I remember September 11th like it was yesterday. We were living 30 miles outside of Washington, DC. The sky was so blue and crystal clear. I jumped out of bed looking forward to finishing up vacation plans. It was going to be a beautiful day in Northern Virginia.
I won’t bore you with the details of the day. Everyone remembers. I only note it here because it was the catalyst that sent my career into a tailspin.
Analysts often comment that the U.S. Economy and the airline industry were on a downward slide before 9/11. However, that day granted airline managers a blank check to restructure the industry any way they saw fit.
The pilot contract between the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) and United contained “furlough protection.” In essence, no active pilot could be laid off from the airline. However, there was a force majeure clause that stated they could furlough due to war. Guess how the management translated that?
Immediately after 9/11, United decided to park two whole fleets of aircraft in the desert. Within a few months, there were no more 727-200 or 737-200 aircraft on the United property. They immediately started to furlough pilots. With 1,325 pilots behind me on the seniority list, I survived the first massive rounds of furloughs in the Fall of 2001.
As the wave of seniority came rushing down from above, I got “bumped” off the A320 and was awarded a bid on the 737-300/500. In February 2002, I had to go back to school. At the time, the A320 paid significantly more than the 737. So, I spent six weeks away from the family, passed the check ride, and took a pay cut. I tried to remain positive, but, that was a tough pill to swallow.
Flying the 737 was enjoyable…. but, the work environment was toxic. Individually, and as a group, there was just so much uncertainty. Any happy moments or thoughts were quickly trumped by the uncertainty.
In December 2002, United Airlines filed for bankruptcy.
In January 2003, I received my furlough notice for April 1. I knew it was coming, but it still took my breath away.
For the next three months, I tried to enjoy every last bit of being a United Airlines pilot. Things looked so bleak, I just assumed the airline would be liquidated sometime after my lay-off. In my mind, these were my final days in a United uniform. Might as well enjoy them.
There’s a hollow uniqueness to the last flight when you’re getting furloughed. If you’re retiring, there’s a huge hoopla. The pilot’s family is usually on board during the festive flight and sometimes the firetrucks even spray the airplane with huge arching streams of water as it approaches the gate. But, on March 21, 2003, the captain set the parking brake, I gathered up my stuff, and walked off the jetway. No fuss… no fanfare. Only the captain and I knew it was my last flight. It was just too emotional and distracting to discuss.
With tunnel vision, I quickly walked through the terminal and out the door. That was it… it was over. My wife picked me up from Dulles. It was great to see her…. and brave of her to come get me. She barely fit behind the steering wheel.
Oh, yeah, did I mention she was 9 months pregnant?