Varrin’s Aviation Story – Comair Airlines

Note: This was written in 2003. I have left it as is. Comair ceased operations on September 29th, 2012.

Comair

I was officially hired at Comair in April of 1996 after successful completion of my EMB-120 Brasilia training.  The training in the Brasilia was tougher than I expected.  Looking back on it now, it was tougher than it really needed to be and I hear it’s much more ‘user friendly’ now.  Flying the Brasilia was much better than anything I had flown until that time. It features a flight attendant, an APU and an autopilot – the essentials for any airliner.  Though there aren’t coffee makers onboard, they do have hot pots with coffee available.  I’m not sure exactly how healthyit is, though.

Brasilia
But you will need some coffee flying for a regional airline.  The Brasilia’s full-passenger range is not very long.  We did do some 2-hour trips, but we couldn’t carry a full load of people.  Hence, the flying consisted of a lot of shorter legs, many under an hour.  There were a few trips with 9 leg days, but the most I ever did in a day was 8. Most common was to do 5-7 legs a day for an average of around 5 hours of flying time each day.  I started out on reserve (on-call) but started getting lines fairly quickly after being hired.  Movement at Comair was fairly brisk the entire time I was there due to expansion.  The pay wasn’t the greatest though.  First year pay was about $14,000 and 2nd year pay as a Brasilia F/O was about $23,000, if I recall correctly. The Brasilia is a turboprop and there’s really no comparison between that and a jet.  There were some things I did like about it though.

It was heavy on the controls but it was great to hand fly due to the fact that it was all cables, no augmentation (except for the rudder), and there was a strong feeling of connection to the airplane.  It made great (though physical) crosswind landings.  I also liked the giant trim wheel which could be used during hand flying to finesse pitch control.

After a year and a half of flying the Brasilia, I finally took the plunge and bid to fly the Canadair Regional Jet.  Flying the RJ meant a big step up in many ways.  It had jet performance, higher pay, real coffee makers, longer legs, and a little more ‘status’ than a turboprop.  As for the schedules, there were some 6 and 7 leg days flying the RJ, but the average was less than in the Brasilia.  I recall a particular 4-day trip that only had 10 legs in it (all at least 2 hours long).  I would say the norm was more like 4 or 5 legs a day, and there were many more trips that were over 1 1/2 hours, mainly because the range of the airplane is significantly longer.  The coffee was better and the pay for a 3rd year F/O was somewhere north of $30,000, still not fantastic but finally enough to live on.My Dad in front of the 100th RJ

Flying the RJ was a lot of fun.  It had 50 seats, the maximum allowed with just 1 flight attendant, so the crew was still somewhat ‘intimate’ but it felt more like a real airline gig.  The plane is fantastic too. I’ve seen the EMB-145 series (135/140/145, etc) and the Canadair is simply a much better airplane, though a bit more expensive to buy and operate. The training was significantly easier than Brasilia school.  The airplane is all glass (EFIS, EICAS, FMS, etc.) and, once you learn the color logic, the whole airplane just makes sense.  I was paired up with another First Officer and we did well through the entire program.  My sim instructor for that training was fantastic and the simulator was much better quality than the Brasilia simulators are (and I’ve flown several different Brasilia simulators).

I have all the admiration and respect in the world for the engineers that put that plane together.  I really do miss flying on it and every time I ride on one I get a little jealous of the pilots.  Though it doesn’t climb well up in the 20’s and higher, it is fairly fast, cruising at M.77 or sometimes faster (Mmo is .85 but there wasn’t enough thrust to get it going that fast in level flight).  Though I didn’t feel quite as ‘connected’ to it, it was enjoyable to hand fly once I got used to it. Particularly nice was the brisk rate of roll.  The automation is wonderful, though the basic design of the airplane is elegantly simple.  From an automation standpoint, the only thing lacking is autothrottles, however, honestly, the airplane doesn’t need them.

Varrin in Nassau
I flew the RJ for a couple of years as a First Officer before I decided it was time to upgrade.  In mid-2000 I bid for a Captain position and went back to school again.  Comair didn’t have (and I think still may not have) an upgrade program.  So I went through initial school all over again.  This time, my ground instructor didn’t know the airplane quite as well as before.  Fortunately, the other upgrading Captain and I kept him honest and made sure the other new First Officers in the class got all the right information.  The sim training was even more enjoyable, partly because I had a good First Officer to work with, and partly because I had done it before and could relax and just enjoy it.

I wasn’t quite senior enough to hold a line as a Captain yet and wound up on reserve the rest of my time at Comair.  That part was not so pleasant. At that time I had moved back to California and was commuting to work in Cincinnati.  The commute wasn’t a terrible challenge like some were (particularly those that commuted from Florida), but it was fairly time consuming. The pay, even on reserve, was quite a bit better, though.  I don’t recall exactly how it would have turned out for a whole year but it was somewhere around $50,000 per year, low for Captain on a jet, but livable if you have a reasonable lifestyle.  The down side was only having 10 days per month off and spending 3 or 4 of them commuting back and forth to California.

The real problems that led to my departure from Comair started much earlier. Our contract was amendable in June of 1998 and we began negotiations for a new contract.  At the time, I had some expectations based on the idea that it wouldn’t take to long to negotiate a new contract.  Unfortunately, it took 3 years.  Shortly before negotiation time (a few months, maybe a year), a new flight operations management team was hired.  It consisted of 3 people in particular who would wind up on the negotiating committee for management that had worked for Frank Lorenzo at Eastern and/or Continental. It turns out they learned from industry leader at how to destroy a good thing. After over 2 years of negotiation, little progress had been made on the important issues.  By that time, the nature of the industry had changed as had the expectations of the pilot group.

In the mean time, several other things happened that began to make working for Comair less enjoyable.  One of the biggest ones was getting sued. During the course of our negotiations, the mechanics were also in contract negotiations.  Late in 1999, they voted down a contract and a significant number of experienced mechanics left the company to work elsewhere. This dramatically affected the quality of maintenance at Comair.  Around the same time, many of the Comair pilots became so frustrated with the pace of our own negotiations that we really quit going out of our way to keep things moving.  As a result of these two things, the number of mechanical problems with the airplanes increased dramatically and our on-time performance decreased dramatically.  Management proceeded to accuse us of an illegal job action and filed a lawsuit against the pilots.  In the end, the suit for damages was thrown out by the judge, though he issued an injunction prohibiting the pilots from making “improper maintenance writeups”.  Needless to say, the tone of things had changed for the worse.

All along, there had been an agreement between the pilot and management negotiators to keep the negotiations at the table and not discuss specific contract proposals outside of the negotiating sessions.  In late 2000 that ‘silence’ got broken.  Even prior to that, I was beginning to wonder if we would get enough out of the negoatiations to make it worth it for me to stay there.  Keep in mind, we weren’t asking to break the bank and we were negotiating with a regional airline that was netting over $160M a year as of the last numbers reported (Comair was bought by Delta during contract negotiations and, hence, quit reporting financial results).
In November of 2000 the union leadership held a meeting to lay out for the pilot group the specifics of what was happening at the negotiating table. This was in response to management pulling pilots aside and talking privately with them about specific proposals.  After hearing what was said at that meeting, several things became apparent.  First, my hunch that things weren’t going to be as good as I had hoped for was correct.  Our negotiators were asking for what was, at that time, my bottom line.  Management was still, of course, asking for consessions.  They were a world apart and they certainly would have to meet somewhere between the two, well below my bottom line.  Furthermore, it appeared to me like it was more likely that we would not get the amount of retroactive pay I was expecting and that we might actually have to strike to get anything we wanted. That evening I went back to my crash pad (formerly my home), called my wife and told her I was looking for a new job.  Within a few weeks, I was hired at World Airways and delivered my 2-week notice to Comair in December of 2000.  My last trip was shortly before New Years, though I was officially employed a few days into January.

The Comair story doesn’t end there, though.  After I left, negotiations continued to go poorly until March when the parties were released to a 30-day cooling off period.  Not only was there a strike, but it was long. 89 days and 3 offers later, the pilots went back to work with an agreement that, indeed, I would not have been happy with.  It was, to me, a tragic sequence of events that put a black mark on the history of one of the greatest regional airlines ever to fly.

Having been through all of that gave me a different perspective on the regional airlines.  Comair was, to some, the envy of the regional airline industry.  We made lots of money, had lots of shiny new jets (more than anyone else in the world), and flew to lots of places.  But those things don’t necessarily make for happy employees.  In the latter part of my time there, I rode on SkyWest very regularly and got to talk to the pilots there.  In fact, we even had at least one pilot (that I can recall) who left Comair to go to work for SkyWest.  As a result of my exposure to Comair, SkyWest, and several other regional airlines, I’ve come to the conclusion that SkyWest may well be the best regional airline in the country to work for.  They always had at least as good of a deal as Comair did (from a pay and benefits standpoint) and were treated with respect, all without a union.  I think had I gone to work there, I’d probably still be there.

 

Intro – Document history, purpose, and introduction
History – How I got started – the story before the story
Comair Aviation Academy – Details about my time as a student and instructor at Comair Aviation Academy, now Delta Connection Academy
Comair Airlines – Information about flying for Comair Airlines
World Airways – Information about flying for World Airways (Updated May 27th, 2014)
Nippon Cargo Airlines – Information about flying for Nippon Cargo Airlines
Conclusion – A wrap up of the whole story

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