I was hired at Flight Options on July 19, 1999 …and I drank the Kool-Aid. Upon my hire, CEO Kenn Ricci spoke with us in company meetings and convinced us that we would be the best fractional operator in the country, that we would overtake Netjets in market share and that would always be the highest paid pilots in the industry. All of my co-workers and myself were young, motivated, and ready to do what it took to make our new company as successful as we possibly could. It all seemed too good to be true. Our CEO assured us that he had taken his door off to his office so we could walk in any time to speak with him directly about anything. After about a year, I upgraded to Captain in the Citation II/V fleet. In these early days, upgrades were not based on seniority, but on performance. My eyes were on the Challenger and the Falcon 50 fleets, where the “real iron and money” was. I was working hard during that time to achieve the upgrade.
All was wonderful until, about 2 years in, I started to see the cracks in the façade. The people who were getting the upgrades to the “heavy iron” were people who didn’t necessarily perform their jobs in the same manner that I did. Much like the Red Label programs of today, we were aircraft assigned, and I must admit, I was proud of the aircraft that I was assigned to, taking great care to keep it in tip-top condition. It turned out that our CEO and management had a different definition of “tip-top shape” than I did. Their definition didn’t want our airplanes in truly tip-top shape, they just wanted them in the air, making money. The pilots who got the upgrades were pilots like my colleague, assigned to my airplane on the opposite 8-7 schedule. I would constantly arrive at the airplane on Day 1 to find that he had flown 40 hours throughout the week, and the airplane had multiple unreported maintenance discrepancies. I would then properly report the maintenance discrepancies and sit in the hotel for 2-4 days while they were fixed. When I complained about this to my Program Manager (who is now an IRL pilot in the Global), he suggested that maybe I was just being too nit-picky. If being “nit-picky” means writing up obvious electrical, hydraulic or pressurization issues, then I was guilty as charged. Soon my colleague became a Check-Airman, defining and enforcing our standards (or lack thereof) and my Program Manager got selected to be one of the elite “Senior Flight Officers.”
The Senior Flight Officer program was a program that rewarded the “best” employees, being awarded based on performance and subjective interviews performed by peer SFO’s. The intention was to retain a few and force attrition within the rest of the pilot ranks. In CEO (now Chairman) Ricci’s own words from his book “Management by Trust”:
“What we sought to develop was a program that allowed a comfortable—but not too comfortable—environment for stopover employees and an exceptional environment for committed employees. In other words, we simply wanted to under-compensate those who were there merely to build flying time and experience, so they could move on to the job they really wanted, and overcompensate those who were committed.”
Ricci, Kenneth. Management by Trust (Kindle Locations 967-970). Citation Books. Kindle Edition.
“We developed a two-tier pay and benefits program. The basic concept was to pay those in the committed tier—we called them Senior Flight Officers—above average and the rest of our pilots below average.”
Ricci, Kenneth. Management by Trust (Kindle Locations 973-975). Citation Books. Kindle Edition.
I began to see that Mr. Ricci’s “culture of trust” was actually a culture of fear and intimidation. His employee management and compensation philosophy was one that encouraged a disregard for Federal Regulations and backstabbing of fellow pilots in order to get ahead. I watched some of my friends walk through Mr. Ricci’s open door to express legitimate safety or operational concerns, and a week later, one way or another, they would find themselves unemployed. It turned out that what Mr. Ricci really wanted was to run the operation the same as he ran his small 135 operation; as cheaply as possible, to insure himself and his investors maximum profits. Rules and regulations were treated somewhat arbitrarily and adherence to them changed based on operational needs.
Shortly after all pilots were in the seats Mr. Ricci and his management wanted them, we then went to a Seniority based upgrade system. By this time, there was very little movement and the seats in the “heavy metal” were already full. Eventually, I had the Seniority to hold the Citation III and was the next in line for that aircraft. During this same time, the internet bubble burst and the company had stagnant to negative growth. We had a surplus of Falcon 50 pilots during that period. Management elected to send a Falcon pilot who was junior to me to the Citation III, so I had to wait until another Citation III or Hawker seat opened up. During that time I called Joe Salata and spoke with him about this matter, letting him know that I was not happy, and that this decision was costing me money. I requested that I at least be paid the money associated with the seat that I should have rightfully been awarded based on my seniority. Joe Salata’s answer was “No,” and that I was “lucky to work for a company that didn’t just fire surplus Falcon pilots.”
During part of this period, in the infancy of Fractional Ownership, we were operating Part 91 with no Duty and Rest Rules. More often than not, we received unscheduled 3 or 4 AM phone calls asking, “How soon can you be in the air?” All the while routinely working 14+ hour duty days. Our Chief Pilot at the time (now an IRL G450 “Aircraft Commander”) told us in a pilot meeting “there are days when you feel great and are able to work 18 hours and there are days when you can’t.” When the company was forced to operate part 91K or Part 135, the SOP’s (now called the FOM) stated that we were “expected to be contactable after the minimum required rest.” They could not use the word “required”, so chose the word “expected” instead.. I know of at least two pilots who were terminated for not being contactable during this time. Even though the SOP only said we were “expected” to answer our phone, we all knew that we were actually “required” to. By the way, our current FOM states:
4.4.3 Contacting Crew in “Additional Rest”
The Company may attempt to contact a crewmember once they have completed a required Rest Period after their last assigned Duty Period, but before their expected duty-on time. When doing so, the following procedure will apply:
• The OCC will only initiate contact after the crewmembers have received at least the minimum required rest.
• Crewmembers are expected to be contactable after the minimum required rest.
The only thing holding our management back from applying this standard once again is our binding contract between the pilots and the company. The contract supersedes our FOM.
In short, the company’s expectation was that pilots would be worked as many hours as possible. As a result of this there were many pilots sleeping in their cockpit seats just to try to get rested.
Maintenance practices were also abysmal. Prior to our unionization, I had to declare emergencies on three different occasions; 2 for cabin depressurizations and one for a duct overheat. In all three instances, the aircraft in question had been written up multiple times for these same faulty systems. Hydraulic fluid seeped from many hydraulic fittings and oil leaked from engines in various places, all the while we were told that this was normal. Many of us kept rain ponchos on our Hawkers which we put on before preflight inspecting the hell hole so that we did not get hydraulic fluid and oil all over our pilot uniforms.
Bear in mind this was all long before any mergers or any thought of unionization of the pilot ranks.
After a couple of more years, Flight Options consumed Travel Air much the same as it most recently has consumed Flex Jet. I remember managers complaining that the Travel Air Pilots would not comply with their demands. Our Sacramento maintenance base manager once told me that he didn’t know what was up with the Travel Air Pilots because they “always wrote things up and did not want to fly.” This sort of innuendo was constantly bandied about amongst the Flight Options ranks in the early days of Flight Options purchasing them. CEO Ricci used very disparaging rhetoric when talking about the Travel Air pilots and implemented a “scorched earth” seniority list integration which rewarded us as Flight Options pilots, but was detrimental to the Travel Air pilots. It wasn’t until he realized that he had a big personnel problem that he rescinded this policy and formed a committee to put together a new list. The new list still favored us, although I did not like the unfairness of it. He fired the “Fab 5” who eventually won wrongful termination lawsuits.
Eventually, when Mr. Ricci could not come up with investment capital to finalize the purchase of Travel Air, Raytheon exercised their right to take the company back from him. They eventually sold the company to an investment capital group, HIG whose sole mission was to maximize return for their investors. It was at this point that, not only were we expected to fly tired or sick, but to fly broken airplanes as well, the company began “shrinking to profitability.” It was during this time that we, as pilots, were finally able to achieve solidarity and unionize with 67% of our pilots voting in favor of representation by the IBT Local 1108 in March of 2006. HIG sucked out as much as they could of the company before eventually developing a relationship with Kenn Ricci, and he then returned to the Board of Directors in 2008. It was at that time the company decided that a Reduction In Workforce was necessary, and the Board approved the out-of-seniority termination of 70 pilots, including myself. I was called by two managers and informed that I was fired. These two same managers are now an “Assistant Aircraft Commander” on the Global and a Captain on the G450, even though one of them is junior to me on the seniority list. The union got our jobs back after 3 months and we were made whole. By this time, Mr. Ricci was “out” and in the open, he had retained control of the company, and was now Chairman of the Board.
We then eventually negotiated our first contract, which basically mirrored the NetJets contract, only with some improvements. Due to unfortunate timing, the contract ratification happened at the height of the Great Recession in 2010. By this time, I was a Steward as well as a Trustee on our Executive Board. The Mediator appointed by the National Mediation Board informed us that he would not release us to strike if we did not ratify the contract. He thought the contract was the best we could get given the recession. We, as an Executive Board, voted to bring it to the pilots who overwhelmingly approved the contract, even though the pay reflected the current economic situation. Although we did not achieve parity with Netjets, my pay went up about 70% because of the new pay scales and the removal of “slide to parity” where a pilot’s pay is frozen until the pay scale of an airframe caught up to his longevity.
We had a short 3 year period where everything was good. We had stability due to our binding contract with the company and our seniority really meant something. Then our company consumed Flexjet. Mr. Ricci took advantage of the situation and has, up until very recently, been able to keep the pilot groups separated and has effectively pitted the two groups against one another. He and his group of managers have been the one constant throughout all this, promoting themselves and their hand-picked pilots to the seats of the “heavy iron” much the same as he did in the old days. They have leapfrogged over the backs of the Flexjet pilots, in spite of seniority. What’s old is new again!
I feel like I am reliving the old days and do not want to return to the unsafe operations of yesterday, before we had union protection. There are too many good people here who will be ostracized once again by Mr. Ricci and his henchmen if we lose this union.
In summary, I refuse to go back to working unsafely in an unsafe operation. I will not comply with the Ricci way of flying tired, sick and unairworthy airplanes. What has the union done for me? It has given me the power to say “No” without fear of retribution.
Capt. Mike Nedrow