While Mr. Lawlor was still a captain, his parents decided to move into smaller quarters, and the son and daughter-in-law bought their five-bedroom house, getting a break on the price but increasing their mortgage payment to $2,000 a month from the $1,200 they had paid for their smaller home nearby.
They closed on the house in August 2008, on the eve of the downgrade, and soon there were regrets. “We would not have bought the house on a first officer’s salary,” Tracy Lawlor said. She had considered giving up teaching to be a stay-at-home mom. “We felt we had some breathing room for the first time in our 11 years of marriage,” she said, “and that went out the window with the downgrade.”
She was sitting at her kitchen table, and her husband, across from her, winced, but did not disagree. Even if his captain’s rank and pay are restored she will continue to teach, she said. His pay could be cut again. They are convinced of that and, in preparation, they made certain there would be no more children. Their fourth, Jackson, was just 4 months old when the downgrade came, and soon after, Mr. Lawlor underwent a vasectomy.
“We could not take the risk of having another child,” he said.
Silver, and Dark, Linings
The West Coast assignment, while representing a promotion, meant long, often overnight commutes, with Mr. Lawlor sleeping fitfully in the jump seat of a FedEx cargo jet or in a sleeping bag rolled out in the cargo area. His first day home, he often spent dozing on the living room couch. His wife hated the time taken from the family, and her husband’s exhaustion.
“He was totally worn out the first day back, and tired the whole time he was home,” she said.
One year later, even after such a big pay cut, Mrs. Lawlor sees her husband’s shorter commute to his new base at Newark as a blessing she is reluctant to give up. Her husband says that moving back up to captain, with a captain’s pay, might mean commuting again to California. “If that is what it takes, I’ll do it,” he said, and this time his wife winced.
“I would probably not be happy,” she said. But she “wouldn’t trade him for another husband,” as she put it, and while she had never wanted her husband to be a pilot, at this point she would be alarmed if he left aviation in an attempt to please her.
“He likes what he does,” she said, “whereas before he did not like what he did. That has made him easier to be around, whereas before he became a pilot, he wasn’t happy at all.”
Mr. Lawlor is vice chairman for contract enforcement for the ExpressJet unit of the Air Line Pilots Association. He had volunteered some months ago for the unpaid role, and now his fellow pilots seek his help in resolving scheduling disputes, pay issues, meal reimbursements. The calls and e-mail messages come in on his cellphone. When he is home, minding his sons, he lets the children migrate to the living room to watch a cartoon on the family’s big-screen TV while he sits nearby, at the kitchen table, absorbed in mediating appeals.
That is not the same as commanding an airliner — walking through the airport wearing the captain’s hat — but it brings him part way back. “My point would be that being in the captain’s seat made me feel in command, and capable and powerful,” Mr. Lawlor said, “and that has been taken away, and through the union, I can still experience some of that, in the admiration of my peers for being able to step up and help them. Maybe psychologically that fills a void; maybe that is why I don’t feel as bad as I would otherwise.”
So the Lawlors soldier on, with plenty of family help. Their sisters have pitched in with baby-sitting, gratis. His parents bought their kitchen table, the dining room table, a playpen, a living room sofa and the deck furniture. His father’s two unmarried sisters, both retired teachers, insist on helping their only nephew — the one family member perpetuating the Lawlor name not only in this generation but, through his three sons, the next generation.
The aunts offer a subsidy. They insist, for example, that Bryan Lawlor eat healthy meals when he is on the road, even if that means spending more than his airline-allotted per diem. They’ll pay, and Mr. Lawlor says he does now eat properly. The aunts also paid $200 to rent “moon bounce” equipment for a Lawlor child’s birthday party last month. The birthday boy had asked for the party entertainment, and the Lawlors obliged, with the aunts’ help, not wanting the father’s loss of income to translate into constraints on the children’s lives.
Still, their savings, built up in the good years, have dwindled to $10,000, from $28,000 last fall, and Mr. Lawlor said the next rung down, to four figures, is in his mind a crisis level. “I am beginning to feel like, what if something happens to me, where does that leave Tracy?” he said.
He called in sick recently, suffering basically from fatigue. “I think the reason I felt fatigued is the stress,” he said. “It is always there.”