Loyalty and the Divert Option

By: Aaron Hagan

One trait of many of us, especially military aviators, is loyalty. That is a good thing, and the tendency of some of us to rapidly take part of our identity from our organization makes many of us attractive to our potential employers. We prided ourselves on being part of a squadron or part of a community (Eagle drivers, Viper driver, etc). We liked being something bigger than ourselves.

Smart airlines know this, and try to cultivate a similar loyalty. Some of them, like Southwest, are very good at creating an environment where being part of something has its own value. The jobs become more than jobs, they become an defacto extension of our personality and our family.
As an airline captain, I am very proud to be part of this profession. I consider it much more than a job, and when you have so many lives in your hands daily you need to give the profession the respect and diligence that it requires. We owe the profession, our passengers, and our fellow pilots our consistent best effort.
Another factor in our DNA is we tend to make a habit in the military of making really long commitments. UPT commitment? Ten years or more… Initial FTU/RTU? Five years? Pilot bonus? Seven, ten, or more years. We naturally think of our decisions as having long term contractal implications.

Know what the industry standard commitment is when you resign? Two weeks. You probably stood in a DFAC line longer than that….
What do we owe our taskmasters, however? What about those people who write our paychecks?
In my seminars, I often point out that for many of us the initial period of our employment we often don’t really identify yet as part of our companies. We are “wearing” an airline uniform, but we aren’t really part of that airline yet—at least at our core. For instance, a guy might think “Wow—I am an Air Force C-17 guy, and I am getting to fly this 757 for Delta…..” We don’t always just become a Delta, FedEx, or Southwest pilot overnight during indoc. That shift takes a while.

Make no mistake, the shift does happen, and when it does, and you realize “yep…this is where I am for the long haul God willing…” its a great feeling. For me, one very big milestone was when I had to have a major back operation in 2005. The operation ended up costing around $78,000. I was fortunate, as I got to pick my neurosurgeon and I made a full recovery. I was flying 727s 80 days later and was only out of the F-15 for 8 months. My bill—after insurance—ran less than $2000. To say I was grateful—to my company which paid the benefits and to ALPA which helped us secure industry leading coverage—would be a huge understatement. I began to understand at that point FedEx wasn’t just a great company, but it was MY company. What I did at work, and decisions I made affected MY life. So—I sort of quit being an ex-F-15 guy flying FedEx jets and started thinking of myself as a real full time FedEx pilot about that point. I bought in completely, and since then going anywhere else was never a consideration.
The problem is that sometimes these traits can prevent us from making decisions that are in our best interests. Airlines serve the traveling public and the stockholders of the corporation. They also serve the employees of the organization, but those employees are typically not given the same priority as the stockholders. That doesn’t make airlines evil, but rather makes them effective at being what they are—businesses.
Because they are businesses, you need to make business-like decisions in your own life. Too often I hear “the best airline is the one that hires you first…” Sometimes, that is true. Sometimes, it is not. Arbitrarily making a decision like “I will stick with the first airline that hires me—period” tend to ignore financial realities. I personally believe there is a point where jumping ship becomes bad math, and you are better off riding it out where you are. Twenty years or more is a long time to stay at a place that you know isn’t really the best fit for you or the ones you love, however. Where that line is depends on your own situation. However, I will share excerpts from a letter from someone who made a decision and now regrets it just bit….

(in parenthesis since I cannot format script)

I imagine you’re getting a lot of emails like this. I can’t take SWA anymore. I don’t like going to work, so I’m gonna try to change my situation. Can you give me some advice (yet again!)

….Like 5 years ago, I still really want to be with Delta. Don’t know if I will get an interview, but I’m trying. I’ve also put my app in with United. I’ve thought about Fedex, but I don’t think that fits with my family at this point…

… I realize I’ll give up close to 100k if I jump, but I think my QOL is worth it….I also realize I have no chance of upgrading within the next 10 years at SWA. It just doesn’t make sense to stay here….

My one rule was once I got hired by a major, I would not think about jumping. I now wish I changed that rule about two years ago. I’ve finally convinced myself I need a change.

…. At SWA, there is no chance for progression. I’ve lived my entire life trying to get better at what I do and progressing as I do it. Everywhere else, there is a chance for progression, whether it be a different cockpit, or an upgrade to captain. At SWA, I’m stagnant. ))
Now—this isn’t a “bash SWA” fest. One of my own counselors left United to go to Delta. In the last five years, I’ve seen pilots migrate from Jetblue to a host of other companies. FedEx pilots have left for Delta and American. American pilots have left for FedEx. United pilots have left for FedEx and Delta, and Delta pilots have left for SWA, FedEx, and United. SWA has lost about 10% of their 2016 new hires to other companies.
The decision my counselor made was based on a numerous factors. The point is that person went to United with a very open mind. They knew moving was stressful. They knew interviews were no fun, and starting over had its own risks. But…they did not rigidly decide to close doors before they had to…. In this environment, some movement is going to happen. It is a natural part of the process. Moving doesn’t make you a bad person, nor does staying give you some kind of nobility. In the words of Hyram Roth from The Godfather, “This is profession which we have chosen…”

The fact that my SWA pilot in this case was a long time military pilot, while my United jumper was considerably younger probably had some impact. My older pilot also had a family, and felt like providing a stable environment after all those years of moving was paramount. The younger person was single and had no concerns about the impact on others. My point is the day you leave the military, you need to realize you may still have a move or two or a couple changes to consider. “I’m gonna go buy forty acres and plant the family farm…” may not be the best plan the day you leave active duty. Give yourself a little while to adjust to the new realities.
I don’t want pilots quitting one airline to chase another haphazardly. I don’t want to send the signal that we should not appreciate the opportunity we have when an airline offers us career employment. At the same time, there is a reason first year pay is low, and it has nothing to do with your ability. It has to do with the fact airlines recognize there will be a certain amount of attrition the first year, and they don’t want to over-invest in employees that might lose at some point. Keep an open mind.

I will also add this caution. In 2002, I had several friends furloughed by United. To say United had a bad decade would be an understatement, and both my friends chose to remain full time in the ANG for over 10 additional years. Along the way, I offered to sponsor both at FedEx, or to help them get a job at Jetblue or SWA…both of which were hiring big time in the early 2000s. To their credit, they left that option on the table. While they might have made more money if they’d moved over to FedEx in the mid 2000s, they were happy with their choice, and one has returned to United and the other will sometime next year after retiring as an O-6. They are going back to a rapidly improving company, with some solid seniority and good pay and benefits waiting on them. They realized at a certain point it wasn’t worth moving. I also work with others who did move about the same time from UAL that are now captains at FedEx and equally happy with their choice.

So—to answer the question—what do we owe our taskmasters? I think we owe them our best efforts, every day, all day, until the day we no longer work for them. For the Christians in the crowd, Colossians 3:23-24 says “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that the Lord will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” Even if you are not a believer, if you understand the fruits of your efforts go past your employer to help your own family, your peers, and your nation you probably will do the job with the pride and effort required. But—just remember—you can provide that service at more than one place. I’d urge you not to burn bridges for 2-3 years, and keep your options open. I get tons of letters, notes and comments all the time saying “thank you—life is AWESOME….” This note really hit me, because it was so different. Do not let the institutional loyalty that floods your veins blind you from opportunities, as you can serve your God, your family, your nation and your profession in a lot of different places. Choose what allows you to serve most effectively.