Career progression

October 9th, 2015

Career progression. It’s a huge point of discussion among pilots. But what is it, and what exactly does it mean? It depends on the carrier.

At an airline like Southwest or Alaska, which only flies one kind of airplane, career progression means something entirely different than it does at a carrier that flies multiple fleets. The same principle holds true at the regionals.

At a carrier like Delta or FedEx, career progression generally refers to movement both up the seniority list and up the pay scale. Most airlines pay the same rate for new hires, no matter what equipment they fly. But from Year 2 on, pay usually reflects the size of the airplane, given that larger airplanes produce more revenue, and hence can pay more.

Pilots generally want to maximize salary first, with schedules and quality of life following in importance. In order for that to happen, a couple of pieces need to fall into place.

First, retirement of more senior pilots has to occur in order to open up positions on larger equipment. Second, hiring needs to occur. More specifically, there can’t be any shrinkage or stagnation of the pilot group as those retirements take place. Third, overall fleet growth can significantly help. This is a key part of the equation at single-fleet airlines, because a first officer can become a captain simply by virtue of growth—even if the seniority list consists of relatively young pilots.

This is how I was able to become a captain at Comair in less than three years. In fact, over my 16 years there, I only moved up 500 total numbers because the average age was so low.

The last piece of the puzzle at a multi-fleet airline is the contractual freeze. Every airline incurs a freeze when you bid from one position to another in order to minimize training cycles and get a return on the investment of training you in a new airplane. Those freezes are generally two years, and usually there are substantial roadblocks to bidding backwards.

But not every airline works the same way with regard to pay. It’s becoming more common to have pay “bands,” in which groups of similarly sized aircraft pay the same. United pays the same on the 737, A320, and smaller 757 fleets. The 747, 777, 787, and A350 all pay the same as well. This is designed to take away the incentive to bid up based on pay, and  encourage the pilot to bid based on other factors, such as schedule or preferred domiciles. UPS is a prime example; it pays all captains and first officers the same rate no matter the equipment.

To use United as an example, the airline operates the A320, B737, 757/767, 747, 777, and 787, and will add the A350 in a couple of years. To fly all of them as a first officer while complying with the two-year freeze would take a minimum of 14 years.

But career progression is as much choice and preference as anything else. Most pilots want to fly the best schedule their seniority can hold in the domicile that best suits them—which might be because they live there or because it makes for the easiest commute. There are almost always opportunities to make extra pay that can often make up for the difference in the pay rates from one airplane to another, so pilots will bid fairly selectively. It’s not uncommon to see a first officer fly his or her first airplane for several years, then move on to a wide body for a couple years, with possibly a mid-range aircraft thrown in if the stars align. When the opportunity to fly as a captain comes up, the re-evaluation process starts over. As tempting as the money is, the schedule matters as well. Remember, seniority determines your domicile, the trips you can fly, and the weeks of vacation you can hold. Learning a new airplane is a stressful experience for any pilot, and the training process can be fairly lengthy, which affects the family life.

The same process holds at the regionals. The difference, however, is that regional pilots  tend to bid much more aggressively because of the low first officer pay and because everyone is jockeying to get their pilot-in-command time to move on. Very few pilots go the regionals with the intention of staying.

Progression is an individual definition as much as anything. Often, being able to fly the schedule you want is more important than the increase in pay you might see on a larger airplane. But eventually, assuming your seniority can hold something bigger, the increase in pay becomes too much to ignore.—Chip Wright

The return of the “Since You Asked” poll

September 21st, 2015

FT dig tagYou may have noticed that our much-loved columnist Rod Machado changed neighborhoods in the magazine.

Starting with the September 2015 issue, Rod discontinued his “Instructor Report” and resumed his popular “Since You Asked” column. It now resides each month in the Preflight section.

When Rod was contributing “Since You Asked” in previous years, we took advantage of new-ish technology to include a reader poll in the digital edition whenever possible. (For paper subscribers, the “Plus” icon [show above] means there’s a digital component to any given article.)

With the return of “Since You Asked,” we also are returning to digital polls. In October, we asked readers whether they used a GPS during dual cross-country flight training.

The vast majority (57 percent) of respondents said they did not use a GPS. Another 29 percent said they didn’t use one because the airplane didn’t have one. And 14 percent said they did use a GPS during dual cross-country flight training.

The poll question concerned a reader’s question to Rod: “Should student pilots be allowed to use a GPS’s moving map display during their dual cross-country flights?”

Rod said he has no problem with student pilots using a GPS moving map at any time during their cross-country training, so long as they meet a few requirements: “Technology should never be used as a substitute for the acquisition of the basic skills replaced by that technology. As long a a student learns the basic navigation skills required by the regulations first, then the use of a GPS moving map seems reasonable.”

Rod clarified his comment by adding that it’s not reasonable to expect a student to learn dead reckoning and pilotage skills while simultaneously monitoring a moving map. His responses, as always, are thoughtful and make the basis of a good discussion for you and your flight instructor. Preview the October 2015 digital issue here. (You don’t need to log in; simply push the “Preview” button on the login screen.)—Jill W. Tallman

Are you interested in learning to fly? Sign up for a free student trial membership to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and receive six issues of Flight Training plus lots of training tools and resources for student pilots. Click here for more information.

The times, they are a’ changin’

September 14th, 2015

My, oh my, how the times have a’ changed.

I’ve been doing the airline gig now for almost 20 years, more than 16 of which was were the regionals. When I got my first job, it was the norm to have pilots pay for the own training. In my case, it was a check made out to the Comair Aviation Academy, for $10,995, plus another $2,000 in lodging and food during that training. To make things worse, I didn’t officially get hired until after I had passed thecheckride. Instead, I was in an aircraft-specific “training course.” This was a common practice for companies to work around prohibitions in union contracts that forbid—on paper—pay-for-training policies.

Once I got on line, I was making $16.79 an hour, with a 75-hour guarantee. My first full calendar year (1997) saw me make $14,605 dollars—which included a $7-an-hour raise for the final six weeks of the year—a net pay for the year of less than $1,000.

For years, first-year pay at the regionals was an embarrassment, and while the percentage increase in years two and three were substantial, it was still pretty lousy, especially if you were the lone bread winner. Today, the regionals are reaping what they (and their major airline partners [both management and pilots]) have sown: the long-awaited pilot shortage is finally here, and it’s hitting the bottom line. Flights are canceling, and airplanes are getting parked for a lack of crews.

The airlines are responding. Understand that the regionals can’t just raise pay for two reasons: Union contracts must be collectively bargained, and a regional gets its revenue from its major partners. Even if they have wanted to raise pay, they can’t do so until they get assurance from their major affiliates that they will be reimbursed for the added costs. Only when both of these provisions are met can pay raises be implemented.

Of late, the solution has been for regionals to offer some sort of bonus to new hires. This gets them around the collective bargaining issue, and it also allows them to dictate the terms of the bonus.

Loan repayments also are an option. For instance, Envoy offers both $5,000 and $10,000 bonuses, depending on whether or not you are coming from an affiliate flight school. However, the bonuses require the pilot to agree to a two-year commitment. Even Skywest, which took over Comair’s position as the regional of choice, is offering a $7,500 bonus. In fact, Skywest has recently been doing a lot of recruitment-by-mail, sending post cards to pilots on the FAA registry in the hopes that they might be interested in a job. They are casting such a wide net that they are even recruiting some of their own pilots!

The result of all of this has been a dramatic effect on first-year pay. According to ATP’s website, the average first year pay is now more than $30,000, and in a couple of cases, it approaches $40,000. It’s by no means a king’s ransom, but it’s a vast improvement over days gone by. There is still a long way to go to get pilot pay where it needs to be, especially considering how many pilots the industry needs to attract and convince to make the investment in a flying career over the next couple of decades.

But this is a start.—Chip Wright

Disability insurance

September 10th, 2015

When you’re in your 20s and 30s, it’s hard to imagine that your health will ever be seriously affected by anything. It’s bad enough to imagine getting cancer or a sleep disorder, but what about something less serious, such as a broken bone (or two or three)?

Pilots are unique in that our health affects both our direct and our legal ability to report for work. Something as simple as back pain can keep us at home. We are bound by the terms of our medical certificate to be of sound mind and body. If you work in an office and break your leg or your arm, you can still come to work. You may even be just as productive and as efficient with the injury as you are without it.

Not so with flying. If you break a leg skiing or an arm playing softball, you’re grounded until it heals. Further, if your medical expires during your injury, you will likely need a flight physical to return to work. If you don’t have sufficient sick time in your leave bank, you could face a financial strain. Most airlines only allow a sick time accrual rate of a few hours a month.

I don’t want to sound like a salesman, but I’ll take the risk. If you get hired by an airline, opt into whatever short- and long-term disability insurance the company and/or the union offers. Rates are based on age, so it’s cheaper when you’re younger, which is also when you’re not so well paid. It’s an investment that is worth making in yourself.

Over my career I’ve seen young and old pilots be out of work for extended periods of time through no fault of their own. One, in his late 20s, was out over a year because of a severe automobile accident. One was out for two months with a broken leg that was slow to heal. Another was out for nearly two years with a form of liver cancer. A number have been incapacitated by mental health issues and/or alcoholism. In the last couple of years, the FAA has attempted to crack down on overweight pilots. If they ever succeed in doing this, a large percentage of us will be looking at long periods of time off while we try to shed the extra weight.

As a professional pilot, take nothing for granted—especially your health. Get the STD/LTD coverage early, and keep it. With any luck, you’ll never need to thank me for it. But if you do, at least you won’t have to worry about coming up with the money for a stamp.–Chip Wright

Mining the message boards

September 1st, 2015

Forums.jpgThe internet has become a repository for just about any sort of information you care to find. Some of it is even true. A great example is the glut of information forums, aka “the web boards.” If you’re interested in aviation, there is no shortage of such sites to choose from. One of the most famous in the airline world is Airline Pilot Central. PPrune (short for Professional Pilots Rumour Network) is another, and there are way too many others to list.

How much credibility should you give these sites? That depends. While many are fairly organized, they all contain a tremendous amount of negativity. Further, if you’re new to them, you will find yourself spending hours scrolling through old posts looking for good information. Once you are up to speed, you can navigate them quickly and easily for the intel you need.

There are a couple of downsides to these sites. First, as noted, people hide behind a screen name, and many show a decided lack of maturity in their postings. This leads to a lot of bickering. Second, the overwhelming majority of these posts are written by a very small number of people, which means that the opinion of a few may be presented as the opinion of the majority, even if such is not the case. The actual sample size is fairly small. Third, much of the “information” is speculative only, as it is based on rumor and heresy, if not flat-out lies.

However, if you spend enough time filtering the boards that you are most interested in, you can get good information. You can also figure out which of the posters are level-headed, honest, and objective. When you notice these people, write down their names, especially if what they are posting pertains to the arena of flying you are interested in; it’s even better if they are working (or have recently worked) for a company that you are pursuing.

Once you’ve made note of a few of these folks, initiate personal (“private”) conversations with them. See if they are willing to spend some time on the phone with you. Ask your questions; write down their answers; and ask follow-up questions. Do this with several pilots in each category or forum. You may get conflicting information, but that isn’t necessarily bad. You can assume that many people have different experiences to draw from, and that in and of itself can be good.

One of the problems with being new to these discussions is that you sometimes don’t realize what you don’t know, which can only add to your confusion. The lingo can be new and overwhelming. It’s hard at times to understand how pilots—who clearly love to fly—can find themselves unhappy in their jobs. Some of this is self-inflicted, and some is caused by circumstances they didn’t predict. Your job is to find out which is which, and then try to understand what it is that you would personally have difficulty with, and find a way to avoid a similar fate. Not always easy, but it can be done.

The internet forums can yield significant good information, but you need to know how to find it, and you need to know how to source it. APC is a wealth of great info about the airlines. But it’s only a part of that information. Actually talking—by phone and in person—to pilots who are living the lifestyle you are interested in is another major part of that information.—Chip Wright

Familiarity versus unfamiliarity

August 24th, 2015

There’s a saying that familiarity breeds contempt. Unfamiliarity can do the same thing. In aviation, we see the familiarity side of things when we throw caution to the wind (or worse). We ignore checklists. We rush. We do…dumb things. Most of us have been guilty of this. Examples abound: forgetting to turn off the master switch in the FBO’s Cessna, only to get a phone call later; forgetting to untie (or tie) the tiedowns; forgetting to lower the landing gear.

It’s natural to let your guard down when you’re in a comfortable environment. The good news is that you are comfortable in a place where you don’t really belong. The bad news is that you are prone to making mistakes because “it could never happen to me.” That’s probably what you said the last time you locked your keys in your car. In fact, such a dumb, easy mistake has forced the automobile manufacturers to idiot-proof cars as much as possible to try to avoid this, but people still find a way to validate human idiocy.

When you are overly familiar with something, either it’s time to force yourself to re-adapt the good habits, or it’s time to change your habits. Take the car keys. Once you’ve made this mistake, you quickly learn to check that the keys are in your pocket/bag/purse/suitcase/whatever before you close the door. You’re still looking to make sure that they aren’t in the car, but instead of looking to see if they aren’t where you don’t want them, you’re looking to see if they are where you do want them. The goal is the same, but the process is different.

With the master switch, an easy way to fix the problem is to always leave the anti-collision light on. That way, if you walk away from the airplane and see the beacon on, you’ll know that the master switch is on.

Unfamiliarity also can create problems, especially when the change from one piece of equipment to another is fairly drastic. For example, at my old airline there was a famous story—true—of a captain who transferred out of the turboprop and into the jet. Without getting bogged down in details, he was forced to leave an engine running after pulling into the gate. That by itself is no big deal; it happens all the time. Generally speaking, within a few minutes, he would be able to shut it down. Well, a few steps in the chain weren’t completed, and he was new to the airplane, so he was out of his comfort zone. Further, in the turboprop, a running engine could be easily seen (the spinning propeller) and heard (it was right next to the cockpit window). With a tail-mounted jet, you don’t see anything, and you don’t hear much more than anything.

He found out that he had left the engine running when he got a call from the station after he had arrived at the hotel. He had to talk the ground folks through the shutdown over the phone. In the end, nobody was hurt, but the lesson was learned: Try to know what you don’t know.

Familiarity and unfamiliarity can both be dangerous, but for different reasons. If you find your normal routine is not working, change it to one that does.—Chip Wright

Where is my DeLorean?

August 18th, 2015

Back to the futureThirty years ago, Marty McFly and Doc Brown got into a garage-modified DeLorean, activated the flux capacitor, and took off for…well, this year, to try and save Marty’s son from himself. Back to the Future played on a long-standing wish: flying cars.

As 2015 winds down, it’s easy to wonder why we don’t have flying cars. The easy answer is that the FAA would make such a dream a bureaucratic nightmare. That’s undoubtedly true, and if you throw in the Federal Highway Administration, you can see how such a great idea would be dead on arrival. But let’s take those two entities out of the equation.

Driving is two-dimensional. You move forward, backward, left, and right. Driving is also pretty easy. It’s not totally skillless or brainless, but we’ve done everything we can to make it so. Still, tens of thousands of people die every year on the highways in spite of some pretty impressive safety mechanisms and rules. Seatbelts are required (and their use is enforced, which wasn’t always the case); cars have roll cages, air bags, anti-lock brakes, and more. Still, no matter how idiot-proof we make a car, we manage to find ways to crash.

Flying, on the other hand, is three-dimensional, and that transition to and from the ground is, statistically, the most dangerous part of the flight. In the air, we have to deal with turbulence, even close to the ground. Imagine semis trying to fly next to a Camry. Unlike the DeLorean, we need to accept that a flying car will have wings, and those wings will be sized based on the payload. Semis and Camrys would be at constant risk of hitting each other because of the necessarily long wings on the semi, not to mention the wake turbulence. If you think on- and off-ramps are crowded now, imagine what it would be like trying to merge such disparately sized vehicles on and off the ground.

Infrastructure would be an issue as well, as we’d have to have much longer merge lanes to allow vehicles to get up to rotation speed. Consider that highways are designed to try to contain certain elements of a high-speed wreck (even if the only design element for this is building it in an isolated area). With skyways, we’d have to take into account that an in-flight collision would spread debris over a much larger area—which would necessitate additional safety enhancements for the drivers not only traveling quickly but now also falling to the ground. Buildings would need to be built to account for potential falling debris on the roof or through the windows.

In the end, flying cars just aren’t practical. In fact, if the skyways got too crowded, you’d be better back on the road, which is right where we are now. As fun as it is to daydream about defying gravity in every aspect of our lives, the truth is that without a quantum leap in strong, lightweight materials and powerful engines, it’s just not the way. But if you stick with flying airplanes, then where you’re going, you still don’t need roads.—Chip Wright


August 10th, 2015

It’s early on in your academic training these days when a teacher refers to the GIGO principle. Simply stated, if you are using a computer, it doesn’t matter how great the machine or the program is if you input bad data. If you put in garbage, it will give you garbage results. Garbage in, garbage out: GIGO.

In flying this is a very real concern, particularly when it comes to programming a GPS. It’s one thing if you inadvertently put in a wrong fix that’s close to the right one, but that’s rare. What’s more likely to happen is that you put in the wrong fix or the wrong piece of performance information, only to suddenly find yourself asking what is going on. When the airplane makes a turn you aren’t expecting, you’ll be scrambling to figure out where the mistake is. It’s great if it happens on the next fix. That usually becomes readily apparent. It’s not so great if you programmed in the wrong fix several legs down the road.

This is an easy mistake to make on a GPS that is programmed with a knob, and it’s an easy mistake to make in a crew environment. I’ll give you an example: I was in a simulator event, and I had the airplane doing exactly what I wanted it to do. Trying to stay ahead of things, I decided to program the climb performance, not registering that the performance I was asking for was for the cruise climb. Asking the airplane to change its profile would cause all kinds of problems on the departure procedure. Following our prescribed procedure, I asked the captain to verify what I was getting ready to do. He did. I hit the button and executed the new plan. To my horror, the airplane began to accelerate and climb like it had a date with Mars.

I quickly turned off the autopilot and autothrottles, and I asked the captain to reprogram “the box” while I hand-flew and kept us out of further trouble. In my peripheral vision, I saw the instructor smile and write furiously. In the debrief, we got kudos for catching the problem immediately and fixing it, but we also got a reminder that GIGO can happen at any time, at any place. It was a great lesson, and it happened in the sim, where nobody could get hurt.

I’ve flown now for more than 20 years, and I have a litany of such GIGO examples—some mundane, some not so much. What I can say is that I don’t tend to make the same mistake twice, but I’ve learned that I am never going to be immune to this kind of error, which is good, as it keeps me on my toes.

But if you want to see how catastrophic GIGO can be, just look at the report for American Airlines Flight 965, which crashed into a mountain in Colombia in 1995 because of a flight management system programming error. It’s a stark reminder of how quickly things can go wrong, even for an experienced crew.—Chip Wright

Where are they?

August 3rd, 2015

womens-pilot-shirts-MZMy first real aviation boss, who also became one of my instructors as I added ratings, and later a friend with whom I argued feverishly at times. One former girlfriend (and her mother). Two of my students. A small number of my first officers, and only two of the captains I flew with at my first airline, and so far, none at my current one. Only a few of the pilots in my current base, out of a total of nearly 200.

And that pretty much sums up the majority of women I’ve known in aviation. There just haven’t been that many of them. Supposedly, the FAA register of pilots is made up of around 600,000 pilots, depending on how you do the math. Of those, only 30,000 or so—a measly 5 percent—are women. Five percent! That’s an abomination. It’s also a huge marketing opportunity for general aviation, flight schools, et cetera. The ratio at major aviation colleges often isn’t much better.

I have two daughters, and they have grown up with me being a pilot. They have traveled with me (and because of me), and they’ve seen the benefits of aviation, both in the practical sense and as a means of making a living. If I had to buy all the seats we’ve used, my bill would be triple the national debt. They’ve sat in my cockpits and ridden on my flights for fun, out of convenience, and out of necessity. They have both at times talked of following in my footsteps—maybe not to fly for a career, but to take advantage of the opportunities that being able to fly offers. They often don’t understand why more people don’t fly more often.

They’ve also asked me why more women don’t fly. It’s rare enough that they definitely notice when they have a female crew member. When they recently rode on a 747 with a female captain, they thought it was the “coolest thing ever”—but it also made them mad that there aren’t more of women commanding 747s and 380s.

It bothers me, too. The female pilots I’ve flown with have been among the best I’ve flown with, male or female. One of them, who is one of my best friends and can fly circles around most other pilots, is on the short list (four or five) of people I’d like to have in my airplane in the direst of emergencies.

We need women in aviation. It’s hard enough to be involved in an activity of any sort when it is as expensive and time-consuming as flying. If you don’t have the support of the people in your life, it becomes a dream that can quickly die on the vine. For many of us, those people include or spouses, mothers, daughters, and girlfriends. That alone should be reason enough to involve them.

But it’s more than that. Women are more frequently earning more money, and they need a place to spend it, and they need goals to pursue. Why are we not doing more to entice them to learning to fly? They don’t all need to be on the track to be airline pilots or G-V pilots for a Fortune 500 company. They can fly sport planes, or ultralights, or a Cirrus to visit Mom and Dad. We just need to get them to the airport and introduce them to what we already know, and then let them fully embrace it on their own terms.

Two of the best aerobatic pilots in the world are women. One you’ve heard of: Patty Wagstaff, who can do things with a, airplane that would make most of us sick. The other is Katie Higgins, the first woman to fly with the Blue Angels. Women have commanded the space shuttle and spent months on the space station. At small airports, however, too many are relegated to working at the counter, and not enough are flying or working on the airplanes. Oh, I should mention: Two of the best mechanics at my first airline were ladies.

Women I’ve spoken to have told me that they have a few reasons for not flying: If the airlines are the issue, they are conflicted by the schedules and time away from the kids they want to raise. If it’s general aviation, they are often afraid that they will be treated the same way they often are when they need to get their car fixed (ripped off, played for dumb, sexually harassed, and assumed to be out of their element); and they often don’t have a mentor to guide them. Their perceptions may not be accurate, so it’s up to us to prove that those perceptions are wrong, and make them feel welcome.

We can all do more, and we need to. If we had as many female pilots as male pilots, the pilot population would more than double. Think about the opportunity that presents. Think about opportunity, period. As a group, let’s find a way to provide it to the women in our lives that might enjoy aviation, and let’s do it the same way we want it done for ourselves: honestly, respectfully, and with open arms.—Chip Wright

Money in the tank

July 29th, 2015

Fuel-Management_squareWe are a society that lives and dies by oil and gasoline. Nearly every American has a car, if not two or three, and very few cities have what can be called a robust public transportation system. We think nothing of filling our gas tanks and driving aimlessly or wastefully. This concept also applies to the way in which we fly.

The airlines long ago perfected the art of only carrying enough fuel to get from the point of departure to the point of arrival while landing with the IFR fuel reserve of 45 minutes. In the general aviation world, though, we tend to top off and go. When is the last time that you really made an effort to see how much fuel you burn?

Many of us fly the same routes fairly commonly on our cross-country flights, which means that we are in a good position to get some solid data on our fuel burn habits. Those data should be based on altitude, weight, wind, and temperature.

It’s one thing to guesstimate your fuel burn, or to rely on the numbers in your pilot’s operating handbook (POH) or in the computer software you use for flight planning. But what about keeping more accurate data based on your airplane, and your engine, and your leaning habits? How closely do you maintain the book power settings? Speeds?

I used to flight plan for eight gallons an hour in a Cessna 172, and that was pretty accurate, but I also know that when I paid closer attention to what was going on, or flew a longer-than-usual flight, I could get as much as a gallon an hour more out of the tank—and in the end, that means money in your tank. The difference in total travel time wasn’t enough to worry about, but the efficiency can be nice. It can get you several miles farther down the road or buy you some time to spend loitering over a picturesque area where you just want to sightsee.

Consider creating a table that you can use to more closely track your actual fuel habits, and see if you can’t “buy” fuel simply by changing your habit patterns. For instance, if your tailwind will be greater near your destination, consider delaying your descent a bit. If there is warmer air somewhere, try cruising at that altitude (if the ride is smooth). Get wind reports at various altitudes as you fly. Even if you rent, you can try this across various ships in the fleet to find the one that is best (and worst). These are tricks that the airlines and corporate flight departments use to maximize fuel efficiency and minimize costs, all with little impact on the overall bottom line. Fuel in the tank, after all, is money in the bank.—Chip Wright