Posts Tagged ‘airline pilots’

Honesty pays

Monday, December 8th, 2014
"Honesty is the best policy."---Ben Franklin

“Honesty is the best policy.”—Ben Franklin

I’m on my third airline. At each one, the chief pilot(s) have always insisted on just one thing: Never, ever lie to them. The reality, they each said, is that things happen. Sometimes those things result in damaged equipment, damaged airplanes, injuries, or just embarrassment to the pilot group or the company. But, most of the time, anything that was not done with malicious intent or wanton disregard for safety can be dealt with. There may well be punishment—even harsh punishment—but a suspension is by far better than a termination.

I’ve heard several stories about people trying to hide something. One of the worst was a crew that wanted to move an airplane on the ramp. They failed to look outside, and the movement of the airplane caused considerable damage to the cargo bin because the belt loader was still in position. They lied, got caught, and were fired. Another example is of a pilot—a former chief pilot, no less—who lied to the control tower about a non-existent mechanical problem because he wasn’t ready to go. As soon as he was, he took off. The tower wasn’t sure what to make of the situation, and called the company—which happened to have a base at that airport. An investigation ensued, and the pilot was terminated. He was also punished by the FAA.

Contrast that to this. A first officer was doing a walk-around one winter in the middle of nowhere, and it was bitterly cold and windy with blowing snow. In his haste to get back in the airplane and get warm, he did more jogging than walking, and failed to notice that somebody had placed a cover on one of the pitot tubes. This is not common at the airlines, and it was unheard of at this one. However, it happened, and he missed it. At some point during the takeoff—I’ve never been sure if they rejected the takeoff or actually flew a circuit around the pattern, because I’ve heard both versions—the cautions and chimes started, and it was obvious that something was amiss. After returning to the gate, the problem was found, and the flight departed normally.

The FO immediately went to the chief’s office and did the carpet dance, confessing his sins and placing his fate into the hands of the chief. The chief honored his word, and told the FO that he would be suspended for two weeks. However, the FO could pick the two-week period that he wanted off. He chose Christmas, and his request was honored. He missed two weeks of pay, but his honesty was respected, and his kids had Dad home for Christmas.

It doesn’t always have a happy ending. Some pilots are fired just because what they did is so egregious that they can’t be forgiven. But, more often than not, immediate honesty pays off, and the impact on a career is minimal to non-existent. I know one pilot who misunderstood the change in his trip and didn’t show up the next morning, leading to the cancellation of three flights. The chief told him that ordinarily he would have received a two-week suspension, but because of his history, he’d just get a verbal warning. The pilot knew that the real reason he wasn’t being suspended was because of a staffing shortage, which the chief acknowledged. When he asked to be suspended anyway—after all, he’d be off for two weeks—the chief denied him and sent him back to work. Sometimes, you can’t get punished even when you want to be.—Chip Wright

The probationary year

Monday, September 15th, 2014

For new airline pilots, the first year is one with a very steep learning curve. There are myriad new rules, policies, procedures and regulations to learn. On top of all that, you must learn the systems of your new airplane and how to safely fly it. Once you get out on the line, you get to learn the the day-to-day grind of being a pilot, with all of the benefits and pitfalls included therein.

One of the concepts that you are introduced to right away is that of your “probationary year.” In essence, it works like this: Because nearly every airline is unionized, the collective bargaining agreements (contracts) include a grievance process for the pilots to contest certain decisions, including terminations. It usually involves some sort of arbitration process that varies from company to company, but the principle is the same in that the union can fight back if it believes that a pilot was improperly disciplined.

There is one exception, and that is the probationary pilot. Every airline puts new-hire pilots on probation for a period of time, usually 12 months, but a few use six months. When you are on probation, you can be terminated at any time, for any reason, with no recourse.

The intention of the probationary process is for the company to see how the pilot fits in with new co-workers and the work environment. This isn’t to suggest that someone is following you everywhere you go or measuring the length of your pant cuffs above your shoes. Far from it. All that the airline asks is that you keep your nose clean. It’s often said that the best relationship a pilot can have with the chief pilot is no relationship at all. In other words, if the CP doesn’t know who you are, it means you haven’t been in trouble, and that’s good.

Most of the time, there are only three ways you’re going to get in trouble. The first is via another work group, such as the gate agents or flight attendants. The second is through your fellow pilots, i.e., the captains with whom you fly. The third possibility for an early ticket out the door is poor performance in training—in this case, recurrent training. A number of airlines will deliberately schedule new hire pilots for their first recurrent checkride at least a month before their probationary period is up. That way, if the pilot isn’t up to snuff, he or she can be terminated “without cause.”

It’s important to understand, though, that the company will offer retraining or help in nearly every case (even seasoned veterans make mistakes). To get yourself terminated means you showed up totally unprepared or acted inappropriately during training. In my 18 years of airline flying, I’ve never known a pilot who was terminated during the first recurrent training event…but we all worry about it!

While companies will not hesitate to rid themselves of a “problem child” who is on probation, termination is not the first choice. They’ve already made in an investment in you, and they want to see it pay off. However, if the behavior in question is severe enough, or if there is ample reason to question the maturity or judgment of the pilot involved, you can count on turning in your badge.

A few examples of pilots getting terminated early include drinking; theft (one pilot at a previous carrier took the window shades out of the plane and used them in his car—and they had the company name silk-screened on them. The CP wrote down the license plate, and the rest is history); excessive sick calls and/or no-shows; and sexual harassment. All of these are extreme behaviors, and no company would tolerate them.

Probation is a rite of passage for all of us. Fortunately, 99 percent of pilots have no problem at any time during their careers, including in the first year. Those who do generally don’t belong in the front of an airplane in the first place.—Chip Wright

Lifestyles: The majors

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

800px-Southwest_Airlines_Boeing_737-7H4_N231WNMuch of the lifestyle of the regionals carries over to the majors, but there are some differences. The majors tend to utilize airplanes that can fly longer legs, especially newer 737s and larger Airbuses. While the MD-80 still makes its living as a workhorse that flies seven or eight legs a day, the typical crew might only do two or three, maybe four. The 737, on the other hand, can do it all. It can fly short legs and long. Transcons—transcontinental flights—are common.

One of the major differences in flying for a major is the dramatic increase you will see in flying at night. Red-eyes, reverse red-eyes (east to west), or all-night flights to the Caribbean or Latin America are more common. The airlines don’t make money when the airplanes are parked at the gate, and where they can squeeze more revenue by flying at night, they will. Certain flights will not have as many passengers as you might think, but the bellies will be loaded with cargo.

In many ways, the job is easier. There is more automation in the system, so the flight planning and the load planning is more in sync. You don’t put out as many fires related to flight plans and passenger loads not working. There are fewer weight-related issues (this is a huge problem with regional aircraft). More stations have mechanics, so if something needs attention, it doesn’t take as long to get it fixed.

Generally, you will be treated better. It is a sad truth that regional pilots are often treated far worse than they should be—by their managers especially, but also by the passengers, the gate agents, or just about anyone at some point in time who finds you an easy target for their personal issue, whatever it is. It isn’t a universal happening, and it doesn’t happen every day, but it does happen. At the majors, there is much more respect and professionalism shown toward the crews. If you need something, it’s not that hard to get, and that includes the occasional time favor from the chief pilot or even scheduling.

As a regional pilot I was lucky in one respect because the hotels we stayed in were usually top of the line. This isn’t always the case. At the majors, you will stay in better hotels, and you will see more of the downtown areas, which means there is more to see and do.

You will enjoy flying for a company that is in charge of its own product, and not beholden to one that controls your fate.

Commuting is generally easier and the schedules are better, but that need to quickly change your sleep patterns likely will still be there. And, of course, you will be paid more. You might earn in a month what you earned your first year as a regional pilot.

And at some point, you will pass one of your old airplanes on a taxiway, and you will look at it and say, “I remember this one time….” And you will share a story about how much fun it was (or wasn’t) or how much work it was (or wasn’t). You might even miss that old bird. And you will realize that that old bird is what put you here.

You still need to learn to live out of a suitcase and get used to Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 instead of Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. You will work your share of holidays. But the reward is making it to the top of the mountain. The view is great, the work is fun, and the country, you will realize, is much bigger than you thought.—Chip Wright

Want to be an airline pilot? See our Career Pilot resources page for information that will help you plot the best course.

How the captain earns the money

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

It is well-known that the captain makes the big bucks. Another joke is that when thegold coin first officer looks to the left, he sees the captain. When the captain looks to the left, he sees a window with a reflection of…himself.

So what is it that the captain does that the FO doesn’t that earns the captain those big bucks?

Airlines use seniority for everything, so the captain’s rank and pay really don’t mean anything other than that he or she was hired first. Even this isn’t absolute. Some FOs decide to stay in the right seat because of personal reasons, and they may actually be senior to their captain.

The pay differential is there because the captain is being paid for generally having more experience (the above example notwithstanding), and for having more responsibility. The captain and flight dispatcher are jointly responsible for the flight—but once the airplane leaves the ground, the captain becomes the final authority.

The captain makes his money not during normal operations, but during abnormal operations, when difficult decisions need to be made. The two examples that most stand out are in-flight emergencies or developments that might require a diversion, and in making a decision that could result in a cancellation.

Diversions usually result from weather, and where there is one diverting aircraft, there are usually several. This is not a big deal by itself. The diversions that become issues are the ones that arise from in-flight mechanical problems. Some of these are cut and dried. Others are not.

If the checklist calls for a diversion, then you shrug your shoulders and divert. It’s the ones that are done more on personal comfort or intuition that get tricky. The dispatcher or even the chief mechanic in charge may believe that the flight can continue, but a captain with thousands of hours in the airplane knows exactly how the airplane is supposed to sound, feel, smell and fly. If the captain—or an experienced FO for that matter—says that something isn’t right, then chances are something isn’t right.

I’ve been in similar situations during which the folks on the ground both supported me and also began to question what I was saying. Diversions are not taken lightly, because they are so expensive. This is less of an issue with weather-related diversions than the odd mechanical diversion in which the airplane may be grounded for days.

The captain also is tasked with other decision-making responsibilities that affect other groups and people. Getting extra passengers on or having to remove them because of weight issues is not an enjoyable experience, especially when you have to see the despair on their faces. I had a group of passengers who were trying to get to a wedding out of Islip, New York. Islip has short runways, and the winds on this day were heavily favoring the shortest of the short. We were over our max takeoff weight, and we had to remove some people. These folks were the unlucky chosen ones (the airline determines that order, not us), and there was a heated discussion between the agent and myself. All the pleading in the world couldn’t change the fact that we were over our weight limit. While it wasn’t by much, we were over, and we couldn’t go with everyone on board.

Someone ultimately has to make the hard choice. The worst possibility is a person who is wishy-washy or incapable of making a decision. Fortunately, that’s rare. Being the captain means being the one with the mindset of “the buck stops here.” As the old saying goes, it’s better to be alive to talk about than to be dead and unable to defend yourself.—Chip Wright

Where are they now?

Friday, January 24th, 2014

I used to fly for Comair, the Delta Connection carrier that was headquartered in Cincinnati. Delta shut Comair down in 2012, and the pilots, like the other employees, scattered about like a colony of ants looking for work. Some had seen the writing on the wall and began their search in earnest months before it happened.

I’ve written on this blog before about the importance of networking, and keeping in touch with your network. Watching some of the pilots I used to work with is proof of the validity of that concept. Watching others is proof that some of them didn’t, and should have.

A friend of mine had been a captain for a while, but only logged about 600 hours of PIC time. He knew he wasn’t going to get where he really wanted to go without logging an additional 400 or so. So, before Comair closed down, he began reaching out to folks he had met throughout the course of his career, and began doing some part-time flying on the side. His travels took him to some fascinating places—he flew into North Korea and spent three days there—and gave him a wealth of experience he would never have gotten otherwise. One thing led to another, and he was doing a lot of contract CRJ flying in Europe and Asia. Back stateside, he’s flown Bon Jovi and Beyonce on their recent tours and been privileged to meet some Fortune 500 executives. Talk about a network!

A few other folks I knew reached out to some foreign airlines via friends they had, and got some enviable positions. One is a 787 captain overseas—he was hired as a captain “off the street,” and has been privileged to participate in new aircraft deliveries. Others are flying heavies—Boeing 777s, Airbus A-340s—for foreign carriers, and they are in a position to virtually pick which carrier they will fly for back in the United States when their contracts are up.

A few have caught on with contract cargo carriers like Kalitta and Atlas and have fallen in love with the idea of circumnavigating the globe twice in a 14-day stretch of work followed by a two-week period at home. Further, they can live anywhere they want because they are flown positive space to work. The cargo they carry varies—food, Christmas packages, animals, and human remains—as much as the destinations.

Others have become simulator instructors for FlightSafety International, jetBlue, or SimCom, while others have landed at the majors in the United States. The one thing we’ve all had in common is that we had contacts and a network to tap into, and we weren’t afraid to use them.

But I know too many pilots who allowed themselves to get complacent, and they thought that a logbook full of hours would be enough to get them the job they want. They’ve been surprised to find out that such is not the case. Knowing people; having a varied resume; bringing other skills to the table; and showing ambition and desire are all key to finding work. Some have decided to leave the industry altogether for their own reasons.

Having been there, I am convinced that a pilot who is unemployed for any period of time has only him- or herself to blame. The work—good work—is available. But it isn’t going to land on your doorstep unless you go get it. And you never know where it will take you.—Chip Wright

A collective personality

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

Airlines, like many other organizations, consist of groups and subgroups. While seniority is the rule—marking forever your place within the corporate structure—there are other markers of your place in the pecking order. One of them is your new-hire class. Among pilots and flight attendants, initial training is something that, even years later, remains crystal clear in so many ways.

The typical class has anywhere from 10 to 30 pilots (it’s almost always an even number so that the time in the simulator is more easily scheduled). Over the six- to 10-week period that a class is together, a certain bonding takes place. After all, most of you will be staying the same hotel, and you will be cooped up in the same classroom for eight to 10 hours a day, after which you will study in pairs or in small groups or even in full classes for a nother four to five hours a night. You will spend your weekends together both at work and at leisure, and in very short order you will get to know much about each other. The natural leaders will emerge, and the ones who need extra help will get it. More than a few have married classmates.

Much of how a class developes its collective personality is determined by the instructor. A good one will crack the whip early on and take control, then relax a bit once he knows everyone is on board. Most ground school instructors are easy to get along with and are well-liked. More importantly, they like what they are doing, which makes your experience easier to endure. The instructor then becomes a part of the group. Unfortunately, on occasion the instructor can be reviled and hated, thus bonding the group in another way.

I’ve flown with pilots who have been with a company for decades, and they still recall their new-hire class in great detail and with great memories. In fact, more than one has told me that they stayed on because a close friend from their class was still with the company. Most pilots and flight attendants keep close tabs on who has left versus who is left, and those who have left often become the contact point to get the next job. That’s just how the industry works.

comair_largeIn my new-hire class at Comair in 1996, we started with 14, and when the airline shut down in 2012, only three of us were left from that class. even our instructor had moved on. Interestingly enough, I was able to fly with one of them, as he delayed his upgrade while I took one early on. That’s unusual, but it does happen. Today, I consider him an important friend whose advice and counsel I often seek. He’s the kind of guy I hope one of my daughters will eventually marry.

In another odd coincidence, the three remaining from my class all became check airmen—two of us in the airplane and another in the sim. That, too, is unusual, and for me, it’s a source of pride.

At my new job, one of my classmates was another former Comair pilot whom I used to fly with regularly. SHe’s one of the best pure pilots I’ve ever known, and she too is a dear friend. We were sim partners, and one reason we chose each other was that not only are we comfortable together and with taking criticism from each other, but it was also more than likely the last time we will ever fly together.

But our class was a good one, and while we had some rough patches, we had a definite cohesion, and many of us will be in touch with each other for years to come—not out of necessity, but out of friendship. Likewise with our ground school instructor, who became the butt of many of our jokes, and was just as good at dishing it out.

New-hire classes are fraternities in a way. They represent great potential and opportunity for both the members and the airline. It is up to you to realize that potential.—Chip Wright

 

Flying over the holidays

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

As I write this, we are a week away from Christmas Day, with New Year’s right behind. I can’t help but think of all of the employees within the airline industry who will be working, especially the pilots and the flight attendants. For the most part, all of the other employees will be going home after their shift. Flight crews may not be.

There is much that is very cool about being an airline pilot, but there is one thing that is decidedly not, and that is working on the holidays, with Thanksgiving and Christmas being two of the worst. Most folks can get past most of the other big days on the calendar (the reality is that the Fourth of July fireworks from an airplane are pretty cool), but Thanksgiving is a truly American holiday, and since more families go out of the their way to get together for Turkey than Santa, it’s a tough one to miss. Christmas is also hard, especially if you have young kids who are still enraptured with Santa.

While the winter holidays can be celebrated pretty much any time you want them to be, being gone is hard. Even if you would not normally have done anything special, a hotel can be a pretty lonely place. Restaurants are closed or open only for limited hours; room service often is cancelled for the day; and when you turn on the TV, you are reminded even more so that you just are not where you want to be. Hotels will do what they can, but their staff will be limited as well. If there is anything worse than being stuck in a hotel for a holiday, it’s being stuck in a hotel when you and your crew are the only guests.

Working holidays is a fact of life in many occupations, and the airlines are no different in that regard. But, when you work a job where you can go home after your shift, it’s much easier to swallow, especially if you get premium pay. A little-known fact is that more airlines do not pay a premium for holiday pay than those that do, and that just adds insult to injury. Those that do often have no problem finding volunteers.

If there is a benefit to working holidays, it may be a reduced schedule. Flights are usually reduced on certain days, and that may create fewer trips. If the overall schedule is large enough, it may be possible for the company to build a lot of shorter (one -and two-day) trips, or a lot of trips with a split a.m./p.m. schedule that allow at least part of the day to be spent at home.

If you are a commuter, one of the first things you will do when looking at trips for November and December is to try to find one that overnights in your home town or the town of family. In fact, if you’re really lucky, you might score a layover that gives you a full day off at home for a holiday, for which you might be getting paid.

Fly for the airlines long enough, and you will undoubtedly meet someone who clearly has the seniority to be off for a holiday but chooses to work it. I can’t remember if I was a first officer or a captain at the time, but I had to work Thanksgiving early in my career, and one of our most senior captains (one of the top three) was working. He had no kids at home anymore, and had decided to work so that a junior captain who probably had a family could be home. There have also been folks who have bid the holiday off, and then gone into work and picked up a trip from a fellow pilot as a surprise so that they could be home with their families. It’s a favor I’d like to pass on someday myself.

As with any career, the airlines have their downsides, and working holidays can be depressing, especially when you’ve done it several years in a row. Some have pretty stringent policies in place to prevent abuse of sick time, but the reality is that at some point you will most likely have to do it, and most of the time, your fellow employees will be in a good mood that becomes contagious. The passengers may not show as much appreciation as you’d like, but rest assured that they have a tremendous amount of gratitude for your work. I’ve been on both sides of the cockpit door, and while I’d prefer being on the one taken where I want to go, it’s not always so bad to be the taker either.—Chip Wright