I'm feeling a bit tapped out lately. It's probably my constantly-shifting sleep schedule. So I meander, and you get more airplane stuff (I don't actually spend so much time thinking about airplane stuff, but that's where my mind's been lately).
After every flight on a clear night I must resist the temptation to blog about the view from above. Given the number of posts on this subject, my resistance is not formidable. But I will try to find the strength.
But we've had fabulous weather just the same, and I've made a tour of the central US over the past few days. Rockford, IL to Memphis, TN to Windsor Locks, CN to Louisville, KY to Columbia, SC. Today, a daylight turn to Philly and back. My favorite places are the big cities--New York, Philly, Chicago, L.A., Minneapolis--and I always hope to get sent to these places. But these larger cities constitute a minority of the cities served by my airplane, and if they're attractive destinations they will be snatched up by senior pilots.
Like the railroads before, the airlines are run according to contractual rules honed and shaped cumulatively over time. These union rules are closely interwoven with a giantic and ludicrously cumbersome set of regulations, the anticipated, soul-killing outcome of governmental intervention. In almost anything. Much of these evolved work rules take the form of standardized language that even a startup airline might expect to "plug in" to its formal modus operandi.
As with so many things, I have mixed feelings about unions. Things have worked out such that I've had union jobs for virtually all my adult life, and I've seen all sides of the labor / management dynamic, and every shade of human behavior, played out on this particular stage. And for just about every excess in union behavior that I've seen I can find a voracious company practice that a union stance or action has evolved to check. I have been happy to pay my dues and keep informed about the essentials but, my sputtering political posts notwithstanding, I'm just not political enough to be more involved than this. (I think it's a measure of how alarmed I am at our current political state that I have as much to say on the topic as I do, but that's another post.)
In a union job, seniority is everything: your number is responsible for most all of the good things that come one's way in a job. You do your time, and the rewards will come. I'm also familiar, from spouses and friends and limited personal experience, with the business of job advancement by "merit." And in my view merit is almost never merit, or at least not strictly so. Both systems have their pitfalls, but I tend to come down on the side of seniority advancement. It's probably just what I'm used to, but I see fewer cases of egregious injustice in this than in the merit situations I've seen.
Anyway, like it or not, this is what we have to work with. In the case of airline (and railroad) work, your seniority number determines what seat you sit in (and its attendant pay rate), the schedule you hold, when your vacations occur and for how long. And most airlines have both a master seniority list and also lists for individual airplane fleet types. So, for example, I might be quite junior at the company and yet be able to hold a better-than-expected position on a junior airplane. What position one might be able to bid or might project to bid in the foreseeable future plays a huge role in what airplane to bid (nothing is ever simple). It sounds arcane, I suppose, but we live with this, hand-in-glove, every day.
The DC-8 at my company is an excellent case in point. It is an old airplane, and it is flown differently than a new airplane. Literally, the pilot's job description has significantly changed in the 30 years between Douglas's first commercial jet, the DC-8, and their last, the MD-11 (just as flying the DC-8 was a big and meaningful change from flying the DC-3s and DC-6s that preceded it). The Boeing 777 and 787 and the latest Airbuses take these changes further yet. (This is a subject of intense fascination to me, this business of ergonomics and human factors as they relate to the business of flying an airplane. But that's a freakin' freeway onramp and, for your own safety, I mustn't take the bait!) This change in job description is significant enough that many pilots actively seek to avoid this acquaintance with the old school. So I benefit from being on an airplane that many people shun (it's worth noting, for example, that the percentage of women on the DC-8 is significantly smaller than on every other fleet at the company, and smaller than their representation in our pilot pool; I'm guessing that it's just too old and mechanical, but it's another topic for another day). I'm more senior on this airplane than I would be on almost any other fleet.
I'm led to think about all this every time I'm on a different fleet type, say, shuttling from one work location to another. An old airplane cannot last forever. My company is the last major operator of DC-8s anywhere and their days are clearly numbered (as are the days of the 727s and the classic 747s). We are at the trailing edge of the old school in regular practice, and at some point I will have to make the transition to something newer. It reminds me of a scene from the old railroads I love, where someone operated the last steam train at every railroad in the country, pulling finally into a roundhouse to drop the fires for the last time before the engine was pulled to the scrapyard. We're about at that same point now with these first-generation jets. Tonight I'm on a jumpseat heading to my next work assignment, and it's on a newer airplane, an Airbus. And this is why I'm unable to ride on any other airplane and not evaluate what position I would hold on this fleet's seniority list and how my life would be different flying this airplane versus my current one.