Jumpseat: 25 Years of Change

Then and now.

Les Abend's first real airline job was in
1979 as a Beech 99 copilot for an
Allegheny Commuter in the Northeast.

On a cool, pastel-gray morning that was typical for the city of Syracuse, New York, a wide-eyed 6-year-old boy clambered up the stairs that led to the entry door of a Lockheed Electra. With Mom at his side, the boy was given a tour of the cockpit by the crew. At the completion of the tour, the open-mouthed 6-year-old was presented with a certificate. The certificate entitled him to a pilot interview 20 years later.

Despite the fact that more than 500 pilots were on furlough, the boy marched through the doors of the airline flight academy 20 years from the date of his childhood visit to the cockpit. The interview that was granted was more of a public relations discussion than an opportunity for employment. It wouldn't matter. A little more than a year later, the boy was invited to participate in a real interview process. He was hired. A passion realized. A dream fulfilled.

The boy, of course, was me. Now, 25 years of employment has passed in the blink of an eye. I was warned that would happen but never believed. So has much really changed in those 25 years?

My first pilot position faced sideways. I was a flight engineer on a 727, the standard entry point for a new kid. It was a time when a new kid was both chided and cherished — chided because that was part of the initiation process, cherished because a new kid was an indication that the airline was expanding.

The captains of the World War II era had retired in the decade prior to my arrival, but their legends lived on in the stories that circulated. The captains that were a part of my life did their best to maintain the traditions. The traditions were sometimes as simple as never allowing me to pull out a wallet on a layover or as complicated as the instruction required to land a 727. Landing a 727 consistently with only a squeak of the tires was a godlike feat revered by even the grumpiest of captains.

The smattering of sage advice that was offered by my captains usually had little to do with flying an airplane but more to do with which 20-something flight attendant was worth pursuing.

A good flight engineer was measured not only on his ability to minimize catastrophes on his panel, but also on his ability to maintain both a supply of hot sauce for the omelet and the proper quality of pornography hidden in the appropriate places in the cockpit. In today's politically correct environment, the latter attribute would invite a trip to a termination hearing.

As the age of the computer infiltrated our lives, the airline became more dependent on its use. Crews were typing codes onto keyboards to sign in for their trips rather than writing their signature on a piece of paper. The monthly bidding process for our schedules was becoming a mysterious series of computer entries. The ACARS machine was taking the place of traditional flight-log paperwork. In and out times were now recorded automatically.

The personalities of operational personnel were beginning to fade away as their job functions were no longer required. Nobody seemed to be concerned. And why should they be? The airline was hiring new people at unprecedented rates.

Our airline had approximately 4,100 pilots on the seniority list by the end of 1984. I was well aware of that fact because my number was 4,098. Surely I would be furloughed. Ten thousand pilots later, the furlough never happened. Some of my colleagues hired years after me would not be as lucky.

In the 1980s, the infamous "B-scale" had infiltrated the pay structure. New pilots were paid at nearly half the established rate. The B-scale was a prized creation of airline management. Management had promised expansion in return for the reduced cost of employment.

An ulterior motive for establishing separate pay scales was the fact that they created a division among the pilot group so that the union representation would be less effective, at least temporarily. That plan was successful to some degree, but it eventually backfired. It wasn't long before B-scale pilots outnumbered "A-scale" pilots. The majority of those discontented forced union representation to negotiate an end to the disparity. Besides, a phenomenon was taking place that hadn't occurred since the early '60s. Pilots with as little as five years' employment were being awarded captain positions. Neither the union nor the airline had established a pay structure for such a situation.

I was fortunate enough to be one of those five-year wonders. I still remember staring at the computer screen after reading that I had been awarded a 727 captain position. I rapped the monitor with my knuckles just to make sure that I wasn't hallucinating. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined being an airline captain at age 32. Life just didn't get any better.

Now, flying with copilots who have been in the position for 19 years, I wish it could have been better for others. But seniority is everything. As little as 100 numbers can make the difference between captain and copilot, employed and furloughed.

When our last 727 flew into the sunset and the desert boneyard, it announced the end of an era. The flight engineer position disappeared from our company forever. Although the golden age of airlines in the DC-3 days began with only two pilots, the complication of today's operation hadn't existed. Two pilots were sufficient to accomplish the task. Airplane systems were manageable. Mach numbers and high-altitude flight was something only test pilots experienced. And then the development of the jet transport changed everything.

In a relatively short amount of time, the sophistication of the modern-day airliner no longer required a flight engineer. The airplane became capable of managing systems automatically. An approach in near-zero/zero weather was a reality. The airplane could land itself.

Technology took a tremendous stride toward safety with TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System). The dramatic accident of a PSA 727 and a Cessna 172 punctuated the need for TCAS. Although skepticism surrounded the introduction of the system, most of us airline-types can't imagine having lived without it. I can't think of a colleague who doesn't have a close-encounter war story where TCAS saved the day.

Although I thought flying couldn't get any more sophisticated than having three IRUs (inertial reference units) and two FMCs (flight management computers), it wouldn't be until the late '90s that GPS would become part of the whole navigation package. And now, of course, my Cherokee Six's Garmin 530 accomplishes the navigation task with equivalent accuracy. Judging by the low inventory at most FBOs, the VFR sectional and the WAC chart have become nothing more than wallpaper. (Thank you, but I'll hang on to my wallpaper.)

As airline technology both in airplanes and operations continued to advance, so did competition. Carriers competed with a fierceness never before seen. Airlines added flights at a rate that ATC was unable to manage. For the most part, the flying public benefited. Airfares plummeted. People who had never been able to afford to visit Grandma and Grandpa in Florida with the kids were buying tickets. And then on one crisp September morning in 2001, the world came to a crashing halt.

None of us will ever forget, especially those of us who had to climb back into a cockpit days later. The airline industry changed forever. Although the impact of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil took time to absorb, the airlines felt the shock immediately. Balance sheets glared with red ink. But analysis would prove that Sept. 11 was merely the icing on the cake.

The downward spiral of the industry had begun prior to that day. Overcapacity. Loss of high-revenue passengers. Relentless competition. Low fares. Low yields. All of those issues contributed to the precarious state of many airlines. Bankruptcy became the only answer for some carriers. But bankruptcy seemed to become an avenue for poor management to wipe the slate clean with its creditors. And the first creditors to suffer other than customers were the employees. Compensation slashed. Benefits demolished. Pensions obliterated. Management bonuses awarded.

Security at airport terminals, of course, was the most noticeable and immediate change. Although increased passenger screening was expected, nobody could have anticipated the increased scrutiny of crew members.

And before I could blink an eye, guns in the cockpit were becoming almost as ordinary as my kit bag. It was a sad reflection on the state of the world.

As in most traumatic events (I'm lumping in everything from 9/11 to pay cuts), the grieving process began. Eventually we were capable of living with the scars. No matter how difficult our own personal situation, we moved on and accepted life's changes.

Yes, we gnash our teeth now and again. But my colleagues still perform their jobs with the same professionalism. They still care that Grandma gets a smooth ride. They land crippled airplanes without the drama of a CNN newscast and then come back to work the next day. My profession has more Sullenbergers and Skileses than the public will ever meet. And, yes, on rare occasions they make a mistake.

As for me, a door has closed in my career, but another has opened. Because of reduced flying, lack of attrition and limited training cycles, I am no longer needed as a 767 check airman. As of this writing, I have begun training on the 777. It wasn't long into ground school that I realized that my captain title should be changed to flight systems manager. I'm hoping to demonstrate some stick and rudder skills regardless.

In any case, after 25 years, I have to remind myself that I am still doing what I love. I fly. I write. Has anything changed? Nope. Not a thing