Archive for the ‘Aviation Careers’ Category

A (very) brief explanation of ticket prices

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

I’m going to stray a little bit from my typical career advice, and I’m going to discuss a few of the airline business practices that tend to drive everyone crazy. One of those is the issue of ticket prices.

As most of you know, airline ticket prices can vary wildly even on the same flight. It’s very possible to have two passengers sitting next to each other who paid a difference of hundreds of dollars for their tickets. What gives?

512px-NWA_Airline_Ticket_JL2703First of all, it helps if you think of an airplane as a venue for a concert or a baseball game. When you buy tickets to a game, you expect to pay more for a better seat, such as one behind home plate or along one of the baselines. You expect to pay less to sit in the “nosebleed” section.

Flights are similar. First class, business class, and seats with extra legroom demand a higher fare because of the benefits or added comfort of sitting in those seats. That’s simple enough. But what drives the rest of the pricing differences?

American Airlines, under Robert Crandall, perfected the use of modern pricing algorithms (it’s actually a trick he learned working for, of all places, Hallmark). With today’s computerized reservations systems, airlines use sophisticated computer models to adjust the pricing of every seat as soon as a seat is sold. This is one reason why it costs less to buy a seat well in advance of the flight.

The airline already knows what the basic cost of a flight will be, and therefore how much it needs to sell each seat to make money on that flight, which allows it to set the basic fare.

Next, it needs to collect all of the various fees and taxes that might be required—landing fees, passenger facility charges, security fees, et cetera. These can easily add more than $100 to the price of a ticket.

As soon as seats begin to sell, prices begin to change. (In fact, if you use the same computer to check the prices of a flight several times, the website can [and often will] use the cookie it has placed on your computer to gauge your interest and raise the fare.) Prices also change as the date of the flight gets closer.

Because airlines get most of their revenue from business travelers, the prices go up quite dramatically within 14 to 21 days of a flight, since this is when business travelers buy most of their tickets. This is similar to the concert or ball game analogy: Supply has diminished, and demand often rises. The airline is, in effect, scalping its own seats, and it is doing so to its best customers, because roughly 5% of the passengers provide almost 95% of the revenue.

Something else is at play as well. The airline doesn’t collect nearly the revenue from leisure travelers as it does from business travelers on a per-seat basis. So, if the mix gets slightly out of whack, ticket prices will move, especially if the “out of whack” portion of the equation means that more leisure travelers are buying tickets than usual. In addition, if passengers are using frequent flyer miles to buy the seat, either prices will increase or the number of seats available for redeeming miles will decrease or even disappear (think of Hawaii).

Just like a concert or a ball game, there can be a last-minute deal, and it can be great one for the consumer. The Yankees may sell a few tickets in the second or even third inning, but an airline can never sell a seat on a given flight once that flight has left the gate, and even the Yankees won’t sell tickets after the fourth inning or so. Therefore, sometimes they will offer steep discounts just to fill the seat at the last minute.

Ticket prices are maddening at times, but there really is a method to the madness, and a madness to the method. Or something like that!—Chip Wright

Flying like a professional: Talking on the radio

Monday, June 1st, 2015

Orlando Showalter MentoringThere are many marks of a professional that can be attributed to airline pilots—whether it’s the way they wear their uniforms, or brush their hair, or use the checklist. Another one is the way in which they talk on the radio.

The radio is essentially a party line, meaning that everyone on the frequency can hear you. How you conduct yourself says a lot about you.

I’ve been flying now for more than 25 years, and I’ve heard more than a few things that have made me cringe. That isn’t to say that I haven’t heard a few things that were funny, even if they weren’t always appropriate; I have, and I’ve laughed heartily. But I’ve also heard pilots (and even controllers) belch, swear, bloviate, lose their temper, and otherwise make a fool out of themselves.

For many new pilots, using the radio is intimidating and even a bit frightening.

But radio-speak is a skill that gets better with practice, as well as with listening. If you live near a busy airport, one of the best things you can do is turn on a handheld transceiver and listen to a local frequency—especially if it’s for a tower or approach control.

You can achieve the same thing using, a popular website that has a link to hundreds of live ATC audio streams. You can also study the examples in the Aeronautical Information Manual and the Pilot/Controller Glossary, but it isn’t exactly exciting reading.

Pay attention to the airline pilots. The most professional-sounding ones will speak with an even cadence and tempo, and they will not allow a high level of activity affect the way they transmit. This is important, because a controller doesn’t want to spend a lot of time repeating transmissions—and often does not have that time.

It doesn’t take long to pick up how a few tidbits, such as how a transmission is to be structured; or what commands to expect at a certain time; or when it may be acceptable—even if it isn’t always right—to just respond with a call sign or some other verbal shorthand. You’ll also learn that the true professionals limit themselves to what needs to be said and do not add extraneous filler to their transmissions. It isn’t necessary, and it doesn’t help anyone.

Talking like a professional and sounding like one is not hard, but it does take practice. Listening to LiveATC or a handheld will help tremendously. Practice giving your responses in your car, where nobody can hear you. You’ll get the hang of it before you know it, and when you begin to tackle more complex airspace, you too will sound like a pro.—Chip Wright

‘Cleared short approach’

Friday, May 29th, 2015

Tommy Condon is a student at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana. He has been sharing his Success Stories with Flight Training’s Facebook page since his very first solo in 2013. We’re proud to bring you Tommy’s latest achievement.—Ed.

Tommy Condon after his commercial certificate checkride.

Tommy Condon after his commercial certificate checkride.

Ever since I first started my ever-expanding career in aviation, I never figured myself to be sitting in a special aerobatic Bonanza E33C on my commercial checkride only two years into my training.

With that comes the special phrase from air traffic control that will frighten many. For me, that was, “Rocky 79 short approach approved, cleared to land Runway 10L.”

At this point we had already completed the maneuvers and precision landings. I made it this far with no complaints and now all that is left is the dreaded, heart-pounding power-off 180.

This is when my examiner said, “Alright, let’s see the money maker.” (Pun intended.) As we came abeam the intended landing point, the power went to idle. Did I mention the Bonanza is no Cessna when it comes to gliding?

I pushed the nose over, watching the VSI near -1,000 fpm! As I turned onto my final approach, I noticed I was low. I thought, This is it, I’ll see if I can get in ground effect and burn this drag off.

We were in ground effect at the beginning of the runway. As I aimed for the 1,000′ footers, my back-pressure was gradually increasing almost nearing full aft! It was time, the airplane wanted to be on the ground.

Chirp, chirp! Right on the mark! That day, I truly realized how much of a pal ground effect is!

Every day I am thankful to be in this industry and the challenges it offers, which are well worth the effort to accomplish. It is important to remember that some may burn out of the industry, but those who stay will truly understand the emotion and fulfillment behind to see the sights we see, the satisfaction, and the connections we build among each other.

Name: Tommy Condon

Age: 20

Event: Commercial pilot checkride

Where: Rocky Mountain College, Billings Logan International (BIL), Billings, Montana

Airplane: Beechcraft E33C Bonanza
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Flying like a professional: Checklists

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

DC10ChecklistIf you are in training with the intention of moving on to the airlines or corporate opportunities, have you thought of trying to train and fly as you would for the job you eventually want to have? Or even if you aren’t planning on flying the “heavy and fast” metal? It’s not as hard as you think.

One of the easiest things to do is to develop an almost sick obsession with checklists. Most people, including general aviation pilots, would be surprised at the level of checklist discipline that airline pilots use. It starts at the gate, usually with a checklist for “Accepting” or “Receiving” the airplane, and it doesn’t end until the airplane is shut down or handed off to either maintenance or another crew.

Some of the checklists are ridiculously long, and some are absurdly short. It doesn’t matter. They all have to be done, in full, every time. Moreover, many are required to be done verbally so that the cockpit voice recorder can be used to verify that the checklist was done in the event of an accident.

The rote process of doing checklists becomes ingrained, and it gets to the point of, quite literally, physical discomfort when one is not completed (not to be confused with what happens when one is simply forgotten).

When I was flying for a regional airline, we had a checklist on a turboprop that we had to complete when passing 18,000 feet. It consisted of changing the settings of the propellers (to reduce noise) and setting the altimeters to the standard of 29.92 inches.

Two items. That’s all. But it would create a lot of angst if someone didn’t get it done on time or was unable to complete it on time (usually because of radio chatter).

We had a couple of similar checklists on the CRJ. In addition, we had a few that were quite wordy, and they’re even worse for inducing a bit of anxiety, because they seemed to be so prone to interruption at the worst possible time—which often meant starting over.

Airline and military pilots don’t let the rush to get home or to the hotel distract them. The checklists are completed the way in which they are supposed to be completed, every single time. They have to be. As I said, the CVR records them, and if we make a mistake, our careers depend on them. I’ve been in situations in which we had very little time to get out of the gate and get to a runway before we would run the risk of not being able to complete the flight, but every checklist still had to be finished. It’s just the way it is. Sometimes the checklists get rushed a bit, but they do get done.

In your training, develop the same mindset. It doesn’t matter how “obvious” something is, or how “simple” an airplane is. Get in the habit early. Not only is it a good one, but it might save you from embarrassment later. It might be something as simple as turning on a transponder or as important as making sure the landing gear is extended. You’ll find that when you don’t complete the checklist, you’ll be squirming in your seat until you do, and when you finally complete it, you’ll suddenly relax.

And the gear will be down.—Chip Wright

Flying with someone you don’t like

Monday, May 18th, 2015

CFI DorkWhen you fly for a living—especially as a part of a crewed airplane—you will encounter all kinds of personalities. Some will strike you as weird or quirky, others as boring or fascinating or blasé. Some, unfortunately, you won’t like.

It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. At the regionals, where flying five or six legs a day is not uncommon, getting along is paramount. And most of the time, it’s easy. You already have one common interest, which is flying (even if one or both of you is not all that enamored with your carrier).

But what happens when you fly with someone whom you just can’t stand? The truth is, it can be a real problem. On a four-day trip, you might fly 20 or so legs, and you’ll be crammed into a room the size of a phone booth with only one other person. And you’ll be stuck.

If you don’t like each other—or if you just don’t like that person—there are a few things you can do. First of all, limit the conversation to flight-related duties such as checklists or approach briefings. Second, believe it or not, might just be to tell the other person that you think it’s best to limit the conversation. Often, this can lead to a discussion about what you don’t like about the other person, which can be an ice-breaker.

What you can’t do is allow your behavior or reactions to cross certain lines, and you can’t allow it to affect safety. While there are stories about pilots coming to blows in a cockpit, fortunately such events are incredibly rare. More likely will be a scenario similar to one that happened involving two pilots I knew. They spent several days flying together, and by the end of the trip they despised each other, simply because they had different personalities.

On one of the final legs, the captain had used the flight spoilers to help him in the descent. But he forgot about them, and the first officer waited until the last minute to say anything. When he did, the captain (angrily) stowed the spoilers and had to deal with an airplane that used up several thousand feet of runway trying to overcome the sudden excess power he had been using.

And that brings me to the third option for dealing with this type of issue. This crew realized at the gate that they had acted unprofessionally and with hostility toward each other for the majority of the trip. They also agreed that they should not fly together again, and they agreed that if they were paired together that one of them would call in sick. Some airlines have a mechanism in place for first officers to avoid flying with certain captains; this one did not. (It’s always the FO who gets to bail, because the captain is the authority figure.)

Another possibility is to go to the chief pilot and simply explain that you can’t work with another pilot. This is a bit of a last resort, but if you simply can’t stand to be in the airplane with someone, you may not have a choice. Chances are, you won’t get more than one of these “free passes,” so make it count.

Many airlines, especially the majors, administer a personality assessment to applicants just to avoid this situation. It’s not  fool-proof, but it does work to mitigate the problem.

Remember, there is a difference in dealing with someone with whom you have no common interests who might be difficult to talk to, and someone who is just so difficult to get along with that you can’t work together. The first thing you need to do is perform an honest assessment of yourself to make sure that you are not the problem. If you believe the problem is the other individual, then you need to start using other tools available to deal with the issue before it gets out of hand or unsafe.—Chip Wright

Asking for help

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Pilots tend to have egos. We don’t like to admit that we need help, but the truth is that we need it more often that we want to admit. This is especially true when we’re learning something fairly new, or have not spent a lot of time in an aircraft. It might be something as simple as how to program a new fix in the avionics, and it might be something as complicated as…programming a new fix in the avionics.

I’m still learning the ins and outs of the 737, which I’ve been flying now for almost two years. I spend most of my time on reserve, as I am fairly junior in my base, so I don’t fly as much as I’d like. My flight time tends to occur in spurts where I’m flying a lot, and then sitting at home a lot. The result is that I often need to brush up on a few items before I go fly a trip. It’s also not uncommon for me to just forget a few things here and there.

The need for help was driven home recently while talking to a friend of mine who has made the transition from one career to another, having left behind a field she spent 30 years in (finance) for one that is brand new to her (flight attendant). For as much time as I’ve been in the airlines, I must confess that I knew precious little about the training that the cabin crews go through. That’s changed, because my friend, who was hired by a major airline, spent five pretty intense weeks tackling an enormous amount of material, all of which was new to her.

One of the things that quickly became apparent was that she wasn’t going to make it through training on her own. I had forewarned her about that before she left, but I’m not sure that she fully appreciated it until she got into class and got hit with the full brunt of all the information she needed to master. This carried over to the airplane as well, and it was a bit of a surprise to me to hear just how much she relied on her crew mates as she got her feet wet.

It reminded me of my own experiences in the cockpit. Pilots tend to think that flying is flying, and it doesn’t matter what airplane it is. That’s true…to a point. But each airplane is different, and each one has its own challenges. Throw in learning the way a new company does things, and it’s even more complex.

I spent 16 years with my first airline, and moving to the second one involved a lot of “unlearning,” and it’s not easy. I had to ask for help, not only on the basic information about how new equipment worked, but on how to simply fit in. I’m on my third airline now, and I’m still asking for help. Sometimes, it seems like I am asking for help on something that is so simple I should be embarrassed, but I learned a long time ago—usually the hard way—that these are the times when I absolutely must ask for help. Life experience is a great teacher in that respect.

As my friend the FA has said, she asks for help for two reasons. One, she might genuinely need it. Two, it’s often just a way to reinforce what she knows or even just thinks she knows. It’s a confidence- builder. And that alone is enough.—Chip Wright

Writing letters of recommendation

Monday, May 4th, 2015

As the airlines begin to hire, many pilots will be on both ends of a common act: letters of recommendation. You will at some point need to ask for some, and at some point you will likely be asked to provide some. For many, the actual request turns out to be the easy part. We’ll assume for the sake of discussion that you have no problem writing a letter for the person asking for one.

When it comes to writing the letter, there isn’t necessarily a formula per se, but there are a few things to keep in mind. First, if the person uses a nickname, start by using the formal name, and revert to the nickname later. This lets the reader know that the applicant may go by more than one name, and also that you know the person fairly closely.

Second, letters of recommendations for pilots need to cover two distinct areas. You need to talk about the applicant as a person, and you need to discuss his or her flying skills. It doesn’t really matter which comes first, as long as you do both. I prefer to cover the flying skills first, since that’s what the company is most interested in. Discuss your subject’s basic stick-and-rudder skills, as well as instrument skills and, if appropriate, deeper knowledge of technical material and/or aircraft systems. This may only be appropriate if the person has flown some something fairly sophisticated, such as a turboprop or a jet, or if he or she has developed a reputation as an instructor or teacher in that airplane.

When discussing the person as an individual, it’s important that you think like a recruiter. If you’re writing for a pilot applying to a regional, this may even be more important. The pilot will be spending an awful of time in a small space with one other person on trips that might last as long as six days. It is imperative that he or she be able to get along with a multitude of personalities. Conflict simply isn’t acceptable. When you’re describing the person, concentrate on what makes him or her a positive influence, whether it’s a sense of humor, a way with words, or an ability to laugh at himself.

One of the most important items in a letter of recommendation is the quality of the writing. It is imperative that you use good grammar and sentence structure. Spelling and punctuation count. If you are not a strong writer, ask for help from someone who can provide it. The worst thing you can do is provide a poorly written letter to someone looking for work, because it will reflect on that person as well as you.

This is a two-way street. When you ask for a letter, you need to make sure that one written on your behalf meets the same basic guidelines. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to decide whether to keep it or politely ask the writer to redo it. Just make sure that you won’t be offending your friend!

Another common mistake involves writing letters for pilots seeking interviews or jobs with multiple companies. You need to make sure that a letter for airline X does not mention airline Y. It happens, and it leads to quite a bit of embarrassment. Put the letters in separate envelopes and label them accordingly. If you’re writing for one of the airlines that uses, ask the applicant to log on and read your letters to make sure you got the right airline matched up with the right letter.

Asking for and writing letters of recommendation are important pieces of the job hunting puzzle. Being asked to write one is an honor, and you should treat it accordingly. It’s also a favor you may need the other person to return, so do it well.—Chip Wright

Applying flying skills to life, and vice versa

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Learning to fly is a complicated pursuit. For many, it is the first real foray into the three-dimensional world. It requires learning a complex series of skills in a machine that never stops moving. There is no pulling over at a gas station to ask for directions or use a restroom. Every flight involves at least a rudimentary level of planning.

One of the neat things about learning to fly is that many of the skills are transferable to other endeavors. Likewise, there are skill sets from other hobbies that can be transferred to flying. Take flight planning, for example.

At its most basic, flight planning requires at least a look at the weather and the fuel gauge even if you are only planning a flight in the local area. But longer flights or flights over more challenging terrain, require more attention. There is a close correlation to two common activities here: scuba diving and traveling by car. Divers often use mnemonics or even checklists to make sure that they are prepared for diving. Pilots do the same thing. Divers have to plan their air supply so that they return to the surface with a minimum amount of air in the tank. Pilots are taught to always keep fuel in reserve. Flights, like the traditional family vacation, are often broken up into legs in order to minimize fatigue or plan fuel and/or food stops.

A good percentage of flying involves preparing for emergencies or “non-normal” situations. This is pretty intuitive, considering that we are not in our natural environment. Where pilots learn to plan for engine failures and electrical malfunctions, divers learn to cope with flooded masks or leaky regulators. Teenage drivers learn early on how to change tires and use jumper cables (or they should, anyway).

When I was an active flight instructor, I always tried to correlate what I was teaching with something from everyday life or from the students’ personal background that would help them grasp and retain the essence of what I was teaching. Many hated using the checklist because it was so foreign to them. Some of them learned to look at it as a step-by-step recipe, as if they were cooking, and a few looked at it as the only way to avoid trouble with the FAA (the lawyers). People whose career consisted of working with numbers would approach flight planning from a numerical perspective: We have X amount of gas, which we’ll burn at Y gallons an hour, so we should be able to fly for Z amount of time (math teachers and accountants).

Flight planning can be a consuming task, as I mentioned. I’ve known pilots who have traveled in general aviation aircraft around the globe. Planning such a trip can take a year or more, and it involves a tremendous effort to coordinate because of the various laws of flying over certain countries. These folks tend to carry over much of the mindset to their non-aviation lives: They carry extra oil in their car; they always seem to dress for worse weather than they expect; there are several maps or GPS units available, et cetera. As one of them told me, planning for an emergency in the middle of an emergency is no place to plan for an emergency. Everything he did followed that mantra.

Use flying to broaden your thought process for other arenas in life, and use your own personal experiences elsewhere to enhance your decision-making skills in the airplane. And, plan ahead for the emergencies!—Chip Wright

Follow your gut

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

Check Out ChecklistOne of the common problems in aviation is that of routine and repetition. It’s easy to assume that because we do certain tasks every time we fly, with no change, that perhaps those tasks don’t need to be completed every time we fly. Two examples come to mind: the preflight check and the flight control check.

When you rent an airplane from a flight school, it’s tempting to avoid the preflight or walk-around, because you know the airplane flies every day (or close to it). It’s even more tempting to skip it when you watch the airplane land (or even do a few touch and goes) and then taxi to the tie-down spot. I mean really, it just landed! What could you possibly miss?

A lot, actually. The other pilot might have missed cord showing on the tire because that cord may have not been showing when the flight started, or it was on the bottom of the tire, out of sight, when he conducted his own walk-around.

It’s also possible that there might be damage to the airplane from an unseen bird strike, such as a missing antenna, which the previous pilot might not have noticed if he wasn’t using that particular radio. Fluid leaks also are possible.

Flight control checks are another area in which it’s easy to get complacent. As a student, you’re told that you are checking for flight control functionality and proper rigging (making sure the controls deflect in the proper direction). This is especially true if the airplane has been in maintenance. But there is also something else to test for, which is a general feel for the controls. If you fly the same airplane enough, you will know when it just doesn’t “feel” right, and you should learn to trust that little devil on your shoulder.

I’ve experienced two examples of this. The first was about five years ago on the CRJ. The flight controls were the first officer’s responsibility. One day, my FO immediately said something as he was checking the elevator. What happened next is a long story, but the gist of is that the airplane was broken. It stayed in Richmond for four days, and the tail was basically rebuilt. It took the mechanics 10 pages in the logbook to record all of the work.

Recently, an airplane I was flying had a funny feel to the rudder pedals when the captain checked them. The mechanics were never able to quite duplicate the sensation, but they kept digging and eventually found a failure of a part in the back of the airplane. The flight was cancelled and the airplane was sent to the hangar for repairs.

We do walk-arounds and control checks so frequently that either can become a mindless task. It’s important not to let that happen. Take each of these tasks seriously, and something just doesn’t feel right, remember: It may not be.—Chip Wright

Follow the evidence

Friday, March 13th, 2015

It’s happened again. There’s been another accident, this one involving Air Asia. The airplane was en route from Indonesia to Singapore on Dec. 28, 2014, when it crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 162 people on board.

And, as usual, speculation about the potential cause(s) was immediate and rampant. Some of it was the picture of basic ignorance about aviation. One newscaster was audacious enough to ask if the use of the metric system (for setting the altimeter) might have played a role in the accident. Where do they find these people?

In this case, the immediate culprit of suspicion was the weather, because people could access the satellite images that were taken at the time of the airplane’s disappearance.

The crew in this accident was very experienced, especially the captain. If this was indeed a weather- related accident, it makes you wonder right away how the crew could have allowed themselves to get into that situation. This is a great reminder of what we try to drive home to student and private pilots, not to mention instrument students and pilots, every day: You’re only as good as your last good decision. Penetrating bad weather of any form is a bad idea. Thunderstorms are violent, and they can destroy the best airplanes with surprising efficiency. Flying in precip in freezing temperatures can easily overwhelm a plane with ice, which can not only destroy lift, but add a crippling amount of weight.

It’s important in this accident, as in all others, to allow the experts the latitude to do their jobs and go wherever the evidence leads them. That’s especially true if or when the evidence starts to paint a picture that sullies the reputation of the crew of the plane or the engines or whatever component is involved. When it comes to safety, facts and information are far more important than reputation.
That isn’t to say that anybody should just pile on to the pilots and blame them. Far from it. But all other evidence needs to be excluded.

I have my own theories about what might have happened, but I’m keeping them to myself. One of the difficult facts to reconcile is that I can think of a number of scenarios that might have developed, but they are all very remote, with highly improbable odds. But that’s the case in any accident: Invariably, something happens that shouldn’t have, or the accident would not have occurred in the first place.

My only wish is that the NTSB were involved. They are the best in the world at what they do, and they do a very good job at maintaining impartiality until they have a true bead on the cause. Politics will likely rear its ugly head, and various entities will do whatever they can to shift the blame. To think otherwise would be naïve.

But until the final report is release, remember: none of us “knows what happened.” The ones who do…are dead.—Chip Wright