Okay, I admit it. I was excited to marry a pilot. I know it shouldn’t matter, but, isn’t it true that marrying a pilot is equivalent to marrying your prince in most little girl’s (and big girl’s) fantasies? There’s something about a man in uniform commanding a mega-ton aircraft with hundreds of lives in his hands every day that commands our respect and makes us dream about happily-ever-afterwards. And the travel benefits don’t hurt either.
Before we walked down the aisle, Danny felt it necessary to give me “the talk.” I think he wanted to be sure I knew that being married to a pilot wasn’t likely to be the fun-filled fantasy he expected I was imagining. He warned of higher divorce rates for pilots (mostly anecdotal), job instability, low starting salaries and long periods of time apart among other stressors. It would be a long time before his career choice might pay off and there were no guarantees that it would. No longer the secure, glamorous and lucrative career it once was in the ’70’s and ’80’s, becoming a pilot now is a career gamble and sometimes marital suicide, he cautioned. Who did he think I was? Alice Green? I could take it. After all, our entire relationship had been long-distance up to this point anyway.
That was 10 years, 5 moves, 3 states, 3 airlines, 2 furloughs, 1 bankruptcy and -1 ugly malignancy ago. Neither one of us could have imagined how seriously more stressful being employed (I use that term loosely) in the airline industry would become since our talk, pre-9/11. Furloughs, bankruptcies and base closures uprooting your family are now just part of the regularly-expected career hurdles.
In April of 2008, less than a year after Danny was hired and a few months after his cancer diagnosis, Frontier Airlines declared bankruptcy, following the flight path of many other airlines in these tough economic times. A few months ago, Republic Airways announced it was putting in a bid to buy Frontier, shutting up all those who previously thought this a preposterous rumor. And then, they were trumped. On Friday, Southwest Airlines announced their plans to outbid Republic for the bankrupt, yet still “profitable” and much-loved hometown Denver-based airline.
Republic has already gone back on its’ word not to merge the pilot seniority lists, a move that would make many Frontier pilots junior to their new and primarily less-experienced counterparts and decrease their salaries. There are lessons to be learned from the America West/US Airways merger debacle of 2005, still being fought by the pilot unions today.
Should Southwest win the bid, one of the possible options, and the one we hear most frequently, is that Frontier pilots would have to interview for their positions. For junior pilots like Danny, this would be the end of the runway. Another option could be that they are “stapled” to the bottom of the Southwest pilot’s seniority list, but their jobs are secure. Since salaries at Southwest are higher, and the pilots are already mostly senior in flight time and experience, this would be the preferable outcome. The fear is that Southwest may have more finite plans in mind than they are willing to share right now. That is, to cut all Frontier employees loose after a few years as their only goal may be just to dominate gate space at Denver International Airport where Frontier right now is their biggest competitor.
It’s hard not to feel like cattle on the auctioning block as we wait to hear our fate. Will we win the airline lottery with Southwest as Danny’s new employer, or will we soon be exploring Plan C like several other of our pilot friends who have had it with the airline industry and have started over in new fields? Keep your seat belts fastened, until the Captain has turned off the “fasten seat belts sign,” we’re expecting more turbulence ahead.