Former Delta Pilot Finds Work Overseas

The pilot said he had to take drastic action before reaching mandatory pilot retirement at age 60.


The Waldrons keep in touch with their adult children, two daughters and a son, through e-mail and phone calls. They watch cable TV in Seoul, and the entire city has wireless Internet access, so they can keep up with online news from home. Denis watches pirated DVDs on his frequent trips and says he's seen more movies in the last six months than the entire previous decade.

But the couple never expected to be uprooted at this stage in their lives -- and they resent what they call the looting of Delta by its former managers.

In Seoul, Rosalyn, a former teacher, acts as an unofficial den mother for expat pilots, cooking meals, organizing gatherings and arranging day trips around South Korea.

"We're making the best of our situation and turning it into an adventure," she said. "But Seoul isn't a vacation destination, and no one would confuse our utilitarian apartment there with [former Delta CEO] Leo Mullin's mansion on Cape Cod.

"It's the unfairness of things like [former Delta Chief Financial Officer] Michelle Burns insisting on first-class airline travel for life that gets to me," she said. "If the sacrifices had been made equally [between managers and workers], no one would have any resentment at all. But the sacrifices weren't equal."

Rosalyn is one of the few airline spouses who spends months at a time in South Korea, and she insists Denis and the other pilots get out and do things on the days they aren't flying. Eating out can be a challenge in Seoul, since Denis doesn't like garlic-rich Korean food. Their apartment is about 11 miles from the DMZ, but there's an Outback and a TGIF nearby.

At work, Denis has adjusted to sharing the cockpit with South Korean co-pilots who tend to be more formal and deferential than their jocular U.S. counterparts. All of the co-pilots at Asiana are South Korean, but other expat captains come from the United Kingdom, Australia, Thailand and Brazil.

"The Korean pilots speak good English," he said, "but their culture is much different. There's no banter or joking, and they expect to be ordered to do things in a particular way. At Delta, I'd just say 'Start 'em up' when it was time to start the engines. That wouldn't work at Asiana."

International routes frequently cross Russia -- a new experience for Waldron, who hunted Soviet submarines during the Cold War -- and he's had layovers in China, Australia and Vietnam. Air traffic controllers in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh can be particularly hard to understand, he said, and the quality of airport infrastructure varies widely in Third World countries.

Language barrier Waldron recently served as Asiana's representative at a meeting in Uzbekistan while a group of Korean and Uzbek officials discussed airline issues.

"They were all speaking Russian," he said, "and I was sitting there with my technical manuals out and not understanding a word. I counted the tiles on the floor and did my best not to laugh about the utter absurdity of the whole situation. It was pretty funny."

Waldron connects with other former Delta pilots working overseas via e-mail, and their paths frequently cross as they hopscotch the globe for their foreign employers.

Waldron considered himself a loyal Delta employee throughout his career, and he bought company stock through a payroll deduction for many years. Now, those shares in his 401(k) retirement plan are nearly worthless.

Waldron still keeps a hard-bound copy of "Delta: History of an Airline" in his living room, and he expects Delta to emerge from bankruptcy court protection next year with dramatically reduced costs. But the credit for Delta's survival should go to employees who paid the price for it, he said, not the managers he predicts will most benefit.

Waldron said he intends to work as much as possible during his time overseas. He said he and Rosalyn will have a secure retirement because they have lived within their means and made conservative financial choices throughout his flying career.

"We're going to be OK because we haven't lived on the edge," he said. "We thought we had our bases covered. It was a surprise when Delta canceled my pension. I had earned it, we had a contract, and frankly, I didn't think it was legal for them to unilaterally take it away."

There's a possibility Asiana may extend the mandatory pilot retirement age to 65 -- but Waldron said he's not sure he would keep flying even if the rules change.

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