Partner of a Pilot
The Candid Diary of an Airline Pilot’s Girlfriend

The big F… ‘Furlough: the worst cockpit terror of them all’

I know that I am going to hack of readers who aren’t interested in aviation news and gossip with this post, but this is something that I am interested in knowing more about, and I also feel is important to a lot of other readers of my blog… So here it is (just ignore the post if you find it boring!)

In the UK, we do not use the term: ‘furlough’. Or at least, Bf and I have not heard it used here. However, whilst surfing the on-line pilot wife groups and blogs, I am encountering it a great deal at the moment.

I had assumed that it meant something similar to redundancy (layoff) from the context it was being used in, but it would seem *slightly* different. I thought I’d pop a definition on here for anyone else confused by the term… I sourced this from a site called All Experts on which a prospective pilot asked the question

“When I become an airline pilot what is the likeleness of me being furloughed or do they randomly furlogh pilots. or do the furlough pilots besed on thier education and excedment or qualifications?

Here is the answer they were given:

“When i become an airline pilot, what is the [likelihood] of me being furloughed or do they randomly [furlough] pilots?”

Airlines furlough pilots when they encounter bad times financially. This may be due to a downturn in the economy, poor company management or even a tragic event like Sept 11th.  In that situation an airline often must shrink, so they cut routes, aircraft and personnel to save money.

“do [they] furlough pilots based on [their] education and excedment[?] or qualifications.”

Pilots are not randomly furloughed. They based based purely on tenure with the company. Furloughs occur from the bottom of the pilot seniority list and go up. This means the most recently hired is the first furloughed.

Read this excerpt on the subject:

  “Ask the pilot”, A column from Ezine

Furlough: The worst cockpit terror of them all! What if it happens to you? By Patrick Smith

…”Furlough” is a term that appears now and again in this column. Perhaps not everyone understands. In aviation parlance, furlough has a very specific definition. It means losing your job, for an indeterminate length of time, through no fault of your own. Whatever you call it — being laid off, made redundant, placed on involuntary leave — it’s an unwelcome and entirely common phenomenon. In the rickety profit-loss roller coaster that is the airline industry, furloughs come and go in great waves, displacing thousands — sometimes tens of thousands — of workers at a time.

When it happens, a portion of an airline’s pilot seniority roster, which is to say everybody at the bottom, as determined by date of hire, is lopped away. If cutbacks determine that 500 fliers have to go, the 501st man (or woman) hired now becomes the company’s most junior — and most nervous — crew member. Some pilots are fortunate, getting on at just the right time and sliding through a long, uneventful tenure. But it’s not the least bit unusual to meet pilots whose résumés are scarred by three or more furloughs, some lasting several years.

Furlougheesremain nominal employees, presumably to be summoned back when conditions improve or attrition warrants their return. When and if that day comes, assuming the airline that cut you loose stays in business, you’re brought back to the fold in strict seniority order — the first pilot out is the last pilot back. How long can it take? The last heavy-duty furlough cycle, dovetailing nicely with our last economic recession, stretched from the late 1980s into mid-1990s. During that period, some USAir/US Airways pilots waited over eight years for recall.

Following the announcement of cuts, pilots are usually given notice of at least 30 days, but at smaller nonunion airlines it can be literally 30 minutes. Bargaining agreements stipulate the details, such as length of remaining benefits or severance pay, if any. For probationary employees at the bigger airlines, a month’s wages are a typical parting gift. Unions such as the Air Line Pilots Association often arrange for healthcare options and help crews find positions at other carriers.

In 2006, with the airlines in such a wild state of flux, it’s difficult to calculate exactly how many airline pilots are currently on furlough. According to AIR Inc., an aviation employment resource company, the number was 10,390 at the end of 2005, down from even higher totals in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001. The industry’s ongoing woes no longer have much to do with the 2001 attacks, but the red ink and pink slips haven’t disappeared.

“Our latest membership inventory shows 4,625 pilots on furlough status out of 61,100 total,” says ALPA spokesman John Mazor, whose organization represents crew members at four of the nation’s five largest carriers. “About a year ago, a separate tally showed net furloughs since Sept. 11 running over 7,000, or about 11 percent of our membership.” A decline in furlough percentages isn’t all good news. Many pilots have left the occupation entirely, or have settled for lower-paying jobs with the regional airlines.

Pilots aren’t the only ones affected. Flight attendants too suffer regular furlough cycles, and airline staffing as a whole is down 70,000 workers from 2001 levels. “But if you’re looking at the overall effects of the economic tsunami on pilots,” adds Mazor, “don’t forget the downgrading. Those who keep their jobs often get bumped down, so even those who manage to hang on find themselves in considerably diminished circumstances.”

The domino effect within the ranks brings on serious training and staffing disruptions, which is why furloughs aren’t always implemented even when a carrier is struggling. Captains become first officers; wide-body crews are kicked to domestic short-haul; the simulators fill up and instructors work overtime.

As regulars to Ask the Pilot already know, should a furloughed pilot take another airline job, there is no sideways transfer of experience or salary. Your original position and pay are meaningless. You become a probationary first officer making probationary wages — anywhere from around $15,000 to $30,000, with very few exceptions. And you might be asked to resign your existing seniority, formally severing ties with airline A in order to convince airline B that you’re worth the training investment. Alternatively, you can be expected to sign a contract stipulating your repayment of training costs. A pilot, even one in difficult financial straits (or bored out of his or her mind), needs to think very carefully before relinquishing a position that took years to achieve.

As it happens, for all the bad news coming from the largest carriers, cockpit hiring in general is currently very strong. AIR Inc. predicts that 10,500 positions will be available this year alone. The thing is, a majority of these positions will be at regional carriers, and will fall at the low end of that salary range listed above. Many furloughed pilots refuse to accept a job flying a turboprop or a regional jet for $17,000 — not out of pride, but out of necessity. And even if he or she wants one, it’s often the young, fresh-faced kid, hungry for opportunity and destined to stick around longer, who’ll get the nod before some disgruntled refugee from United or Northwest. Experience, in this case, can work against the veteran flier.

I know a fair few on-line girl friends, who’s husbands and partners are at risk of this. I am assuming from what I have read that if and when the industry picks up, that their partners will have jobs to go back to (please tell me if this assumption is incorrect). Over here, there are airline’s making redundancies, whereby people are paid severance to terminate their employment completely and thus release them from a contract of employment altogether.  In Bf’s own airline there is talk of such cuts being made, although at this time; we believe Bf’s position is secure.

It is a scary time in the aviation industry as a whole with all the airline closures, the fuel price crisis, mergers, furloughs, redundancies and down-sizing operations. If you are affected by this-my thoughts are with you. I am always interested to know more about this and gain a better understanding. Please comment here on this post if you have anything to add from a more personal perspective or feel free to leave links to posts if you have written about your experience of these circumstances for others to read.


3 Responses to “The big F… ‘Furlough: the worst cockpit terror of them all’”

  1. I’d say that the description is pretty much correct. It all depends on how many planes are needed and where cutbacks need to be made. And if a larger airlines cuts it’s flying, that’s going to also effect the smaller airlines that contract for them.

    This wasn’t mentioned above, but some airlines do try to mitigate the number of people being furloughed by offering early retirements or bonus money to people who leave to free up spots for other pilots (usually with less seniority and therefore also cheaper). Also, unions will work with the airlines to build schedules that have less hours overall (maybe 75 instead of 85) in order to build in more routes and keep more pilots active. And sometimes there is solidarity within the pilot group in not picking up extra time when there are pilots out there waiting to come back- it forces the company to bring back pilots to take those trips. Furloughs cost companies a lot of money as well, as everyone who has not flown in 6 months has to be fully retrained (a 6+ week process).

    We’re looking at being furloughed now, A would be that number 501 guy that the author talked about. It’s especially hard for us b/c he can’t just go out and get another flying job right now. But we’ll make it through.

  2. Hi Someday, thanks for your informstive addition; I was thinking of you as I wrote that entry actually. I do hope that A doesn’t stay Furloughed for too long, and that the industry recovers
    again reasonably quickly.

    How long will it be before you know any thing?

  3. My fiance is looking at possible redundancy with his airline in the UK. If they take the full quota of people leaving from the bottom, then he’ll be out of a job for sure.

    However, like Someday said above, my fiance’s airline are offering voluntary redundancies in a bid to cream-off some of the expensive senior captains who could take early retirement, or who are past retirement age. So fingers crossed he’ll still have a job

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