Around the Airport

Friday, March 30, 2012

My Position and Hold Has Lined Up to Wait

Several years ago, after a particularly discouraging four day trip, I sat down at home, fired up the computer, and was immediately confronted with headlines about commercial airline passengers. During an otherwise normal flight, one had flipped out and it was the story of the day. The question; why is this happening? My response; who cares?
My indifference may sound harsh but my reasoning was simple. With the pilot population on the precipice of breakdown, why were we worrying about passengers?
Don’t act like this is a surprise. Flight crew bar escapades have been a subject of conversation for decades. Publicly, pilots are derided one month for drinking on overnights and the next pitied for the world’s most stressful job. Yet the two are always left standing alone. They make much better stories that way. Fortunately, nature always creates balance and my observations tell me that for many pilots, despite what doctors may say, beer and stress actually do form a workable balance. There’s just one problem. A new factor has entered the picture.
After 9/11, America lost what was left of its proverbial mind. Citizen psyches were running scared and they wanted someone else to make it all better. Having been coddled for far too long, the American mind wasn’t up to the task, and so it turned to government. At this point, let’s just all agree to make a very long and pathetic story short; Homeland Security and TSA were created to make you feel like you were being protected. Like it or not, you wanted it and you got it. The creation of these agencies shipped the last vestiges of common sense into permanent exile.
Don’t act like this is a surprise either. We’ve all known it from day one. Those who are most likely to attack an airliner were given a pass while grannies and kids were subjected to cavity searches. As for the people who fly the planes, they were treated to psychological warfare.
Pilots, by nature, have an inherent ability to assess risk. Additionally, due to the nature of the job, they must also be somewhat intelligent, logical, skilled, and self-confident. Do you see the ticking time-bomb here? Wait, I see someone in the back of the room raising their hand, yes, you sir, can you tell me what it is? “Yeah, these are all things that fly in the face of Homeland Security and TSA”. Ding ding ding, we have a winner. Did you hear that folks? That guy in the back corner; the one refusing to give us his name for fear of a TSA reprisal, is correct. After 9/11 Americans chose to allow our government to subject employees, of one of the world’s most stressful jobs, to psychological warfare. What? You think I’m exaggerating?
With the occurrence of 9/11, pilots flying for airlines of the United States were deemed, by our government, a significant threat to the safety of America. With that, a good job turned horrible. Subjected to searches beyond belief, profiled and interrogated like enemy combatants, and forced to defer to people whose jobs were advertised on pizza boxes, pilots struggled to remain calm. Most of them, being proud Americans, sucked it up as an over-reaction and assumed it would all soon end. Then it got worse.
"Remove your shoes, you have too much shampoo, unbuckle your belt", and "we’ll have to confiscate those nail clippers" were among the endless ever-changing top secret list of things best described as a dog and pony show. "Show me your ID, I have to hold your ID, your ID can’t be in a lanyard, your ID must be on a lanyard, yes I know you are on the paperwork but pilots who don’t have our local ID must be escorted to the plane, I know you just flew this plane in but I have to see your ID to make sure you aren’t trying to hijack this plane, What? My ID? I don’t have to show you my ID, everyone must display an ID, I’m the TSA I don’t have to show you my ID, I need another form of ID, I need to make sure your ID isn’t forged, your ID must be on an outer garment, your ID must be protected from theft", and my personal favorite “Yeah your ID passed but it could just be a really good forgery” were merely a small sample of the things heard on any given four day trip.
“Please step aside for additional screening” was a particularly sore spot. Pilots have far better background checks than TSA agents but were constantly flagged for additional screening. Before long, aviators realized that they were being pulled aside because TSA agents knew it would be an easy screen for them. When they began to voice this issue, they were threatened loudly, treated with suspicion, and made to feel as though Gitmo was in their future. Then, at some point, the random additional screening of pilots was quietly dropped. Gate agents everywhere celebrated.
Although some issues were addressed, there was still a problem. Pilots are logical independent thinkers and also privy to all parts of the transportation system. In fact, I believe they are the only people who almost daily see every part of airline operations. Therefore they also spot the weaknesses. After years of knowing and watching the folks who work the ramp and load bags bypass security, many pilots began to express concern. After all, a lot of these people fit the profile of the terrorist who took over the planes on 9/11 and the fact they could potentially come to work with a bomb in their lunch bag, bypass security, and then load it in their plane after the pilots spent half an hour trying to explain to a guy, whose last job was a toll booth operator, that they need access to the aircraft in order to actually fly people to their destinations, was beyond anything any logical independent mind could handle. The length of that sentence is relative. When one pilot video taped it as proof, he was threatened with some of the highest crimes on the books. Today, rampers still bypass security.
Airlines filed bankruptcy, executives took bonuses for decreasing losses, and pilots took pay cuts and lost their retirement. Hours increased, income decreased, love of country vanished, flying lost its sparkle, and in the end the only thing left, a respectable job, disappeared. In its place was left that of a glorified bus driver. When pilots complained, they were made fun of for having easy jobs and crying about lost wages. Even their own kind mocked them despite no real understanding of the job. While GA pilots complained the world thought every pilot was rich, they bashed on airline pilots for being so. It was a no win situation and many of those who had useful degrees quit flying to take up jobs with better hours, income, and stability. Meanwhile, people whose dream it was to be an airline pilot jumped at the chance to pursue it only to find it was a myth. Unfortunately, this always happened after borrowing well over $100,000 to get the $24,000 per year job.
Today American pilots must have the words “English Proficient” on their licenses to be legal while airlines and ATC hire people who can’t speak it. “Position and hold” has changed to “line up and wait” because we need to be more like other countries despite their safety records that rarely stand up to ours. The FAA is passing rules to promote puppy mill flight schools while simultaneously holding conferences to discuss the alarming loss of basic flying skills in the airlines. FOQA, a silly flight monitoring program that demands a flying technique so sterile FO’s can never learn and all the Captains can do is forget is all the rage. And last but not least, TSA just keeps getting bigger.
Clearly, all these things fly in the face of logic. Independent, confident, intelligent people have no problem seeing this. For that reason, they have paid the price. The pilots of yesterday are not acceptable in the post 9/11 world; hence the psychological warfare. Am I saying this was something planned and executed with the intent of tearing down pilots to the point of accepting that which is not acceptable? I just don’t know. Yet planned or not, that is what they have done. Unfortunately, there's still a problem. Prisoners of war routinely lose their minds. One pilot has already done so and I suspect he'll not be the last.
"Psychological warfare employs any weapon to influence the mind of the enemy. The weapons are psychological only in the effect they produce and not because of the weapons themselves."

2 comments:

Ken said...

Rich,
All I can say is "wow"!
You hit the nail right smack square on the head!
As a retired "road warrior" with over 2 million frequent flyer miles, and as a patriot, I can somewhat empathize with what you feel. I remember the days when one could walk freely to the gate.
And now...

Ken Bittner

fastfhucker said...

Yuuuupp!!
All true and sad.
I chased my dream and went from $75k as a regional captain to $33k as a new hire at United only to get furloughed and make $25k on unemployment and then make $22k as a "New Hire" back at American Eagle.
Fortunately I have no student loan to repay as I worked my way through college, flight school, time building.
And lived at home till age 27 all for this painfully disappointing career.
Oh yea I love and enjoy my wife and three kids 11 days/month.
In the end I'm still very glad to have a job.