Archive for October, 2010

Tip of the week #3

Friday, October 29th, 2010

Have fun.

I don’t care if you are learning to fly for pleasure or business, this is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be exciting to go to the airport and get in an airplane. Even if you are one of those students who is learning to fly because you are afraid of it, have fun.

Why the need to post something so obvious as this? Because it’s easy to forget. We’re a serious industry. Safety is serious. Airplanes are complex machines. We have regulations. And ramp checks (although seemingly not anymore). And nasty weather. But on those beautiful days when the sun is shining and the air is smooth, it simply doesn’t get better.

So, yes, training is hard sometimes. But there is an end. A wonderful, fulfilling end. Don’t forget that during stall practice number 851. After a couple of more mundane flights recently I got to fly a restored Super Cub on a beautiful day over fall foliage on a photo shoot for our January cover story. The fun doesn’t end.

Happy Friday.

–Ian J. Twombly

50-seat economics

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

On September 1, 2010, Delta and Comair announced the regional carrier was going to remove the majority of its 50 seat aircraft, dramatically downsizing the airline and the number of employees. The immediate questions one might ask are, what happened that took the 50 seater from being one of the most popular airplanes in the fleet to being such a hot potato, and what does that mean for the rest of the nation’s fleet of small jets?

The answer to the first question is two-fold. First, when the Canadair regional jet was introduced the price of oil was around $15 a barrel. As I write this, oil has closed at $74 a barrel, almost a five-fold increase in cost. Meanwhile, ticket prices, in real dollars, are still at 1984 levels. On the labor front, pilots at many regional airlines have begun to accrue enough seniority that they are getting paid salaries that managers never anticipated paying in such numbers. But make no mistake, the biggest problem is the cost of fuel. Back in 2000, a 50-seat RJ could break even with only half the seats occupied, while commanding a price premium over slower, noisier turboprops. Now, the load factor required to make money is substantially higher. And there are still only 50 seats to use to produce revenue, and almost every major airline has an RJ feed network. Delta has responded in part by limiting the segments of the CRJ 50 seaters to 750 miles or less, which is both a nod to passenger comfort as well as to the reality of the airplanes’ new, reduced earning power.

The second half of the equation is airframe age. The CRJ was build with a designed life time of 80,000 hours and/or 80,000 cycles (takeoffs and landings). The oldest segment of the fleet is now half way to that number, and is due for some very expensive and intensive maintenance procedures on the airframes and engines. In fact, they are due for a total tear-down. While this would effectively mean that the airplane would come out of the shop as good as new, it is extremely expensive at almost $2 million per aircraft. Delta, in the end, did not feel the cost was justifiable, and they made the decision to park the airplanes. Considering the larger RJ models available from both Bombardier and Embraer do not cost that much more to operate while providing both more seats and longer range, it’s a decision that, from a business standpoint, makes sense.

The downside is that Comair will be furloughing every first officer in the company between April 2011 and December 2012. That’s right: Every single pilot at Comair come January 2013 will have been (or had the seniority to be) a captain. The most junior captain will have more than twenty years of service, and the most junior first officer is likely to have been there for fourteen or more years.

So, what does this mean for other 50-seat operators? The fact is they too will have to make a decision in the near future about whether or not refurbishing their current fleets makes economic sense. Because of that, American has been trying to sell its Eagle operation, and Continental has in recent years spun off Continental Express and allowed Continental Express to try some branding of its own. The largest RJ operator in the country will soon be Skywest, and they will not be exempt from making some hard decisions as well. Bomardier no longer produces the CRJ line, and the new C-series has not yet flown. The question will be whether or not Bombardier can get the C-series into production in time to fill the voids, not just as Bombardier sees them, but as the airlines do. Time will tell. And of course all bets are off if fuel prices begin to climb again.

–Chip Wright

Tip of the week #2

Friday, October 15th, 2010

Always have an out.

Advice like this seems obvious, but it’s only obvious because we don’t properly teach how to actually accomplish it. Having an out means that regardless of the situation, you have options. Here are two very different scenarios that detail how and why to start thinking this way.

Scenario 1

You’re a student pilot who is on her first long cross-country. Your logbook says you are allowed to go from airport A to airport B to airport C and back to airport A. But when you tune in the weather for airport C it seems like the wind could be beyond your capability. What do you do now? The weather is otherwise clear, so that’s not a concern. And you don’t have to worry about fuel. The first thing you realize is that you have multiple answers, a common issue with aviation. Often it’s a good thing, but choosing the right one is part of being a good pilot in command.T

The first thing is that you should have had a plan B for each airport. Ideally, your alternate would have long runways that have a different alignment to your planned destination. If you have a plan, and it looks like it will work, by all means execute it. It’s irionic to me that it often takes a more advancaed pilot to throw in the towel and activate an alternate plan. But all of us should be doing this from day one of training.

Assuming you don’t have an alternate already mapped out, you can either try to land, go to another airport, or turn around and go home. See, multiple options. In this case the only wrong answer seems to be to land at the original airport. There’s no prize awarded for not cracking up an airplane in strong wind. In other words, situations like this offer little reward but come with big risk. So what would you do?


I like it flat

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

When you’re flying, how much time do you spend scanning for an emergency landing spot?

If you answered “a lot,” I salute you. If you said “not much,” I refer you to Wally Miller’s excellent 2002 article “Playing the What-If Game.”

I was doing a lot of thinking about emergency landing sites during my recent trip with AOPA’s Fun to Fly Sweepstakes Remos. During this multi-day trek, colleague Patrick Smith and I flew from Maryland over lumpy-bumpy terrain near Huntington, West Virginia, to Bowling Green, Kentucky, and onward to Mount Vernon, Illinois, for the Midwest LSA Expo. From Illinois we flew west and then south through Missouri, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and then California.

A funny thing happened as we left Illinois for Missouri and then Kansas. The ground got progressively flatter, and my nerves—usually cranked up a notch or two on a cross-country—got flatter too. Everywhere I looked, I saw great expanses of farmland, with very few power lines or trees to interfere with a forced landing. There wasn’t any need to search for Wally’s “Jolly Green Giant’s footprint.” Middle America offers plenty of options.

In Waco, Texas, we stopped for an overnight visit with our friend Claire. She looked at our route for the next day—Midland, Tex., and then Roswell, N.M.—and snorted. “There’s not much out that way,” she said. “If you should have an engine-out, try to land near something. A town, a ranch.” The implication was clear: We had reached the part of the country where obstructions weren’t so much of an issue, but finding emergency assistance could be.

The Fun to Fly Remos’s 100-horsepower Rotax engine hummed along throughout the trip, but after that discussion you better believe I stopped taking the terrain for granted. Flat is good, but staying alert and having a plan for whatever you might encounter is better.

—Jill W. Tallman

Don’t leave without it

Friday, October 8th, 2010

You know what it’s like to be halfway to some place in your car, and you realize that you don’t have your cell phone? There was a time when the only thing you needed to remember was your wallet, but nowadays, leave the house without a phone, and you feel naked, isolated, and even a bit panicked.

But if you think that’s bad, imagine that several hours after you left a hotel room that you left behind the charger for your phone. Imagine further knowing full well that for the next three or four days that the phone is a dead weight you must carry, yet not lose, until you can get it charged. All you can do is stare at it.

Or, imagine having placed ten dollars worth of leftovers in the mini-fridge in your room that you plan on making for lunch the next day, only to realize that you have left it behind. How about your seventy dollar hat? Or your shaving kit?

I’ve done most of these things. I have not left a charger behind, although I’ve come close. And over the years I’ve left behind enough food to feed an army, forcing me to either buy more or get by on peanuts. What I’ve also done is come up with a packing system that serves me well both for work and personal travel. Here are a few tips to help you avoid at least some of this pain.