An Inside Look – “Quite a career!”?
by Guest Editor Jay Selman.
It was exactly 33 years ago that I began my airline career with Piedmont Airlines. June 25, 1981 was a beautiful sunny day when I first stepped onto the ramp at Washington National Airport as an airline employee. I remember the ramp smelling of coffee, and I quickly discovered that there was an art to hoisting myself into the belly bin of a YS-11 without hitting my head on the bin ceiling. Every time a plane took off on what was then runway 36, I simply had to stop and take a look, I felt like I was the luckiest guy in the world!”
Copyright Photo: Bruce Drum/AirlinersGallery.com. NAMC YS-11A-205 N219P (msn 2109) of Piedmont Airlines taxies to the runway at Fayetteville, NC.
Those were halcyon days for me, and to be honest, I didn’t realize how good I had it then. The captains usually found a way to take care of airline employees traveling on pass…often in the cockpit. Man, I loved that! Heck, one time, I was one of seven people in the cockpit of a 727! The captain gave me his “brain bag” and said, “Son, this is your seat for the next two hours, so hang on!”, and I replied, “Thank you, sir!”
When I worked in Newark, we had three flights a day that went up to Boston and came right back. The pay wasn’t that great in those days, so I thought nothing of flying up to Boston on the morning flight, enjoying a breakfast on board, and then flying back, having lunch along the way. For dinner, we could usually count on one flight canceling, and catering would unload the meals in the ops office, where I was working at the time. We could usually get free passes on other airlines, and I sure made the most of them. To date, I have set foot in over 40 countries on all six inhabited continents. (Some day, I will figure out a way to add Antarctica to that list!).
One day, I was flying from Heathrow to Kennedy on a Pan Am Boeing 747, and the check-in agent looked at my PI employee number on the pass and said, “Oh, you are P1 (one)…we can upgrade you to first class! I played dumb, and for the first time, experienced the luxury of a true intercontinental first class service, complete with caviar, plenty of vodka to wash it down, and a couple of glasses of Dom Perignon. I truly enjoyed that trip…at least, the part I remember!
I started out working part time at Washington National Airport with no benefits other than travel. It didn’t matter…there was never a shortage of people willing to work for $6 something an hour in exchange for being able to travel for free. After passing all my tests that were requirements for upgrading to full time, I transferred to Newark in 1983 as a full timer. Those were the days when PEOPLExpress (1st) was growing by leaps and bounds…and Piedmont was vigorously defending its territory in the southeast. Newark grew to become the largest non-hub station on the Piedmont system, and working there was a great learning experience for me. 3 ½ years later, in April 1986, I transferred to Raleigh-Durham, where I spent the next 13 years. In 1999, I transferred again to Miami, which was like being reassigned to heaven. As an airplane enthusiast, I can’t think of a better airport to have ramp access at. Being in Miami also allowed me to connect with some old friends, and opened the door to my becoming the editor of Airliners magazine for a couple of years..
Things changed, and I transferred to Charlotte in 2006, and, like Moses wandering in the desert for 40 years, I feel like I have finally reached the Promised Land. (The difference is, of course, that Moses never got to enter the Promised Land!). I am very happy in Charlotte, and plan to finish out my career here. Three mergers and two corporate bankruptcies after I started with Piedmont, I still have a job, unlike many of my colleagues at Pan Am, TWA, Eastern, and Braniff, to name a few. The merger between Piedmont and USAir represented the biggest change for us…Piedmont was a way of life, and USAir was a job, although still a good one. I’ve lost track of how many different computer systems I have used over the years, as I get ready for yet another change of computer system, uniform, and name. The industry today is barely recognizable from the industry I began working for.
When I started, the Boeing 737-200 was the backbone of Piedmont’s fleet. Today, the last of the US Airways 737-400s are a few weeks away from leaving the fleet. Gone are meals on most domestic flights, and even on intercontinental flights, I’m not likely to get caviar and Dom. I can’t say I’m happy about the changes that have occurred in my industry, in general, and my company, specifically, but I still feel like I have one of the best jobs in the world.
Some days, you’re the big dog and some days, you’re the fire hydrant. I come to work with the attitude that I am going to have a good day, and I really do have more big dog days than fire hydrant days. I can wake up in the morning and decide to have dinner in New York, San Francisco, or London…as long as there is an empty seat on the plane, I’m all set.
Through my job, I met a wonderful kind-hearted woman who agreed to be my wife. I work in an airport environment, which to me is the equivalent of a young kid working in a candy store.
When I started 33 years ago, I could not begin to imagine where the journey was going to take me, but I have to admit it’s been a very good ride. There have been plenty of unforeseen twists and turns along the way, but all in all, I still consider myself blessed to be working in the industry that has been my lifelong passion.
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