The Ninth Circle of Hell

Posted by in Aviation

Every time someone asks me why, with all my flight time and qualifications, I haven’t gone on to an airline job, I just think about stories like this one. Keep in mind, Sam left behind a city he loved, picked up his whole life and moved across the country for this job. All I can say is, I would not have handled the day’s events as diplomatically as he did.

I’ve always said that life is too short to do something you hate all day long. No offense to those of you working in the trenches at a regional or major, because I have the utmost respect for the hard life you folks are leading, but a Part 121 flying job is just about the perfect definition of “something I’d hate”. I swear, if Dante Alighieri was alive today, the Inferno would be set at a domestic airline.

To add insult to injury, the everyday risks to one’s career at a Part 121 airline are not insignificant. Medical certification. FAA enforcement action. Bankruptcy and mergers are but two of the ways one’s seniority (and paycheck) can go from 60 to zero in a heartbeat through no fault of your own. Ugh. The airlines even have their own version of purgatory. It’s called “furlough” and can last what feels like an eternity.

Most of the former instructors I’ve met over the years look back on their teaching days as something they simply had to endure in order to get a “real” job in the aviation world. I am tempted to give them the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to the repetition of working with one primary student after another. But the truth is, many of those folks were simply not any good as instructors. They got out of it what they put into it: not much. I feel bad for them, because they’re always looking toward the “next thing” to make them happy. When they’re at an airline, they’ll look toward that upgrade, or the next aircraft, never satisfied with where they are.

I don’t mean to suggest that Sam falls into this category. He seems to be taking the bumps and bruises with a lot more grace than I could ever hope to have in that position. But I have a hard time getting past the fact that, without exception, every single retired airline pilot I’ve ever met has given me the same piece of advice: stay away from the airlines. In what other field would one get such an overwhelming vote of no-confidence from the industry’s most successful veterans?

Come to think of it, I’m not sure why CFIs are so looked down upon. I probably made twice as much money as Sam did in 2007, and worked fewer hours flying more interesting aircraft to boot. The highest performance aerobatic airplanes in the world. Historical, fully restored open cockpit biplanes. The latest in composite glass-panel aircraft. Warbirds. Experimentals. Turbines. Formation flying. The list of aviation jobs out there is pretty long, and I’ve had the good fortune of working many of them. And I choose when and where I work, as well as who I fly with.

The allure of the airlines is a mystery to me. It’s like the ninth circle of hell, except in this version everybody is clamoring to get there.