Part of the reason for the long layoff since the last segment of the saga, is that we are leading up to what is probably the worst part and I have to get my head right to discuss it. Also, I want to make sure I tie up all the loose ends of the Florida Express experience.
Just to review, my adult life began the night I was traveling to Ft. Knox and not knowing what was in my near or distant future. My world had been shaken up when I was drafted and I decided to make some big life changes as I rode on a TWA Constellation to Louisville. After my separation from the Army, I began taking flying lessons with the sole and express purpose of becoming an airline pilot. There were several tough issues to deal with, some of them self inflicted. I finally got all the pilot licenses, ratings and flying time necessary to be qualified for an airline job, but could only get hired by a tiny airline in California. However, it did get me the jet experience I needed and I had checked out as a captain, before the company went bankrupt and disappeared. That led to my calling in on favors from some of the friends I had met along the way and getting hired at Florida Express, another tiny airline.
I have already discussed some of the reasons Florida Express was struggling. Most of the new entry airlines, started after airline deregulation, were having similar problems. They were all targets of the "legacy" airlines that existed before deregulation. The larger companies could offer low fares against the new companies and subsidize with other markets. In many cases, they offered superior service to the low cost airlines. However, as more and more low fare companies popped up, it was forcing everyone to offer them and many of the legacies began to have trouble also. The problem was that the system went from complete regulation of routes and fares to no regulation, literally overnight, and it became like swimming in a shark tank. They were all trying to kill off the others. No one could make money.
We were all watching this and wondering how it was going to effect us in the long run. The analogy that kept running through my head was that I was on a runaway train, going down a mountain and about to go into a dark tunnel. It looked dangerous in there and I didn't know if I would be hurt more by jumping off or by trying to ride it out through the tunnel.
If I didn't explain it before, changing jobs as an airline pilot is almost always painful. Seniority is paramount for airline pilots. Your income and quality of life are very much impacted by being junior on the seniority list. You bid for schedule and vacation based on your seniority. When I started at Florida Express, I was at the bottom of the list, number 29 of 29 pilots. As the airline grew, more pilots were hired in below me and some of those senior to me left for other jobs. For example, my old Annapolis grad, F-14 pilot pal, Tom went to American. It was widely believed that working for the bigger, legacy companies was a better, more secure position.
Because I did not have a college degree, there were fewer opportunities for me. One of them was Piedmont and I gave that some thought, then they merged with USAir. I gave that some thought also, but anticipated possible issues applying there, since I had already interviewed and been rejected.
But, the real hang up was uncertainty and the knowledge that I was now about number 13 on the Florida Express list and we had a nice life in Orlando. We were comfortable and making a change would mean going to the bottom of some other seniority list and suffering through a probationary year of low pay.
So, I stayed. It was not that tough. We had grown to about 150 pilots at one point. Our system of cities had expanded and it was fun to fly to the newer ones. Grand Rapids, Milwaukee, West Palm Beach, New Orleans and Knoxville were examples. We even flew to Nassau in the Bahamas for a while. That was fun. We flew a couple who thought they could get a quickie marriage down there and they were on our return flight, mission not accomplished. I joked around and said I could marry them as a captain of a ship over international waters. I had a nice little ceremony over the P.A. and ended it by saying, "And by the powers vested in me by John Wayne and Chuck Yeager, I now pronounce you man and wife." Touching. I don't know if they took that seriously or not.