Tuesday, May 3, 2016
Building Our Band Of Brothers (And Sisters)
Just a little flashback to the original chapter of the saga. Love that airplane. Check the flames shooting out on both sides of each engine.
While preparing the ground school, I was putting in long days. I had to do most of the work myself. I went whining to Dixon that my finances were tight and needed a little more income. He went to the powers that be and explained how what I was doing was going to save the company money and managed to get a little extra for me. He was starting to become my favorite boss of all time.
The first class had to be presented with an FAA Air Carrier Inspector attending. He could approve or disapprove the class. I had been dealing with FAA Inspectors for many years by now and was not intimidated, as some pilots are. The guy we had was a great guy and was a pleasure to hang out with. I schmoozed him really good and he bought it. His name was Stan Okan and I would see him many times for upgrades and check rides in the future as well as in a very unexpected place in one of my later lives. He became our Principal Operations Inspector (POI). Previously, he had flown a Sabre Liner for the FAA, flight testing instrument approaches for accuracy.
My three years of experience at the USAir ground school paid off. I was able to fill the time requirements for the Florida Express school and even teach the dunderheads the airplane. I used my old trick of filling time by getting the members of the class to participate and tell their war stories. We even got a few from Stan and we were all pals when it ended. It received the FAA Seal of Approval.
The company had rented a classroom in a building on the west side of the Orlando Airport (MCO). There was a Navy club there, where we usually went for lunch. It was kind of like a military mess hall, in that you grabbed a tray and moved through a line, selecting your food. The food was usually very good, unlike some of the mess halls in which I had eaten. The navy club was a really nice place to eat lunch.
Lloyd, the UPS pilot who was running the recruiting department at Florida Express, stopped by for lunch one day, to see how his boys were doing. As we were going through the line, he was discussing one of the pilots who was hired during the start up. He said he had been kicked out of the Air Force, because he had gotten drunk one night and when he came home to the Bachelor Officer Quarters (BOQ), he crawled into bed with another man. I asked, "Was he (gay)?" Lloyd replied, "No, but when he got drunk, he thought he was." I almost dropped my tray of food laughing.
Later, when Florida Express went public, I was issued options on thousands of shares of stock at a given price. I could exercise 20% of my options on the first 1500 shares each year, for 5 years. When the IPO occurred, I was able to buy and sell my first 20% and make enough for a down payment on a house. My price to buy was well below what the stock sold for when if first opened. But that came later.
For now, Doreen and I were dealing with another year of low income, after having just dealt with a year of low income, during which we spent all of our savings. We were struggling and trying to make the best of it. We were betting on the future.
I was not in any way part of the management team early on but Dixon was bringing me into all the meeting, because of my knowledge of the airplane and because I was demonstrating every day that I wanted to do what I could to help our little airline thrive.
I was not the only one. We had a very impressive group of pilots. There were several guys who had worked for Texas International Airlines, which was merged with Continental Airlines. Frank Lorenzo was the hated owner of Continental when the pilots went on strike. You can follow the hyper links or just let me summarize it to say, that these guys lost their jobs, hated Lorenzo and had been through the war.
There were a couple guys who had worked for Braniff International, the first airline to declare bankruptcy after Deregulation. There were guys who had flown the BAC for corporations, Dixon was one example. There were guys who had flown smaller corporate jets. There were guys who had been furloughed (layoff) from legacy airlines, such as TWA, PanAm and Eastern.
Dixon was smart enough to realize that he had a talented group of pilots, some of whom knew more about the airline business than he did and he used us all to his advantage and that of the company. And of course, we had Information Victor. When one of our guys, a Naval Academy graduate, F-14 pilot, Continental striker, heard Victors story, he asked, "How old is he?" Victor had done it all. He had been a member of the Canadian Olympic ski team, owned an FBO in California, and flown the F-111, just to scratch the surface.
The original group at Florida Express included a very impressively high percentage of achievers, but they had all been hammered by the profession, or they would not have been there. I used to call us the Oakland Raiders of aviation. Being a Steeler fan, I had seen many years of battles between the two teams. I hated the Raiders, like any good Burghboy would and should do, but I did admire the way they took the castoffs of other teams and patched them all together into a very competitive team. Our gang was very much like that. We had all been bounced a time or two in our chosen profession.
But, we had no whiners. We all put our heads down and tried to make it work. When we saw a problem, we found a way to fix it. The first task was to address the manuals we had inherited from USAir. We had a series of meetings in which we went over everything from stem to stern. We discussed everything we did and made changes that we thought were more appropriate to what we were doing out of Orlando.
The more the pilot group demonstrated that they were dedicated to trying to make Florida Express work, the more the upper management butted out of the flight operations department. There had been several examples where one or more of us had stepped up to help fix a problem. We were streamlining our procedures to make things work more efficiently.
I've talked about this before, but this seems like an appropriate time to mention some of this again. Prior to the Airline Deregulation Act, getting a job as an airline pilot was like what my old First Sergeant in the Army liked to call "dying and going to heaven". You had no more worries. You had the job of your dreams and everyone lived happily ever after.
Deregulation changed all that. The Civil Aeronautics Board controlled all the business activities of all the airlines in the US. In order to go to a new destination, the airline had to petition the CAB. In order to increase or decrease fares, the airline asked the CAB for permission.
Under Deregulation, the companies could go where they wanted to go and charge as much or as little as they wanted to. It happened so suddenly, it caused chaos for a while. It became like swimming in a tank with sharks for some of the airlines. Starting with Braniff International, many airlines began going bankrupt.
There were several "new entry" airlines created, such as Pacific Express and Florida Express. It was a free for all and the jobs of the employees were in jeopardy. Without getting too political here, I think it is necessary to point out that this was all done during the Carter administration, with major assistance from Senator Ted Kennedy, in the Congress. The "first right of hire" stipulation that was added to pacify labor unions really did not do much for the employees who lost their jobs. Some, but not all benefited and were hired by existing airlines, but the seniority systems meant they went to the bottom of the lists and took huge pay, benefit and quality of life hits. This applied to not just pilots, but mechanics and many other professions.
This created what I called "bounce arounds", pilots who had worked for a laundry list of airlines. Working for a company like Florida Express was a last resort for many pilots. Between the fierce, out of control competition and the unleashed financial sharks like Frank Lorenzo and Carl Icahn, the airline employment situation was like a dangerous swamp, full of predators. It was out of control and employees suffered major life set backs, at the very minimum.