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TBT: When is a flying career just a job?

written by australianaviation.com.au | September 13, 2018

This week’s Throwback Thursday article is the Flight Levels column from the January/February 2013 edition of Australian Aviation magazine, which discusses how a pilot’s job description has changed over the years.

A supplied image of the new Pro Line Fusion avionics to be installed on the King Air 350 cockpit. (Beechcraft)

The game has changed: A Pilot’s View

At my age it’s easy to sit back and reflect on the way things were with whimsical adoration and a failing memory.

But, as I look at the lot of an airline pilot in the 21st century it is a vastly different undertaking to when I started with stars in my eyes and a Chipmunk beneath my seat-pants. And I do not necessarily envy those plying the airways today.

Back then, as now, flying training was not cheap. An aspiring pilot scraped together their money for each valued lesson and slowly but surely worked towards a distant goal- a career in the airlines. Perhaps it was that sacrifice combined with a shared love of aviation that evolved into a sense of brotherhood among pilots. Like endeavouring to define airmanship, it was unspoken and intangible, but no less real. Flying was more than a profession or a career, it was a way of life, but somewhere along the line things began to change.

Perhaps the first, most significant fracture occurred in 1989 when the harsh reality of the business of airline travel in Australia was rammed home. The Prime Minister defined airline pilots as “overpaid bus drivers” and the public’s perception followed suit and slipped a notch or two on the scale of respect. For the pilots involved it created division where shared passion could not compete with the financial reality of mortgages and school fees. It seemed that flying may no longer be a job for life and for the first time Australian pilots sought work overseas in significant numbers.

Not merely the players, but the stage had also greatly changed. Regional airlines that once proudly bore the names of their pioneering founders disappeared from the landscape. Connellan, O’Connor, Kendell, Hazelton and others have all merged or faded into history, replaced by subsidiaries of the big players. Even the once mighty Ansett fell by the wayside. The Two-Airline Policy was gone on the home front and the once proud flag carrier Qantas began to lose its monopoly and influence abroad. The skies were now open, but it’s dubious if they were any better.

The global trend was followed here at home and low-cost carriers emerged, introducing a whole new audience to air travel. Unfortunately, there is really no such thing as low-cost airline operations, just ask Compass Marks I and II. New aeroplanes, fuel and airways charges can’t be acquired at low-cost. Some savings can be found in manpower, facilities and the service on offer, but the big ticket items don’t come any cheaper no matter what you call your airline. Effectively, these airlines were leaner and sought increased efficiencies wherever they could be found. In reality, this is the modern mantra for ALL airlines, not just those that are marketed as low-cost.

Meanwhile, those pilots who had signed up for a career were confronted with a whole new ball game. The goal posts had been moved after kick-off and despite their disappointment and protestations, it was the stark reality of the modern airline world. Consequently, with every passing year the sense of company loyalty and career was eroded and increasing numbers drifted offshore to foreign carriers, taking their experience and expertise with them.

For those left behind, there was a shift in attitude. While their professional integrity remained intact, the once strong sense of pride in being an Australian airline pilot was replaced with a more pragmatic outlook. It had become a job far more than a career and each week once loyal company captains now scanned the classifieds and online agencies for an escape clause.

For the pilots who first entered the flightdeck decades ago, they have been caught betwixt and between like changing over to decimal currency or the metric system. Those entering the industry today are walking into a different arena, but at least the facts are on the table from the outset. They are aware their wages and conditions are not of the former level enjoyed by pilots and that they may well be asked to borrow money to pay for their training and endorsement on an airline category aeroplane. Undoubtedly this will not sway many of those with a true desire to fly, but what of the others?

In a post-GFC world will they be willing to endure the high levels of debt for training with only a pot of copper at the end of the rainbow? A pot that is audited every few months in the simulator, or possibly stripped away in the latter years when health issues snatch away the right to fly? In the face of such challenges, will many young candidates turn their back on aviation for the safe haven of a traditional profession and the opportunity to sleep in their own bed every night? Will the ability to pay override the ability to fly?

Qantas plans to establish the Qantas Group Pilot Academy, expected to open its doors during 2019. (Qantas)
Qantas plans to establish the Qantas Group Pilot Academy, expected to open its doors during 2019. (Qantas)

Ultimately, the numbers may dwindle as the industry grows. A pilot shortage has threatened to be upon us every few years, without ever really arriving. The demand has always been circumvented by virtue of the unforeseen – collapsing global markets, acts of terror, and forces of nature. Only when pilots are genuinely needed in numbers will they once again have any significant influence over the course of their career. The cold facts are they are a relatively small player in a global industry. A critical player, no doubt, but without the weight of numbers. It’s an issue further compounded by the long queue of star-struck aviators willing to climb on board for the chance to fly. Such is the nature of aviation. The pilot’s own love of flying can sometimes be the greatest hurdle to overcome in the pursuit of a career.

There are so many questions confronting the next generation of pilots. I am thankful that those years are behind me now and I do not envy their road ahead. Slip times in ports will grow ever shorter as the sector lengths across the world grow ever longer. Many cities will become little more than a length of striped asphalt and a hotel room. Like the airlines for which they fly, the aeroplanes themselves will become increasingly sterile models of efficiency and regulation, and commerce will strangle the last remnants of flying as an art.

Like me, the Chipmunk is now looked upon as an antique, a reminder of how things used to be in a simpler time. The industry which we both served is so different and time has replaced us with a more efficient way of doing business. Even so, it would have been nice to have retained some of those qualities that made airline travel as much an experience as a form of transport and piloting a way of life as much as it is a job. Only time will tell what lies ahead, but for me the game has forever changed.

This article first appeared in the January/February 2013 edition of Australian Aviation magazine.

To read more Flight Levels, or other columns such as Asia Watch, Cabin Pressure and On Target, subscribe here. Digital editions of the magazine can be purchased on Zinio and Issuu, or in the Apple app store.

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