The Dot-Com Air Force

A pilot's life at the bottom of the food chain

July 1, 2000

Flight coordinator Doug Van Singel climbs the stairs to the pilots' communal bunk room above the hangar. It's 5:15 a.m. Ten minutes ago, the last of four United Parcel Service jets landed here at Lansing, Michigan's Capital City Airport. Now Van Singel must perform the worst part of his job. He opens the bunk room door and barks a wake-up call to the dozen sleeping Superior Aviation pilots inside. Mission accomplished, he quickly shuts the door and flees their creative verbal and nonverbal acknowledgments. The pilots are all in their mid-20s to early 30s. Forget uniforms. Jeans, performance fleece, and "No Fear" baseball caps are de rigueur. With bleary eyes and matted hair, they file downstairs for weather, coffee, and copies of the morning paper's crossword puzzle. Van Singel has again interrupted their dreams of flying cushy glass cockpits for six-figure salaries. Now only partially awake, they greet another day of dues paying in the dot-com air force, flying Cessna 208 Caravans, 402s, 404s, and Swearingen Metros—airplanes that in many cases are well past their prime.

Companies such as Superior are called small-package airfreight expediters. They fly parcels weighing up to 120 pounds each from the UPS Boeings to smaller towns. Superior's routes and 45 airplanes are distributed across two-thirds of the continental United States, from Wyoming to South Carolina.

The Internet and overnight airfreight have rarified goods distribution and put warehouses on the endangered species list. Consumers are eschewing shopping malls for point-and-click convenience. The demand for this Internet/airfreight duo weighs even heavier in business-to-business transactions. A recent Boeing study pegs North American airfreight to Europe and Asia growing at double-digit annual rates. Airfreight within North America is growing twice as fast as passenger travel, and the Latin American market is coming on strong as well. Routes that Superior served a decade ago by carrying 800 pounds in the back of a Beech Baron now need a Metro lifting 3,000 pounds. And Superior's general manager, Steve VanBeek, envisions a day not far off when those routes may need Embraer Brasilias hauling 7,000 pounds. At UPS, times have never been better. In May 2000, it posted a quarterly net income of $813 million on sales of $7.2 billion.

In most cases, these good times have not trickled down to the expediters. While privately held Superior did not discuss financial results, a publicly held competitor, Air T (the parent company of Mountain Air Cargo and CSA), has watched annual revenues rise by 6 percent while earnings fell into the red and its stock price plunged by 50 percent between June 1999 and May 2000. Air T's results are not atypical within the expediter industry. To be sure, the recent fuel price spike hasn't helped, but a bigger problem is a pilot shortage exacerbated by the voracious hiring appetites of the rapidly growing regional airlines. The regionals themselves are losing up to 60 percent of their pilots each year to the major airlines.

Expediters like Superior inhabit the bottom of the food chain. "This business used to be fun," says VanBeek, only half-joking. "A client like Airborne, DHL, or UPS understands escalating fuel prices, but pilot-retention problems they don't." It is Superior's number-one problem: Before the company has amortized a pilot's training and can actually make money on the hire, the pilot leaves for greener pastures. Of the 25 new pilots that Superior hired in 1999, only 14 were still with the company after the first 75 days of 2000. The turnover rate, which ran at 60 percent last year, is tracking at 70 percent this year.

While it hasn't happened yet, VanBeek worries, "We may not be able to operate on all our routes because there are not enough pilots." VanBeek already has felt the pilot shortage personally: He has been pressed into flying some of the company's Part 135 passenger charters. He understands his pilots' motivations. "There are all kinds of opportunities out there that look a whole lot better than flying night freight." Then he quickly adds, "We're trying to get more money for these guys." Balanced against salaries of $80,000 to $120,000 paid to some regional jet captains, it will take a lot more money.

But for a low-time pilot starving on flight instructor wages, a company like Superior offers better starting pay than many commuters, stability, and a quick path to building multiengine time. Starting pay for a green Caravan pilot is $24,000; a Metro captain with a couple of years' experience can top out in the mid-fifties. Superior also offers paid training; bonuses to on-call pilots, instructor pilots, and check airmen; and cost-of-living stipends for pilots who reside away from the outstations. By industry standards, the company's 401K, health, and vacation plans are above average, and its pilots enjoy jump-seat privileges on several major airlines.

The deal looked good to Doug Hines, who with just 1,200 hours of piston pilot-in-command time began flying one of Superior's Caravans in 1997. After only 220 multiengine hours, most of it in 404s, he transitioned into the Metro with company-paid training at FlightSafety International. Less than three years after joining Superior's pilot corps, Hines now has more than 3,000 hours in his logbook, and 700 of that is the essential multiengine turbine time commuters look for when evaluating potential new hires.

VanBeek points out the job's other advantages. "You know your schedule, you make the same stops, you work five days a week." You are also away from home 12 to 15 hours a day. A pilot typically reports to the outstation at around 6:30 p.m. and lands at the hub by 9:30 p.m. There he bunks until 5 a.m. and is generally back at the outstation by 8 a.m. This leaves a big block of time during the day and makes for weekends that can last from Saturday morning until early Monday night.

Then there is the raw value of the experience. Single-pilot, night-IFR multiengine "is the most challenging type of flying the average pilot is going to encounter," says VanBeek. Superior's pilots fly some of the most demanding aircraft in some of the country's most difficult weather. Ice is almost a year-round concern on routes from the Lansing and Denver hubs. The 404s, with their geared engines, respond very badly to any form of abuse. The Metros are simply notorious on a number of maintenance and operating fronts, and none of Superior's has autopilots. One of Superior's older pilots, who is winding down a career spent mostly elsewhere in jets, dryly says of flying Metros, "It's fun to go back to needle, ball, and airspeed."

The weather assures that there will be little fun on this early morning in Lansing. Cold rain is soaking the brown-jacketed swarm of UPS loaders stuffing the seven Caravans, six twin Cessnas, and trio of Metros on the ramp. A few miles to the north, the rain changes to ice, then to snow. Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where the Metros go, is getting up to a foot. Houghton Lake is reporting 400 overcast, and both the outer marker and the glideslope are down at Traverse City.

As the pilots wait for the loading to finish, the coffee kicks in and the wisecracks begin. David Bowie lyrics blare from the stereo: "Here I am floating in my tin can, far, far from Earth." On cue a pilot opines, "Sounds like a Metro captain." Caravan pilot Tony Denault has drawn the proverbial short straw. A few minutes before 6 a.m. the loaders finish his airplane: He will be first up through the crud and have the honor of making the initial pirep.

The morning launch is under way. Coming off the third shift, three of Superior's A&P mechanics hang behind to attend to any minor glitches. As the loadmaster calls in the weight of each aircraft's cargo, the pilots give their fuel orders to Van Singel and his boss, Pat Moylan. Last night the planes had been filled to VFR minimums. With loaded weight now known they can quickly take on more fuel to tanker to the outstations. For expediters, pennies count. Moylan radios the three fuelers he has on the ramp with each airplane's order.

From behind the operations desk, he monitors Superior's nationwide fleet on a computer using the aircraft tracking program Flight Explorer. Armed with a multiline telephone with speed dial, Moylan braces for what bad weather and old airplanes can sow. It doesn't take long. By 7 a.m. six of the Lansing planes are up, and the phone starts ringing.

A loaded 402 is spewing black smoke on the ground in Grand Rapids; could be the prop governor. A backup plane is dispatched to grab the load. A Caravan has gone missed at West Branch, diverted to Houghton Lake and gone missed there, and is now proceeding to Saginaw. At Ironwood the snow is falling faster than it can be plowed off the runway, so the airport is closed. The Metro en route diverts to Iron Mountain. By 8:13, all six Denver planes are in the air and weather there forces one of the Metros to divert from Canyon City to Pueblo. Moylan and the pilots handle the chaos with aplomb.

For pilot Steve Witherspoon, who climbed into a Superior Caravan after learning his craft in Alaska, "This is the most fun you can have flying for money."

Mark Huber is a marketing executive and a contributor to Pilot. He lives and flies in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.