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Put down those mashed potatoes

Andy Stone

It’s hard to walk away from a food fight. The mashed potatoes and chocolate pudding are flying everywhere. You’ve got a bowl of creamed corn in your hand that you’re just dying to let fly.How can you resist?Damn, it’s hard – but I’m going to put down the gravy boat and walk away. It’s been great fun, but now it’s time to wipe the tapioca out of my eyes and write what I am sure we all hope will be my last words on this subject.The whole brouhaha started a few weeks back, when I wrote a column that was harshly critical of the deplorable Gate 61 in the B Concourse at the Denver airport, the gate for Mesa Air’s United Express flights to Aspen and Vail. I also stated – in no uncertain terms – that from the passenger’s point of view, the turboprop Dash-8s that Mesa operates are a giant step backward from the BAe-146 jets that Air Wisconsin flies on the same routes (also operating as United Express).I didn’t take any shots at any of the people who work for Mesa, on the ground or in the air. But that didn’t seem to matter – pilots from all over the country (not just Mesa Air pilots) started pelting me with everything they could lay their hands on. (“Food fight” is actually too polite a term.)So, although I’m still firm in my opinion of both Gate 61 and the Dash-8, I have learned a few things. First, pilots seem to have the same kind of loyalty to their planes that most of the rest of us have for our dogs. (I understand that emotion. My dog’s a lop-eared spotted mutt from the pound … but if you start insulting him, well, we’re just not going to be friends.)Second, a lot of pilots are pretty unhappy these days. Which brings me to a point that got lost in all the gleeful howling: If I don’t like Gate 61 and if I don’t like flying on the Dash-8s, the problem is not the pilots. And the problem is not the planes.If things are rotten in the airline industry, the problem is the airlines – or, more to the point, the handsomely paid (OK, overpaid) executives who seem determined to run the once-proud airline industry into the ground – screwing their passengers and their employees on the way down … while they, of course, land ever so gently, thanks to those golden parachutes.There are, of course, an endless number of opinions as to why the industry is failing. Sept. 11. Deregulation. Rising fuel prices. Unions (although at this point, the unions are the employees’ last line of defense).But most of these explanations are really just the backdrop against which each airline’s fate plays out – usually as the result of a series of disastrous decisions by those highly paid executives.And the net result is that the airlines pinch every possible penny and cut back wherever they can. Not – let us pray – on safety, but everywhere else. They cut back on facilities – which is why we face the hell of Gate 61. And they cut back on what they pay for service – which is why United chose Mesa Air, the lowest of all possible bidders, to fly Dash-8s into Aspen and Vail.My new pen pals have told me that pilots for Mesa start off making around $18,000 a year. They’re flying a plane with several dozen lives – including theirs – on the line, often in rotten weather, often being badgered by admittedly snotty Aspen passengers … for $18,000 a year!Meanwhile, according to the Executive Pay Watch website, Mesa’s CEO, Jonathan Ornstein, is making pretty close to $3 million a year – and is sitting on another $5 million in stock options. And I’m guessing that he doesn’t travel through Gate 61 or fly on a Dash-8 all that often.So, I’m going to miss my pilot pen pals (though I’m not certain “pen pal” is really the right term for someone who sends you messages that say, “You’re a jackass! And an imbecile, too!”) – and I do have to note that people in a failing industry probably shouldn’t make their battle cry “If you don’t like our service … drive, you jerk!”But the employees at Mesa aren’t the villains.I think I’ll wrap up by quoting one pilot’s e-mail:”The target of your criticism should be the management ‘team’ at Mesa. The term ‘robber barons’ would be more appropriate. Mesa pilots are the most overworked and underpaid in the industry.”Or, as another airline employee put it, “Mesa just basically sucks.”Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is andy@aspentimes.com.