Being Ready For a Furlough

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You have taken care of your health, kept yourself current in instrument flying, done everything possible to make yourself an excellent pilot and good crew member. Is there anything you have forgotten?

Perhaps. If you have not remembered that no one is guaranteed anything on the planet Earth; that Fortune is fickle; that companies, like nations, are sometimes subject to decline; - if you have not borne in mind that security is five parts illusion for every one part reality, then you may have neglected one of your cardinal duties to yourself and your family: Plan B.

There was a time when pilots frowned on a Plan B for their career planning. Sure, a Plan B is necessary for flying, but life is a different kind of thing, it's - it's - well, it's not the same as taking off in a jet for a faraway city knowing that you might possibly have to put the machine down somewhere else, is it? Mmmmmm.

Well, maybe it is.

Let's posit a scene: You have just finished probation with a major airline. These are the great days, the halcyon days. A pilot flying for a major: This is Cloud 9, the goal you have cherished.

And now along comes the first waggle of the Fickle Finger of Fate. Senior management, the group that has guided this airline into the ranks of the majors so quickly, has been watching the bottom line write itself in red as the economy struggles, reservations fall off, planes take off more than half-empty. The ugly word "stagflation" is on the lips of TV newscasters again, and the word "furlough" is rife at Pan Global Airways.

Low in seniority, you watch as fellow pilots with even less seniority are given their furlough notices. Through subsequent weeks, as the furloughs continue, you throw mental darts at the calendar for the day when your own number will come up, and you wait numbly, hoping the furloughs will end before then.

And one more thing: You wish you had a Plan B.

Whether you have or have not considered the possibility of a furlough and prepared for it, being furloughed creates stress, can cause severe financial hardship, and may generate a loss of self-esteem and sustaining routine in your life.

In 1981, The Company Doctor, management consultants, compiled a study from a questionnaire answered by 155 first-time furloughed Continental Air Line (CAL) pilots. The study found that the pilots had difficulties finding other flying jobs and even non-flying ones, had trouble meeting their financial responsibilities, and began questioning.

The Flying Career Needs a Backup

Until 1978, the major airline pilot with ten years of seniority could begin to believe that he was home tree: Economic fears, even for his old age, need not trouble him.

But the world of the career pilot has changed. As an airline pilot, you should be considering what you will do if the bottom suddenly drops out of your career. You should have alternatives in mind. This reality has led many pilots to develop sidelines to their aviation careers.

The turmoil at United, Northwest and Eastern at the end of the 1980s perhaps best exemplifies the new instability. NWA, Inc., the parent company of Northwest Airlines, was purchased by financier Alfred A. Checchi for $3.6 billion. United went through a series of buyout attempts in 1989, the most nearly successful one being a labor-management bid that fell short of the financing needed. Eastern Airlines was struck by its unions; then it filed for Chapter 11 reorganization.

The unpredictability of the post-deregulation airline industry can be daunting if looked at in isolation. When looked at in the context of the national economy and that of the world, it takes on an aspect that can be summarized in an epigram: If a Japanese kacho can deal with instability, surely a Yankee pilot can.

The kacho, until recently, lived in an even more secure-seeming world than did the pilot. The kacho was industrial gentry in the land of lifetime employment. He was rewarded with his title not for effective performance, but for longevity on the job. He was assured that his company would take care of him. So certain was it that a well-behaved employee would make kacho that many workers were promoted to positions that had no duties and became what the Japanese call madogiwa zoku, or "window-side sitters," so-named because they had nothing to do but gaze out the window.

Goaded by international competition, by a glut of tenured workers between the ages of 35 and 50, and by a shortage of young blood, Japanese business has had to change the way it functions. In companies that have switched to the new regimen, middle-management salaries are based on performance, not tenure. Gone, is the kacho who can be a window-side sitter. In some firms, gone is the kacho: Companies like Toyota and Nissan have eliminated whole layers of middle management, reassigning many workers to lower-level jobs.

In the United States, the airline industry, in becoming unpredictable, has simply followed on the heels of newspaper publishing, high technology, many kinds of manufacturing, the motion picture industry, mining and oil exploration, farming and the food business (from processing to retail distribution), and other industries. It has been followed in this regard by telecommunications, banking, trucking, maritime shipping and the railroad industry. The turbulence imparted by intense competition has been increased by corporate raids, leveraged buyouts and Wall Street manipulations.

In the world of private enterprise, there are no sinecures. The modern emphasis on speed of reaction to changes in the competitive climate assures that only the fit can survive.

The point: As a professional pilot, you are in the same world with which the rest of humanity (except perhaps a few million government workers) has to deal. The message this world has for you is that no matter how smoothly things are going or how secure the future may appear, you may find yourself in need of a cat's ability to land on its feet when dropped.

The airline pilot has always had an excellent reason, the medical checkup, to the thinking beyond his or her flying days. Without a Class I medical certificate, the airline pilot is grounded, suffering permanent loss of license-a potentially disastrous scenario. Now there is a second, equally compelling reason to secure a future independent of actions taken by the company.

One of the best ways to assure that you can land on your feet after a fall is by developing a sideline to your aviation career. With liberal time off from your major or national airline flying job, you have every opportunity to develop one.
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