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Dream job becoming demoralizing

Airline pilots have grown frustrated by their diminished roles. It's caused by increased computerization, along with heightened security concerns.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2002


Airline pilots have grown frustrated by their diminished roles. It's caused by increased computerization, along with heightened security concerns.

They see the world from 35,000 feet, where the clouds look like vanilla icing and the lightning dances in the distance. They get to have breakfast in Boston and dinner in San Francisco. If they've got enough seniority to fly the coveted Philadeliphia-Aruba trip, they get a 25-hour overnight at a nice hotel on the beach.

They earn salaries that many people only dream about -- as much as $150,000 a year for domestic flying and $300,000 for the big international routes.

So why are so many airline pilots unhappy?

They have grown weary of security workers who paw through their suitcases and confiscate their nail clippers.

They have been isolated in their cockpits, prohibited from strolling through the cabin to chat with passengers.

They have to eye passengers carefully, looking for nervousness or other signs of trouble. The guy in the polo shirt in 7C may be a terrorist.

"Everybody is on guard now," says Mike Covington, a pilot for United Airlines. "It's taken a lot of fun out of the job."

A pilot and a dog

At a government hearing several years ago, a Boeing test pilot got a laugh when he mentioned average pilots.

The audience laughed at the very suggestion that a pilot could be average. As airline passengers, we don't want someone ordinary at the controls of a 100-ton jet. We want someone quick thinking, experienced and gutsy.

David Beaty, author of The Naked Pilot: The Human Factor in Aircraft Accidents, compares airline pilots to silverback gorillas, the dominant males who control the tribe. When other gorillas are in trouble, the silverback protects them.

But the pilot's role has been shrinking in the past 20 years.

They have lost some of their authority to computers. Many planes can land themselves in bad weather. Newer Airbus models have computers that actually take control in flight if the pilot gets into serious trouble.

Engineers tell a joke that the high-tech cockpits of the future will be equipped with a computer, a pilot and a dog. The computer will fly the plane. The dog will bite the pilot if he tries to touch the controls.

Security measures introduced since Sept. 11 have further weakened the pilot's authority. The cockpit has a reinforced door and is now viewed as a fortress. About the only time in flight that pilots are allowed to come out is when they have to use the bathroom.

To deter someone from rushing the cockpit during the moment when the door is open, some pilots have asked flight attendants to strategically locate a beverage cart in the aisle. Others have have asked the flight attendants to mingle around the door so they can act like offensive linemen and block for the quarterback.

This is what it's like to be a pilot one century after Orville and Wilbur: If you need to use the bathroom, you've got call for reinforcements.

Should there be a hijacking, the cockpit door is not to be opened and pilots are to land the plane as quickly as possible. Flight attendants and passengers might be tortured or killed, but the pilots -- the commanders of the ship -- cannot help.

"I'm taken out of the loop pretty much," says Dennis Condon, 54, a US Airways pilot who lives in Palm Harbor. "I no longer have control of what's going on in the back."

To make matters worse, pilots face the possibility that their planes could be shot down.

"We're supposed to alert air traffic control, which will scramble an F-16, which will shoot us down," Condon says. "However, we're not allowed to arm ourselves to avoid that situation."

Looking for suspicious characters

Pilots still make the routine announcements about weather and buckling seat belts, but they've also included some frank commentary about how flying has changed.

Last fall, one pilot felt the need to give passengers basic instructions about how to fight back in a hijacking, according to the Washington Times.

He told them, "If someone were to stand up, brandish something such as a plastic knife and say, "This is a hijacking,' or words to that effect, here is what you should do. Everyone should stand up and immediately throw things at that person -- pillows, books, magazines, eyeglasses, shoes . . . anything that will throw him off balance and distract him."

The Chicago Tribune reported that United Airlines pilot David Miller gave a standard speech that had a candid warning for anyone who tries to break through the cockpit door.

"Down at the bottom of that door is a metal strip that runs across the floor," Miller said. "That's a demilitarized zone. A part of your body crosses that line, it's mine. You are not going to get it back in the same condition that it crossed that line in."

Many pilots now eye their customers carefully.

Alaska Airlines Capt. Bryan Burks says he tries to make eye contact with every passenger during boarding.

"I'm looking for whether they are nervous," he says. "If I saw three or four people traveling together who appeared nervous, I might question that."

Stephen Luckey, chairman of the national security committee for the Air Line Pilots Association, says pilots are more suspicious of passengers from the Middle East.

"A guy who gets on and he's Middle Eastern -- he's going to get more scrutiny," Luckey says. "It wasn't blue-eyed, blond Scandinavians who did this to us."

In the past year, some of the loudest pilot complaints have been about airport checkpoints.

Many pilots view the security screening as an insult. They are trusted with a $50-million airplane and the lives of hundreds of passengers, but the government hasn't trusted them with a pair of nail clippers. (The clippers have recently been legalized, but pilots say some security workers apparently haven't gotten the word.)

Pilots have also grown weary of watching security workers sift through their luggage, tossing their underwear aside.

"You feel like you're one of the bad guys," says Burks.

Condon says his bags get searched about 40 percent of the time.

"It's humiliating," he says. "You are standing there with your passengers while someone rifles through your suitcases. They are stripping you down in front of people who are supposed to be respecting you."

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