Woops....that's about the only way I can describe this picture. You can't see it overly well...but you can see that the route went to the right (east) of MSP before it made a few turns and headed back. It's the flight plan for Northwest/Delta flight 188 last Wednesday, October 21, when it was supposed to have landed at Minneapolis but, instead, decided to burn up a little more fuel before it made its way back to MSP. The pilots were, apparently, in a heated discussion about their company's pilot scheduling component. And, having heard such discussions many times in my 15 years in the airline business, I can only imagine that it was, as they said, "heated." Airline employees in general, and especially pilots and flight attendants, are quite passionate about their jobs, their schedules, their seniority, and what they believe they "should have" and what they "shouldn't have." It's nearly always a constant battle between union and company -- employee and management.
I love my job, don't get me wrong. And I've got a long list of very valuable friends in every single position in the industry from management to front-line customer service personnel. They are people typically given to good times, laughter, and enjoy their jobs. But not always. The recent turbulent history of the airline industry has lent itself to a growing dissatisfaction of pilots and other with their jobs. They don't like their salaries, their management, their hours, their meals, their hotels, their schedules.....oh yes, their schedules! And that's where this particular story takes us. Apparently they were discussing their schedules. Remember that Delta and Northwest Airlines have merged. Northwest, as we've always known it, will go away. It will become Delta. And these were two Northwest pilots -- they are going to be merged into the Delta airlines pilot seniority list somehow -- no guarantees, they may actually lose seniority, may have to start over at a place that they aren't today....it may not be pretty. The first part of next year, there will actually be combination crews of former Northwest and former Delta pilots and flight attendants on board. And their schedules may definitely be affected. Remember, these are folks who have typically devoted a giant chunk of their time to having been educated and trained to be in charge of a multi-million dollar airliner with the lives of passengers at stake every day. It's tough -- very much so.
You must understand that the pilot in command (PIC) has complete authority of any given flight. If he doesn't feel right about any particular portion of the fight (unruly passengers, freight, weight and balance, safety issues, fuel, cabin customer service components such as lights, etc.), he has the total authority to say "No, I'm not going." He or she can, single handedly, do essentially what they want. They may have to answer for it but rarely so; but in this industry, anything blamed on "safety" will rarely be questioned. And, anything can be blamed on safety, believe me. Anything. Pilots have no direct report....no direct supervision or person to whom they report. Pilots, and flight attendants for that matter, can get a little crazy sometimes with the freedom that they have. They can come across as police enforcers. They can make decisions, or statements, that will not always be questioned. They have giant latitude in making decisions on their own. And that freedom of authority can, occasionally, get out of hand. And, believe me, I'm not pointing fingers -- I've been there and done that myself, sadly.
I've seen some of the best pilots in the world. And I've seen some of the worst. I've questioned pilots when I genuinely believe that I've needed to. But when that happens, I'd better be prepared with a damned good excuse for asking. In fact, I recently questioned a pilot about why in the world he failed to notify the flight attendants about an inflight mechanical failure of a nonessential component that resulted in an eight-hour delay for us. He wasn't happy and we got into a bit of a tiff about it. The delay isn't the issue. The failure to communicate is. His response? He claims that I was acting unprofessionally by questioning his authority and judgment. And he claims that since it was nothing that concerned me, that he chose not to say anything. I call those sorts of judgments errors. Big errors. It's the sort of thinking that got Northwest/Delta 188 in trouble. Thinking they know it all. In fact, just this morning, I overheard three pilots chatting about this little issue on the employee bus as we made our way from the employee parking lot to the airport terminal. Guess what? They justified the pilot's actions! If there hadn't been three of them on the bus this morning, I'd have spoken up -- I'm not known for being a wallflower or overly demure.
There are pilots that are pleasant, friendly and always speak to me. And there are those who will never say a word. (And, to be fair, there are flight attendants who do the same.) It's much like a doctor -- they are GOD. They hate to be questioned or asked to explain their decisions. They have the ability to make your flight, your day, your life, as easy as pie. Or like total hell. It's like any other job in the world.....we get so used to doing what we do that we lose touch with the harsh reality that today is a new day, new faces, new opportunities -- and that we still have to be diligent to pay attention, double check all that we need to, and make it the safest flight possible. Pride, arrogance, and high powered attitudes don't count. Especially in this industry, that remains essential. This isn't a "bash the pilot" post. It is, however, a reminder to all of us to remain engaged and active in our jobs, our lives, our families and responsibilities.
So, when I hear about pilots who accidentally go 150 miles beyond where they are supposed to because they were having a heated discussion about their management and their scheduling, I am concerned. I don't care what they were doing in the flight deck. It matters not whether they were eating, sleeping, on their laptops, giving head to each other, or reading a newspaper. I don't care if they like their jobs, were happy, or hated their management. What does matter, unequivocally so, is that they failed at being the pilots in command of a flight. They failed at receiving and responding to radio and text calls. They were not coherent or in control. A coherent person would have not only heard the radio call, but actually responded to it as required. They failed at being in charge of their flight. And it took a flight attendant's interphone call to remedy that. And for that, my friends, they should be fired.