This blog is in response to a post that Ken wrote yesterday. I can’t help but feel that his post was in part inspired by a telephone conversation I had with him a couple of days ago. It was one of those days where the politics of aviation simply got the better of me; and my lack of motivation made a heated mention more than once.
I had spent the day prior to the telephone conversation undertaking interviews for positions well outside the realm of aviation, and I was frequently queried by the interviewers about why I would leave an airline job that they considered to be rewarding, secure and profitable. How little they know. Had they known that my current income renumerated me less than a third of the position I was applying for, they would have eliminated me from consideration for being mentally unstable.
Let me start from the beginning:
I was like most other kids who took routine trips to the airport for no other reason to look at aircraft, but I recall that I was more attracted to the magic of flight than the disciplines of flying. I looked up every time I saw an aircraft, pictures of airliners plastered my bedroom wall and my greatest and most treasured possession was an aviation almanac. It’s a familiar story.
It was after a trip to Canberra in 1981 that my path to an airline career was well and truly set in concrete. The Captain on board an Australian Airlines flight between Sydney and Canberra let me flick a cockpit switch back and forth – over and over. It was years later I found the same switch on an aging 727 in Melbourne and discovered I was likely playing with the seatbelt sign. There was no question upon completion of that flight that I would one day fly for a living. That captain unwittingly became an accomplice to a career choice I’m now questioning on a daily basis.
I guess I’m one of the “lucky” few. Many people would love to fly for a living… but life, family and finances conspires against their dream of flying until they find themselves doing whatever it takes to pay the bills. Many end up as private pilots, and others end up living their dream vicariously through PC based simulators. Sometimes I wish I was one of them. I often talk to private pilots and their eyes light up with excitement every time they talk about a bounced landing or session of circuits they flew the week prior. In comparison, I have one friend in the airline trade that claims the most exciting thing that’s happened to him in the last 3000 hours of his flying life was watching an in-flight movie he’d never seen before. Sad.
I wanted to do other stuff too, and I wouldn’t let common sense stop me. Before I was 30 I had worked in the NSW Fire Brigade, I’d worked in the Police Force, flown aircraft all around the world, worked as a helicopter pilot, taught people to fly, earned a degree, and I’d built up and sold two successful software companies. I had other brilliant jobs that I enjoyed but I’ll refrain from details on the basis you’ll likely think I’m a – as my mother affectionately calls me – a vocational fruit loop. Life was good back in the days before aviation played its wicked part in mutilating my motivation.
In the early days of my career, like most pilots, I was hooked on flying for the right reasons – I loved the idea of flight – but countless thousands of dollars, a history of prostituting myself to the industry and several thousand hours later I sat back and wondered what happened. I became so consumed in the procedures, protocol, politics and business of aviation that I often felt that I lost sight of why I got involved in the industry in the first place. Ironically, it was the love and pursuit of aviation that robbed me of the passions that drew me to it. I overcame this by reconnecting myself with instructing, hang gliding and sky diving; but that didn’t and doesn’t make life in aviation any easier. Nothing does.
At times throughout my general aviation career I couldn’t help but feel that many pilots were so blinded by visions of a big jet left seat, the big bags of money at the end of the general aviation ladder and the long legs of the busty stewardesses that they soon lose their passion for flight and trade it in for a couple of kitchen knives and a large stone to occupy the area of their chest normally reserved for a heart. Most general aviation pilots have little choice but to assimilate themselves into the career-hungry collective or be left in the wake of those around them. The dissension and dissatisfaction (that evolves from the frustration that one is not flying a jet) often creates quite the hostile working environment, despite the fact that the people you’re working with are among your best friends. Don’t get me wrong: general aviation provides for a motivating work environment since most pilots have more ambitious plans for their future, but it also encourages some people to consistently compromise their personal values for the same reason.
Most people I flew with within the transient ranks of GA were there for the singular purpose of getting a job somewhere else… how many organisations have that problem? I was always void from the chaos beneath me by virtue of more senior training roles but that didn’t negate the fact that the disruptive work environment made it – at times – unpleasant. Pilots always want more. Enough is never enough.
Motivation is the only thing that keeps a pilot flying in his or her early years. I think I made less than $10,000 in my first year as an instructor. Nobody would tolerate that kind of industrial insult if it weren’t for the fact that we’re motivated by a more rewarding future. That constant compromise between renumeration and job satisfaction is a game we play over and over and over until the lines we’ve drawn for ourselves cross over – and at the very least become a complete blur. The problem, however, is that the job satisfaction seems to dwindle a lot faster than the income rewards us for our passion.
As much as I absolutely loved the early days of my flying career (one that I’m privileged to have had, and one that I wouldn’t do differently if I could do my time over) it gave me an insight into what was to come… life in an airline. Despite all the challenges I faced in general aviation, nothing in any industry prepared me for the one enemy that can’t be reasoned with – airline management. I won’t comment on the specifics – partly because it’ll get me sacked, and second because I’m sick of talking about it. It leaves me with one question that I’m asking myself virtually every day… why bother? It’s utterly disheartening to take a job in an airline expecting a respectable income and improved lifestyle, only to learn that the complete opposite applies. In truth, I never considered the adverse consequences of a career in aviation because I was selfish enough to let my motivation and unbridled passion guide me, and stupid enough to let people use that passion as a tool in ‘controlling’ me.
Airline life is very much a vocational pursuit – not unlike (yet very different to) a priest. There’s a lot we have to know, and knowing it all is never enough. We’re always looking for ways to broaden our education, we’re always reading, we’re always writing, we’re constantly thinking and we’re always talking about ideas that are for the betterment of our craft – yet we’re treated by our non-flying management (that dictate the terms of our employment) like we’re a disposable diaper. Long gone are the days where pilots were treated or paid as professionals. In fact, I know plenty of professional airline pilots that are paid less than an 18-year-old manager at McDonalds. Why is it so dammed hard to pull the pin on this life of mediocrity and get a real job?
So, I ask: what’s the point of investing all our time, effort, energy and money into an employer that doesn’t give anything in return. Where do we source the motivation to read all the nonessential but required bits of information from obscure manuals? Why invest anything into an employer that doesn’t invest anything in return? What little motivation that remains in our life is often crushed by a working environment riddled with lies, issues of trust and utter contempt for our profession. How can anybody question why motivation is an issue?
One pilot I worked with recently was adamant that we treat our career paths as self employment. “You don’t work for an airline”, he said, “You work for yourself – don’t put anything into your job that you don’t get paid for”. What sort of attitude is that, really? Why doesn’t management engage their workforce in a way that will illicit loyalty and trust? If a happy worker is a productive worker, isn’t an unhappy pilot an unsafe pilot? If a pilot isn’t motivated to embrace his profession as a vocation isn’t safety being compromised? If the investment into knowledge is commensurate with income then it could be argued that pilots don’t put any effort into their trade outside of the bare essential knowledge necessary for what they consider ‘safe flight’ – and of course the bare essential knowledge is open to an interpretation that no pilot should ever have to make. The second that a flight crew member stops learning is another chunk of cheese from Reason’s model that may contribute to any sort of incident. Perhaps I’m being overdramatic… chances are I am… but there’s no disputing that pilots – like any person in any workforce – will only do what’s necessary if that’s all their getting paid for. It is human nature to put into a job whatever it is you get out of it – nobody wants to be taken advantage of.
Motivation, of course, relies in part from the potential upgrade to a higher rank. If an upgrade (and the associated increase in salary) isn’t a realistic proposal then whatever motivation might be obtained from that proposition won’t exist either. Fortunately, I’m not talking from personal experience, but I’m commenting on the infectious contempt that affects our occupation industry-wide. I’m frustrated with the way pilots are treated… and I’m no longer the industry advocate I once was for youngsters considering a career in the trade. Despite the fact that I love doing it, I just don’t see a future in it.
“But these are all methods of keeping current – and while IT may occasionally motivate me to one degree or another – what do you use? When your career looks like it’s stagnating (as several areas of the pilot segments in my airline seem to be at the moment) and you finding it hard to get the enthusiasm up to go to work – how do you motivate yourself to keep a standard?”
I find it strange that Ken would question why motivation is an issue.
Like Ken, I invest lots of energy into IT to detract attention from the trials of aviation. In terms of my commitment to my job, I’m fortunate that I’ve enjoyed a degree of latitude in my job description that allows me to utilise a skillset beyond just flying an aircraft; I built (from scratch) a Learning (and Information) Management System for my employer that now handles regulatory learning, document storage, discussions, roster swaps and a bunch of other stuff, and I’ve just started as a Crew Resource Management facilitator (which may motivate me to launch that CRM blog I’ve been talking about). I do what’s necessary when it’s necessary yet I never compromise on my commitment to learning beyond the boxes the airline considers necessary. Outside of work I do all sorts of stuff… with IT being the unhealthy focus. Although my focused and very determined commitment to my job does not waiver, and while I’ll never cease my personal pursuit for ongoing professional development, I’m constantly looking for sources of motivation – but sometimes it’s just too hard.
One thing I’m sure of – and it’s sometimes hard for pilots to see this through our foggled focus – is the importance of everything other than aviation. It’s just a job, isn’t it?
Despite my apparent cynicism (I know how this post reads), I’m not bitter nor disgruntled – just disappointed at the evolution of our industry.
Ken, although I’ve personally found a healthy balance in my life, a lot haven’t – and this post is in part written on their behalf. You query where people find motivation. I ask in reply, tell me why they should bother?