Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Airport operations

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016

I was doing the walk-around on the ramp this morning, and it seemed busier than usual. It probably wasn’t, but it seemed that way. Maybe it was because of the dark; maybe it was because it was the first flight of the first day of the new year. Who knows?

But it was a good reminder that ramp operations are not without risk. The typical general aviation airport does not have a lot of belt loaders, bag carts, or catering trucks, but it does have other risks. Maintenance personnel might be towing an airplane to or from the hangar, and they may not be looking forward while they drive. Some pilots may drive a car onto the ramp to load up an airplane or perform a minor maintenance task. Stray animals may wander around.

It’s even possible that an incident will occur involving something that really is supposed to be there. Years ago, a friend had just purchased a used Piper Cherokee. After a flight one day, he was taxiing back to his tie-down spot. The ramp was empty, so he planned to enter the spot from the rear, so that he could line up the nosewheel with the T line on the ramp and have the tie-down eyelets over the appropriate ropes. He wouldn’t have to muscle the airplane into position using the tow bar. It’s an act that takes place every day, and he had done it hundreds of times himself. He lined up the nosewheel and juiced the throttle by just a hundred or so rpm to prevent the nosewheel from settling in the hole in the pavement where the rope for the tail was.

In a confluence of events that can’t really be described, the propeller sucked up the rope, which wrapped itself around the back side of the prop. The rope tightened, pulling the nose down and slamming the prop into the ground and shutting down the engine. When the dust settled—literally—and he called the insurance company, the insurance representative told him this was the first time that they had ever had something like this happen. It was a fluke accident, on an action that many a reasonable person had taken, and exactly the kind of thing that he had insurance for. The engine and propeller were replaced, and he never taxied over a rope again.

The most dangerous possible event on a ramp involves a prop striking a person, or, with a jet engine, a person being sucked into an engine. Jet engines often have published “danger zones” for the front, side, and rear of the engine, which delineate where you can safely stand without danger if the engine is running. Piston engines don’t generally follow this practice, though they probably should. It’s hard to say what a safe distance is from a spinning propeller, because the very definition will change depending on where you are relative to the prop, how fast it’s spinning, and whether or not the airplane is moving. I don’t recommend it, but if you must approach an airplane with the engine running, you should either get the pilot’s attention, or, if unable to do that, approach from behind and knock on the fuselage, wing, or tail so that the pilot will hear you and not release the brakes.

Airport operations are some of the riskier things we deal with as pilots, though we don’t often equate them to the risk we face in the air. We should. Plenty can go wrong, and vigilance is key.

Speaking of keys, don’t leave them in the ignition when you aren’t in the airplane.—Chip Wright

When the company airplane is your airplane

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

One of the perks of being a pilot is the ability to do things that others can’t do—specifically, taking an airplane to travel in a fraction of the time that it takes to do so in a car, while enjoying a unique experience that can only be had in the air.

There are myriad reasons to want to make a career out of flying: the mental and physical challenges of mastering flight, the financial rewards, the opportunity to command some of the largest machines ever made. One of them becomes more obvious as you get more involved, and that is taking advantage of the free travel while working. Talk to any pilot or flight attendant, and one thing we all do is take full advantage of layovers to schedule our trips.

I grew up in Maryland, and my parents stayed there after my sister and I left, thus breaking the law that says all seniors must move to Florida or Arizona. In my regional days, we used to have quite a few layovers in the D.C. and Baltimore areas. I would bid the trips to see my folks. Some of the overnights were fairly short and didn’t afford time for much of a visit. Others were long enough that I could go spend the night in their house. On those trips, my wife and kids would often travel out ahead of me to spend some time with the grandparents. It was beneficial for all of us.

When I was a first officer at Comair and newly married, I used to bid five-day trips with all Florida overnights. My wife, a teacher who hailed from Jacksonville, would spend the summers at her parents’ house and would come to Orlando when I was in town, which was three nights a week. Instead of going home on the days I was gone, she’d stay with friends. Our company hotel got to know her so well that she’d walk into the lobby and they would recognize her and give her the key to my room. It was a great deal for us.

For a couple of years, I was able to get long overnights that allowed me to visit my sister and her kids.

I still take advantage of this little perk, bidding trips that take me to places where I can visit friends I haven’t seen in years. It’s one thing to keep in touch on Facebook or via phone, but it’s something else entirely to spend time together in person. If it’s someone whom the expression “a little goes a long way” (and let’s face it, we all know those people), short visits are a handy excuse for getting to bed early.

Recently, I was able to use an overnight to visit a good friend who has had a major health scare. While he’s expected to make a full recovery, it was a reminder that this job is a real blessing when it comes to the ancillary benefits of what we do. Likewise for one of my flight attendants who was able to overnight in her home town and surprise her entire family with a visit on Christmas Day.

Often times, the fact that you’re paid to do this suddenly just doesn’t matter.—Chip Wright

A look back at 2015

Monday, January 11th, 2016

As 2015 settles in the rear-view mirror, it’s a good time to look back and see where we’ve been and where we’re going, in this case as a career field. For years, we’ve heard about the impending shortage of pilots facing the airlines. At long last, it’s here, and it’s a sellers’ market.

With help and backing from their major airline partners—the ones actually paying the bills—the regionals have been forced to dramatically increase pay, and nowhere has this been more important than in the slave wages that had been paid to first- and second-year first officers. For several years, regional airline managers tried to work around their collective bargaining agreements by offering some kind of signing/retention bonus, and for a while this worked. In a few cases, it backfired, because the unions argued that it was a violation of their contracts (it was), and forced the company to stop paying the bonuses and address the issue in collective bargaining, which opens up the entire contract. But that didn’t stop the race to pay, and while some of those bonuses reached $10,000, at least one airline is paying up to $80,000 spread out over four years.

In the last 18 months, regional pay has improved dramatically, with first-year pay averaging around $40,000. This is more than double what it was just a few years ago. Better still, with the majors retiring (and hiring) thousands of pilots, first officers are not looking at the decade-long wait to become captains, which means they will jump fairly soon to the $65,000-$70,000 level of pay if they so choose.

Is there a potential downside to all of this? Perhaps. Because of the severity of the cutbacks on regional flying the last several years, combined with the pay, student starts among those looking to fly professional dropped dramatically. It will take time to play catchup, especially with the new rules put into effect for new pilots to become entry level first officers after the Colgan 3407 accident.

Secondarily, the majors are trying to shed as many 50-seaters as they can, because as cheap as fuel is now, it won’t stay that way, and when it climbs, the 50-seater becomes exponentially more expensive to operate. The move now is toward far more 70- to 76-seat airframes.

For regional pilots, the downside is simple: As regional pay (costs) rise, along with the number of passengers affected, it becomes much more expensive to deal with a cancellation that might be attributed to a lack of crews. At some point, it becomes more economical to have the pilots at the main line fly those larger regional jets. American (via USAirways’ E-190), JetBlue, and Delta have already started to migrate to that model, and it may happen across the rest of industry as well. Time will tell.

Two thousand fifteen, however, was a banner year in many respects, as the airlines hired at a record pace, and 2016 promises more of the same (United alone will bring on 1,000 new pilots in 2016, a number that will likely not change much in the ensuing years). Record profits were recorded thanks to better marketing, the effects of consolidation, cheap fuel, and good winter weather (fewer de-icing events). The pilots at Delta and Southwest recently turned down significant pay raises, signifying that they think more is available, and United’s pilots will be voting on a significant raise in January (it includes language to “snap up” if Delta then tops it).

It’s been a long time coming for this sort of optimism in the airlines, especially at the regionals. Movement will occur, and new jobs will be available. If you’ve been on the fence and are at all qualified, this is a great time to give some serious thought to making the leap.—Chip Wright

Holidays and deadheads

Monday, January 4th, 2016

Airlines pay their pilots and flight attendants to fly. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Schedules are drastically altered around certain holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas. Flights are added, flights are dropped, and schedules are heavily modified. It’s common for crews to spend two nights in some cities when the service is reduced or the equipment that is used to operate the flight is up- or downsized.

The result of this is an enormous amount of deadheading, which is the practice of having crews ride in the cabin with the passengers. It’s never an ideal solution, because the seats are taken out of inventory and can’t be sold. Worse, sometimes the seats have already been sold and passengers have to be bumped, which is never a pleasant outcome for anyone.

Deadheading also is expensive because the crew has to be paid, though some airlines only pay half or three-quarters for time spent dead-heading. Still, it’s an expense, and it adds up. Further, there is also the ramification of FAR Part 117. In days past, the time spent dead-heading did not punish the airline with regards to flight hours lost. Now, deadheading is treated the same as flying when it comes to time spent at work and on duty, so the airlines have to be careful how the dead-heads are scheduled; productivity is lost.

It’s also a headache for gate agents, and it can become one for other crews. Often, certain dead events are considered critical, and if a crew is coming in late from one flight, another may have to be delayed while waiting for the DH crew to show. I’ve been on both ends of this sort of deal, and it’s not a lot of fun. Airlines opt for the DH plan because (on paper) it can save them money to DH crews around versus paying for extra hotels.

On a similar note, a lot of DHs are created by charters. In the regional jet world, NCAA basketball and baseball charters are fairly common because the 50-seat airplane is a perfect match. Often, a crew will DH into the city where the airplane will be (often on the airplane to be used for the charter) and then fly all night moving a basketball team around. When it works out the way it’s supposed to, the airplane winds up back in the same city in which it started, and the crew eventually does a DH home (usually after a rest period in a hotel). While these trips can cost a company some money on paper, those costs are built into the bill for the charter, and charters are very lucrative.

Holiday DHs are just an unfortunate fact of life for everyone. But, as the running joke goes, deadheading is about as easy as the job gets.—Chip Wright

Holiday commuting

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

As I write this, I just finished my commute to work after the Thanksgiving holiday. Normally, when I commute, I go to the airport and try to get on a flight by using my jump-seating privileges, and most of the time this works out well. I usually end up getting into my domicile earlier than I’d like, but I’ve also had the misfortune of not making it at all, which means I don’t get paid for lost flights.

This year, when I got my schedule for November, I was surprised to see that I received the Wednesday through Friday of Thanksgiving week off. I’m still relatively junior, though I am in the middle of the pack on my equipment in my base. That said, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is generally the busiest air travel day of the year, so I did something I would normally not do and bought a ticket home. In order to get back, I cashed in some old frequent flier miles (on another carrier). The peace of mind of having a real seat while getting home for such an important holiday was worth the money spent.

My plan worked a little too well. My trip before Thanksgiving was supposed to end early Wednesday morning (following a red-eye). However, my trip got changed on Monday, and I wound up going home a full 24 hours early on Tuesday. My ticket was non-refundable, and so it appears that the money was spent for naught. C’est la vie. Murphy’s Law says that if I hadn’t bought the ticket, I would have spent the holiday stuck in my domicile.

Getting back to work looked like it could have been a bit of a waste as well. However, there were no direct flights on Friday, so I was looking at a connection no matter what. I decided to cash in the miles and go through Detroit. The flight to DTW was open enough that I could have (likely) gotten on without any problems. However, the connection was tight, and we wound up holding because of weather. I made it, but I had very little time to spare. When I’d booked my flight, there were only five seats left, and when I got to the gate, there were only two, and I suspect those were filled before we left the gate.

So, was it worth it? Yes. I had the peace of mind of being a real passenger, and on the flight out of DTW, the airline would have re-accommodated if I’d missed the connection. I didn’t have to wear my uniform, and I was able—and this is important—to leave my house later in the day than I otherwise would have, as I would likely have been forced to start early to maximize my chances on a two-leg holiday commute.

Commuting has its pros and cons, and it’s rare to hear of a pilot buying a ticket, but it does happen. In my case, I’m hoping to reuse the purchased ticket later, but if I can’t, then so be it. I still got an extra day at home, and I didn’t waste any extra time coming back to work.—Chip Wright

JetBlue’s new ab initio program

Monday, December 7th, 2015

JetBlue has recently announced that it would begin an ab inito pilot training program, which it hopes to kick off in 2016. The company said that the program was not founded because of any impending pilot shortage, but that claim that is dubious at best. While the details are sparse, the apparent structure of the program will be similar to the multi-crew pilot certificate that certain European carriers use.

JetBlueThe multi-pilot license (MPL) works by training candidates with no flight time whatsoever ab initio (“from the beginning”), using simulators for the majority of training. The intent is to immerse students into the crewed cockpit concept as early as possible. Once the basics are mastered, candidates spend large chunks of time flying “flights” that are similar to line operations, but with all manner of problems and issues introduced. Everything from medical emergencies to cabin fires is fair game, and students are required to respond accordingly.

Under a traditional MPL program, pilots will only be qualified to fly certain airline equipment. Depending on how the program is structured, it’s quite possible that a pilot will be fully qualified in the Embraer E-190 (which is the only plane that JetBlue is proposing right now), but would not be able to rent a Cessna 172 at the local FBO.

As noted, the details are scant, and the FAA has to weigh in on JetBlue’s proposal. The early word is that pilots would still get some traditional certificates (probably private, commercial, and instrument), and would then transition to the airline training environment, which would result in an ATP. JetBlue has said that pilots would work with “partners” to get the requisite experience, but it’s unclear if that means sending pilots to work at another flight school, or if they would be sponsored to work for a regional for a while.

So, is this program worth considering for the airline pilot wanna be? That’s a good question, and it’s worth studying when the details are available. While JetBlue has claimed that it will make the monetary investment, nothing is free. It’s a safe bet that there will be some kind of contract required to make sure that pilots don’t get the training and then bolt. Such contracts can be a pair of golden handcuffs.

An alternative possibility is that JetBlue is going to propose a program to the FAA in which the successful candidates will not be eligible to fly for anyone else, thus rendering moot the fear that a pilot will jump ship to a better employment opportunity at another airline (i.e., a non-compete clause). That said, I still suspect a contract will be required in case the candidate decides that instead of flying airplanes, he or she would rather pursue a different line of work.

At present, there are plenty of regional airline pilots that JetBlue can choose from, and the pilots at JetBlue recently voted to join ALPA; negotiations for their first collective bargaining unit are under way, and it’s safe to assume that there will be across-the-board improvements, which will further enhance the appeal of the airline as a place to work. This program is clearly—despite the company denials—a strategy for getting ahead of the pilot shortage while controlling the training of future pilots.

But will it work? Will it last? My early guess is that it will have mixed results at best. Training is expensive, and in this case, there will not only have to be training costs covered, but likely some basic living expenses as well. The core business is still to run an airline, and it will take an awful lot of ticket sales to train a pilot.

While candidates will be exposed to a lot of JetBlue Kool Aid, at some point they will begin to learn to decipher the difference between what the company says and reality, and let’s face it: No matter how great any company is, no company is perfect. Further, smart individuals are only going to be willing to sign contracts with certain limits and restrictions on their ability to move on, and there will always be a few who manage to walk away unscathed.

This presents an interesting situation for airlines. From a competitive standpoint, if nobody else follows suit, JetBlue may have to give this up just because of the cost. Shareholders want to see a return on their investment, and they may not like this idea.

Time will tell if this will be a success. If it is, JetBlue management will look like geniuses. If not, it’s an expensive failure to absorb.—Chip Wright


Monday, November 30th, 2015

A common question among airline new-hires concerns the probationary year. What exactly is probation, and how does it work?

Because the airlines are heavily unionized, terminating pilots—even for cause—is not always easy. The union will appeal the termination, and more often than not it is able to get the pilot reinstated.

But when it comes to new hires, the rules are a bit different. Airlines make a significant financial investment in recruiting and training a new-hire pilot. The up-front cost to get a person line-qualified can easily approach $100,000. It’s fair for the company to have an opportunity to evaluate whether that pilot is a good fit.

Probation usually covers the first 12 months of employment, assuming no disruptions such as a furlough or family emergency that require time off. A pilot on probation has no recourse if the company invokes termination. But probation is really not as big a deal as people make it sound.

Because the industry is seniority-based, and because employee numbers tend to be chronologically assigned, it’s pretty easy to figure out when you’re dealing with a newbie on probation.

The easiest way to survive that probation is to simply make sure that nobody knows who you are. If you show up on time every time, don’t call in sick, and follow company procedures, you have nothing to worry about. Being on probation is sort of like checking in with ATC and saying that you are a student pilot.

By that I mean is that most captains and fellow first officers will want to do whatever they can to help you. They will gladly answer any questions, show you some tricks of the trade, and help make your life just a bit easier. In fact, you will usually suffer from information overload, and that’s a good thing.

The same holds for your chief pilot. It’s a common joke that the best way to conduct your airline career is to do it in such a fashion that the CP has no idea you were ever there, and that’s true to an extent. Even so, the CP also wants—needs—to see you succeed, because his or her job is to help keep the operation running. If you have any questions or concerns or something you don’t understand, introducing yourself and saying, “I’m a probationary pilot” will immediately let the CP know that you might need “progressive taxi.”

Pilots do get let go on probation, but it’s never malicious. It’s always related to some aspect of job performance or dependability. I know of a first officer who was fired for stealing window shades. Several were terminated because they could not make the transition to the airplane. One was let go because he called in sick, then used his pass privileges to go on vacation. As long as you don’t do anything dumb, and as long as you apply yourself, probation will be a non-event—followed by a nice pay raise!—Chip Wright

Wearing your uniform in public

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

womens-pilot-shirts-MZAny pilot or flight attendant will tell you that being in uniform—especially at an airport—can be a trying experience.

Airports, especially mega-plexes, can be confusing and disorienting places, and travelers will look for anyone who remotely looks like they know—well, anything. And the pilot uniform  is a magnet for attention, some of it not so positive.

The most common question is usually along the lines of finding gates or baggage claim. Somehow, this always seems to occur whilst standing right under a sign for the wanted location, but hey, who’s checking? In larger airports with international flights, the uniform becomes a sort of universal sign of someone who might be able to help, especially if the person asking is in a bit of a panic.

Some of the questions are technical, wanting to know how or why things happen the way they do, either on the ground or in the air. These are fairly simple to answer, and often they are actually fun conversations.

But the most difficult situation to deal with is the individual (or worse, a group) who approaches and starts to berate you because of a travel experience that has not gone smoothly. If the red face and flying spit don’t give it away, the opening line of “Your company sucks” usually does.

My advice is to let the person vent for a bit, and, if necessary, ask a question or two that will help narrow down the area of complaint. At that point, you might be able to offer the appropriate words of consolation and help. In my experience, I find that when conversations start this way, it’s because of a lack of information provided to the customer (or the customer was not around when the information was disseminated). Sometimes you’re simply not going to be able to help, and the best you can do is to offer some empathy.

Another tack might be to get as much information as possible, and then walk with the customer to a gate or service counter and explain in succinct terms what the individual needs.

Oddly enough, it seems like passengers also have a hard time believing that we are not intimately familiar with everything. More than once, I’ve been asked questions about a particular airport or city, and folks are surprised to learn that it might be my first visit there as well. When it’s a hub airport, they are even more incredulous, but all I can do is politely explain the situation and try to help as best I can.

The most important thing to remember when wearing in your uniform in public is that from the minute you walk out your door to the minute you walk back in, you are a representative of your company, and, on a larger scale, your industry. This is true of any uniform, but it bears repeating, because the airlines are an industry that everyone loves to hate.

Remember, your uniform is a great way to both show off and smooth out some ruffled feathers. Use that to your advantage. Realize as well that some will make note of your name from your ID or name tag. If they are going to write the company about their exchange with you, do what you can to make it a positive communication. Whether you like it or not, you become who your uniform says you are, no matter where you are.—Chip Wright

First officer responsibilities

Monday, November 16th, 2015

DC10ChecklistEveryone knows that (almost) every professionally flown airplane has two pilots up front, and the captain is in charge. He or she gets paid the big bucks to make all of the hard decisions and take all of the glory when things go perfectly smoothly.

What are the first officer’s responsibilities?

First, every first officer hates the word “co-pilot,” because that is not the proper term. But moving on.

At the most basic level, the FO is there in case anything happens to the captain. Twice in 2015, airline flights have diverted because of a medical issue with one of the pilots. In one case, the captain died. This is obviously not the norm, but it is a possibility, and with the increase in mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65, it’s not unreasonable to expect that more events like this might occur.

From a duty standpoint, the FO does more than recite checklists and move the lever for the landing gear. Just about every airline and flight department allows the captain to “delegate” certain duties to the FO, and in most cases, it becomes a working assumption that the FO will fulfill these duties. Delegating, per se, doesn’t have to occur. For example, the walk-around is almost always conducted by the FO, and when the weather is lousy, you can pretty much guarantee that the FO will be the one trudging around in the rain and snow to check the outside.

In an environment like the airlines, in which the crew is monitoring two radio frequencies on the ground, the FO will handle most communications on the company “Ops” (for Operations) frequency. This is the frequency used for all non-ATC issues, such as late-arriving wheelchairs, two passengers being assigned to the same seat, catering issues, et cetera. The captain might jump in for a maintenance issue, but the FO usually handles these as well.

In the corporate world or in operations with no flight attendant, the FO is often responsible for tidying up the cabin, disposing of trash, and the like. Fetching paperwork often falls on the FO as well, though at some companies the captain takes care of this so that he or she can review the fuel load and weather with the dispatcher.

In the airplane, crews typically rotate turns flying, and there is no difference in the way the airplane is handled or flown, no matter who is flying. If it’s the FO’s leg, and he wants to deviate 20 miles for weather, then the deviation takes place. The FO generally will run the checklists while taxiing, because the captain is the only one with a steering tiller, but once airborne, the flying pilot is the flying pilot. If something goes awry, company procedures may dictate who does what. Most but not all airlines will allow the FO to continue flying if an emergency develops during the FO’s leg. That said, some situations may arise that require the captain to fly. This is usually a result of aircraft design, and it is not a reflection of the ability of the FO to fly. Nonetheless, the captain always has the option to take over if he or she believes that is the best course of action.

First officers often comment that they work much harder than the captains, and it’s a comment that is actually fairly accurate. FOs often get the grunt work in addition to routine duties. Fair or not, it’s just the way it is, a means of paying the dues. It’s also a learning experience. But when push comes to shove, the FO has just as much authority to question something as a captain does, and if there is something wrong that can only be found on the walk-around, the captain is counting on the FO not only to do the job, but also to do it well.—Chip Wright

Can you prepare for class?

Monday, November 9th, 2015

It’s one thing to hear the training is like drinking from a fire hose, but it’s another to actually live that. What can you do to make the transition easier?

Most airlines do almost nothing to provide materials that you can study in advance. At a carrier where your equipment won’t be decided until you get to class and bid on it, this carries slightly more logic (but not much more). At carriers where the equipment is a foregone conclusion, it doesn’t make much sense at all. There is certainly material that could be provided to you for study that won’t violate security-sensitive rules established in the wake of September 11, 2001.

But, since that information from your future employer won’t be coming, you are on your own. If you are indeed going to a company where the equipment is already known, you can try to get your hands on the memory items and limitations that you will be expected to memorize. If you have a friend at that carrier, great. If not, find one.

Another thing you can start learning are some of the complex weather rules. While many of these don’t change from one carrier to the next, every airline has certain rules that are specific to that carrier. Alternatively, not every carrier is able to get all of the various exemptions, so what is in effect at one won’t necessarily be at another. Unless you can get the actual information from someone currently employed there, don’t assume that anything generic will work.

Airplane systems are usually fairly consistent, but every airline teaches them differently. Airline A may put a lot of emphasis on one system that Airline B appears to gloss over. Further, there can be differences based on certain avionics and/or engine packages. Again, if it doesn’t come from the source, be careful. Most of the major systems, such as flight controls, pressurization, fire suppression, and hydraulic will be the same from one carrier to the next for a given fleet, but instead of committing a lot of information to memory, concentrate instead on a more superficial familiarity that will make it easier to absorb the details later.

Even if the systems are consistent, the operational philosophies will vary from one carrier to another. For example, I flew the CRJ for 14 years, and I sat on the jump seat of several carriers that also flew it. At Comair, walking away from the airplane with the auxiliary power unit running was to risk your job. At another carrier, this was standard practice. On the other hand, we had much more lenient restrictions on taking off with the brakes above a certain temperature than a different carrier I rode on did. None was “wrong”; we all just did it differently.

If you can get current information about your soon-to-be employer, the best way to prepare for class is to stick with memory items and limitations and weather policies, and perhaps a general understanding of FAR 117. Everything else will fall into place later. More accurately, it will come from the fire hose later.—Chip Wright