Posts Tagged ‘airlines’

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

Probation

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

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

The times, they are a’ changin’

Monday, September 14th, 2015

My, oh my, how the times have a’ changed.

I’ve been doing the airline gig now for almost 20 years, more than 16 of which was were the regionals. When I got my first job, it was the norm to have pilots pay for the own training. In my case, it was a check made out to the Comair Aviation Academy, for $10,995, plus another $2,000 in lodging and food during that training. To make things worse, I didn’t officially get hired until after I had passed thecheckride. Instead, I was in an aircraft-specific “training course.” This was a common practice for companies to work around prohibitions in union contracts that forbid—on paper—pay-for-training policies.

Once I got on line, I was making $16.79 an hour, with a 75-hour guarantee. My first full calendar year (1997) saw me make $14,605 dollars—which included a $7-an-hour raise for the final six weeks of the year—a net pay for the year of less than $1,000.

For years, first-year pay at the regionals was an embarrassment, and while the percentage increase in years two and three were substantial, it was still pretty lousy, especially if you were the lone bread winner. Today, the regionals are reaping what they (and their major airline partners [both management and pilots]) have sown: the long-awaited pilot shortage is finally here, and it’s hitting the bottom line. Flights are canceling, and airplanes are getting parked for a lack of crews.

The airlines are responding. Understand that the regionals can’t just raise pay for two reasons: Union contracts must be collectively bargained, and a regional gets its revenue from its major partners. Even if they have wanted to raise pay, they can’t do so until they get assurance from their major affiliates that they will be reimbursed for the added costs. Only when both of these provisions are met can pay raises be implemented.

Of late, the solution has been for regionals to offer some sort of bonus to new hires. This gets them around the collective bargaining issue, and it also allows them to dictate the terms of the bonus.

Loan repayments also are an option. For instance, Envoy offers both $5,000 and $10,000 bonuses, depending on whether or not you are coming from an affiliate flight school. However, the bonuses require the pilot to agree to a two-year commitment. Even Skywest, which took over Comair’s position as the regional of choice, is offering a $7,500 bonus. In fact, Skywest has recently been doing a lot of recruitment-by-mail, sending post cards to pilots on the FAA registry in the hopes that they might be interested in a job. They are casting such a wide net that they are even recruiting some of their own pilots!

The result of all of this has been a dramatic effect on first-year pay. According to ATP’s website, the average first year pay is now more than $30,000, and in a couple of cases, it approaches $40,000. It’s by no means a king’s ransom, but it’s a vast improvement over days gone by. There is still a long way to go to get pilot pay where it needs to be, especially considering how many pilots the industry needs to attract and convince to make the investment in a flying career over the next couple of decades.

But this is a start.—Chip Wright

Money in the tank

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

Fuel-Management_squareWe are a society that lives and dies by oil and gasoline. Nearly every American has a car, if not two or three, and very few cities have what can be called a robust public transportation system. We think nothing of filling our gas tanks and driving aimlessly or wastefully. This concept also applies to the way in which we fly.

The airlines long ago perfected the art of only carrying enough fuel to get from the point of departure to the point of arrival while landing with the IFR fuel reserve of 45 minutes. In the general aviation world, though, we tend to top off and go. When is the last time that you really made an effort to see how much fuel you burn?

Many of us fly the same routes fairly commonly on our cross-country flights, which means that we are in a good position to get some solid data on our fuel burn habits. Those data should be based on altitude, weight, wind, and temperature.

It’s one thing to guesstimate your fuel burn, or to rely on the numbers in your pilot’s operating handbook (POH) or in the computer software you use for flight planning. But what about keeping more accurate data based on your airplane, and your engine, and your leaning habits? How closely do you maintain the book power settings? Speeds?

I used to flight plan for eight gallons an hour in a Cessna 172, and that was pretty accurate, but I also know that when I paid closer attention to what was going on, or flew a longer-than-usual flight, I could get as much as a gallon an hour more out of the tank—and in the end, that means money in your tank. The difference in total travel time wasn’t enough to worry about, but the efficiency can be nice. It can get you several miles farther down the road or buy you some time to spend loitering over a picturesque area where you just want to sightsee.

Consider creating a table that you can use to more closely track your actual fuel habits, and see if you can’t “buy” fuel simply by changing your habit patterns. For instance, if your tailwind will be greater near your destination, consider delaying your descent a bit. If there is warmer air somewhere, try cruising at that altitude (if the ride is smooth). Get wind reports at various altitudes as you fly. Even if you rent, you can try this across various ships in the fleet to find the one that is best (and worst). These are tricks that the airlines and corporate flight departments use to maximize fuel efficiency and minimize costs, all with little impact on the overall bottom line. Fuel in the tank, after all, is money in the bank.—Chip Wright