Pilot Shares Insider's View of Airline Industry

Remember this summer's tawdry incident in which a Southwest pilot obscenely berated flight attendants over his open microphone? He had quite an audience, too -- air traffic controllers and fellow pilots -- as he railed away on the "gays and grannies" in the cabin.

Ever wondered if other pilots share that view? Me too, so I asked one.

Our pilot, who will remain anonymous so he can speak more freely, is a first officer with a legacy carrier (you'll have to guess whether he flies for American, Delta, United/Continental or U.S. Airways). He is also a former military aviator (jets and helicopters) and is still with the reserves.

So, what did he think about the ranting Southwest pilot? His response is terse and to the point: "Such a moron!" Our anonymous pilot then added, "I mean, really, the guy's a total moron." Okay, so tell us: what is the working relationship between pilots and flight attendants really like?

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"Sorry to disappoint you," says our anonymous source, who will henceforth be known as Pilot J. Doe, "but we all get along." And no, this happily married father of two does not view airplane crews as any kind of Match.com of the air. "It's like co-workers in any office; sometimes there are minor squabbles but mostly we're just fine."

In other words, Peyton Place it is not (which reminds me of last week's column and the flight attendant who said whenever a colleague asked if anyone was "getting any", the only thing they meant was sleep). Another observation from pilot Doe on his cabin mates: "When I fly as a passenger, I like seeing the male flight attendants. Most of those guys treat you like a king."

If only the airlines did the same, but our source said most carriers haven't treated pilots as royalty in years. So why did Pilot Doe leave the military to join the private sector? "I was going for those big, fat airline salaries," he laughed. Then along came 9/11, which accelerated the road to bankruptcy for a number of carriers, which in turn led to layoffs and pay cuts.

Okay, pilot salaries are far from pitiful, but some cuts have been incredibly deep. I know pilots who say their paychecks have shrunk a whopping 40 percent in the past few years (and one who made that claim was Hero-of-the-Hudson Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger). As for our anonymous pilot, his first officer salary is about $90,000 a year, but guess what? "If you break it down, I actually make more per hour for my Army Reserve work."

And the ongoing threat of layoffs creates a constant undercurrent of worry. Pilot Doe says some of his colleagues count the number of pilots below them (those with less seniority) to figure out if they'll be spared or let go in the next round of budget cuts.

"A good analogy would be the draft lottery during Vietnam," he said, "with guys trying to figure out if their number made them 'safe' or not."

Seniority is a hot topic with pilots since it's the only way to reach the top of the heap: the rank of captain. There was a collective groan among first officers back in Dec. 2007 when the mandatory retirement age for pilots was raised from 60 to 65, because that meant a longer wait for advancement, but our pilot understands why some of the older men and women keep flying: "A lot of pilots still have kids in school, plus they've seen pensions erode due to bankruptcy." It seems fair to speculate that such matters were of little concern to pilots of an earlier generation, the ones who did make those "big, fat salaries".

A note about seniority: Wouldn't a merit system make more sense? Our pilot states unequivocally that all the pilots he knows have top-notch skills and are extremely safety conscious. Besides, he adds, "Planes of today fly themselves." Well, what about take-offs and landings? "Okay, you do need a pilot for takeoff," he admitted. He also agreed that pilots put their skills to use nearly every day to avoid turbulence and find short-cuts around stormy weather systems; plus, once in a great while, there's that bird strike that'll take out both engines and you find yourself landing in the Hudson River. "That was heroic on his part," said our pilot about Sully's so-called miracle flight, "the decision to ditch his plane."

And what about "ditching" passengers? It happens; planes are diverted and/or passengers get kicked off flights. We saw that recently after the dispute aboard the Southwest plane involving the "L-Word" actress. So how does our pilot handle such matters? He doesn't.

Me: "So you let the flight attendants do the dirty work?" Pilot: "Better them than me! And thank God for that locked cockpit door!"

Given our anonymous pilot's military background, you might expect he'd be one of the post-9/11 pilots who pack a gun, which is perfectly legal for those in the Flight Deck Officers program. But you'd be wrong. He doesn't particularly want to have a gun in his house ("I have young children") and he is well aware of problems in the past, like the time the gun-carrying US Airways pilot accidentally blew a hole through his plane ("What an idiot," says our pilot).

But that's not the main reason he chooses not to carry a gun; he says when it comes to protecting his space from terrorists or other bad guys, he simply doesn't need one: "I pity anyone who tries to get into my cockpit." Other pilots he knows feel the same as he does: "Anyone who tries to take over my cockpit is in a fight to the death," he said quietly, then added, "I am not bragging, believe me. I am merely stating a fact."