As an airline customer based in the United States I’m mostly used to the way that American carriers source their pilots. Most are former military or have paid a huge sum of money to fund their own private training and then hope to make it through the long days of work at regional carriers before making it into the big birds. Lufthansa’s approach to pilot recruitment and training is quite different. They subscribe to the Ab-Initio training plan, where each pilot is brought in completely green and trained from the ground up in the Lufthansa way.
As part of StarMegaDo 2010 a group of about 30 of us were invited to visit the Airline Training Center, Arizona (ATCA) where aspiring pilots are given their initial in-flight training experiences. We got to meet with the students and the folks who run the program. Oh, and we all got to actually experience the flight training through flights in the same simulators that the pilots learn in.
We were welcomed to the facility by Matthias Kippenberg, the President and CEO of ATCA. A pilot who was trained in the same facility more than 30 years ago, who flew the 727, 737 and 747 for various private groups as well as Lufthansa, Matthias has been leading the training group in Arizona for 3 years now. Mr. Kippenberg oversees the training of approximately 240 pilots annually, helping to continue feeding the tremendous demand that the parent company has for additional pilots.
After a brief introduction outside the facility we were escorted onto the flight line (“Badges, we don’t need no stinkin’ badges”) to see one of the Bonanza aircraft that the aspiring Lufthansa pilots start their training in.
We got to climb in the plane and get a feel for what it is like inside, including the fact that they planes are not air conditioned which can be a bit warm in the summer months.
Following the walk-through on the flight line we got to see the maintenance facilities and then, the highlight of the day, actually flying in the simulators.
After the flying we headed over to the cafeteria for a delicious lunch and a Q&A wrap-up with the student pilots and training coordinators. Along the way we happened upon this celebratory scene walking the grounds of the facility. The pilot being carried had just completed his first solo flight and his class-mates were helping to celebrate the event. There is a tradition in the flight world that says following the first successful solo flight one cannot have their feet touch the ground until they have been in the water first. As such, the next stop of this caravan of friends was the swimming pool facility on the property. I’m sure he doesn’t mind getting wet for this one.
The food was top-notch (and we were thanked by many of the students for showing up as it meant they get the upgraded catering for the day). Here’s dessert, ice cream in chocolate. Hard to complain at all.
It is worth noting here that the 20 folks who got to participate in the flight simulator portion of the event were chosen not by luck and not randomly. They were chosen by their generosity. All told, we raised over $5,000 in charitable contributions to Help Alliance, the Lufthansa corporate charity. Simply amazing.
“I really don’t know what to say to you,” Doug Parker began. “The part I don’t know how to describe is why you’re doing what you’re doing.” The 150+ FlyerTalkers felt the same way as they struggled to understand Parker’s Darwinian philosophy about the future of the American airline industry — an oligopoly featuring permanently higher fares and restrained capacity, in which baggage fees and a la carte pricing annually deliver $400-$500 million in pure profit. “If we didn’t have it, we’d be right back where we were before,” he said, “barely breaking even or worse.”
Parker isn’t the most popular airline CEO in the FlyerTalk canon, but U.S. Airways warmly welcomed the Mega DOers to the Desert Botanical Garden, where they nibbled at a breakfast spread and drank cappuccinos (to counteract the champagne) before Parker addressed them. During final descent into PHX, we’d been scolded on the PA to “be respectful of our hosts — his name is Doug, not ‘Dougie.’” But the audience was quiet and polite — or maybe just depressed after listening to Parker’s worldview.
As amiably as could be, Parker laid out his bleak vision of the airline industry in which six carriers — United, Delta, American, U.S. Airways, Southwest and JetBlue — co-exist in a profitable equilibrium, one in which seat capacity is rigidly controlled to restore a measure of pricing, and consolidation continues to strip more seats out of the sky. The four things that could “screw up” this equilibrium are “loss of capacity discipline, and I don’t think that’s going to happen;” labor relations (“We can’t give it all back”); new entrants such Virgin America (“all we’d do is spend a lot of money fighting them off”) and government pressure to curb carbon emissions, leading to new taxes on aviation. Higher oil prices are less an issue than simply a fact of life, with costs being passed along to the customer.
As cynical as his formula is, it appears to be working. For the first time since industry deregulation in 1978, the airline industry is countercyclical, posting record profits while the broader economy is depressed. “Our third quarter results were the best in our company’s history,” he said. “What was required because of crisis is what’s got us making money.”
Predictably, the Mega DOers weren’t exactly stirred by this call to arms. A lengthy Q&A period followed, featuring questions about when the airline will finally solve its labor issues, ending the “East/West” split (he was non-committal), international expansion (don’t expect much anytime soon) and its role in the alliance. One attendee told the story of a flight last October in which she was told to “sit down and shut up” by a fight attendant during a medical emergency, and has been flying Continental ever since (from CLT to PHX, no less). Parker pleaded with her to reconsider — “You’re probably waiting three hours at Houston,” he said. “An hour and ten minutes,” she replied — before finally resorting to “in terms of running the airline, we’re doing better than they are.”
But the most anticipated question came from Art Pushkin, the former U.S. Airways elite who founded what was effectively a resistance group (FFOCUS, a.k.a the “Cockroaches”) before defecting to Continental and taking a hundred elites with him. By his own calculations, he has cost U.S. Airways at least $1 million since. His question: why are you alienating Chairmen by charging them for premium coach seats. Parker’s answer, in a nutshell: we’re selling some of them, but not all of them — and you have to get there first. “The goal is not to take them away from Chairmen and sell them to someone else — or to Chairmen. The room began to stir when Park insisted other airlines are doing the same thing — they’re not — and then countered with “I know they’re going to do the same thing we are.” Maybe, maybe not. But no one present wanted to imagine a race to the bottom.
Then he left, and we had an hour to kill chasing butterflies.
OK, count this post in the “Got Ya!” file. Along the way, this mileage run gathers a lot of booty and just coming out of Germany I’m heading for baggageville. OK, no self-respecting member of FlyerTalk should ever have to pay a bag fee given the troves of advice on how to earn elite and bypass the piggy bank of flyers that forms to your right. So, here’s just a sampling of my “take home” pay just so far:
Unless you’re a StarMegaDo participant, that is.
For the first time ever the lounge was opened up after hours to host a private event for customers and we had a blast. For about an hour we mingled, sampled a collection of the fine beverages on offer and enjoyed the luxuries that the lounge offers. A few lucky folks even managed to score one of the coveted rubber ducks from the bath suites.
OK, today is unlike any other day. I mean, just how many days do you start out on a mileage run of sorts with 70+ members of that special secret society of frequent flyers? Anyway, I’m just bidding my time at the gate waiting for my next connection when I hear across the way a few young ladies exclaiming their joy over some topic that clearly brings interest and excitement to themselves. The chosen term—O-M-G. O-M-G in todays lexicon stands for Oh My God or Oh My Goodness, that being a statment of exclamation. Since an exclamation is an expression of feeling, the next words from my mouth will be—S-M-D. You know, an exclamation of feeling about the Star Mega Do. Say it, say it with emotion. We, ladies and gentlemen are getting ready to rumble in the skies—forward march to the airport gate that greets us later today. Let me say it again … S-M-D.