Taking Wing: The Great Divide

** Pilots flying at major and regional airlines may look
and dress the same and fly similar equipment, but
they work under different conditions, sparking
occasional tension.**
Sam Weigel

To the traveling public, I suspect that airline pilots are all essentially one and the same. We roam the terminals in the same weathered polyester uniforms, towing the same beat-up flight kits festooned with the airplane stickers of our pasts. We’re all pretty clean-shaven and tend to sport the same close-cropped haircut — only some a bit grayer than others. We assume the same practiced air of watchful nonchalance in the public eye, delivering our in-flight announcements in the standard Yeager drawl. I presume that airline management, too, sees us as essentially interchangeable cogs in its well-oiled travel machine. If airplanes are merely marginal costs with wings, as Alfred Kahn famously claimed, I suppose airline pilots are just marginal costs with funny hats.

Of course we are not identical cogs, nor tidy replications of some ideal pilot prototype. We are men and women with our very own talents, flaws, pasts and egos — sometimes especially egos. We rebel at the suggestion that we are interchangeable and replaceable, seeing ourselves as individually critical to the flying public’s safety and our companies’ continued success. We define ourselves by our experiences, past and present, and categorize ourselves accordingly. We become not merely pilots or even airline pilots, but American pilots and United pilots, ExpressJet pilots and Horizon Air pilots. We divide ourselves into civilian and military backgrounds. We are assigned roles as captains and first officers. We talk about being ex-flight instructors and old freight dogs and former Viper jocks and one-time BUFF drivers. But above all, there is one line that defines and divides pilots across the industry: the line between major airline pilots and regional airline pilots.

Traditionally, the Department of Transportation classified U.S. airlines as major, national or regional according to annual revenue, and by this metric one could identify the big players in the industry (and the big earners among pilots): the likes of Delta, FedEx or Southwest. But today’s “major airlines” include SkyWest and Envoy, carriers many travelers have never even heard of. There is a good chance that you’ve been on one of their airplanes at some point without knowing it. So the old definition is perhaps a little outdated. I personally define major airlines as those carriers that have their own brand and their own ticketing system, who do the majority of their flying on their own behalf. Regional airlines are those that have little or no brand identity of their own, whose main business is flying passengers on behalf of major airline partners per the terms of time-limited contracts. It may seem a slight distinction to those outside the industry, but it creates two vastly different working environments, and it impacts how each group of pilots sees itself and each other.

The root of the schism is essentially the fact that regional pilots do the exact same job as major airline pilots (those who fly domestically, anyway) for considerably inferior pay and benefits. The major airline pilots understandably wish to limit how much of their flying is outsourced, and do this via scope clauses within their union contracts that delineate exactly which flying may be performed by regional airlines. Years ago these clauses were quite narrow, restricting the regionals to a limited number of turboprops and small jets on short routes. Over time, both through contract negotiations and via bankruptcy courts, these clauses have been expanded to allow much more outsourcing and larger and more capable regional jets. This shift has caused tension between major and regional pilots. After 9/11, thousands of major airline pilots were unceremoniously furloughed while the regional airlines exploded with growth. Most regional pilots, meanwhile, were only building the flight time necessary to land their dream job at a major airline — the time-honored tradition of paying one’s dues — but saw this dream grow increasingly distant as the shift toward outsourcing made good, stable jobs scarce. Some became “lifers,” some became bitter, and a few became petulant.

Considering the potential for conflict, interactions between major and regional airline pilots are usually quite cordial. Typically the communications range no deeper than passing nods at the airport or quick chats in line at Starbucks. However, commuting pilots spend a lot of time on other airlines’ jumpseats, sharing very close quarters with unfamiliar crews. As a jumpseater, there is a universal unwritten etiquette to be followed: Be unobtrusive, don’t speak unless spoken to, and if the crew is chatty at least keep the conversation light, steering away from divisive subjects like union politics and major-regional dynamics. Nearly everyone obeys this rule, and most hosting crews reciprocate, but every once in a while underlying tensions bubble to the surface. When my regional airline was brand-new, the bastard child of an ugly major airline bankruptcy, I listened to a red-faced captain angrily swear that I was stealing his job, while I shrunk as far back into his DC-9’s diminutive jumpseat as possible. Most of my peers have one or two similar stories — several friends were even denied the jumpseat and left at the gate! In turn I’ve heard of regional pilots subjecting their mainline jumpseater to a long rant, which the poor guy has to sit there and take without argument as the price of catching a ride to work.

Open conflict is markedly rare, though, and generally confined to the “2 percenters” that every airline seems to accumulate. More often, grievances are aired in the privacy of our own cockpits and crew rooms, where assumptions and stereotypes can flourish well away from the troublesome subtlety of their real-life counterparts. Here, major airline pilots morph into selfish baby boomers conspiring with management to outsource ever greater amounts of flying, keeping regional pilots slaving away for poverty wages to support their own inflated incomes. Regional pilots, meanwhile, take the form of lazy millennials who, being used to having the world handed to them on a platter, are happy to undercut more experienced pilots in pursuit of the easiest shortcut to the good life. Just in case either side misses out on what the other is saying about it in their darker moments, the most popular airline-pilot Web forums reverberate with the sort of angry recriminations and wild generalizations that the reticent jumpseater wouldn’t even dare think in his hosts’ presence, much less give voice to.

Fortunately I have a lot of friends scattered all around the industry, at both regional and major airlines, who remind me that here in the real world, away from crew room echo chambers and pointless online warfare, the vast majority of airline pilots are good people who have a lot in common. The truth is that, while many major airline pilots have been frustrated by runaway outsourcing, few blame regional pilots for taking jobs that have become a de facto career requirement. Most major pilots of both civilian and military backgrounds look back on their own formative years with great affection and do everything they can to help those of us working our way up through the ranks. Most of my regional peers, for their part, are sharp pilots and hard workers who have struggled through years of instability and low pay with surprisingly little complaint. Most try to do the right thing not only for themselves but their fellow pilots as well. All of us, major and regional pilots, basically want the same things: Pay and benefits that befit the enormous sums of time and money that we’ve invested in our careers. A bit of stability in a notoriously unpredictable industry. Respect and fair treatment from our employers. Safe scheduling and operating practices. Quality training that gives us the tools to do our jobs well.

Viewed from this angle, the divide between us is not nearly so deep and wide as it sometimes appears. I personally believe that all pilots — major and regional, civilian and military, airline and GA — share a unique bond, a brotherhood of the air, and there is much more that unites us than that which divides us. I think that many disparate elements within GA have come to realize this in the past few years, and we will need to rediscover it at the airlines. Bridging the gap requires personal contact, though — individual efforts to reach across the divide. Fortunately I think the coming years will see a strengthening of cross-industry relationships as more and more regional pilots are hired at various majors. I myself, while writing this column, flew what was (hopefully!) my last flight at the regional airlines. By the time you read it I will be in new-hire class at a major airline — my long-sought dream job. I’m very much looking forward to crossing the gap, getting to know, fly with, and learn from veterans of an large and venerable airline, and then reaching back across to help out my friends still at the regionals. It’s an exciting time in the industry.

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Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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