My copilot walked over to the counter top in JFK Operations where I had scattered various segments of the flight plan paperwork. His pace was quick. He introduced himself and apologized for his slight tardiness. He had commuted in from South Carolina to La Guardia and had taken a taxi ride through rush hour traffic over to JFK. We were departing to Zurich, a destination I had never been.
Almost nine months had passed since my last trip across The Pond. I felt a little rusty with the procedures. A proficient copilot would keep me out of trouble. My biggest challenge was to shake off the lethargy of almost a month's vacation. The next challenge, about nine hours away, would be flying the arrival idiosyncrasies into Zurich.
I verbalized these challenges to my copilot, apologizing for the obstacles he faced having to work with me. He nodded with a grin, gave a cursory glance at the paperwork, and then excused himself to make a brief phone call to one of his business partners.
Business partners? That was impressive. As I shuffled the fruits of my labor into an organized pile, I made a mental note to inquire about my copilot's extracurricular activities. It would make interesting conversation. I smiled and gestured my head toward the exit corridor. With the cell phone pasted to his ear, my copilot nodded and trotted behind.
We collected our bags and walked out of Operations toward the elevator. When the elevator doors slid open, we were greeted by our FB, our relief crewmember. He too apologized for his tardiness. He had commuted in from DFW on a day that was wrought with major weather delays. A storm system had been battering the Dallas area like a bad house guest that wouldn't go away. Our FB excused himself and dashed toward Operations to retrieve his flight bag. He promised to be at the airplane in time to complete his duties. I assured him that his haste was unnecessary.
Soon after arriving at the airplane, I assembled our nine flight attendants in the first-class cabin, and completed my standard safety briefing. I rejoined my copilot and the FB in the cockpit and began the process of preparing the airplane for departure.
It was during the course of typical preflight banter that the revelation I had been fostering over the last several years was confirmed. My profession was losing its status as "the day job." And it seemed that my copilot was the poster child for this revelation.
My copilot's other business involved various government contracts managing aircraft operations and flight crews. He and his partners employed 70 people, some of them airline pilots. He offered an example of one pilot who had chosen to simply quit our airline at a relatively young age because the new job held more promise and was more lucrative.
My copilot explained that if it were not for medical benefits and that he stood to lose thousands in retirement funds because he had not reached the eligible age of 50, he would quit also. As it was, he dropped or traded trips until his schedule consisted of only one trip for the month.
Later in the flight, I would discover that my copilot had an artful mastery of schedule manipulation. And I don't mean it in a bad way. If a pilot chooses to exercise his contractual rights in order to reduce his time at work and thus reduce his salary, that's his prerogative. But he did seem to focus much of our non-sterile cockpit time on the task.
As I learned more about my copilot's business endeavor, I nodded with encouragement and approval. But I was finding it difficult to mask another emotion: Disappointment. When had my career turned into a side job?
Sure, over the years airline pilots have been notorious for investing in other businesses and ventures (some with less-than-successful results), but never has there been such a zest to not only supplement the career but to replace it.
Without conducting an official survey, I would guess that 70 percent of my copilots have alternative incomes or are in the developmental stages of an alternative income. On this particular trip even the FB had a part-time occupation. He renovated homes in his spare time.