in 1963 I was twenty years old and living with my mother in Louisville, Kentucky,
and had just flunked out of college. Seems that after six years in an all male
military academy in Columbia, Tennessee, I couldn't concentrate on anything
but the women. I was working as a mechanic and attendant at a Sunoco service
station in the east end of town and spent most of my free time hanging around
Lee Terminal at Standiford Field.
This was in the days before airport security as we now know
it. You could walk down the concourses completely free of any sort of search.
Occasionally Eastern, TWA, American or Delta would have diversions due to weather
and we would get traffic from Cincinnati, Indianapolis or even Dayton. In those
days one could approach a gate agent and get a free walkaround of the whole
airplane. My interest in an airline career was high, I had asthma that had yielded
a low priority draft classification but it also kept me from a Class 1 medical
so a flying career wasn't possible, no one hired male cabin attendants back
then, but I wanted a hands on job with the airframes and engines.
Ads in Flying Magazine for the A&P mechanic schools at Northrop
in Los Angeles and Spartan in Tulsa caught my attention. One day I approached
a very husky white haired mechanic at Eastern. I told him of my desire to go
to A&P school and an eventual airline career. "Kid, take my advice", he said,
"turn around and walk out of this terminal and forget about the airlines. You'll
never have weekends off, you'll work nights and holidays, you and your family
will be socially isolated". Well, I never fit in socially so that would be nothing
Anyway, many of you I know want to be a part of the airline
industry because it is exciting, challenging and interesting. There are some
factors that discourage that interest.
Labor pools...Consider first of all that the airlines hire
for the major cities where they have large numbers of layover aircraft. It is
far easier to hire someone locally than to fly someone in from Clarksville,
Tennessee, or Boise, Idaho for a job interview. Of course the same applies to
show business, if you are in New York or Los Angeles your chances are much better
regardless of talent.
Vermin...Now that they have hired from the local labor pool
consider this...most employees are not going to give a damn about the airplanes
or the cabin service or speedy luggage delivery. It's just a job to them. If
you care about these things you will be an outcast or a freak and not understood.
You will find too that of those around you about 10% are going to be really
sharp in their skills and try hard, 80% are going to do just enough to get along,
and 10% are going to ruin everything for all the rest. I have found this to
be true in maintenence, ramp, ticket counter, cabin service and the cockpit.
Unions... a necessary evil. Without unions life in the airline
industry would be miserable, but without them wage increases, benefits, even
protection from discharge for minor mistakes or even personal rivalries would
be in question. I have seen both side of the same union, at one airline the
union attitude was that employees should cause delays, throw away special tools,
do whatever can be done to cause delays. When there is no contract they slow
down and do a rule book strike but when the contract is settled and big back
pay checks are issued the attitude continues. One shop steward told me "Now
we have to teach them a lesson" referring to the company's two year negotiations.
If you are working maintenance and start to straighten up ladders and jacks
and pick up oil cans on your own you will be asked "Who told you to do that?
Get back into the break room right now!". The same union at another carrier,
the shop steward would approach employees and say "Get to work right now or
we're going to the foreman".
Job security... every ripple in the economy can cause you to
lose your job. For me it was the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973, then deregulation
in 1982. My carrier cut back 50% of their flights at my station when Capitol
and Southwest entered their markets. I returned from a five year layoff in 1987
and demanded and received my 20 year service pin. It is a sad fact of the capitalist
world, the sole purpose of a company is not to provide a service or product,
not to provide jobs, but to make money for the shareholders or owners. Don't
get me wrong, I am very much a capitalist.
Advancement versus seniority loss... Latest trend
in union companies is to remove supervisors and instructors from seniority lists.
In 1973 I thought I had it made as a line maintenance foreman for a major carrier
at SFO, but, with the Arab Oil Embargo I went out the door. My seniority day
for the mechanic classification went from 12-05-66 to 05-03-70. People who made
probation with me as their supervisor now had passed me. I could have gone to
New York to save my job, but imagine trying to drive across the country in the
days of gas lines and gas limits, besides, I'd rather be unemployed in California
than a millionaire in New York or anywhere else that there is snow. I was doomed
forever to graveyard shift and not being able to bid on lead or inspection jobs.
Before I went into management I had NEVER worked a graveyard shift. Had I known
this years ago I would have never gone into management. My advice, don't take
the chance, stay in the union jobs.
Free Transportation... In the 1960s this was great. I could
go to Hawaii every weekend and be sure of getting a seat in first class and
a Hilton Hawaiian Village Rainbow Tower room at 75% discount, or London or Cairo
or wherever I decided to go. But today it is a different story. One is better
off buying a fly-drive 7 nights package through a travel agent because while
you may get a seat you probably cannot get a room or a car at a discount and
will end up paying more.
Benefits... free transportation and health care have been the
big ones. Today health care is out of control. I pay my own HMO dues and those
monthly dues in 2001 were $ 200, in 2002 $ 255 and now for 2004 $ 500. Even
when buying in bulk as the airlines do these increasing costs are ten times
what wage increases amount to. The carriers simply cannot afford it. To pay
it and avoid strikes is to guarantee bankruptcy and eventual shut down. To refuse
to pay it will result in strikes that will cripple the company for months.
Security... in the good old days we would park our cars in
a free company parking lot and immediately walk into the hangar or take a crew
bus to the terminal. Now employees are treated like passengers, they have to
go through security like everyone else. This can take away an hour from the
time you need to leave home for work.
So the big question is, would I do it again? Probably. I did
get what I was after, an intimate knowledge of the inner workings or many large
transport aircraft from the DC3 and Constellation through the L1011 and 747,
I ws taxi qualified on most. The nights I would be the taxi mechanic for an
engine runup it was better than being a kid at Disneyland with all the ride
tickets. There is nothing quite like the thrill of the tower saying "Taxi via
one right and expedite your taxi, that's our active runway". To me that meant
takeoff position flaps and throttles and then hard reverse and braking. Yes,
I got called into the office quite a few times over that but it was well worth
it. Somehow a solo takeoff in a Piper Seneca was never the same after that.
That white haired Eastern mechanic told me I should get a college
degree and get a job where I made enough money to fly on the airlines as much
as I wanted. But... I would have NEVER gotten to intimately know the internal
workings of the airplanes, such as the stacking of cables on the beehive in
an MD80 to extend the slats, the fuel schedualing of the JT9D when transitioning
from forward thrust to reverse, or why the left inboard aileron on the L1011
was the master aileron. It makes me chuckle to see so many books in the stores
where parts of the airplane are named with arrows pointing to them and to see
that more than 9 times out of 10 they get it wrong when naming HF and VHF antennae,
just to name one of the many errors. This sort of knowledge means a lot to me,
just like those who memorize World Series scores. We who love airliners are
indeed a strange breed. I thank God that I was able to be a part of it.