Paul*, 55, has been a pilot for one of the country’s largest airlines for 30 years, working his way up to captain on international and domestic flights. This summer a pilot shortage — partly stemming from accelerated retirements during the COVID pandemic and the cost and difficulty of training new pilots — has led to nightmarish delays and flight cancellations for thousands of passengers. United Airlines is cutting 50 flights a day from Newark Airport starting next month. American Airlines will be cancelling flights to Ithaca and Islip, NY, as well as Toledo, Ohio, in September. Southwest Airlines is facing pilot protests over low-pay and bad scheduling. (The Airline Pilots Association says there is no pilot shortage and the airlines are cutting and canceling flights as cost-saving measures and lying about it.) Paul spoke to The Post’s DANA KENNEDY about the hellish conditions he and other pilots are now enduring.
It’s midnight, and I’ve just finished a transcontinental flight to New York. I’m due back in the air at 3pm tomorrow afternoon, part of a recent increase in my hours. I used to get 15 days off a month minimum for most of my career. Now I get only 10 days off and it’s taking a toll. For the month of June, I was scheduled to have only six days off.
I’m tired. Flying is definitely not as fun as it used to be. Being a pilot was once the best part-time jobs in the world because you only worked 15 days a month. No more.
The pressure is real. There’s pressure to fly when you’re tired. I have to check a box that says I’m fit to fly at the start of every flight. Thirty minutes later that could change. But when I check that box everything that’s legal comes on my shoulders. The company becomes exempt from how I perform from that point on.
There are a lot of issues the public isn’t aware of that have come into play in recent years and you’re seeing some of the results right now. There are some serious problems that could affect safety.
First off, there’s a lot less (initial) training and less frequency in the training of active pilots. We used to get training every six months, then it got pushed to every nine months and now it’s only once a year. And when they do training they compress stuff just to check off the legal boxes.
There are instances when they fudge the schedules on flight plans to allow pilots to fly trips they otherwise wouldn’t be legally allowed to fly. Typically this happens at the end of the day when the crews are the most tired.
As long as nothing goes wrong, nobody will find out. But that’s why I keep a copy of every flight plan of mine because if there is an incident it would be scrutinized and they’d see there were actually two flight plans that were made on some trips. They call it a “revision” but in some cases it’s to get around flight time and duty time requirements.
So a lot of times we have to push it even just to fly home. The pressure can also make you angry or anxious. And humans make mistakes under this kind of pressure — whether that ultimately results in lives being lost, or damage being done to an aircraft.
Some of the people who were furloughed at the start of the pandemic had to be re-trained or, if they were gone too long, they either couldn’t come back or didn’t want to come back. A lot of the senior people didn’t leave because they were getting $500,000 in PPE to sit at home.
A lot of the new [airline] management people have MBAs but they don’t know the airlines that well and a lot of them are “woke,” which doesn’t help anything. Neither did the mask or vaccine mandates. The majority of people in my company didn’t want to get vaccinated.
We didn’t have to wear masks in the cockpit. I wouldn’t have been able to do my job with a mask on. I told my flight attendants not to escalate with the mask situation in the cabin. Some of the [attendants] can get like little Nazis and go after someone with their mask below their nose. I said, don’t. They became proxy enforcers for the government, [but] with no training to de-escalate. I told them, call ahead and we can get law enforcement to deal with them [on the ground]. Don’t escalate it on the plane.
Flying when I started out in the ’90s used to be pretty nice. Then it became a race to the bottom. The airlines began just trying to sell fares and get customers however they could so everyone started buying tickets off Expedia. It was all about getting customers. The margin got so thin I started calling it the “Walmart model.” It took a lot of the fun and comfort out of flying for everyone. A lot of prestige was lost, too.
Then came September 11th. I watched the South Tower drop down from the tarmac at LaGuardia. I thought there was going to be martial law. It was a dark day for the airlines. I knew some of the people who were lost. And after that the machine took over — the whole military industrial complex — and it affected everything. Nothing was ever really the same. In the early days after 9/11, I made sure my crash ax was right where I could grab it in the cockpit and not strapped to the wall in case anyone rushed the cockpit.
They went a little slow on hiring new pilots after 9/11, they were trying to see what was going to happen. There weren’t a lot of customers. Even during the Obama Administration there was some wait and see. But when Trump got in office everything was looking really good for everyone. It was like the sky was the limit and there’s no looking back — and then COVID hit and the furloughs came with it. Now we’ve got Biden who’s never had a real job in his life. He’s never had to solve real problems at a real job. All he and everyone else in Washington do is make problems to keep themselves in business.
Back in the day, we could get friends and family free or discounted tickets but now I tell my relatives, you’re better off going online and paying because you’ll get better seats than I can get you. The only advantage I have flying as a passenger now is that I can take one of the jump seats. I prefer that to being packed in with the passengers.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m blessed to be here. I’m at the top of my game. I’m at the pinnacle. I’ve done the hard work and I’m up here at 37,000 feet living the dream I had as a kid. When I started in 1992 I was paid $14.25 an hour. Now my base pay is $240,000 not including overtime.
I know people are worried about flying this summer but I’d never tell anyone not to fly. Flying is still safer than driving. And there’s still plenty of pilots like me with a lot of experience who know what they’re doing. Pilots operate with a sense of mission. They want to get those passengers to their destination.
I’m a pressure player. I’m normally pretty relaxed but when the s–t hits the fan, I kick into gear and get to work. I perform best under pressure. A lot of pilots my age do.
*Paul’s name has been changed to protect his identity.