A Day in the Life of an RJ Pilot
A further source of upheaval has been the replacement of first-generation 50-seat regional jets with newer, larger RJs, like the E175, that are regional in name only. Many of the carriers that grew the fastest in the 1990s as they took delivery of hundreds of RJs are now the most vulnerable, as high fuel and maturing labor costs have made these aircraft — marginally profitable in the best of times — albatrosses around the major airlines’ necks. Newer, smaller airlines are at a strong advantage for winning CPAs to fly the larger aircraft. In many cases, the only way that established airlines can win next-generation flying is by agreeing to prematurely retire a greater number of old RJs, suddenly creating a surplus of pilots and consequent furloughs. This is the process that both created my airline and filled it with “refugee pilots.”
One might well ask: If things are so bad at the regionals, why don’t the pilots just quit? Certainly there are a number of other things one can do in aviation; many of us have held multiple flying jobs outside the airlines. One reason why so many persist is because major airlines strongly prefer job candidates with both Part 121 experience and turbine pilot-in-command time, making a stint as a regional captain a near prerequisite. Pilots are a goal-oriented lot, and they’ll put up with a great deal in their single-minded pursuit of that dream job. The major airlines, whatever their troubles the last decade and regardless of their lack of hiring, are still the promised land to a great many regional pilots.
The other thing, which few pilots will admit, is that the airline lifestyle is rather addictive — even at the regionals. With enough seniority, one has a large degree of control over his schedule, works half the month or less and is truly off work when at home. I work in relative anonymity and almost never see my supervisors. I’ve flown with a lot of great people and become good friends with many over pints at our favorite layover bars. I’ve seen a good portion of the world on my travel benefits for very little money. I doubt I could leave the airlines if I tried. Not everyone feels the same way; quite a few friends over the years have left the airline industry or quit aviation altogether.
Like so many things in life, this job is what you make of it. There are negatives to dwell on if you choose, but in doing so, you’ll only make yourself and everyone around you miserable. Alternatively, you can accept the negatives as merely the price of admission, focus on the rewards of making your living doing something remarkable and enjoy the ride. A little perspective helps: In this economy, it’s a blessing to have any job, much less a flying job. Many of this magazine’s readers are paying $6-plus per gallon for the privilege of flight.
I’ve learned to savor the special moments, like the one at the end of our flight. We descended below 10,000 feet on the KORRY3 arrival, and the entire luminous expanse of New York City filled the cockpit windows. There was the green outline of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and dim container ships swinging at anchor in the harbor, and then Lower Manhattan, already dominated by the arc-lit framework of Freedom Tower rising from the scars of ground zero. The Empire State Building, awash in pink that month, stood sentinel over Midtown, and to its right I could just make out the dark sliver that is LaGuardia Airport. They were using the Expressway Visual that night, a tight descending pirouette around Citi Field to Runway 31. It’s a cherished opportunity to rise above the ennui of button-pushing and become an aviator once again.
As Rob clicked off the autopilot and began our final descent over the Long Island Expressway, I saw the grin spread across his face despite the darkened cockpit. I know it well. In a moment like that, nobody thinks about the turmoil in our industry, or our families back home, or the fact that it’s starting to be a long day and we have one more leg to fly. In a moment like that, landing in New York City astride a modern marvel, I pinch myself at my good fortune. In a moment like that, I think how great it is to be alive ... and how wonderful it is to fly.