Posts Tagged ‘airlines’

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

Record foul-ups

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

A friend of mine was recently terminated while in training with a regional airline. In the regional sector, it’s not unusual for an airline to terminate a new-hire without giving a specific reason. That was the case here, and the only explanation he received was that “there was something in [your] application.”

That’s vague, and he was convinced that it was bogus. One of the reasons he was so sure is that he had been employed by another airline for over a decade with no problems. He had disclosed his lone Part 121 checkride failure. But, just to be sure, he began a dialogue with the FAA. He was shocked at what he found.

To make a long story short, he had started an oral exam for a checkride, but he had been sick. The event was going well, but he had to bail out because of his illness. The next day, he finished the oral (and passed), and took the checkride (and not only passed, but got high praise from the examiner). However, that event was almost 20 years ago, and he had forgotten that he had signed a second 8710 for the oral. The first one was recorded as a failed event. Right or wrong, agree or disagree—that’s what went into his file.

Fast forward to now. The records that he had in his possession prior to starting this job did not include the 8710s and did not indicate that he had a failure of a checkride (remember, it was the oral, not the ride), and it cost him.

The lesson from this for any pilot is two-fold: Never lie on an application, because it will be found. He didn’t lie; he simply didn’t realize the full ramification of what was going on when it happened. But, the point is the same. If you try to hide something, it’s going to get uncovered. Second, when you start the process of applying to airlines, whether it’s a regional, a major, a foreign carrier, or anything in between, get in touch with the FAA in Oklahoma City, and get copies of everything that might be in your file. Ask questions.

You should keep your own detailed records with regard to ratings, certificates, et cetera. Whenever you take a checkride, make a note of the date, time, place, and examiner. If there is a mistake found later, you will know where to start. In this case, the school was long gone, and the examiner had passed away.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not impossible to get a job with checkride failures, even after the Colgan accident. The thing to remember is that you need to fully disclose your past, and you need to own up to your mistakes. If you aren’t sure of something, get it taken care of.

In a case like this, if it happens to you, your best recourse is to write a detailed description of everything that happened. As you apply to airlines, you can attach this to your application or take a copy to the interview.—Chip Wright

The back side of the clock

Monday, November 11th, 2013

alarm clock.svgIn my old job, it was unusual for me to fly late at night, with “late” being defined as anything past 10 p.m. With time, I got the seniority to make sure that I didn’t fly at night, as I am a morning person and prefer to just get up, get started, and get the day done. Sometimes, I miss those days…

In my new gig, there is a lot of night flying, including all-night flying. These flights aren’t the classic red-eye, per se, but the effect is the same: You spend a lot of time on the “back side of the clock,” flying between midnight and daybreak. For most of my life, I have not been a real good napper. Getting older helps, but more importantly, I’ve learned to do it out of necessity. On days when I know I’m going to be flying at night, or if I know that there’s even a possibility of flying late, I will force myself to lie down and catch some Zs. It’s a bit easier when I already have an assignment. I will generally lie down in the early afternoon and allocate at least 90 minutes to sleep, and if I can get two hours, I’m ecstatic.

The key is to figure out what works best for you. I’ve asked a lot of people how they do it, and everyone seems have a slightly different methodology (except for those who have no methodology). For me, if I can go to bed shortly after my normal lunch time, I don’t feel “rushed” to get some sleep. Sometimes I don’t really sleep, but I can just lie there and rest, and that’s enough. Fortunately, my new home has shutters that allow me to make the room as dark as a dungeon, so it looks and feels like it does when I go to bed at night. I’ve also found that for napping, I sleep better without an alarm. Instead, I have someone in my family wake me up.

By napping early, I can still get up and be somewhat engaged in the goings-on of my household, and it also gives me a chance to come to my senses slowly, take a shower, and maybe even eat something before I go to work. In fact, I try to push lunch back until after I nap, since I know I will get a meal when I’m on the airplane.

Flying at night is against the natural programming of the body, but it can be done. But, to be safe, as the pilot you must make sure that you are properly rested before you go to work. You also need to make sure you don’t aggravate your sleep debt by not sleeping the next day. I always crash the next morning for a few hours, and because I don’t drink caffeine on a regular basis (I don’t drink coffee at all), I can fall asleep more easily than most people, and if I need a soda to keep me awake, I can count on it working.

Staying engaged during the trip also helps. Nothing is as stimulating as a good conversation with the person I am flying with, and that goes a long ways toward passing the time. Sometimes the weather becomes the “stimulant,” but most of the time I just count on having a good rapport with my fellow workers. Good communication is also key in another respect: If you are flying tired, or have not slept well prior to a night flight, you need to convey that so that your fellow pilots can keep an eye on your performance.

Night flying can be fantastic, but it comes with a new set of challenges. Make sure that you are “up” for them!—Chip Wright

Questions to ask during an airline interview

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

An airline job interview is generally a one-way conversation, with the airline asking all the questions, and you doing your best to get the job. However, you should also be ready and willing to ask certain questions that will affect your future. This short list of questions will not get you “in trouble,” and it will show that you are truly interested in the industry.

  • Q: What will be the impact of FAR 117 on your operation?

If this isn’t addressed in a briefing before your interview, it’s a good question to ask, because many airlines, including regionals, are still coming to grips with the full impact of the rules. Every regional will be required to add staffing to the pilot ranks. The real question is by how much. Ten to 15 percent seems to be a good gauge for now, but each one is different. They may need to alter the schedules in ways not anticipated. My own guess is that it will force them to go to an AM-PM model, but that’s just one option. A simple reason for you to ask is to find out how long you will be on reserve.

  • Q: What will 117 do to reserve requirements?

Reserve status for an airline is one of the least desirable schedules in the industry, so most pilots want to get off reserve and become a line-holder as quickly as possible. Is the airline you are interviewing with planning to increase reserve numbers? Do they know?

  • Q: What will happen when your contract with your major airline expires?

It’s a fair question to ask a regional when the contracts with its major partner expire, and if the expiration date is close, to ask if the contract has been renewed. If it isn’t renewed, can the regional find someplace to put the airplanes to use? If the answer is no, you may not have a job for long. Most fee-for-departure contracts are for 10 years or more, so keep that in mind as you search for work.

  • Q: What is the future of XXX domicile?

This is a question you only want to ask regarding the smallest domicile, or one that is shrinking. If it’s a base at a non-hub airport, definitely ask—these are the ones that are most likely on the chopping block. You’ll probably need to read between the lines or pay as much attention to what they don’t tell you as to what they do, but if there is any chance you are going to be based at a small domicile or are considering moving to one, ask.

  • Q: What are the long-term fleet plans?

As the 50-seat fleet ages and gets retired (driven by both age and by scope clauses in the contracts of major airline pilots), regionals need to be ready to move on to Plan B. Some will thrive with 50-seaters, but most will not. You owe it to yourself to find out what the firm plans are going forward. You should know this before you show up, but getting current information will make your own decision making process a little bit easier.

These are just a few questions you can ask. If you have friends at the company, they can give you some more questions to ask that are pertinent and appropriate. Go in armed, and know exactly what information you need or want to make your own decisions easier to make, especially if you are facing the possibility of getting multiple job offers.—Chip Wright

Should you move for a regional?

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

U haul truckThis is a tough subject. Most people would rather not have to commute to work, and commuting for pilots is different than it is for any other job. One of the advantages to being an airline pilot is the option of living just about anywhere you want to live. However, it isn’t all peaches and cream either.

Having been a commuter and a noncommuter, I’m here to tell you that if you can avoid commuting, life is much, much better. I have lived as close as 10 minutes to the airport, and being able to leave my house 30 minutes before I am scheduled to report is wonderful. I’ve also had to commute to New York, which is notorious for its traffic problems. There were times when I had to leave my house in the morning for a trip that started the next afternoon because the flights were full, which meant that I lost a day and half of my time with my family. The same has happened getting home.

It’s one thing to move for a job that should be a career. But few pilots catch on with a regional figuring that it will be their final stop. This makes the decision to move even more difficult. A low-time pilot is going to be at a regional for several years, and that might be an argument in favor of moving. However, most crew bases are in busy hubs, where housing is more expensive. If you can find the right suburb, you can get lucky, especially if you are willing to drive a bit longer to get to work.

Commuting on reserve is even more challenging, and it can be frustrating as you spend days in a crash pad waiting to go to work—days that could have been spent at home.

Further, if you are hired by a regional that serves one major, you may be hired by another major, and find yourself in a city that suddenly becomes much more difficult to get to and from because of the change in your pass benefits.

If you are facing a two-leg commute, or heaven forbid, a three-leg commute, consider moving closer to work. Even if you aren’t dealing with a multi-stop commute, you may live somewhere with sparse service or frequently full flights. In this case, an option would be to move to a city that has a lot of service to (and from) multiple hubs.

A good example is Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, which is served by just about every significant airline, and to multiple hub cities for each one. It’s in a good geographic location for commuting up and down the East Coast as well as to the Midwest.

The same could be said for Indianapolis, Indiana, or St. Louis, Missouri. While it is common for pilots to live in Florida, Florida has its own challenges, namely that so many pilots and flight attendants live there. Also, the Sunshine State goes through periods of the year where getting to and from work is extremely difficult because of Spring Break, a Super Bowl, or the Daytona 500. The more senior you are, the easier it is. As a new hire, it’s tough.

Finding a city that is a happy medium is the best bet, especially if you could be happy there if you get your dream job with the major airline of choice. If you are only renting, my advice would be to move at first, with the possibility of commuting later. If you are fixated on buying somewhere, at least wait until you know the realities of the job and the real estate markets for where you want to live.

Deciding to move is not always an easy choice, and it definitely isn’t an easy task. But move slowly and deliberately so that you can make the best decision.—Chip Wright

Calling home for weather

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

There are a handful of approved weather sources that pilots and airlines can use. Approved, that is, by the FAA. There are countless that are not approved, such as Weather Underground, the Weather Channel, and my favorite: calling home.

Airlines use dispatchers to disseminate weather info to the flight crews. The dispatchers in turn use approved sources of meteorological information to develop big weather pictures. But, as any rational person knows, the best tool for analyzing nearby weather is to look out the window. The next best tool is to call someone who can actually look out the window where you want to go.

At my previous job, the dispatchers did not have a real good view out the window because of the design characteristics of the building they used. Even during a bad storm, if I called them, I would get the computerized information, which wasn’t always as new as I wanted it to be. Quite often, I would call my wife or a few other people who lived in specific locations and could give me an immediate sense of what was going on. My father used to get mildly amused when I’d call him for updated info if I was in his neck of the woods.

Officially, I could not/cannot use this information to plan my flight, or determine a suitable alternate, or do much of anything other than to say that I talked to my family. But for getting immediate, accurate information, it works, even if it isn’t “officially” accurate. My dad was especially helpful because, as a pilot himself, he knew what I wanted to know. My wife was a great source of severe weather input because we lived so close to the airport.

Even now, living in another location in the middle of the Pacific, my wife is a good source of here-and-now information—especially with rapidly changing rain conditions. I am not a captain, so I’m not the one who ultimately makes the decision about what’s going to happen, but being able to talk to someone who is “in the know” provides a bit of comfort. It may not be a true pilot report as defined by the FAA, but it is a pirep of another sort: People In REal (close) Proximity.

Again, it isn’t official, and it can’t be used in a court of…well, anything, but talking to people who are really there can be useful. Just use such information as a supplement to the official version, to help build the best big-picture view you can get.—Chip Wright

Airline charters

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

It’s well known that the airlines fly people from A to B, be it on business trips, honeymoons, going to a funeral, or on a family vacation. What you may not realize is that the airlines also do an awful lot of charter work. The major carriers—especially the legacy carriers—do a significant amount of charter work for college and professional sports teams, and the revenue is significant. Because a team or a group is leasing the whole airplane, the cost is not cheap. The money they pay has to cover not only the cost of the flight(s) in question, but also the cost of repositioning the airplane.

For example, when I was at Comair, we flew a ton of NCAA basketball charters for both men’s and women’s teams. When I first upgraded to captain, the going rate for the airplane was roughly $10,000 an hour. On a typical charter, the crew that would actually operate the flight would either report to work in base or dead-head on the last flight out to an outstation. They would then take the airplane and ferry to the pick-up point. For the University of Maryland, that might mean riding on a flight to Buffalo, and then taking the empty airplane to Syracuse. When the team had finished the game and the press conference, they’d be brought to the airport. We’d then take them to Washington National Airport or Thurgood Marshall-Baltimore Washington International and drop them off. We’d then ferry the airplane back to Buffalo. The fees the team paid not only had to cover the cost of the ride home, but also the cost of the empty segments.

Charters add an interesting mix to the everyday flying. In the example above, the flying took place mostly at night. The same is true in season for baseball teams, the NBA, and the NHL. Football is different, since there is only one game a week, and the teams travel either one or two days ahead of schedule, depending on the time changes. During spring training, baseball teams will often travel during the day. We also did a lot of NASCAR charters, moving the support crews and mechanics around.

Football teams tend to stick with the legacy carriers because they will have access to narrow-body equipment for flights under three hours or so, and they can use a wide-body for flights more than three hours. They also have more people and equipment involved.

There are other charters that pop up as well. Before the spike in oil prices that began in 2001, we used to do a lot of gambling charters to casinos, especially in the South. In fact, I did a couple of three-day weekend trips that consisted of nothing but gambling charters. Those trips can be a lot of fun, because the leader of the trip will often use the public address system to have games and contests in flight, and will sometimes include the crew in the festivities.

There are two major downsides to the charter work: getting groups to honor the schedule, which can lead to a lot of sitting around and late departures, and the fact that most of the time you’re working on the backside of the clock. Getting teams to honor the schedule is easier when they are dealing with an airline versus a true charter company, because they understand that the airplane is due back in service the next day, and the contract calls for a pretty stiff penalty if they horse around with the schedule (overtime games are exempt).

The upside is that sports teams tend to cater a lot of food, so you can eat well for free. Also, you can meet some pretty interesting or famous people. Charters are also a nice break from the routine of line flying, and they can be a lot of fun. While some corporations will arrange for charters (we did one for several years during a major banking merger as employees shuttled between the two headquarters), those are fairly rare, but they do tend to be on RJ-sized equipment. If you head to the airlines thinking that all you will do will be based on the timetables, you will be in for a surprise…but you might also come away with a few autographs in your logbook that you weren’t expecting.—Chip Wright

Wet is dry

Friday, September 6th, 2013

wet runwayAs you move into bigger and faster airplanes—especially jets—you need to become aware of things that didn’t necessarily matter as much before. There are new definitions that you need to learn. Besides the various V speeds—V1, V2, V-REF, et cetera—there are terms that probably didn’t really catch your attention before.

Take the runway, for instance. In the United States, most every airport that provides airline service has runways that are grooved. The grooves run perpendicular to the runway direction (that is, across the runway) and are evenly spaced from one end to the other. Further, whenever possible, there is a bit of a crown to the runway. The purpose of the grooves is to provide drainage and runoff for rain, snow, and deicing fluid that flows off aircraft upon takeoff.

This is need-to-know information for pilots, because performance data takes into account whether or not a runway is wet or dry, or if it has standing water. To add to the confusion as well as to the paychecks of the engineers, the standing water (and snow) categories are broken down into various depths, each succeeding level of which will further degrade the performance (read: payload) of the airplane.

What initially might catch you off guard is the seriousness with which these terms are defined. For instance, a runway that is grooved but has water on it is not necessarily wet. Depending on the airline and the aircraft manufacturer definitions, a wet runway may be defined as dry if it is grooved, and a runway that is physically dry is dry (you can’t make this stuff up). Generally speaking, if a grooved runway has water on it, it is considered wet only if the surface is reflective or if a certain percentage of the surface has standing water. Otherwise, it is considered damp or dry because the grooves carry away the water that might induce hydroplaning.

When it is raining hard enough that there is clearly standing water, performance numbers begin to suffer. There are three major concerns. The first is rejecting a takeoff without skidding or hydroplaning. The second is continuing a takeoff after an engine failure on a slick runway that is not only slick, but produces drag thanks to the puddles. The third is the use of reduced thrust. It is common for jet aircraft to take off at well less than full power, but in certain circumstances, full power is required. Contaminated surfaces are one of those circumstances.

As I mentioned, in the United States, this is rarely a problem. However, if you go to Canada or Mexico, most runways will not be grooved. This is also a common problem overseas. Don’t be lulled into a trap. Pay attention to the wet versus dry issue, and know when—and when not—to apply the various penalties.

It may not be the dictionary definition of the words as you know them, but you will learn that the industry and the FAA can be very specific in how words are used or defined.

In fact, I think they have a specific definition of “used…”—Chip Wright

Way back when…

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, things in the aviation training arena aren’t being done the way they used to be, especially at the airlines. In fact, in so many ways, this ain’t your Daddy’s airline world anymore.

Back in the day (there, I said it), training at an airline was done just like it was done in school. You would show up every day for a class that began at 8 a.m., and you would sit in a classroom while the teacher would lecture about the topics of the day. At night, you would go back to your hotel room and study your notes along with any books that you had been issued (usually an operations manual and/or a systems manual, along with a standards manual [basically, the “here’s-how-we-expect-you-to-operate-this-here-expensive-piece-of-machinery” book]).

You would study both alone and with a group. The next day, you would repeat the process, and at the end of the class(es), you would be administered some combination of written and oral exams. Simulator training would follow (prior to modern simulators, you would be trained in the actual airplane, usually in the middle of the night), and then a checkride, followed by training during line operations with passengers.

Nowadays, airlines have migrated towards more computer-based training (CBT) that is more self-directed, though with a schedule and a syllabus. JetBlue probably was the first U.S. carrier to embrace the CBT concept in full, since they did it very early on in their existence. Today, most carriers are moving toward some form of CBT for both initial and recurrent training. The bottom line, as you might imagine, is money. While there are claims that the newer training models have been scientifically tested, the process only works when it is properly implemented and used. Done wrong, I am convinced, it will do more harm than good.

There’s a lot to be said for the traditional classroom setting, especially with a good instructor that has actually flown the plane and not only knows the plane, but knows how to teach it. Personally, I liked the camaraderie that the classroom produced, and I liked having someone there who could explain things in English, especially when I felt like the only one who didn’t understand something.

But times have changed. Now, more and more airlines are going to the CBT model, in which the student is given a certain amount of time to go through all of the CBT modules. Online tests and quizzes verify a basic understanding of what has been learned (it’s very similar to modern online flight instructor refresher courses).

In a mature training program, the CBTs will mesh with what is being done in the simulators or fixed training devices. The advantage is obvious. The old 10-to-14-week training footprint can be reduced to eight or nine weeks, and for a crew that is familiar with the company but is just changing equipment, it can be pared down to six weeks. This represents a huge monetary savings for an airline, while improving the efficiency of the training program to get as many pilots through as possible. Given the huge hiring surge that is coming at the majors, they need all of the help they can get.

As a pilot, if CBT is not your forte, you can help yourself by taking advantage of the books, guides, and other resources available on just about any airplane you might fly. You don’t need to memorize the aircraft before you show up for class, but you can do yourself a huge favor by at least familiarizing yourself with some of the systems. If you aren’t sure which airplane you might fly, you might have to take a gamble or just wait until class.

No matter what, you will be dealing with the “firehose” of training, and if you aren’t prepared to work, and work hard, you will be sent home.—Chip Wright