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Meet: Dennis James

Captain, American Airlines


Who I Am
I am a Captain at American Airlines. I serve as pilot-in-command of the MD-90 aircraft. The airline career typically entails flying three days Per week and usually involves layovers at destinations away from the home base. Most major airlines in the U.S. have both domestic and international operations, while some, such as Southwest, only fly domestically. I fly domestically at American.

The quality of an airline pilot's life depends entirely upon seniority. The pilots who have been with an airline the longest have first choice over the planes they fly, the seat they occupy (captain, co-pilot, flight engineer) the routes they fly, the monthly schedule that they fly and the vacation periods that they hold. Every month pilots "bid" for their choices of available flying schedules and a computer sorts the bid results by starting at the top of the seniority list for a particular plane, seat and base and works its way down.

A certain percentage (typically 25%) of the pilots will be on reserve. They will cover the trips that fall into "open time" due to other pilots going out on vacation, calling in sick, misconnecting due to weather (yep - it inconveniences us pilots just as it does passengers) or being removed from their schedules for training.

As a captain, my specific duty is to be responsible for the safe operation of the flights under my command. The job goes beyond piloting planes into managing resources. The resources available to me include my co-pilot, my flight attendants, dispatchers (who do flight planning and monitoring), meteorologists, security experts and air traffic controllers. Most flights are routine and uneventful, but occasionally we have emergencies with the plane (fires, flight control malfunctions, etc.) or passenger issues such as in-flight illnesses or misconduct that pose greater challenges to our decision-making capabilities.

My Career Path
Before flying as an airline pilot I was a military pilot. I flew supersonic reconnaissance jets in the Marine Corps. In 1988 I was in a tent in Korea during a deployment. It was freezing cold outside. We had been there for weeks. A friend of mine whose father had been a captain at Pan Am told me, through chattering teeth, about the airline lifestyle and it seemed particularly attractive at that time. As soon as we returned to the U.S. I applied to a number of airlines and shortly after completing my commitment to the Marines I was flying for American.

While flying in the Marine Corps I was, unbeknownst to me, preparing myself for the airline career. I was accumulating multi-engine jet time and I already had my college degree. Backing it up a notch...I joined the Marine Corps, specifically to fly, right after I graduated from USC. I had been fascinated with planes in my youth because we lived less than a mile from the Sacramento Executive Airport.


What I Like About My Job
On the positive side, the work, if I can call it "work," is immensely rewarding. The physical act of flying planes is always fun. Many pilots often joke that they don't know what they would do if they had to get a real job. The pay can be very good. As a captain I make $170,000 per year, about the same as the Vice President of the United States, and I can expect to be paid more than $200,000 per year down the road when I am senior enough to serve as a captain on widebody aircraft. Pilots have many days off (listen for the double-edged sword here) between trips. Most pilots have other hobbies that they can devote a lot of time to because of this. I know a pilot who is a professional artist in his spare time. Another pilot I know is a baseball umpire. We even have pilots who are politicians -- one of our captains was the mayor of her city. I use my spare time to run a nonprofit organization that serves teenagers. Perhaps the most positive aspect of this career for me is that I work with people who really want to be there. All of my fellow pilots competed very hard for these coveted jobs so they tend to be upbeat and self-motivated.

On the negative side (remember the double edged sword) trips take you away from home for days at a time. If something goes wrong at home you can't tend to it right away. I was on a layover once and while I was watching the news in my hotel room I learned that there had been an earthquake where I live. I had to wait days before finding out what damage, if any, had taken place. A flight attendant that I know came "home" from a trip that day to learn that her house had been completely destroyed. Another negative is the lack of seniority transfer from one airline to another. Example: When Eastern Airlines went out of business there were senior captains there making six-figure incomes. When these captains went to other airlines for work, they had to start at the very bottom because of the seniority system. That's why when looking for work as an airline pilot you really have to study the corporate viability of the airlines to which you are applying. You want your airline to outlast your career.

When I Was a Child
Oddly enough the thing that prepared me during my childhood was drama. What?? Yes, drama. I was always in the school plays. I had to learn my part, learn the other actors' parts and have a sense of timing. That's what airline flying is like. Also, I went to a lot of air shows and that certainly stoked my excitement for aviation. I wasn't much of a reader. I enjoyed old movies that featured aviation such as "Above and Beyond," "Jet Pilot" and "The Bridges at Toko Ri." An important part of my childhood that helped prepare me for this career was STAYING OUT OF TROUBLE. Airlines are not interested in people with arrest records.

My Advice
Stay out of trouble and avoid kids who are troublemakers. Pay attention to your physical fitness -- eat sensibly and make exercise part of your life. Hang around an airport in some of your spare time. Do what it takes to get into college. All major airlines hire only college graduates. Save up some money and buy a book called "Private Pilot Manual" by Jeppesen Sanderson Training Products. It is the best introduction to flying that I've read. I have close to 10,000 hours of flying, I've qualified at the aircraft carrier, I've flown supersonic and I STILL go back to basics. That book is well illustrated and very readable.

Early Influences
My brother Donald had a lifelong fascination with flying that I absorbed over time. He was very encouraging of my flying pursuits at every stage.

My Future Plans
My goal is to be a captain of widebody aircraft doing international flying. I also want to grow my Young Aces nonprofit program.

My wife and I have no children but we do have a big fat cat. I do a lot of biking and running for my outdoor activity and I am hooked on crossword puzzles for my indoor activity. I like action movies with little social significance. My favorite cereal is Raisin Bran and my favorite candy is KitKat bars. I like alternative, techno and jazz music by people like Moby, The Chemical Brothers, Herbie Hancock and Stan Getz. I like going out on my Rollerblades but I'm not that good and occasionally I accidentally run people off of the path near my house. I'm taking a motorcycle safety class right now and I'm planning to ride for recreation during non-peak traffic hours. I'm 41 years old, 6'2", 175 lbs and my spine is shaped like a banana because I have scoliosis.


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