Variable Speed…for Your Sanity

by Jason Depew TPN Staff Writer

There are a few concepts in our world so ubiquitous that we don’t even realize that they’ve become unnecessary. Sometimes I notice terms in advertisements or on package labels and laugh at how meaningless it is that they’re touted as “features.” When was the last time you got excited about a wireless remote, an automatic transmission, or a variable speed drill?

Yes, there was a time when the only remote controls were attached to your TV by a wire. Can you imagine? You can still buy a car without an automatic (or continuously variable electronic) transmission, but it’s increasingly rare. I don’t even know if you can find a power drill that isn’t variable speed anymore, but my dad used to have one.

For 8-year-old Emet, my dad’s drill was challenging to use. Once you squeezed that trigger, it was full-speed-no-matter-what. If you weren’t prepared for that, you’d quickly destroy whatever project you were working on. I remember when he first bought a variable speed drill and we were both pleased and amazed at how much easier it was to use. It turns out that full-speed or nothing isn’t always good.

That concept appeared again later in my life. During one high school spring break, my two best friends and I decided to take a road trip from Colorado to Idaho and Utah…chasing women and adventure. We piled into James’ parents’ VW Golf and headed north toward the Wyoming border. Spring break is only a week long and we had places to be. We didn’t want to waste any more time driving than we had to, so without even discussing it, each of us drove as fast as he could stand it the entire way. I think our average speed for the trip was probably in the 80s…in an era when the national speed limit was 65. My crowning achievement for the driving portion of the trip was passing a Wyoming cop…on the right…on a long uphill…without getting pulled over.

It was fun to drive that fast the whole trip, but our moronic speeding had an unintended consequence. The first time we stopped for gas, we found that the car wouldn’t start after we were done refueling. The engine wouldn’t even turn over. We asked around the gas station, we used a pay phone to call home (yes, it was that long ago. I think we paid $0.67/gallon for Wyoming gas that day.) Nothing worked.

Luckily, we spent long enough looking for help that the poor motor got a chance to cool down. Worried that we’d be stuck in Nowheretonfieldville, WY, for the night, we tried starting the car one more time, and it roared to life. We shouted in triumph, high-fived each other all around, jumped in the car, and raced off…at the same breakneck pace as before.

We didn’t realize that we were probably causing our own problems until later. Instead, our solution was to hot pit at the gas pump for several legs. I cringe thinking about the wear that we put on that poor car.

I believe that people are like my buddy’s little VW Golf…if we run at full speed all the time we break. (This belief is based in part on having a MS in Human Factors.) I believe that your flying career, and your life in general, needs to be variable speed. Otherwise, you will eventually break.

Unfortunately, the military doesn’t really give you an option here. It requires you to work at least 5 days per week…forever. Those days aren’t the career equivalent of a 35 mph Sunday afternoon cruise either. They’re more like my 80 mph Cannonball Run across Wyoming as a young, dumb, and ugly teenager. The days are long. The mornings are early and the nights are late. The deployments are tough on you, but they’re even worse for your family.

Every once in a while, your personnel office will tell you they’re giving you a break. The problem is that most “cool down tours” really aren’t. Mine was supposed to be teaching USAF pilot training. I went from fairly long workdays and being deployed half the time in an operational squadron, to working 5 x 12-solid-hour days per week…continuously at Laughlin AFB. I found myself wishing I could go back to fighting the war so I could get some rest.

Other supposed “cool down tours” can be just as bad. RPA life is an endless haze of shift work. Upper-level professional military education may actually give you shorter hours, but it’s usually a 1-yr course bookended by PCS moves that are extremely stressful for any family…especially your kids. Most staff work involves extremely long hours because the types of officers who end up in staff leadership positions are there because they’re workaholics. (That’s not meant to be mean…look at it from a strictly utilitarian perspective. Staffs are machines and they exist to get work done. Who would you want running your staff?)

Long hours aside, life in the military is also significantly more stressful than you realize. As a pilot who aspires to write good and wants to learn how to do other stuff good too, it’s difficult for me to even express how drastic the difference is between those two lives. Take a look a what I wrote about stress in this post to get a better idea: https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/it-doesnt-matter-youre-going.

In the military, you’re like me and my buds, racing across Wyoming, unable to turn off the car because it wouldn’t start again. That is a tough way to spend 20 years.

I’ve written about a better way, suggesting the Ideal Career Path for a Military Pilot (Start here: https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/ideal-military-pilot-career-path-spelling-it-out-part-1.) It’s occurred to me recently that one of the best parts of this career path, and airline careers in general, is the ability to adjust the speed of your life. Let’s look at some examples:

When I bid for my schedule this October, it included 4 x 4-Day trips. (They were all great trips too!) However, my wife wanted to go to a professional conference during one of my trips and we didn’t have a good option for backup childcare. I’d also accidentally bid for a trip over Halloween, one of our family’s most beloved holidays. I didn’t want to miss Halloween with my kids, and I wanted my wife to be able to go to her conference, so I dropped those two trips. It cost us some money, but it was totally worth it!

Over the last year, I’ve averaged one dropped trip a month. I make a little less than I could, but I value time with my family more than I value the lost money. Even better, I’m still basically on par with my military peers who work nearly twice as much as I do. (http://www.aviationbull.com/2018/feb/26/airline-pilot-second-year-review)

I recently flew with a captain who uses a different strategy. He’s relatively senior in a lower-paying narrowbody category (the B717.) He bids reserve with weekends off and does very little work. He told me: “I’ll probably stop bidding reserve if I ever have to work more than 3 days a week.”

This is impressive. I work about 12 days per month and get about 63 hours of pay for my trouble. This captain works 12 days or less per month and makes no less than the Reserve Guarantee of 75-78 hours. Math, math… At his hourly rate of $245/hr, times 75 hours, plus 16% 401K contribution, plus 15% profit sharing, plus per diem, means he made at least $25K per month, or about $303,000 total last year. That’s a whole lot of money for spending 20+ days per month not working.

You can use the graduate-level version of this strategy if you fly a widebody aircraft. (Assuming your company has such things.) The main difference is that you wouldn’t have to work as much. Most widebody line holders enjoy their trips and don’t want to miss out on one, so there aren’t as many last-minute sick calls that require the company to use reserve pilots. I’ve spoken with more than one pilot who flew less than 5 days per month, for years on end, bidding reserve in my company’s large widebody categories. I recently flew with a B717 captain who was going back to the right seat of the B777. His new pay rate will be $10/hr less, but he could potentially cut 12 days or less of work per month to 5 or less. I’d say that’s worth the pay cut!

In this case, however, the captain bidding back to an FO seat was going to use yet another strategy. He was going to bid for a regular line instead of bidding for reserve. The B777 flies such long legs that a 3-day trip is worth at least 25 hours of pay. Three of those trips, for 9 total days of work, and your schedule is full for the month.

Yes, that’s a maximum of 9 days of work for full pay without even having to be on reserve. But wait, there’s more! That schedule only works in the months when you don’t have vacation. A week of vacation pays about as many hours as one of those trips. This captain has been around long enough that he gets 5 weeks of vacation every year. So, for 7 months he’ll work 9 days per month, then for the other 5 months of the year he’ll only work 6 days per month. That’s a grand total of 93 days of work per year. In case you’re wondering, that’s a great total of 93 days of work per year for roughly $441K/$301K for a captain or FO, respectfully. (Using 2019 pay numbers.) I won’t be able to hold the right seat of the B777 until Year 5 or 6 at my company. When I do, holding a line would pay me $275,000 per year, or about $3000 per day of work. That’s pretty amazing.

If you want or need more time at home with your family, one of these strategies can give it to you. If you’re following Uncle Emet’s Ideal Career Path (https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/ideal-military-pilot-career-path-spelling-it-out-part-1,) you could also use that extra time for more flying at your reserve unit. If you live where that unit is located, this could mean almost no time away from your family on reserve flying days.

The beauty here is: you aren’t locked into any of this. In the military, if you take an assignment, you’re basically locked into a schedule for the next 3 years, give or take. In the airlines, you can adjust the speed of your life month to month, week to week, or even day to day.

Let’s look at some ways you can crank that dial up:

First, you can be a senior line holder. Bid a full schedule with room to add more flying. As soon as your schedule comes out, put in requests for extra flying. The results will depend on your seniority, your company, and your fleet, but most airlines will have extra flying for you to do.

At Delta, you can get priority for this extra flying by bidding to do it for regular pay. (We call this a “White Slip.”) If you know that staffing or reserve availability are particularly low, or you live close to your base and have lots of flexibility, you can bid to do this extra flying for premium pay. This usually ranges from 1.5x to 2.0x your normal pay rate. (At Delta it’s double pay, and you submit a “Green Slip” to bid for it.) Dolla dolla bills anyone?

At Delta, you can do this as a reservist too. You can fly on your off days for regular or premium pay. It’s possible to use a strategy called Rolling Thunder to make unreal amounts of money. (A friend and I are working on a post where we’ll illustrate exactly how that works. Stay tuned.) I think Rolling Thunder could work at many other companies too, but I have yet to get deep into contract provisions when I run into old buddies flying for other companies.

On Year 3 B717 FO pay, one extra 4-day narrowbody trip yields about $4,600 in total compensation. That’s on top of an otherwise full schedule paying at least $183K/yr. If you do one of those per month, you’re boosting your annual income by $55,750K. If you’re chasing Green Slips, you could potentially double that number.

A Year 4 A330 FO flying one extra 3-day trip would earn an extra $7,100 in total compensation. Doing that once a month would provide an $85,000 boost to her $249K per year annual compensation.

As I said, this can change from day to day. Let’s say you’re sitting around with your family having dropped a couple trips for more time at home. Suddenly, Elon Musk knocks on your door and offers to take you out to lunch and give you a brand new Model 3 for $45K if you buy it right now. You can’t resist. Suddenly, you need to come up a sizable chunk of money. That $45K is almost 6 months of total compensation for an 11-year O-4 in the military. Or, you could log in to your airline’s system and start looking through list of trips available for extra flying. (Most companies refer to the collection of available trips as “Open Time.”) You start picking up trips. At Year 3 pay on the lowest-paying aircraft at Delta, I could pay off that Model 3 by flying 10 extra trips, if I bid to fly for normal pay. If I can manage a few GSs, I could potentially cut that number in half.

Granted, this is a pretty ridiculous example for some people. What might be a better reason? Maybe your child suddenly decides that she can’t live unless she attends Yale, at a cost of $70K/yr. Maybe one or both of your parents gets sick. They need help paying medical bills, paying off a house, or you need to move them in with you…any of which could cost a lot. Maybe your stay-at-home husband decides he wants to start a business and suddenly needs $50K to get started. (I’ve flown with each of those pilots.)

For a military pilot, these kinds of unexpected expenses will either tap into savings, or they just aren’t options. For an airline pilot, just crank the dial up to 8 or 9 for a few months and you’re good. Then, the moment you write the check to pay for this expense, you’re free to ease the dial back to a 6, or a 2, and go back to the easy life.

For the airline pilots in the Network, have you benefited from having this kind of flexibility in your lives? For our military pilot brothers and sisters, how much would you value having this much flexibility?

We could stop things right there, but I think it’s worth examining one more point:

At the airlines, if you turn the dial up and work more, you make more money…you’re compensated for your efforts. If you were to suggest this idea to the military machine, you’d just get laughed at.

Please forgive me, but this begs the question of how do you value your own time? How do you value the precious, finite number of minutes in your life? I’m all about being dedicated to a cause, and that’s exactly what military service is. However, when your job requires you to put in all kinds of long hours in the office, or spend months on end deployed, do you value your time so little that it’s worth spending all that time away from your family or doing busywork for someone else for no additional compensation?

Don’t get me wrong, the crux here, the driving issue, isn’t the money. It’s what you can do with your life in the future if you’ve earned enough money in the past. For me, if I’m going to sacrifice my precious time for something right now, it’d better give me a lot more time later on in life. This is a discussion so involved and complex that it deserves its own treatment in a separate project. I’m working on it….

For now, I just want you to think about the pace of your life. Is it actually sustainable? Are you at risk of breaking…of burning out?

My friend’s poor VW Golf had zero control over our speed selection on that road trip years ago. If it’d had some control, it probably would have governed our speed. It could have prevented some long-term damage, and we probably wouldn’t have had to worry about it starting after each pitstop. How much control do you really have over the pace of your life? If you want (or need) more control, there is no debate about the places where you can and can’t find it.

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