A Day in the Life of an RJ Pilot

Flying for an industry in flux, one regional jet pilot tells all.

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The forest below was thick and rolling, with leafy hilltops set ablaze by the setting sun and brooding valleys already lost to deepening shadows. A few lights twinkled to life through the canopy, but there was little other evidence of the hamlets and roads that my atlas showed sprinkled through these foothills of eastern Kentucky. I decided that the inky reservoir on my left must be Lake Cumberland. That put the famed Cumberland Gap ahead and to our right.

“Daniel Boone blazed the Wilderness Road through there,” I remarked aloud, mostly to myself.

Rob looked up from the limp salad he was halfheartedly nibbling on and gazed down at the purple hills to which I pointed. From six miles up, they seemed insignificant, hardly even worthy of being called mountains. Barely 200 years ago, however, they formed such an insurmountable barrier that it fell to the hardiest of mountain men to find a way across. Rob surveyed the wrinkled landscape in pensive silence, and then went back to picking at his crew meal. I looked back down at my atlas.

PASSING TIME

The Embraer 175 is a wonderfully modern, pilot-friendly airplane with a clean, simple cockpit. Flight information is neatly presented on five large, crisp LCD displays. Flawless navigation is simple with twin flight management systems that feature GPS and INS inputs. Aircraft systems are mostly automated — with lots of dusty switches to be left in the auto position — and computer-monitored, with any malfunctions immediately displayed on the engine instrument and crew alerting system and synoptic displays. The autopilot and autothrottles keep the airplane right on course, flying more smoothly than I am able.

The one thing the Embraer does not do well is keep its pilots awake and engaged, least of all in cruise flight. There’s simply precious little to be done. Navigational cross checks, ETA and fuel calculations, maintenance notations, weather updates — all the housekeeping duties of years past are automated and available at the push of a button. So you have to find ways to pass the time, especially on long flights like our three-hour cruise from Dallas to New York. Noncompany reading material has long been banished from the flight deck, as have personal electronics in the wake of the Northwest 188 debacle. I suppose one could read the flight operations manual — but did I mention that the object is to stay awake?

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I personally enjoy following our progress on a road atlas with VORs and airways overlaid. It satisfies a childhood obsession with maps that has lingered and evolved into adulthood geography geekdom. I like comparing how features appear on the page to how they look from the air, and then imagining the view from the ground. Occasionally we cross a place I’ve actually been to, and then I can make the comparison in reverse. It keeps my mind active, and I figure that if all the electronic magic somehow ever quits, it doesn’t hurt to know where we are.

A more typical, less nerdy way to pass the time is to talk to the guy or gal next to you. Career background, family life, hobbies, schedule bidding, airline rumors, crew gossip, layover tips and “war stories” of flights past all make for rich veins of cockpit conversation. After all, being airline pilots, there is the requisite amount of griping about management and the industry. By the end of a four-day trip, you get to know people very well. And then the next week you’re with a completely different crew, and the repartee begins anew.

We are a small airline, though, with 440 pilots across two Midwestern bases, so you’ll eventually fly with the same pilot multiple times. This is not common at major airlines, which have thousands of pilots in each base, or even at many of the larger regional airlines. This is at least the third trip that Rob and I have flown together, maybe the fourth. When we met at the gate in Minneapolis, we greeted each other like old friends, which I guess we are of a sort. Our first leg to Dallas was filled with catch-up banter. I asked Rob about his wife and kids and horse and the ancient Honda motorbike he’s been tinkering with for years; he asked me about my trip to Italy earlier this summer and whether I’d flown my Cub lately. I noted that Rob had bypassed a captain upgrade; he explained that as a 40-year-old with a growing family, commuting to a junior reserve position simply isn’t an option. Funny how such domestic concerns barely entered into our calculations earlier in our careers. Of course, Rob hadn’t planned on being furloughed from two airlines in six months’ time, either.

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By the time we began a VNAV descent into the bustling Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Rob and I were thoroughly caught up on each other’s lives. We pulled into the gate a few minutes before scheduled arrival time, enabling a quick run into the terminal to pick up a barbecue dinner before returning to the cockpit to prepare for our flight to LaGuardia. Passenger boarding went quickly, we closed up and pushed back a bit early, and a few minutes later lifted off into a cobalt-clear Texas sky. Leveling off at Flight Level 350, we pushed back our seats and launched into a discussion about the impending demise of Comair. Wholly owned by the same major airline with whom our regional airline contracts, Comair had once been considered among the very best regionals to work for but has since suffered a long decline in an industry in which costs trump all other considerations. Hundreds of experienced pilots, many with 20 years or more at the company, are suddenly without a job.

Both Rob and I know quite a few ex-Comair pilots now at our airline. Many were furloughed; others saw the writing on the wall and jumped ship early on. The majority of first officers I fly with have been furloughed from at least one airline; several, like Rob, have found themselves out of work two times or more. Our pilots hail from no fewer than 25 different regional, national and even major airlines; together we make up what I describe as an airline refugee camp. I myself was very lucky to come from my last airline by choice, in the early stages of my current employer’s existence. We also have pilots who were fortunate to come directly from flight instructing or a Part 135 job. The wide variety of backgrounds allows for more interesting conversation, and makes one realize that pilots are the same the world over. The rivalry thought to exist between pilots of competing lines is pure silliness.

ELECTRIC UNIVERSE

After the sober talk about Comair, Rob and I fell silent, lost in our thoughts. I got out the atlas, and our refreshingly cheerful flight attendants brought Rob his crew meal. Now the sun was well below the horizon even at altitude, the western sky faded to deep violet. The terrain was dark and featureless, save for countless pinpricks of light as far as the eye could see, an electric universe that outshined the early evening stars. We turned north over Gordonsville, and Washington, D.C., appeared on the left, identifiable by the encircling headlights of the Beltway, the streetlamps of its jauntily angled boulevards and the dark rectangular void of the National Mall. Washington blended into Baltimore, and from there we followed a nearly continuous ribbon of light along I-95 through Wilmington, Philadelphia and beyond. The Minnesota of my childhood was rural and the West of my youth was wild, and I had little comprehension of just how crowded the Northeast is until I started flying over it at night.

As if to underscore the point, there was a steady stream of air traffic above and below us, and a constant patter on the radio as we were handed off to a new controller every five or 10 minutes. The East Coast is a busy place to be a pilot, especially when you throw in a little weather, and that’s before you land at a place like LaGuardia or Philly or JFK. Unlike out west, direct routing is rare, and delays are common. I remember reading, as a kid, Dick Collins writing about the massive reroutes he got while flying his Centurion IFR around the Northeast. I can’t imagine doing it single-pilot in a light aircraft today, especially without an autopilot. It would have been easy once, back when I was a single-pilot “freight dog,” but I’ve since become comfortably ensconced by advanced technology, airline-friendly airspace and a competent first officer. Even with all these advantages, I dislike the added hassle of East Coast flying, and bid trips that go west when possible.

That night, though, the weather was perfect, and the ride silky smooth. There were no delays going into LaGuardia. The entire day had gone very nicely, actually. I had an unusually late 12:19 report time, allowing for a leisurely morning spent packing for four days on the road. The 30-minute drive to work was blissfully traffic-free. At the airport, I stopped in at the crew room to retrieve a Jeppesen revision (yes, we still do those — no iPads for us just yet) and was greeted by several good friends I hadn’t seen in a while. Our airplane for the day had no write-ups and only one minor deferral.

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Not every day goes so smoothly, of course. I've seen my share of snowstorms and thunderstorms and reroutes and diversions. I've spent many hours waiting out endless ground stops. I've had airplanes break in surprising and disheartening ways. I've slogged my way through 15-hour duty days, endured bone-numbing fatigue, and made hard decisions that pitted safety concerns against the interests of my employer, customers and co-workers. I've had mechanics pressure me to accept aircraft with deferrals of dubious legality. I've had to wade into angry squabbles between flight attendants and frequent fliers. For every exhausting, trouble-filled day, though, there are many that pass quite agreeably. Most days, this is a fairly easy job. On a beautiful night flight up the Atlantic seaboard, there's really nothing I'd rather be doing.

AN INDUSTRY IN FLUX

Like many professional pilots, it was an early love of flight that attracted me to this career. In my youth, I simply couldn't imagine doing anything but flying; everything else sounded like work. But as with most things held dear, constant exposure dulls the luster, and flying inevitably turned into a job — one I enjoy, but a job nevertheless, most of which involves paperwork and button-pushing and systems management, but not a great deal of what recreational pilots would recognize as flying. I scratch that itch with an outrageously fun shared-ownership J-3 Cub. Most airline pilots don't have that, and their former love of flight can get lost in the daily grind of work. Further disillusionment may come from frequent absence from the wife and kids and the pressure that puts on relationships, or the financial stress felt particularly by regional first officers.

Commuting is another major stressor. A huge portion of airline pilots, whether by choice or circumstances beyond their control, live somewhere other than their base. This is possible because of space-available travel benefits on the pilot’s own carrier, and a network of jumpseat agreements with other airlines. With load factors at an all-time high, it’s quite common to not get on a flight, so the commuter has to have multiple backups. Commuters are expected to show up for work on time, every time, regardless of high loads or weather or even maintenance cancellations. Commuting takes a lot of a pilot’s free time, and adds considerable stress to his life. This is doubly true of a multiple-leg commute or one that crosses numerous time zones.

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Most of the discontent I see, however, can be attributed to the current turmoil in our industry. The last 11 years have been the worst in history for both airlines and pilots. Major airline pilots at the so-called legacy carriers have borne the brunt of it, seeing their pay slashed, pensions gutted and work rules cast aside. Thousands were furloughed as their jobs were outsourced to lower-paying regional airlines. Regional airlines initially benefited from all the extra flying, but have since been plagued by instability.

Major airlines contract with regional airlines through capacity purchase agreements (CPAs), which multiple carriers bid on through an RFP process. In most cases the major airline owns the aircraft, provides ground servicing and purchases the fuel; the regional airline is essentially providing a certificate, flight crew and maintenance. Consequently, it is very easy for major airlines to shift their regional flying around as CPAs expire, typically to a lower bidder. This process has become increasingly vicious in recent years, with regionals forced to accept ever-lower margins. The pressure to keep costs low is tremendous, and efforts to improve pay and working conditions for regional pilots have mostly failed.

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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.”

REGIONAL REWARDS

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.