Posts Tagged ‘airline pilots’

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

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

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

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

Career progression

Friday, 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

Disability insurance

Thursday, 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

Tuesday, 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

Monday, 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

GIGO

Monday, 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