Updated: Jan 20, 2021
Atlantic Coast Airlines
It was in the fall of 2002 that I had finally obtained my dream job – a First Officer position with Atlantic Coast Airlines (ACA) based in Dulles, VA, flying the Jetstream 41 for United Express. ACA was one of the fastest growing regional airlines at the time. We had over 100 jets with primary crew bases at Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and Dulles (IAD) for United Express, and Cincinnati (CVG) and Boston (BOS) for the Delta regional operation.
Due to the bankruptcy and financial difficulties at United after 9/11, the decision to retire the Jetstream 41 was put on hold, which is the reason our class was assigned that airframe. It was a great airplane to fly, and the experience of having to crew a large turboprop, with plenty of challenging weather in some of the busiest airspace in the world, was second to none. That said, the United troubles continued to compound, and the regional carriers were forced to re-bid flying contracts.
As part of our contract at ACA, we took voluntary pay cuts. Keep in mind these were still in the “difficult days” of low wages; my pay rate was approximately $23 per hour. Typically, after the first year, you could voluntarily remain flying the Jetstream 41 and obtain the pay increase associated with flying the CRJ, which was around $36 per hour. However, since there was no movement or openings, the company didn’t honor that agreement, and we were only compensated approximately $25 per hour. Additionally, we had to begin paying union dues after our first year. My W-2 after my first full-time year at the airline was less than $19,000. All around, it was a tough time in the industry.
The dot-com bust, followed by 9/11, had triggered some difficult scenarios for the entire industry, and we certainly weren’t immune as a large United Express regional air carrier.
As an ironic similarity to the situation at that time, I began receiving the lovely furlough notices. I say ironic in that the first time I received one, I didn’t get furloughed. I then received a second one that was also cancelled. I will always give the company credit, they really tried – or sure appeared to have tried – to keep jobs, and they treated us pretty well overall in an era where employees of some regionals were treated poorly. When I received my third furlough notice, I decided that I was going to get a different job lined up before I got laid off.
Furlough Contingency Plans
If you know me, you know I value relationships above anything else. Back in the day, I was way more social and had made a lot of friends along the way. I began reaching out to anyone I knew that had a connection to Minnesota aviation, as my now wife and I were living in the Twin Cities area. A phone call to a friend connected me with the gentlemen who ran the University of North Dakota (UND) Aerospace Foundation training partnership with Cirrus Aircraft in Duluth, MN. A few days later, I had a phone interview and was hired.
My wife (girlfriend at the time) flew out to Washington D.C., and I spent a day showing her the area and the D.C. Mall. After which, we loaded up my Toyota Camry and headed west. While driving out of town, I received a call from our Chief Pilot – he had good news! The furlough was cancelled, and I was safe! I responded, “What? I am literally loaded up, driving west, with a job in Minnesota instructing lined up!” “Oh,” he said. “No problem, let me just set you up with a personal leave.” I was grateful, but it was… odd.
To sum up the remainder of ACA – the others from my initial class eventually did get to move to the jet. Then, after getting pushed around enough from their mainline contracts, ACA set out to do the impossible – rebrand themselves and go head-to-head with mainline United on the East Coast, with the new name of Independence Airlines. They dropped every airline base except Dulles, went only to CRJ 200s, and placed an order for the Airbus 319/20/21 series.
It was an exciting time for all who were still there, while I was watching from the sidelines for the time being. However, the airline market was extremely competitive, very saturated, and in the end, ACA set an unfortunate record: the fastest cash loss in modern times of any airline startup – to the tune of an excess of $300 million in cash equivalents. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2005 and then liquidation.
Staying Busy During Furlough
During my furlough, I was in my own unique situation. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is in their own unique situation. I was young, driven, single, no mortgage…, you get the picture. I immediately set out to GET a job. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way, I mean it in a confident way. If you believe you can do it, you can; and if you believe you can’t do it, you can’t. Arrogance can get you in trouble. Confidence and faith in oneself are very different and key ingredients to success during difficult times. Yes, I applied for a lot of pilot jobs. In the end, the first job I got turned out to be pretty amazing; a factory instructor for Cirrus would give me all kinds of resources for the next 20 years.
Some of the things I did not do during furlough: relax, sit around, take a vacation, or worry. Again, as a young single person without a family or mortgage, I simply wasn’t worried. My experience at the airlines wasn’t pretty, so I was intrigued at what would be the next stage. The unknown for me has always been exciting. Sometimes it has been good, sometimes it has been amazing; but it has also been tough, and as many have found in various avenues of aviation, it can downright… suck. However, isn’t the unknown and mystery part of the intrigue of life?
I’m a big believer in that everything happens for a reason, even the not-so-good stuff. I realize that there are tragedies that occur and are awful. I’m also not saying that the events themselves are ever good, so please don’t misunderstand me. But when I worked with a lot of business owners during my employment at Cirrus, there was usually a unique thread or common theme. Most of them came from… well, nothing. They had to overcome severe hardships, adversity, and difficult situations. That was what made them strong, creative, and confident. The very hardships they endured shaped them and later prepared them for future opportunities.
Advice Moving Forward
What does the furlough potentially give you? Can you even phrase it like that? Who knows where I’d be if I hadn’t had that experience at ACA. I would have never worked at Cirrus and built all of those lifelong relationships and friendships. I would have never worked for a large retailer and discovered that I hate retail. I would have never worked in a cubicle underwriting car insurance and learned that I could never work in a cubicle.
I wouldn’t have come back to UND to become one of the first five non-national JCAB (Japanese Civil Aeronautics Bureau) Designated Pilot Examiners (with the pilot certificates to go along), including two trips to Tokyo. I would have never been called out of the blue by some random ER Nurse who got my name and wanted to talk about his idea for an air ambulance business – we would go on to start and grow a company operating six Pilatus PC-12s with over 40 full-time employees. If history had changed, my kids wouldn’t have been conceived at that exact time – and I wouldn’t have my four imperfect but perfect kids. I would never have built our beautiful log home along the Turtle River.
You never know where life will take you. I do tell people one thing; if you go to Delta, United, or American when you’re 28 or 35 or whatever… you will NEVER be 40 and think, “Jeez, maybe I’ll head up to Alaska and go fly for a year.” Or something along those lines. What experiences will you get? And better yet, who will you get to meet, and what new relationships will you make that would have never happened? I heard at a Tony Robbins event last year, “What if life was always happening for you instead of to you?” That about sums up how I am – in the good unknowns, and the bad. Life will always give you curveballs, unknowns, loss, difficulties, etc. The question will be, “What will you do?”
Dan Malott is an Assistant Professor at the University of North Dakota and a business entrepreneur. Dan graduated from the University of North Dakota in 2001 earning a B.S. in Commercial Aviation and later obtaining an M.B.A. He is a certified Airline Transport Pilot, Certified Flight Instructor (ASE/ME/IA), and holds a JCAB Commercial Pilot License with an Instrument Rating. Dan has acted as the owner and operator of several successful business ventures including the position of co-founder and Vice President of Valley Med Flight. To see more, visit his free interview preparation videos as well as his flight instructor and furlough preparation courses.
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