UAL and Pan Am

Following my column about the bankruptcy of United Airlines, it was hardly a matter of minutes before I was hit with questions — the sentiments of which were, shall we say, loaded — regarding the role of pilot salaries in the UAL crisis. People have not forgiven United’s pilots for the summer of 2000, when during contract talks they instituted a slowdown resulting in thousands of delayed flights. Many found it galling when the pilots eventually were rewarded with the most lucrative contract in history.

But blaming UAL’s problems on labor is a cheap shot. Employee earnings, including those of the pilots, are roughly on par with the other largest carriers, not all of whom, obviously, are in such dire straits. As pointed out in the Wall Street Journal this week, United’s customer service record has done much of the damage. United’s resume brims with qualifications that should not be the stuff of Chapter 11: five domestic hubs, a coveted hub at Tokyo/Narita, valuable landing slots at Heathrow, a network spanning more of the planet than any US airline, and cornerstone of the word’s largest alliance. But the flipside of all this real estate and prowess is a perennial ranking at or near the bottom in overall customer service, on-time statistics, and baggage handling.

Since 2000, however, we’ve been subject to media distortions of the lives of pilots both at UAL and other airlines — numbers that provide some easy scapegoating. Pilots, according to everyone from John McCain to CSPAN to National Public Radio, are caricatured as hubris-bloated louts making $250,000 a year while, as one letter-writer suggested, “hardly working.” Regardless of effects on the bottom line, how accurate is this?

Well, some senior captains make such large salaries, yes, but these are the top-of-the-pyramid fellows, seniority-wise, and there are relatively few of them. As I’ve written before, the starting pay at a major airline is about $30,000, and if you’re 35 or 40 and just getting started, you have a lot of catching up to do, often after putting in several years of de-facto apprenticeship at the regional carriers. And as for hardly working, well, maybe you should ask a pilot the next time he pulls in from a trip — his 10th or 12th consecutive day away from home — and ask how he feels. Do I think pilots are overpaid? At the top of the industry, yes, probably. But I also believe those nearer the bottom are underpaid. What’s needed is middle ground.

Meanwhile,

A reader has reported the recent sighting of a Pan Am jet, and takes issue with last week’s statement that Pan Am went out of business in December of 1991. “I saw it,” she insists. “It was taking off, and it says ‘Pan Am’ in letters as big a house!”

Is the right? Well, yes and no. The ghost ship she saw was a Boeing 727 owned by the Guilford Transportation Company, which runs an airline based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The name of the airline? Pan Am. The name and trademark were purchased from the estate of the defunct Pan American World Airways, and today the company flies 727s to destinations in Florida, the Northeast and Midwest. Beyond the name, various blue and white superficials, and blasphemous use of the “clipper” radio call sign, there’s no connection between this outfit and the original.

Sound strange? Actually this is a second resurrection. Let’s call it Pan Am Three. Pan Am Two operated briefly in the mid-1990s, pulling the same trick and flying A300s from JFK, mainly to Florida, before joining its predecessor on that big tarmac in the sky. There have been other in-name-only precedents as well, most of them short-lived: Braniff Three followed Braniff Two, and there was a Midway Two too. Today there are no Braniffs and no Midways, but there is, for the time being, a Pan Am.

Other names have been reborn not in tribute to legend, but for simple generic appeal. National Airlines comes to mind. The old National was an East Coast staple for decades before merging with Pan Am in 1980. The new National was a Vegas-based upstart with no connections, either intended or pretended, to the former. They also are gone now.

When USAir — as it was called at the time — absorbed Piedmont Airlines and Pacific Southwest Airlines, these brands had been so respected by their customers that a decision was made to keep the names alive. They were assigned to two US Air Express regional affiliates. Suddenly, Pacific Southwest Airlines (recast only as the meaningless acronym “PSA”), found itself based in Ohio, while to this day you can board a “Piedmont” turboprop at any of several airports along the Eastern Seaboard. US Air, meanwhile, which originally had been called Allegheny Airlines, went ahead and assigned the Allegheny name to yet a third Express affiliate.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.