Furloughed Airline Pilots, A Must Read History Lesson

Right now the airline industry is in a pilot shortage.  Competition for hiring is a reaching new levels of thinking outside the box.  You may not think an article about pilot furloughs is a relevant conversation.  However things can change at the drop of a hat and it does not take many events for history to repeat itself.  (For example, war, pandemics, equipment shortages, labor disputes, price of fuel etc)  

Be assured this, history WILL repeat itself, the aviation industry is cyclical.  The most positive impact we can takeaway from history is asking ourselves what we have learned and how did we change.  This article looks at that question and suggests we may have not done a very good job as a group collectively future proofing an actual plan for when a furlough happens.  The past is filled with warning signs. We must be able to reflect on the events that built up to them, learn from mistakes made and resist and question if we see similar patterns emerging.

 Healthy airline financials

Strong economy

So why are we writing this article now when the industry is robust and healthy and pilots are making more than they ever have?  The longer the timeframe becomes where there are no furloughs, the worse off pilots are going to be.  You may be asking why, here is the answer.  

The more time that elapses without any airline or company furloughing, the greater the chance that you will have an inexperienced group (union or otherwise) to handle it with care and expertise.  Let’s make it even simpler than that.  If you have a union comprised of pilots and none of them have ever been furloughed, you have an experience problem.  If no one has gone through it, then the issue is neither remembered nor glaring.  There is a lack of the wounded.  These are the men and women with mileage, the veterans that raise their hand and bring up facts that most current pilots have never experienced.  This awareness is very low and it’s evident by its lack of visibility in any airline contract or national union group.

Most union representatives  are made up of pilots, men and women who throw their hat in the ring to serve the pilot community in a system slated to be an intermediary between pilot groups and management teams.The problem is, pilots are really good at one thing, flying airplanes. A very rare few have expertise in contract law or advanced negotiations skills.  Time has proven that the scales are tipped heavily in the favor of the legal teams that most airlines have in place.  Sure it can be a calm negotiation with lots of respect, but it’s a one sided battle.  The only effective tool pilots have is to strike if things get so bad that they cannot come to an agreement.  Even those strikes do not last that long.  But the problem is deeper than that when it comes to discussing furloughs and how to take care of pilots that end up on that list.

fighting for the little guy

There is no Goliath

Airline pilots don’t have a brazen and bold pilot team that has been furloughed before working for the group as a whole.  There has to be true empathy that only comes from experience for this to work. This is why it was stated that the longer the good times roll, the bigger chance of finding increased an experienced advocate becomes.  We all get older and eventually retire leaving the new generation to take the reins.  That generation is not equipped for the task because they have no mileage on the furlough racetrack. 

 It’s understandable in todays economy, and no one is upset.  But there is a real ignorance in understanding history of these events.  Because most have never gone through it, they will completely fail to help their fellow pilots out of that situation.  It’s not their fault, it’s the way a cycle works.  Ask yourself this, if you had to have emergency heart surgery, who would you rather have, the brand new doctor just out of med school or the seasoned veteran who has done thousands of these types of surgeries?  Everyone knows the answer, but few know the value that this history lesson gives. Here it is.

"It’s going to happen someday, and if you have no idea that this happens or have any clue what does happen when pilots get furloughed, you are just as ignorant".  Sorry, but not sorry.

History repeats itself, we have to get smarter.  Have you ever noticed that union vacancies are hard to fill?  That union meetings are poorly attended? That just about anyone can run in some capacity for a union role and get elected because there is very little competition or vote participation.  You the pilot are paying for this, you need to make sure your representative at least is acquainted with what can happen.

More than you think

There is much more than you think going on when a pilot gets furloughed than just the lost of the position with the promise of a return.  It’s more than the contract states and to be clear I am not talking about people that have been furloughed less than six months.  The real effects kick in at the one year mark.  Here are some examples:


  • If your company furloughs, chances are not many others are hiring
  • After a very short term, you will suffer the loss of healthcare benefits 
  • After a while you will lose jump seat privileges
  • If another airline actually is hiring, you will most likely be passed up because you’re furloughed, which means you have recall rights.  The moment something changes economically you can be recalled and the hiring company does not want to lose the investment of training you.
  • This has a mental toll, not being able to get an interview because of recall rights is not something any representative knows about because they just have not read about it or experienced it.  Maybe you flew with a guy that shared it, but it’s a devastating life event that most are reluctant to share.  This mental toll becomes very stressful causing most pilots to find non aviation work.
  • Most unions don’t really have a well thought out process to help pilots that are furloughed.  There are no representatives that will give recommendations or even give you a tip as to where new employment opportunities are.  You are on your own.

helping furloughed pilots

We can do better

Just like you study for an interview and learn an airlines history of operations, we all should be aware of the “bottom”. Being furloughed is a career life event. 

 Nowhere has this been clarified more than with a group of pilots that were furloughed from a major carrier for over seven years.  Yes I said 7 (and to be precise 7 years, 8 months) This was not a small group, over the entire furlough, there were 211 pilots furloughed, most pilots flying the line today have no clue. 

 211 examples of extreme life stories.  This was made crystal clear when that group was recalled and all assembled back in the classroom for training.  The first day was all sunshine and rainbows by the airline.  There was welcome back signs, balloons, donuts, coffee and even a catered lunch.  The pilots were thrilled to be together and there was lots of joy and laughter…until day two. 

 Day two was announced as a day that would start with a presentation made by the union.  The instructor briskly left the room and in walked two representatives.  Their presentation lasted about three minutes before someone stood up and called them out as thoughtless liars.  Actually I am being polite here, because the amount of profanity that rained down for the next two hours would have made a prison guard blush. 

 These pilots were angry and the gloves were off.  If you think you have one perspective, try listening to 30 others explain their experiences, emotions and family lives due to a lack of caring.  It was a case of collective trauma and I was blown away.  I wanted to stand up and jump on the pile, but it was staggering to hear years worth of inner thoughts expressed through different people.  I was not alone, people were angry, and there was profanity, lots of it.  At the end of it, I almost felt bad for the two ALPA guys, they took a severe mental beating all because no one was really aware of what happens s to pilots when they are cast aside.  Both had armpit stains as big as frisbees and they were clearly defeated.  There really was not any presentation due to the rebellion.

National response from ALPA to help pilots

So what is the answer?  A National Response

Using the airline pilots association (ALPA) as an example.  There is a difference between the local level and the national level.  A lot of times the national level is far more superior than the local.  This is a very good place to start since an organized system needs to be or should be implemented from the top down.  A local MEC is not going to be able to single handedly come up with a plan that suddendly revolutionizes the industry.  This has to be a well thought out collaborative effort.  Most local unions are too busy trying to deal with local issues.  Knowledge and awareness is the key to any good beginning.

Well if you got this far, good for you.  You now know it exists, that’s 3/4 of the battle.  This is a history lesson not a scolding.  There is so much awareness today about so many topics such as identity and mental health.  It’s in the news and topics in every crew room, as well as social media. We are bombarded into making sure we are caring and empathetic to others we work with even if we don’t care.  We are even forced to take home study courses on how we should treat each other.  Granted those are implanted by companies and designed to cover themselves with the phrase of a certain group did receive training in this area.  

We need to develop a system that creates awareness as well as creates details to take care of people.  It cannot always be about negotiating the next contract, there has to be a paradigm shift.

Do the math

Lastly, if you want to take a financial approach, pilots in todays healthy market make more now than ever.  Chances are good that you can make seven million or more at your career airline.  They are some that know how to work the system and make much much more than that.  But if you think about a lifetime of dues, at two percent, that’s $140,000.  That’s a lot of money.  Those reps as well as ALPA National work for you, you are the customer.  Think about that.  They work for you, not the other way around. 

 As pilots we need to do ourselves a favor and have higher expectations.  Being furloughed may never happen to you, and I am glad for that.  But what about the next generation, or the one after that?  Let’s learn together and not ignore the lessons history has to offer us.



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