I got the inspiration for writing my book from my life experiences as a professional pilot. I enlisted in the Army immediately after high school graduation and during basic training, I took the test for Officer Candidate School and scored quite well. With good recommendations from my commanding officers, I was selected for the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant later that year, barely one month after my twentieth birthday.
In the following years I won my wings as an Army Aviator and while flying multi-engine cargo and reconnaissance airplanes, I took part in the Army Air Mobility tests and ultimately, I flew combat missions for two years in the Viet Nam War. Leaving the Army after eight years of service, I went to work for a major airline based on the west coast and settled into California suburban life with my family. After a few more years, we moved to Colorado and made our home there as I flew from my airline’s Denver base. During these times, the airline industry was tightly regulated and although advancement was slow, we were fairly well assured of a steady job.
I served on the Boeing 727 as Second officer and as First Officer but I was with the airline for over eleven years before I checked out as jet Captain. While I never made the top pay levels with the passenger carriers, the pay was still quite good and we enjoyed the many outdoor activities of life in Colorado.
In the late nineteen-seventies, disturbing rumors of plans to deregulate the airlines began to circulate among airline employees. More disturbing were the rumors of how it might affect all of us. Deregulation was intended to increase service and competition and ultimately benefit the American public by lowering fares and using seating capacity on the airplanes more efficiently. The new law hit the industry like a fast moving storm and the airlines and their managements had never experienced anything like this in their careers. One famous carrier entered an aggressive expansion program, buying and leasing dozens of airplanes and hiring pilots faster than their uniforms could be tailored. Unfortunately, this airline had chosen to expand in the face of the recession of the early nineteen-eighties and soon went bankrupt.
Other carriers, some made vulnerable by under capitalization, were circled by corporate raiders, waiting for the opportunity to attack like hungry sharks. My own airline became a target when the stock price suffered during labor strife. The takeover was consummated through the use of “Greenmail” financed by “Junk Bonds”, low quality, unsecured corporate debt securities. Sound familiar? It should because this is where the shoddy securities practices of today began in earnest.
The ultimate vulnerability for airline employees, particularly for those in the unions was the fact that companies undergoing Chapter Eleven Bankruptcy Reorganization were at that time allowed to unilaterally abrogate their labor contracts. For more than a year after the takeover, our union, the Airline Pilots Association, (ALPA) held its collective breath awaiting the inevitable move. We were aware of how the surviving airline had restructured into a maze of separate holding companies but few knew the details of how so much of the debt of the parent company was thrust onto our own airline to the extent that it would be impossible to service that debt. In short, my airline was deliberately put into the position where bankruptcy and reorganization were the only course.
Just as certainly, as the bankruptcy occurred, the labor contracts were abrogated. Union employees were allowed to return to work if they would agree to take fifty percent pay cuts and agree to company dictated work rules and schedules. It was an offer the unions had to refuse or lose all credibility. In protest, the leadership of the unions called for a strike and the memberships voted to do so. The airline continued to fly using management pilots and the few union members who decided to cross picket line and fly as strike breakers. The battle began in earnest when outside strike breakers were hired
There followed a bitter two year struggle that ended with the defeat of the unions. Some of the striking union members went back to work under company imposed rules and others decided not to, citing their inability to work for a ruthless and unethical employer. Some pilots caught on with other airlines and others left the industry entirely, ending their lifelong careers.
For some, it was a matter of life and death as there were several suicides, one of whom was the former CEO of our airline. The CEO of the surviving carrier was called “The Most Hated Man in the Airlines” by more than one pundit. Unsurprisingly, he faced death threats on his person but it seemed that he relished the attention and swaggered about surrounded by security toughs, at least one of whom was known to be an international assassin.
At this time, most of us are repelled by the horrible incidence of mass killings and the fact is that rational people don’t set out to kill their boss or to massacre the innocent. I wrote my book as a study on how a normally rational person can find himself driven to carry that out, as well as to serve as a cathartic in maintaining my own rationality.
In view of current events, most notably the greedy awarding of billions in bonuses to Wall Street bankers and brokers, and the populist outcry in response to this abuse, raises much darker issues. Airline deregulation was the first act in what has become the unconscionable abuse in the banking, securities and utilities industries that resulted from the general deregulation.
The pundits may joke of the “mob of people with the pitchforks and torches,” but what we may be facing are the opening acts of bloody and chaotic revolution. We have to hope not, but hope is not enough; we must act.
J.R. Hauptman is the author of the murder mystery novel, The Target: Love, Death and Airline Deregulation (Caddis Publishing). You can visit J.R. on the web to find out more about his exciting new book at www.caddispublishing.com.