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Hate, Anger, Discord, Management, Pilots, Unions, Ground Crew, Professionalism and Love.
Okay I know that you are looking at that title above and wondering what the heck we could possibly be discussing this month? Well as you have seen in previous articles, I am not unabashed about handling controversial issues in this column and this month is no different. Let me tell you why I have even come up with this topic: Last month I spent eight days at the Cessna Citation Service Center in Wichita overseeing a Citation that was in my care. While there I very much enjoyed the courteous and respectful treatment that everyone at Cessna appear to provide to all clients that visit them there. I basically camped out in the business center where high-speed internet, telephones, work desks, a refreshment center, a home theatre and a flight planning room were neatly arranged together. In this environment I observed a constant stream of fractional share Citation X aircraft and crews passing through the facility. I know that there have been on-going labor disputes at a couple of the fractional share companies, between their pilots and management; some would even call it a battle. From my brief view at the sideline, listening to the pilot's side of it, I would personally call it a war! This one sided experience got me thinking and I had to ask myself ‘Why or what has to happen to make a pilot/mechanic/cabin-crew member, etc. into someone who appears to be entirely focused on limiting or even withdrawing their professional services to their employer in a way that they still get paid and not get fired?' I recall some very eye-opening conversations in the mid 1990's back in the galley of several Boeing and Airbus aircraft owned by America West. The cabin crews were both very nice and extremely open about their collective ‘hate' of their management. In fact I had never come across this type of emotional anger before in America, and especially in my chosen field of Aviation. Many years ago I did read the fascinating book ‘Grounded': Frank Lorenzo and the Destruction of Eastern Airlines written by Aaron Bernstein (ISBN1893122131) that discussed in detail the fall of Eastern Airlines. The individual stories of employee relations battles that were hinted upon in this book, makes your toes curl. A similar situation may well have taken place here in St. Louis between Carl Icahn, the Employees of the late Trans-World Airlines and the management of American Airlines, I really don't know, however from the viewpoint of a passenger, I can tell you that hatred and anger was rife amongst the cabin staff onboard my many flights in and out of St. Louis during the 1990's. So with all of these examples of poor employee relations I shall return to my question of ‘why…?' In every case that I have cited, a union was involved, so are the unions the cause? Before we tackle the union question, first it is prudent to discover how and why unions came into effect. The first known trades union organization came into existence in the sleepy agricultural town of Tolpuddle, Dorset, England in the 1830s. The six Tolpuddle Martyrs were all farm labourers that pretty much lived in poverty because of the extremely low wages that the landowners collectively were only willing to pay to their workers. The leader of the six, a Mr. George Loveless decided to set up a ‘Union' to give the local farm labourers some bargaining strength. The six became Martyrs because the Landowners led by Mr. James Frampton and backed by the then British Government, set out to squash the Union by framing the six on a trumped-up charge of administering an unlawful oath, using a law that was applicable to the Royal Navy, not workers rights. With the six out of the way by transporting them to Australia (a penal colony at that time), Frampton and the Government continued to control the increasing number of outbreaks of spreading dissent across the country. The trades' union movement gained phenomenal strength and power in the midst of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain under the rule of Queen Victoria in the mid to late 1800s.
One of the first trades' union organizations to conduct business on behalf of its employees within the field of Aviation, is the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA.) This union was formed in 1931 in Chicago. Aviation employee membership in the United States, like in other countries probably peaked in the late 1970's and today they are now most likely declining. Unfortunately I could not find any accurate figures to help in this article, but I assume that the trade union organizations that represent aviation workers in the United States probably boast a membership role in the mid one hundred thousands (lets call it 500,000 people), and I am ‘lumping' pilots, mechanics and manufacturing personnel all together. Then with a total of approximately Three Million aviation workers that I estimate to be currently employed in General Aviation today in the USA (Reference the FAA's 2004 Estimated Active Airman Certificates Held, Table 1, which is available at
http://faa.gov/data_statistics/aviation_data_statistics/civil_airmen_statistics/2004/ The numbers are 257,857 Commercial and ATP Pilots + 651,341 Non Pilot certificated Airmen = 909,198 Airmen, which I then multiplied by three to cover the non-FAA certified personal gives a total of 2,727,594 people), union membership therefore probably only accounts for about 15% of these workers. Therefore are unions the cause of the current unrest that is on-going in several iconic companies? Maybe; But then again probably not. My reasoning is thus: Is there anyone out there employed in the US aviation industry that are living in poverty? I say no, apart from maybe a handful of fledgling career pilots who are building time as a flight instructor. Therefore do you, like me, believe that there is probably Hate, Anger, Discord and Un-rest at non-union companies today? So if I am right about this, maybe we need to dig a little deeper and get into the dynamics and psychology of our industry to find a more accurate answer to my question of ‘Why…?'
The very nature of aircraft and aviation is that it is still considered to be somewhat glamorous and romantic while it is still extremely expensive. Because of these considerations, aviation attracts many different kinds of people to our industry. We have plenty of enthusiasts, you know the type, and maybe you are even one of them? These are the people that love aviation and all things aeronautical. They show up early, work all day and still hang out at the end of the day talking, living, breathing, and being totally ‘aviation.' They are usually not the best paid people, as in the minds of these enthusiasts; a lot of their reward is gained by action and association, not in dollars and cents. Next there is probably a somewhat sizeable contingent of ‘Time-Clock-Punchers' who may be found in manufacturing and other areas. Next again, we also have many second career people, I.e. the type of person that may have been a career military person or maybe someone who has found success in a business and they have sold out of it early. Not wanting to retire, some of these people are attracted to our business and find haven here. Some become pilots, others may become mechanics, administrators, sales people, or whatever. The bottom-line is that they are living out a second career path. Next we have the entrepreneur. These are the type of people that end up creating pockets of new employment for many of us in general aviation. It's a running joke that we all know well: "How do you make a small fortune in aviation? Well first you must start with a really big fortune!" This may sound comical but unfortunately it is proved as a true statement, over and over again. Still, there are people that enter our business as an entrepreneur and they leave wealthier than when they first entered. Lastly we have the crooks and criminal elements that enter our industry. Even though Aviation is a heavily regulated industry with oversight coming from many government branches, groups and organizations, it also unfortunately has many areas where the criminal mind can thrive. It never ceases to amaze me the number of times that I hear that someone died because they flew an aircraft that had counterfeit parts installed on it (mostly helicopters). Read some of the Airworthiness Directives that are issued for bad parts or overhauls! Additionally there are the times that we read about or hear that someone is selling aircraft or parts that never materialize after the deposit has been sent to them. How many beginning pilots have you personally known or suspected, that had some of the old ‘Parker P51 pen' time in their logbooks, so they can get a flying job, i.e. they wrote in fictitious time to qualify. I have seen mechanics logbook entries made in pencil, I have seen other entries that look great for content and form, but lack even a certificate number to go with the signature. The criminal element I have no time for, and I will always go out of my way to expose them and bring them to justice! Unfortunately when all of these varied and different groups of people are placed into the same industry, there will always be potential friction and strife. So how do we answer the question ‘Why…?' Does the problem lie with the ‘Fat-Cat' aircraft owning people and companies? Does the problem lie with the philosophy clash of ex military personnel against career civilians? How about jealousy of the pilots and their privileged jobs, by the land-locked workers? Or maybe it's an issue of spending too many boring hours in a rarefied atmosphere close to the sun. I really don't know. I do know this though, I have known many people that have tried to leave our industry, only to be lured back after they felt an emptiness in the pit of their stomach, because they missed being around aeroplanes and the people that make them soar! So what is the elusive answer to ‘Why…?' Maybe you can answer that better than me by participating below, and adding your own comments or insights. I do know that I was pretty shocked by what I overheard while sitting in Wichita and in retrospect I came away with an even deeper question, which is, as coined by Mr. Rodney King in 1991
"Can we get along here? Can we all get along?"
So what experiences have you had regarding poor or tempestuous employee relations in the aviation industry?
Have you been ‘hard-done' by a member of management, or maybe an employee?
Any input that you care to make will be of great interest to all of the readers here at Globalair.com. So please don't be bashful and go ahead and write your comments and suggestions here. Please don't forget that whatever your write here, can be seen publicly by everyone that visits this page, so "be nice."