Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Unions and Old Airplanes

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.


Kate said...

Gee Wunelle, I thought the military and it's rank system was weird. I don't know much about the airline industry, despite Braniff being the case study in college*, so this was very interesting. I love reading your blog because I get to think about the things I studied so long ago. I got to talk about production in the Airplane plant post and now you are touching on my labor relations course. I have a management stepfather and a union-rep Dad so I have heard both sides of things. I won't get into that because it would make for a long comment. ;-) I did read an interesting article about the AFL-CIO split back in August. The link is there if you're interested.

*My professor studied it so much that he had a dream one time where he was flying Braniff to Europe. He got up to go to the bathroom and realized that he was naked. He was scurrying to the back of the plane trying to cover himself with his briefcase when he realized, in the dream, that he was dreaming. He said, "And do you know how I knew it was a dream?" We were figuring because most people don't fly nude. (Please don't tell me if we were wrong in this assumption.) He said, "Braniff doesn't fly international." Silly us.

Joshua said...

OK, I like your posts about how friggin awesome yoru job is, and how amazing the sky is, so go ahead and post as much as you want (its your blog, after all)

And I have decided that instead of growing up to be a ninja, or firefighter, I want to be a pilot.

wunelle said...

My buddy sent me an awesome, long comment on the auto industry / airline industry and their labor and cost structure woes, but he didn't want to publish it! But it gives a nice take on things from a corporate point of view (as opposed to the labor point of view that I so typically embrace--hey, I'm labor!).

I know there are two sides to everything, and he talks about stuff that I didn't really take into consideration. But I still don't buy that this morass was the only option open, or at least that things HAVE to be this way. Maybe that's just me being naive and unschooled in bidness. But I think there must be a way to be competitive while having a price floor below which one will not go (say, if one will frickin' lose money at that price!) That seems simple!

It seems to me that the well being of the employees should not be peripheral to a company's concerns, and is not necessarily incompatible with business success--indeed, it should be one of the primary reasons for the business to exist! We've come to a point where we care about stockholders above all, when all they did was put money down on speculation. Since when did we decide that this is the end-all and be-all of business concern?

Thanks for your comments, bothayouse!

And Joshua, growing up is overrated! (I oughtta know...)

Kate said...

My M-I-L, a wise woman, said that when companies became centralized away from the workers; it became more about the bottom line. It's more difficult to think about the workers as real people when you don't see them everyday at work or in the community.

Anonymous said...

Is KCSC the only place in SC that you fly the -8 to? And speaking of airlines and air freight companies flying old aircraft....
Lufthansa still owns a ford tri-motor. It can be seen every now and then around Frankfurt-Main. Not sure how they swing that deal at the 2nd most busy airport in Europe...with only 2 runways and 4-5 jets on ils final at one time.

wunelle said...

Kate--I like the MIL's idea, and I think she's right. My own company is very large, and I think we must be honest that, at best, the company's policies appear similar to what caring policies might look like. Close, but not the same.

As for SC, I think that's the only place. Certainly that I've been into. The old tri-motor is fabulous (they used one until fairly recently to take kids from Washington Island in MI to the mainland for school each day--it's even the same corrugated metal!

That airplane reminds me of the old Ju-52 (I think) that one sees in the old Nazi newsreels.

At least nobody can claim the DC-8 to be a speed bump! It can keep up with most anything.

Anonymous said...

One more thought on unions - you mention that you 'are labor' but it is pretty odd that pilots would find themselves unionized. In most industries the 'professionals' (the physicians, engineers, programmers and so on) are not unionized. The ways in which the 'professions' are differentiated from the unionized work force all pretty much apply to pilots too, so it seems odd that they are unionized. You even see many cases where pilots unions can't seem to decide if they are on the side of labor or management - they are often reluctant to support the other unions at an airline and seem much more inclined to cooperate with management.