whiff of profiling, be it racial, national origin, or even using publicly available commercial databases for data mining. This is just insanity.

And lastly, the long lines in the terminals are in many ways a Potemkin village of security for public consumption. Inside the terminal, pilots are routinely frisked and patted down to prevent their carrying of any item which may assist them in gaining access to the cockpit when that is actually their job description. Outside the terminal, however, thousands of workers come and go through gate or door with only a key code or swipe of a magnetic card. Sure they're checked for criminal history when hired, but how difficult would it be to find a young jihadist without a criminal record to hire on as a baggage loader and toss his bag lunch (bomb) into the belly of the plane he is loading?

There, do you feel safer now?

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Airline Economics II

Still Going Broke and Still Full

The airline sector is becoming more and more of a basket case every day. United, USAir, ATA and Hawaiian are in bankruptcy while American, Delta, and Northwest hover perilously close. And yet traffic levels have recovered fully from 9/11 and are on line to set records this summer. What gives? For starters, $55.00 fuel is not helping. From under $20 a barrel a year or so ago, these price increases have added millions of dollars of unplanned costs onto airlines.

So why don't the airlines just raise prices? They can't.

Airlines are suffering from a chronic overcapacity and inability to use mergers and acquisitions to rectify the problem. The announced merger of USAir and America West may solve some of this problem but the government largely exacerbates the problem by both propping up weak airlines and by making mergers very difficult.

And now the latest move by United and USAir to dump their pensions on the government may make the situation worse. Other airlines which have maintained their pension plans will now be at a competitive disadvantage as they have to make billions of dollars of payments to fund their pensions while United and USAir, both bankrupt, have dumped their obligations on the taxpayers.

So now the broke airlines without pension obligations and under court protection will bleed the remaining airlines. When will the sector get better? Anyone's guess but a few players will probably have to exit the scene before anything happens.

A friend of mine and a big jet. Posted by Hello

Friday, February 25, 2005

Too Old to Fly?

An ongoing debate within the airline industry is whether the mandatory age 60 retirement rule is necessary or fair. Scott McCartney addresses the issue in his latest column in the WSJ:


How Old Is Too Old To Fly an Airliner?

Pressure Grows to Raise Age At Which Pilots Must Retire;Experience vs. Reaction

You want the captain on your next airline flight to have some gray hair -- but probably not white hair.

How old is too old to be flying hundreds of passengers has long been a difficult question. Right now, the U.S. kicks commercial airline pilots out of the cockpit before they hit their 60th birthday.

But that may change. As pensions erode, there is growing push to raise that to age 65, and there's an increased likelihood that travelers will start seeing older captains in the cockpit in the next few years. Some other nations are already moving in this direction, and in Congress, lawmakers have introduced legislation that would bump up the age. Even the Air Line Pilots Association, which in the past has successfully blocked attempts to raise the age, now says it is studying whether a change makes sense.

Bert Yetman, a retired pilot, would like to see the age rule abolished.

It's a thorny issue. Gray-haired pilots have the advantage of extensive and wide-ranging experience at the controls, enabling smart, well-informed decision-making -- which is just what you want if, say, a plane runs into trouble. Consider that, in 1989, United Airlines Capt. David Cronin flew a Boeing 747 back to Honolulu after a large section of the fuselage blew out, sucking nine passengers to their death. Two of four engines quit and wing flaps were damaged, but Capt. Cronin's flying skills saved 327 passengers. Then, within a month, he was deemed too old to fly.
That same year, Capt. Al Haynes guided a crippled United DC-10 to Sioux City, Iowa, using different thrust from right and left engines to steer the plane when hydraulic systems failed. It was a remarkable feat of airmanship, and 184 people survived Flight 232. Two years later, Capt. Haynes had to retire.

Yet older pilots may also run a greater risk of sudden incapacitation, slower reactions or declining mental faculties. While medical studies provide no clear-cut answer, many show that skills do deteriorate with aging.

The Federal Aviation Administration has adopted a stance that retirement at age 60 has proved to be a safe standard, and why change if you might risk safety? "To date, we have not seen any research that reassures us raising the retirement age would maintain safety or raise it," FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette says.

But pressure is building for change. The current "Age 60 Rule" was drafted in 1959, and critics note that we're all living longer now. If 70 is the new 60, why not let pilots work to 65, the thinking goes.

The notion is gaining some support from lawmakers. "We shouldn't have an age cutoff for pilots. It should be based on medical requirements and on proficiency requirements," says U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.), a 70-year-old private pilot himself who has introduced one of two bills in Congress to raise the pilot retirement age to the Social Security minimum, currently age 65.
Many other countries and the European Union have already moved toward age 65 as a mandatory pilot retirement age, and the Department of Transportation has already talked of extending the careers of air-traffic controllers to age 61 from 58. The International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets international standards, has drafted a survey to send to its members shortly on allowing captains to fly up to age 65, with an eye toward making a change in late 2006, spokesman Denis Chagnon says. And ALPA's decision to study change has fanned the fire.

One big driver is money. Pensions at several airlines have been cut drastically, some even canceled, so many pilots would now like to be able to work longer. As it is, they have to retire five years before they could collect full Social Security.

ALPA, the labor union, has long had big influence with Congress, and its study will go a long way toward deciding whether Congress forces the FAA to change. The union fought the Age 60 rule vehemently between 1960 and 1980, but then switched its stance. As airline growth and pilot hiring soared with deregulation, a younger membership loved the rule: If senior captains are forced out, younger pilots move up more quickly into higher-paying jobs.

Now, ALPA is studying medical research and data from other countries where airline pilots have been flying past age 60, and will poll its members this spring, the first time it has done that since 1980. "Twenty-five years later, things have changed," ALPA spokesman John Mazur says.
Mr. Mazur says the first question to be resolved is whether older pilots would degrade safety. If the union is convinced that they wouldn't, then it becomes an economic question, and an internal struggle between older pilots who won't have the pension they thought they would have, and younger pilots -- many still on furlough from struggling airlines -- who want jobs.

At AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, the union representing its pilots, the Allied Pilots Association, says 83% of its members oppose an increase in the mandatory retirement age. Of course, pilots at American are covered by one of the industry's most generous retirement plans, preserved even through concessions when pilots opted for pay cuts over pension cuts. Not all airline unions agree: The union representing Southwest Airlines pilots has been pushing to add more years to their careers.

This is far from the first time change has been proposed, but it does represent the most serious challenge. Retirement-age pilots have sued to stay on the job and lost in court. And the FAA has studied the issue from time to time. A panel including the National Institutes of Health in 1981 recommended that the age limit be maintained, even though it found no medical significance to age 60 as a mandatory retirement age. In the last session of Congress, a similar measure from Sen. Inhofe failed by only a 44-52 margin.

It's important to note that many safeguards are built into the system, regardless of retirement age, and pilots in failing health are weeded out. Commercial airline pilots must undergo rigorous medical exams, including electrocardiogram tests annually after age 40.

In addition, all commercial jets have at least two pilots on board, and they are trained to handle situations such as one pilot passing out. In simulator training at Southwest, for example, one regular test of crews is that the captain landing a plane will simply go silent and sit still, and the first officer has to quickly recognize that and take control of the airplane.

Bert Yetman, a retired Southwest Airlines captain who leads a group called the Professional Pilots Federation, which is pushing for abolishing the Age 60 rule, notes that the FAA allows commercial pilots to fly with prosthetic legs, hearing aids, organ transplants and even one eye. The standard is whether they can pass medical and proficiency tests. He argues that the same standards could easily be applied to, say, a healthy 62-year-old.

"I'm very optimistic it's going to change," says Mr. Yetman. "There are a lot of things happening that have never happened before."

Mr. Yetman still flies Boeings -- but only empty ones. He ferries planes being delivered from the factory to airlines, or flies old, retired planes (including ex-Southwest Boeing 737s) to maintenance shops for refurbishment before they go to new owners