Posts Tagged ‘airlines’

Pilots behaving badly

Thursday, April 14th, 2016

alcoholwithoutalcholIt has happened again: pilots behaving badly. In the last few weeks, a pilot from one airline was tested for alcohol on the ramp in Detroit; he failed the test. Shortly after, a pilot from another airline was arrested and charged with allegedly running a series of brothels.

Let’s look at these two issues separately.

Flying—or trying to fly—under the influence is a serious offense, but a pilot who has a problem with drugs or alcohol has options and resources available. A treatment program that is jointly run by the unions, the FAA, and the airlines can get a pilot back on track and back to work, though it may take an extended period of time.

It gets complicated when you show up for work already inebriated. There isn’t a lot of patience from anyone—the company, the FAA, your co-workers—when you take the risk of attempting to fly while under the influence. Alcoholism is a disease, and when it’s in gear, you can’t control it. That said, folks have little mercy for a pilot who has a drinking issue, especially since nobody knows if it’s part of a problem or just a one-time event.

When you show up in uniform, many people are looking to see how you’re behaving. Transportation Security Administration agents and company personnel are especially watching you, and the TSA folks are trained to try to get you into a conversation to see if they can smell alcohol on your breath.

Generally speaking, if you fail a breathalyzer, you can expect to be terminated or at the very least suspended. If you know you have a problem, you can try to ‘fess up before the test, but you still have to submit to it.

The pilot who ran the brothels has a different problem. What he did is not something that any airline puts down as a prohibited act—there isn’t enough paper in the world to write down everything a company wants its employees not to do, and some things should just be obvious. That said, the general caveat is that you are not to engage in any act that brings disrepute, bad publicity, or embarrassment to the company, and running brothels—even just being accused of doing so—definitely qualifies.

It’s too soon to know the final outcome of either event, but it’s a safe bet that one or both pilots is done flying, at least for a living. Pilots are fairly high profile people, and we are often held to a higher standard than most other professions. We do something that is perceived as high risk, and that entails a lot of training to master a difficult skill. In turn, we are entrusted with the care of expensive machinery, not to mention the lives of our passengers, which might measure in the hundreds.

In the post-9/11 world, the list of offenses for which you can lose security clearances is longer than ever, and no airline wants to have to defend the decision to employ an individual (or to keep one employed).

Further, nobody wants to read about such embarrassing exploits in USA Today. And in this world of cameras on every corner, nobody wants to see a coworker getting arrested or tested for possibly being drunk. A mug shot is bad enough; video of you stumbling would be even worse. It would also likely be unrecoverable.—Chip Wright

Scatter plans and diversions, Part Three: On the ground at EWR

Monday, March 14th, 2016

This is Part Three of a three-part post about a single flight from Eagle, Colorado, to Newark, New Jersey, with an unscheduled stop in Albany, New York. Read Part One here. Read Part Two here.—Ed.

Finally, after an hour on the ground, we got airborne from ALB, going to EWR, for what was scheduled for a 25-minute flight on paper. We had added a few thousand pounds of extra fuel to pad our margins, and it turned out to be a good idea. The ride to EWR at 12,000 feet was awful. Everyone was getting vectored all over the sky. It was bumpy, rain was pouring, and the radar display didn’t show any  good options. Nearly every flight was refusing some of the assigned headings. To add to the fun, one of our controllers suffered a headset failure, leaving us with no communication for a few seconds while controllers switched stations, then switched back. At least we didn’t have to take a bad heading for a few seconds. That said, the turns and altitude changes that came were of the urgent variety.

At long last, we were vectored over Teterboro for the ILS 22L. Unfortunately, some of the worst weather was between us and the airport. We discussed and reviewed the wind shear escape maneuver, and we both expected to have to use it. It would probably add another 30 minutes to the flight get re-vectored for an approach while waiting for the weather to clear the final, but so be it.

In the rain, the airplane just didn’t want to descend. It felt as if we were suspended from puppet strings thanks to an updraft.

Finally, we moved forward and started down. We’d been told to expect significant airspeed fluctuations at 900 feet. But as is usually the case in aviation, any news is old news. The weather was moving toward the airport. The airspeed fluctuated 10 to 15 knots in both directions all the way down the final. The captain handled it with aplomb, and this time we were in the clear at around 700 feet. It felt like VFR after our approach to ALB.

We finally landed almost an hour after we had taken off, and as we taxied to the gate, reports of wind shear on the final began to pepper the radio. I don’t know if anyone else had to divert or go around, and by that point I didn’t care. We were on the ground at our destination. We’d earned a year’s pay on two flights. We were tired. We shut down the airplane and packed up our stuff.

I was the last one off the airplane. As I walked into the terminal, one of our passengers said with genuine appreciation, “Thanks for getting us here.” Our experience had helped us make the safest decisions. Our skill had helped us in flight. The company scatter plan had worked to minimize the disruption, big though it was. Our work had paid off. I was suddenly consumed with exhaustion, but I looked at our passenger and said, “You’re welcome.”

Our trip wasn’t in the brochure, if you will. But it’s a necessary part of the job. And we had completed it legally and safely, if not expeditiously. The entire system had worked: the airlines operation, ATC, you name it—all the pieces had come together. My flight home had cancelled, so I crashed for the night, took a shower, and left in the morning…on time.—Chip Wright

What does good CRM look like?

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

Crew resource management (CRM) was a major buzzword in the 1990s, and for good reason. Brought to light by the United Airlines 232 crash in Sioux City, Iowa, CRM is essentially the practice of using all available resources to their fullest extent and potential, both in the airplane and outside of it. While the captain still retains the overall responsibility for the flight, he or she is only fully effective when he or she welcomes the input of those around him.

Having spent more than 10 years as a captain, I’ll freely admit that I probably forgot at times what it was like to not be in that role. That said, I always tried to make my first officers realize how much I valued what they brought to the table.

Stories abound about what bad CRM looks like, or what it can lead to. Airline crashes in Portland, Oregon, and the Florida Everglades were shining examples of what could go wrong when the crew was not a cohesive unit. The KAL 747 crash in Guam and the Asiana crash in San Francisco highlight the fact that mastering CRM is a battle that will never end. If any person associated with any flight doesn’t feel like they can offer input that will be accepted, the flight is one step closer to becoming a possible accident.

But CRM can also go too far in the other direction. Familiarity, comfort and routine can be just as much of a disruption. When you fly with people more than once, you quickly learn what they do well, what they tend to mess up, what they like, and what they don’t. As a first officer once again, I’ve relearned the ability to adapt to the various personalities of my captains, and I’ve gotten very good at figuring out certain things they like or don’t. And when you get along really well with someone, it’s easy for one or the other to forget a checklist or a procedure. It’s one thing to forget to turn on the beacon, but it’s something else to forget to put the flaps to the right setting for takeoff.

But most of the time, good CRM is so natural and easy that you don’t even realize you’re watching it. The captain knows and trusts his crew to speak up when necessary, and the first officer isn’t at all shy about pointing out a possible mistake or questioning the freedom to do a certain checklist at a certain time. Even the best of us miss the occasional radio call or forget a speed or altitude restriction.

With more and more new pilots coming into the industry, CRM also is a critical component because the new pilots who have trained on state-of-the-art general aviation airplanes are going to have to learn to fly “archaic” airplanes, and it’s important to keep the lines of communication open as people continue to learn.

But the important thing to remember is that no matter how well you are doing today, you can do better tomorrow.—Chip Wright

How NOT to network

Friday, February 5th, 2016

networkingI’ve written several blog posts about networking, and what is involved in creating a good network. This time, I want to emphasize what is not networking.

In review, a good network is a group of friends or colleagues who can provide you with tips and information in your pursuit of a job. In the ideal case, they can walk into the office of a direct supervisor or the human resources folks, hand them your resume, and make a strong case for hiring you. And in the ideal case, that’s exactly what will happen.

Creating that network requires effort. You need to keep in touch with people when it isn’t always convenient, and you need to make sure that you keep those people apprised of changes in your status or qualifications.

So what is the “improper” way to network?

In the airlines, a lot of folks meet other pilots via the jump seat (the extra seat in the cockpit that pilots sometimes need to use while coming and going to work) or spending time in the airport. If you have another pilot sitting in your jump seat as he commutes on your flight, that does not constitute “flying with you.” It’s inappropriate to ask him to use that flight as a means to say that he’s flown with you so that he can write you a letter of recommendation. I’ve been asked to do that before, and the answer is always no, especially when we don’t work for the same airline. I’m not suggesting that such arrangements haven’t been used before, but that doesn’t make it right.

Spending five minutes eating lunch with another pilot in an airport deli is not a network either. If the pilot volunteers to help you, that’s one thing. But to blatantly ask with no real relationship established is sure to backfire far more often than it succeeds.

Losing track of someone and asking them months or years down the road, out of the blue, hardly counts as well. Likewise, asking for help from someone who is not in your desired line of work is also risky. They don’t know nearly enough about the ins and outs of being a pilot to be able to speak honestly about you or the job, and it puts them in a bad spot of things don’t work out. It’s one thing to ask for a character reference from a nonpilot, but that’s as far as it should go.

I recently rode home on the jump seat of another carrier. The crew did some bellyaching that was borderline unprofessional, but not unusual. We spent some time talking in cruise, as they were peppering me with questions about the company, rumors, et cetera. At one point, one of them came right out and asked for my help with a letter. It didn’t sit well with me, and I politely declined, saying that it was my personal policy not to write letters unless I had actually flown and worked with an individual. That said, I offered to provide my contact info if he wanted to keep in touch; he declined. I think he realized that he had crossed the line as far as I was concerned.

Networking is such a critical skill, but it’s really one of common sense. Be polite, be genuine, and keep in touch. It’s really that simple. Anything else is pandering, and it often fails miserably.—Chip Wright

When the company airplane is your airplane

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A look back at 2015

Monday, January 11th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, November 30th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wearing your uniform in public

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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