“Humans make mistakes under that kind of pressure”
Paul*, 55, has been a pilot for one of the country’s biggest airlines for 30 years, working his way up to captain on international and domestic flights. This summer, a shortage of pilots – due in part to accelerated retirements during the COVID pandemic and the cost and difficulty of training new pilots – led to nightmarish delays and flight cancellations for thousands of passengers. . United Airlines is cutting 50 flights a day from Newark Airport starting next month. American Airlines will cancel flights to Ithaca and Islip, NY, as well as Toledo, Ohio, in September. Southwest Airlines is facing protests from pilots over low pay and bad hours. (The Airline Pilots Association claims there is no shortage of pilots and that airlines are reducing and canceling flights as a cost-cutting measure and lying about it.) Paul spoke to DANA KENNEDY of the Post about the hellish conditions he and other pilots are currently enduring.
It’s midnight and I just finished a transcontinental flight to New York. I am due to be back in the air at 3 p.m. tomorrow afternoon, as part of a recent increase in my hours. I used to have 15 days off a month minimum for most of my career. Now I only have 10 days off and it hurts me. For the month of June, I was supposed to have only six days off.
I’m tired. Flying is definitely not as fun as it used to be. Being a pilot used to be the best part-time job in the world because you only worked 15 days a month. No more.
The pressure is real. There is pressure to fly when you are tired. I must tick a box indicating that I am fit to fly at the start of each flight. Thirty minutes later, that could change. But when I check that box, everything legal comes on my shoulders. The company becomes exempt from my performance from that point on.
There are a lot of issues that the public isn’t aware of that have come into play over the last few years and you’re seeing some of the results right now. There are serious issues that could affect security.
First of all, there is much less (initial) training and less frequency in the training of active pilots. We used to have training every six months, then it was pushed to every nine months and now it’s only once a year. And when they do training, they compress things just to tick the legal boxes.
There are instances where they falsify flight plan schedules to allow pilots to take trips that they would otherwise not be legally allowed to take. This usually happens at the end of the day when the crews are the most tired.
As long as everything is fine, no one will know. But that’s why I keep a copy of each of my flight plans because if there was an incident it would be looked at and they would see that there were actually two flight plans that were made during certain trips. They call it a “review”, but in some cases it’s to circumvent flight time and duty time requirements.
So often we have to push it even just to get home. Pressure can also make you angry or anxious. And humans make mistakes under that kind of pressure – whether it ultimately results in loss of life or damage to an aircraft.
Some of the people who were furloughed at the start of the pandemic had to be retrained or, if they were gone too long, they couldn’t come back or didn’t want to come back. A lot of seniors didn’t leave because they were getting $500,000 in PPE to stay in their homes.
Lots of new stuff [airline] the executives have MBAs but they don’t know the airlines very well and many of them are “woke”, which doesn’t help. Neither does the mask or vaccine mandates. The majority of people in my company did not want to be vaccinated.
We didn’t have to wear masks in the cockpit. I could not have done my job with a mask. I told my flight attendants not to escalate with the mask situation in the cabin. Some [attendants] can become like little Nazis and attack someone with their mask under their nose. I said no. They have become agents of the government, [but] without training to defuse. I told them, call ahead and we can get law enforcement to deal with them [on the ground]. Do not climb it on the plane.
Flying when I started in the 90s was quite enjoyable. Then it became a race to the bottom. Airlines started trying to sell fares and attract customers however they could, so everyone started buying tickets from Expedia. It was all about getting customers. The margin got so thin that I started calling it the “Walmart Model”. This took away a lot of fun and comfort from flying for everyone. A lot of prestige was also lost.
Then came 9/11. I watched the south tower fall from the tarmac at LaGuardia. I thought there would be martial law. It was a dark day for airlines. I knew some of the people who were lost. And after that, the machine took over – the whole military-industrial complex – and it affected everything. Nothing was ever quite the same. In the early days after 9/11, I made sure my crash ax was where I could grab it in the cockpit and not attached to the wall in case someone ran into the cockpit.
They were a little slow to hire new pilots after 9/11, they were trying to see what would happen. There weren’t many customers. Even under the Obama administration, there was expectation. But when Trump took office, everything was going really well for everyone. It felt like the sky was the limit and there was no turning back – then COVID hit and furloughs came with it. Now we have Biden who has never had a real job in his life. He never had to solve real problems in a real job. All he and everyone else in Washington does is make trouble to stay in business.
Back then we could get free or discounted tickets for our friends and family, but now I tell my relatives that it’s better to go online and pay because you’ll get better seats than me. The only advantage I have now as a passenger is that I can take one of the jump seats. I prefer that to being crammed with passengers.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m blessed to be here. I am at the top of my game. I am at the top. I’ve worked hard and I’m here at 37,000 feet living the dream I had as a kid. When I started in 1992, I was paid $14.25 an hour. Now my base salary is $240,000 not including overtime.
I know people are worried about flying this summer, but I would never tell anyone not to fly. Flying is always safer than driving. And there are still plenty of riders like me with a lot of experience who know what they are doing. Pilots operate with a sense of mission. They want to get these passengers to their destination.
I am a pressure player. I’m normally pretty relaxed, but when the shit hits the fan, I kick into high gear and get to work. I perform better under pressure. A lot of pilots my age do.
*Paul’s name has been changed to protect his identity.