The Chain of Experience

Nobody said it better than Andy Grove. He was the tough and brilliant manager who founded Intel in 1968 with Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce. He was writing about income distribution and sending jobs overseas to fatten the bottom line, but his words are just as much to the point in aviation:

Not only did we lose an untold number of jobs, we broke the chain of experience that is so important in technological evolution.

Dear Reader: ours is an apprenticeship trade. Technology evolves, and so must we – but from something to something. That is the point Andy Grove makes. Understanding comes from seeing movement and change. Each new development is linked to the past. We must be able to have conversations between generations.

I was lucky. When I joined the airline in 1973 as a First Officer on the DC-9, apprenticeship was still very much a reality. True, some captains deselected themselves from teaching (Not my job) and it was probably just as well they did. But many – perhaps the majority that I flew with – were just a few years out of a fighter pilot seat. They had a lot to offer and they passed it forward to me, each in his own way. Even though the DC-9 was not exactly the CF-86, the CF-101, or the CF-104, the chain of experience was real. The generations were linked. I saw where our skills came from, and my teachers saw where those skills were going.

Then Deregulation happened.

Robert Crandall, then an executive at American Airlines, spoke against Deregulation at a Senate Hearing. What he said there has been filed far away, but what he said after Deregulation became law remains:

If anyone makes any money in this business ever again, it will be a f###ing miracle.

Then he became President of American Airlines. Standing at his desk, he thought up hub and spoke, airline miles rewards, and pricing for load management. He set the standard. Other airlines, for the most part, just copied what he did. He had re-invented the airline business model.

Hub and spoke begat feeder airlines, which in turn begat turboprops and split seniority lists. DC-9’s no longer prowled the Maritimes. Overseas routes proliferated, attracting senior pilots with larger airplanes and larger paychecks. If there was a junior pilot on those airplanes, he was a dozer. The pilots getting the real flying were at the feeders. The chain of experience was broken.

Two decades after Deregulation, re-invention in the airline business had become entirely financial. Airplanes and pilots alike were costs to be managed. Unions, still proud, didn’t notice they had been castrated.

Officially, nothing was different. Airlines were merging. A few were even making money. But symptoms were appearing.

A feeder airline crashed a turboprop in Buffalo, killing all on board. A month or so later the New York Times Magazine published a profile of the pilots. It was heart-rending. The First Officer lived at home with her parents and had two jobs. In the year before her death, her earnings at the airline were $15,800.

The article stirred the pot. Some people paid attention, for a time. Then the article quietly disappeared. I can no longer find a reference to it.

What is to be done?

That question is not easily answered. The world has changed. The world is changing. We are all on a moving platform, trying to keep our footing.

You, Dear Reader. Most likely you have passed all your exams and wear all your ratings proudly on your licenses. Some of you wear wings and epaulettes, perhaps already at the airline of your choice.

Meanwhile, I am at the other end of my career and beyond. Fifty years ago, in my first job in aviation, I taught ground school. In my most recent position, I taught ground school.

I have learned that I love teaching a small class – seeing your smiles and tasting your wit. Watching your questing intelligence emerge, unashamed and bold. Hearing your voices. Touching each other with ideas.

What is to be done?

I have to accept that for many reasons I will probably never meet you in person. That is my loss.

I have also accepted that for now I am not going to teach the class I want to teach: a seminar with you, pilots who have gone through all the hoops, passed all the exams. You who are at the beginning of your pilot careers.

We live in the now. We greet each new day and do what we can. And at my age I can’t afford to wait for opportunity. Instead, I have written a book.