If you’re flying American Airlines soon, you have my sympathies. Their pilots are staging a slowdown/sick out while they work without a contract. Things ain’t goin’ well.

It’s tempting to shake your fist at the pilot’s union when your departure time dies of old age. I feel your pain. When you’re stuck in Tulsa en route to Wichita, your day is already a bummer. But the airline isn’t exactly innocent here either.

American filed bankruptcy last year, not completely because of financial woes, but to abrogate the pilots’ contract. This is common airline behavior. Several, like Continental (pre-United merger) did it several times.

American wanted givebacks from the pilots, big ones. And, they wanted them from a group, like almost everyone in the airline industry (except corporate executives), who’ve been giving back for years. This is common with airlines too.

Years ago, Delta employees bought a Boeing 767 for the airline – a gift of gratitude to their employer. Today, U.S. airline labor relations are some of the worst in the world.

Fellas, the Pointy End Faces Into the Wind

Before deregulation, airline CEOs were life-long airline people. They understood what it cost to fly airplanes profitably. Then came the era of the MBA. Harvard Biz School whiz-kids, whose only knowledge of the airline business was that the pointy end of their planes faced into the wind, ran airlines.

They were under the mistaken impression that airliners are flying buses. You grab a minimum-wage Ralph Kramden to drive, pack as many people into torn vinyl seats as possible, toss a few bags in, and you’re off. They never quite understood competing against the family station wagon over your average airline route is about as profitable as a lemonade stand. Buses cost hundreds of dollars per hour to run. Some airplanes cost tens of thousands.

The kids thought they could defy the laws of airline econophysics by plowing money into do-or-die market share battles to drive off the competition. However, being math-challenged, they couldn’t see that a market divvied 12 ways isn’t the path to riches. In fact, you’d be lucky to make the same profit Greyhound does on their Minneapolis – St. Paul route.  If you live in towns like Cincinnati, where Delta was the last market share standing, you pay some of the highest fares in the country.

The key to market share is lots of flights only when people want them, so the dueling airlines schedule their airplanes in and out in simultaneous two-hour “banks” roughly corresponding to the meal times that you no longer get. At the taxi-room-only airports, dozens try to move at the same time and are stymied by that funny FAA rule that only allows one airplane on the active runway at a time.

Of course, the airline says it’s all the FAA’s fault. Damn government workers!

If they can’t turn a nickel one way, they’ll try another. British airline Ryanair already had pay toilets now they want to get rid of them all together.  They are also seeking certification for a contraption to stand people upright and get rid of those useless seats all together.

Be Still My Over-Gouged Heart

In the U.S. it’s all about fees. We pay about $67,000 per pound just to check bags. Yet, we think the co-branded credit cards airlines offer come with a sweet deal – check one shoebox free after you pay the $100 annual card fee.

Be still my over-gouged heart.

The airlines don’t just cheap it out with the pilots. I worked for an airline that required mechanics to return each dirty paper towel to receive a clean one…with a 5-towel shift maximum. Of course, this was very efficient when you spilled a can of glue.

They also paid minimum wage ramp jockeys to pick up specialized screws off the hanger floor and put them back in bins. They didn’t worry about whether the screws, which held things like wing leading edges on, were actually in the RIGHT bin.

But back to the pilots. Those cushy 6-figure salaries aren’t nearly so cushy when most newbie pilots today pay for their initial training out of their own pocket. Talk about astronomical student loans. Pilots also do flight planning, maintenance briefings, preflight inspections, and a hundred other tasks out of their own pockets too. Most airlines pay strictly for the time the wheels are off the ground. In some cases, taxi time isn’t included.

BTW, chances are you had to pay a $50+ application fee just to get an interview for the job too.

And all the while a guy in $1000 wing tips collects his bonuses and tells them, you guys just aren’t giving enough.  Sure, you gave up pensions. True, you joined the company via a two-tier wage system that pays you half of what the guy in the opposite seat gets. Yeah, retirement’s nice, but you had to know it was just a pipe dream that you’d still have it when you were ready.  And we really appreciate you buying your own uniforms. Without that, the CEO couldn’t have afforded his chauffeur.

So yeah, it is the union’s fault for staging a sick out while working without a contract their employer invalidated at will. Go ahead and shake your fist if you must.

But if it was me, I’d be sick about it.