View from the cockpit: why one of the world’s largest cargo airlines is unraveling
By Marvin Tait
The idea that a company’s employees are its greatest “asset” is a staple of the business world. Some leaders like Virgin’s Richard Branson suggest a business cannot serve its customers without serving its employees first. As a serviceman in the U.S. military, I was taught the people around you are always more important than any technology or piece of equipment, a lesson that has stuck with me to this day as a professional pilot.
The importance of motivating and serving your employees should ring especially true in the world of commercial aviation where highly-trained, experienced pilots are at the heart of any airline’s business model.
But at my airline, major cargo carrier Atlas Air, a management culture of disregard for pilots, combined with chronic under-staffing, has pushed our operations to a breaking point.
Years of sub-standard pay, benefits and working conditions have forced pilots to leave Atlas and the other airlines owned by our parent company, Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, in droves. We don’t have enough pilots; flights are delayed significantly on a regular basis; we are struggling to meet increasing demands of our customers like Amazon, DHL, the U.S. military and even the NFL. Company executives are grasping at straws to keep things running. Sometimes, they try to tell us we don’t even have time to wait at the gate for necessities that should have already been stocked, such as toilet paper or food for the flight crews, because the company can’t afford one more second of idle time.
Our schedules are chaotic. Imagine piloting a plane from Miami to Santiago, Chile, a seven-hour flight over treacherous terrain, only then to fly the same route back after a few hours of rest. Or imagine doing it across the Pacific Ocean from Los Angeles to Inchon, South Korea, and when you arrive in Inchon, you learn your employer forgot to book you a hotel. So, you sit on the phone with Atlas for hours in the middle of the night until you finally find a bed in a foreign city at 4 AM. You get a bit of rest, get up and do it all over again — several days a week.
Ask any pilot, and they will tell you that the mental and physical toll this takes on your body — not to mention the lives of your family — is profound. Studies show that chronic fatigue can have the same effects as intoxication.
As a pilot, signing your name to authorize a flight for takeoff is an assumption of responsibility for the lives entrusted to your care. It isn’t a decision we take lightly. There’s no room for a sliver of doubt.
That’s why when pilots call in sick or fatigued, it’s serious. One Atlas pilot called in sick recently because, after being stuck in a 100-degree cockpit with no air conditioning, he started to throw up violently and uncontrollably. Another decided to call in fatigued after realizing the scheduled time between two flights would not give him enough rest to safely operate a plane with more than 300 passengers.
Every responsible aviator is trained to make the same decisions my colleagues made. If you can’t operate at 100 percent, you do not fly.
But Atlas executives are operating from a different set of aviation standards. In fact, in a lawsuit that is the subject of a trial this week, Atlas is accusing my two colleagues above, and all Atlas pilots, of misusing our sick day and fatigue policies in some alleged attempt to disrupt operations. To be clear: our airline is so strained that just one pilot calling in sick can disrupt the entire global operation, but that is the fault of short-sighted managers, not the sick pilot.
When I heard Atlas’ accusations, I was confused and deeply hurt. There are entire chunks of my eight-year-old daughter’s childhood that I’ve missed in service to Atlas. I work grueling hours, flying from continent to continent to keep the airline running.
Atlas’ accusations show a gross misunderstanding of the values that guide me and my colleagues. Many of us are veterans and members of the armed services. The innate sense of responsibility, service and honor runs through us all. I’m proud of my work.
I’m not concerned about the outcome of the trial because I know the facts speak for themselves. At an airline that’s so frayed, it’s no wonder we get sick and fatigued sometimes.
What I’m concerned about is the future of Atlas. How will we live up to our commitments to customers? And perhaps most concerning: what message does Atlas’ actions send to the new generation of Atlas pilots? No one, but particularly the person flying your plane, should feel pressured to work when they are not at their best.
Marvin Tait is a first officer at Atlas Air.