Posts Tagged ‘airlines’

Diversions and aeronautical decision making

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Aeronautical decision making (ADM) first began to appear in the training lexicon in a heavy fashion in the mid-1990s. It was always “there,” but it wasn’t necessarily a separate subject. Instructors were expected to simply incorporate the decision-making process into each lesson whenever and wherever possible. This sounds great on paper, and at times it even seems logical, but the reality is that the old adage that says that the airplane is a terrible classroom exists for a reason.

Dealing with diversions is a subject in the decision-making process for which a formal classroom session has always made sense. Diversions can take two broad forms in flight. The first is a change in the route but with no change in the destination. The second is a change in the final destination. The first is far more common, but the second is usually more significant. After all, if you are flying to Baltimore and have to divert to Frederick  because of weather, you have new set of problems on your hands. Just as with any other aspect of your life, the impact of such a significant change in plans can make you more resistant to executing the change in the first place.

At the airlines, the decision is often a bit easier, because the rules are so cut and dried. But that doesn’t change the fact that pilots generally are can-do people, and when other people are counting on you, you don’t want to disappoint them.
But one area in which diversions at the airlines are so different is the level of communication. I bring all of this up because more airlines are using ADM scenarios as part of the interview process. You are placed in a hypothetical but fairly realistic scenario in which something goes wrong, and you have to make a decision. Sometimes, the basic diversion decision is easy (“the airport is closed, so you will be diverting”) and sometimes it isn’t (“something smells bad in the cabin, but I don’t if it’s burned food or worse”).

The pressure is ratcheted up in some other fashion that will force you to make a decision quickly. Southwest and United airlines both give you a seven-minute window in which to assess the problem, evaluate the options, and come up with a solution. In some of the scenarios, you are short on fuel. In some, weather is a major factor. In others, it’s the ambiguity of the problem. But in all of them, the goal is to see you make a decision and stick with it.

At the airlines, you need to communicate with multiple entities, and this is where the two-person crew comes in handy. Someone needs to talk to air traffic control, while someone else handles everything else. In the real world, the first officer usually handles ATC and the captain does what he gets paid to do. If you are in an interview, make yourself familiar with what airports that airline serves. You don’t need to commit them to memory, but have a general idea, because in the ADM scenario you will likely be using them.

So, who needs your attention? Assuming that you are not given a major catastrophe like a fire or a flight control failure, you need to talk the flight attendant(s) first, if for no other reason to tell them that there has been a change in plans and that you will get back to them shortly. That phone call should take less than 15 seconds.

Next you need to talk to the dispatcher, who is jointly responsible for your airplane and flight. The dispatcher can give you up-to-the-minute weather at your possible alternates as well as any notices to airmen you may need. He or she can also save you a radio call by contacting the two stations involved and letting them know your change in plans (hint: If the person playing the role of the dispatcher doesn’t offer this service, ask for it). If the dispatcher can’t (or won’t) call the station to which you are diverting, then you need to call (this may be thrown at you in one of the timed sequences). Cover your bases as well by telling the dispatcher that you will call once on the ground to clean up any loose ends.
If maintenance needs to be consulted, do it via dispatch, since the dispatcher needs to know of any issues that may affect performance.

Next, you need to advise ATC what you are doing. If critical fuel is going to play a part in the scenario, it will usually be included in the briefing. If it is, you need to remember to declare either minimum fuel or an emergency as the case may be.

Once ATC is in the loop, somebody needs to brief the flight attendants and the passengers. If the diversion point is extremely close, say Miami to Fort Lauderdale, then you may want to ask the flight attendant to notify the passengers, and to tell them you will provide more information on the ground.

Once you have operated in the airlines, and especially as a captain, you realize that the scenarios are really the same thing you do every day. As someone new to the industry, you need to show that you have some idea of how the system works—and it’s very similar from one company to the next.

ADM is a critical part of any pilot’s aviating career, and for those looking to go to the airlines or advance up the ladder, it becomes a bigger and bigger part each step of the way. Start mastering it early, and remember, conservative is always better.—Chip Wright

Can the first officer cancel the flight?

Monday, April 29th, 2013

When it comes to air travel, one of the great misconceptions is the belief that a pilot will make a conscious decision to call up his company and just cancel a flight because of something that he decides makes it unsafe to fly. It almost never happens this way.

airline dispatcher femaleAt the airlines, there are two parties who are responsible for a flight. The first is the captain (“pilot in command”), and the other is the dispatcher. The final authority is clearly left to the captain. The federal aviation regulations make that abundantly clear, and every airline does as well. However, at the airlines a dispatcher is equally responsible for the flight, as it is the dispatcher who actually puts together the flight plan, plans the route, and computes the fuel required. The dispatcher usually begins working on a flight anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes before departure. The captain may well be still asleep, or inbound on another flight, or on the way to work.

When circumstances begin to conspire against operating the flight according to the usual parameters, it becomes a team effort to figure out what the alternative is going to be. The dispatcher usually has a bigger-picture view than the captain, because he or she has access to more sources of weather (even though smartphone technology is rapidly changing that), and because the dispatcher also has at hand the planned maintenance schedule for the airplane. Further, as stated above, the dispatcher may have more information about minimum equipment list (MEL) issues than the captain does. The MEL will dictate items on the airplane that can be inoperative during regular operations, and if there is a performance penalty, it will stipulate that as well. For example, most jets are only allowed to operate at 25,000 feet if one of the air-conditioning packs is deferred. This is a fairly low altitude for jets, and it means a higher fuel burn, which could affect range and payload. It may also make it difficult to avoid certain weather.

When weather or mechanical issues can affect a flight, the captain and the dispatcher will frequently work together to come up with an acceptable Plan B. This is important because both are required to sign the flight release, and it includes a statement that the flight may be conducted safely as planned.

But what about the first officer (FO)? How much say-so does the second-in-command have? At times, it may be more than you think.

While the captain is the one who technically holds all the cards and is the only pilot required to sign the release, there are times when an FO can influence the outcome. Weather is an obvious example. If the FO feels that the weather is just too risky, he can say that he isn’t willing to take it. He may be able to speak first hand, such as if he just flew through said weather.

Mechanical issues can crop up as well. Maybe the FO has found something on the walk-around that she knows isn’t right. She can refuse to go anywhere until a mechanic has a chance to offer a second opinion. I know of a fellow who once refused to fly a flight because his seat was broken….and when I say broken, it was as though the seat’s support unit had a hole the size of a toilet seat in it. When he sat down, it was painful on his back and his legs. To his great surprise, the broken part was deferrable (the fact that it was deferrable is a testament to how rarely it broke), and the mechanics wanted to avoid the 30-minute delay that would ensue if they changed out the seat.

The mechanics left the decision to the captain, who in turn left it to the FO. After all, he was the one who had to sit on the seat for a two-hour flight. The mechanics made a vague threat to call the chief pilot, and the FO responded by handing the mechanic his phone; the mechanics backed down, and the seat was eventually changed.

It turned out that one of the issues was that cockpit seats on this airplane are well north of $10,000, so spares are not often kept. The mechanics were forced to take one out of an airplane that was an operational spare, meaning that the spare airplane was now out of service.

Had the issue been pressed, the FO would have been well within his rights to refuse the seat, and the flight likely would have cancelled.

It’s rare that a pilot directly makes the call of, “I’m cancelling the flight.” But it can happen, and it does happen. And yes, the FO can make that call, and he can do so by simply walking off the airplane. As long as it is a well-defined and safety-related reason, he should have nothing to worry about.—By Chip Wright

A collective personality

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Acing the oral

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

pass_fail1Pilots generally tend to dislike sitting through an oral exam. It doesn’t matter if it’s for the private pilot certificate, the instrument rating, or the airline transport pilot certificate. Orals are often viewed with trepidation and fear, because it seems like everything is open season. Throw on top of that an oral that is specific to a given airplane, and it is easy to understand why it can be so overwhelming.

Here’s something that you need to remember: if you are going for a new level on your certificate, such as private to commercial or commercial to ATP, then yes, everything can be fair game. This is especially true when you are being evaluated as an ATP. The FAA rightfully views the ATP as the Ph.D. of flying. You are supposed to be a true expert, and because you can be held accountable in any accident—even if you are not technically the PIC—you are expected to know your stuff. The Aeronautical Information Manual, weather, the federal aviation regulations, your airplane…you name, you need to know it.

However, if you are going for a new rating, such as an instrument rating or multiengine rating, then you are only supposed to be evaluated on the material that pertains to the rating. This does ratchet up the pressure if you are combining the two, such as the candidate who is going from single engine private to multiengine commercial with an instrument rating.

At the airlines, the oral takes on a new dimension because you can expect to be asked about applicable company procedures, policies, and the FARs. However, you can expect to spend most of your time discussing the systems of the airplane you will be flying (especially as a new hire or as a pilot learning new equipment). So, how do you prepare?

One of the most effective ways to study is to learn to teach each system to someone else, such as a spouse or a parent. If the person is a nonpilot, it may even be better, because if forces you to break the material into chunks that they can understand. If they understand the system after you explain it, then you know that you understand the system.

Another way to really master new material is to study with your class as a group, asking each other questions and dreaming up various scenarios along the lines of, “If this breaks, then how does it affect that?” Every class usually has someone who needs a little extra help, and there will probably be a system or two that you do not understand as well as you’d like. If you can spend time with the person that needs help and get them up to par, you know you understand the system. Likewise, if you are weak on, say, pressurization, try to explain what you do comprehend to another student who is comfortable with it, and see if you can’t fill in the gaps.

When you take the oral, approach it as though you are teaching the examiner. If you can break the meat-and-potatoes down into a few sentences, then you will probably make the impression that you want to make. Be assertive, and be confidant. Answering with the tone of voice that sounds like a question will only invite more scrutiny.

An oral is often what you make it. It is difficult to properly convey just how important the oral is, and it is difficult to bring across how much preparation time is involved, especially at the airlines. But, if you the student can become the teacher, you are well on your way to a successful exam.—Chip Wright

Climb segments

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

In the airline world, there are a number of new rules, limits, and terms a pilot needs to learn. One area in which a new understanding needs to be had is in the takeoff.

Gone are the days when, as a general aviation pilot, you can just eyeball the runway, the load, the airplane, measure the wind with your thumb, and go for it. When you are flying passengers and cargo for hire, you need to be able to comply with the segmented climb. Specifically—-and this is key—-you need to be able to meet the climb requirements on a single engine (assuming you are flying a twin-engine jet) as a result of an engine failure at V1 [takeoff decision speed, but a beyond the scope of this post]. It is assumed that you will meet all the requirements if every engine is running.

The first segment is short—it ends when the airplane is airborne and the gear is retracted. Not partially retracted, but fully up-and-locked retracted. The airspeed must be up to V2, commonly known as “takeoff safety speed,” but in technical terms, the speed for best climb gradient.

The second segment requirement is often the most difficult one to meet. Segment two begins when the gear is up and locked and the speed is V2. This segment has the steepest climb gradient: 2.4 percent. This equates to a ballpark figure of around 300 feet per minute, and for a heavy airplane on a hot day with a failed engine, this can be a challenge. Often, when the airlines announce that a flight is weight-limited on hot summer days, this is the reason (the gate agent doesn’t know this kind of detail, and nor does she care; she just knows some people aren’t going).

The magic computers we use for computing performance data figure all this out, saving us the trouble of using charts and graphs. All we know is that we can either carry the planned load or we can’t.

Second segment climb ends at 400 feet, so it could take up to a minute or more to fly this segment. Think of all the obstacles that might be in the departure path in the course of 60 seconds or more.

Third segment climb begins at 400 feet, and here the rules can vary. The climb gradient is now half of what it was before: 1.2 percent. However, we are also required to accelerate to a speed called VFS (final segment climb speed). In graphs and publications, the third segment of the climb is often depicted as being a flat line for the acceleration. In many turboprops, that’s exactly the way it’s flown. The airplane is leveled off (and the pilot is using a very tired leg to overcome the increasing yaw tendency via the rudder) and accelerated before the final climb begins.

In jets, however, there is generally enough power in the remaining engine to avoid a level-off. If the airplane can continue to accelerate during the third segment, it may continue to climb, so long as it can do so without a decrease in speed or performance. In fact, during the climb it must continue to meet the climb gradient while accelerating to VFS.

Third segment climb ends upon reaching VFS.

The fourth and “final segment” begins upon reaching VFS and completing the climb configuration process. It is now permissible (and maybe necessary) to reduce thrust to a Maximum Continuous setting. The climb gradient is again 1.2 percent, and VFS must be maintained to 1,500 feet above field elevation.

V1 cuts and single-engine climbs are a staple of turboprop and jet training. It is critical that a pilot of such equipment understand what the objective is when it comes to performing the maneuver, and why the requirements are what they are. This material is taught in much greater detail in ground school than I presented here. In fact, there may be a few deviations and exceptions to the above, as this is a general introduction (there are, like many things in aviation, always caveats, so bear that in mind).

Some pilots dread V1 cuts, but the best way to approach them is to take them as a challenge and constantly push yourself to master them and excel in your performance.

Climb safely!—Chip Wright

Exemption 3585

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

If the airlines didn’t fly every time the weather was less than ideal, they’d never fly. As a result, technology and rules are in place to maximize efficiency and opportunity while minimizing risks. One example lies in getting airplanes off the gate when the weather at the destination is forecast to be below minimums.

Like everyone else, the standard IFR 1-2-3 rule applies: If the weather at the destination from one hour before to one hour after the ETA is forecast to be less than 2,000 feet and three miles, an alternate is required. This is no big deal, obviously, and many of us have left with the weather forecast to be right at the minimums for the approach.

However, sometimes the forecast calls for a possibility of weather that is going to be temporarily below the landing minimums. In FAA weather lingo, we call this “conditional phrases,” and they consist of BCMG, PROB, and TEMPO. For example, the main body of the forecast may have the visibility at one-half mile, but a TEMPO phrase may show a possible drop to on-quarter mile at the ETA.

When this happens, the airlines that have been granted approval to do so can use what is called Exemption 3585. Under the terms of the exemption, the flight will be required to have not one, but two alternates. Further, the method used to determine the alternates is changed as well.

Remember, the airlines do not use the 600-2 and 800-2 rules that GA use for determining the suitability of an alternate; the rules for determining a Part 121 alternate are beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say, it’s possible that an airport could be an alternate as long as the forecast is calling for weather of at least 400 feet and one mile.

Under Exemption 3585, the forecast (again, we can use conditional phrases) at the ETA for the first alternate must call for a forecast of no worse than one-half the visibility and ceiling required for the approach. In our example of a 400 and one, the weather at the first alternate can’t be forecast to be less than 200 and one-half.

Looking ahead to the second alternate, the FAA has a pretty simple criteria: This one must be essentially a sure thing. The forecast for the second alternate can also utilize conditional phrases. However, this time, the forecast must call for weather—even with conditional phrases—that equal the ceiling and visibility that can be used for the approach. No reductions are allowed. In essence, if the conditional phrases must have such good weather, it stands to reason that the main body is going to be for nearly VFR conditions.

There is one other option: Category 2 approaches. CAT II approaches can be flown with a runway visibility range (RVR)  reading of 1,200 feet—that is, one-quarter mile of visibility. Such approaches are a pretty hair-raising experience. However, CAT II approaches are a significant investment because of the maintenance requirements for the airplanes, and if the airline does not have a great deal of diversions in a calendar year caused by low visibility, CAT II isn’t worth the cost. Exemption 3585 does the trick.

This is a fairly simple explanation, and the variety of possibilities can get complex and tricky, but Exemption 3585—sort of a poor man’s CAT II that was originally put together for People Express—is an indispensible tool, and if you should ever be hired by a regional, you will spend a lot of time in training dissecting Exemption 3585.

The sad thing is that while you while you will spend hours learning 3585, you will rarely use it. In 16 years of airline flying, I have taken full advantage of 3585 fewer than a dozen times. Category II on the other hand….—Chip Wright

Projecting a professional image

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

As you prepare for your interview, one of the first things you will undoubtedly do is get your best suit cleaned and pressed, get a haircut, and do whatever else you need to do to present your best appearance. And these are things that you should definitely do.

But have you thought about what you are going to do once you get the job? As you prepare to fly to your interview, pay attention as you walk through the airport or sit in a restaurant or the boarding area. Pay attention to the employees. Look at them as a customer, and look at them as though you were a supervisor.

The unpleasant truth is that too many airline pilots and flight attendants have taken the liberty to stretch the acceptable limits of the dress code.

An easy example is the pilot hat. There are still many airlines that require a hat. Many pilots hate the hats, and you can tell by the fact that they either don’t wear one or keep it stuffed in their suitcases. The fact is, however, that if the hat is a part of the uniform, you are supposed to wear it.

It’s one thing to forget to grab it on the way out the door, so long as that only happens once in a blue moon. It’s something else entirely to just totally ignore it. Stuffing it into the back of the suitcase and only putting it on when the chief pilot is in the terminal is pretty silly. Further, you need to wear it properly. Personally, I don’t understand why any pilot would not wear a hat that they paid $50 to $70 for…but that’s just me.

There are other image issues that you can control. Wearing a clean shirt and pants is obvious, but some pilots will wear their uniforms until they turn to threads. Most companies provide a uniform maintenance allowance as a part of the pay, and you are expected to use that for dry cleaning, replacement pieces, et cetera. Well-cared-for pants will last several years, but shirts can take a beating (the polyester ones, though, last forever). The smart move is to always carry at least one extra shirt in your suitcase, and possibly a pair of pants.

Suitcases and flight kits are another issue. There are some who feel it’s almost a point of pride to walk around with a suitcase or a brain bag that is held together with duct tape and bailing wire. I can tell you from experience that there is little that is worse than having your luggage fall apart as you walk through the airport…on the first day of a four-day trip.

Luggage is one item that you don’t want to save money on. Get good, quality gear, and take care of it. When the zippers get worn, replace them. When the flaps get torn, have them fixed. When a wheel goes bad, put on a new one. Fortunately, with the major luggage brand that pilots use, many of the repairs can be done yourself, and it’s easy to get a loaner to send yours in for repairs.

And for the record, backpacks are not a part of the uniform.

Last but not least is your jacket. More airlines are wearing leather jackets, and they’re great. They’re rugged, durable, comfortable, and they look good. The blazer is still common, especially in spring and fall. You need to maintain that as well and keep it clean. If the stripes—and this is true for the shirt epaulets as well—start to look worn or dirty, they should be replaced. I’ve always made it a point to replace my epaulets every year because the shoulder harnesses turn them black.

Getting to an airline takes an awfully big investment. You owe it to yourself and to your chosen profession to present the best image that you can. Remember, you may be in uniform looking like a slob and bump into a captain at Quizno’s who works for your dream airline—and he may be a recruiter or an interviewer.

If you don’t look like you care about your appearance, you will look like you don’t care about what job you have…or don’t have.

Oh, and keep your hair trimmed and neat.—Chip Wright

A brief explanation of the Whitlow Letter

Monday, February 4th, 2013

It is common practice to want to pick on the FAA, and often with good reason. However, there are times when the feds do something that is most definitely for the greater good. Most pilots, for example, are aware that in the wake of the Colgan crash in Buffalo, N.Y., the FAA has created new rest rules designed to make it easier for pilots to be adequately rested during their trips. This is a win-win for the companies (though, to hear them tell it, they will all go bankrupt), the pilots, and the traveling public.

But the real breakthrough for this came around 2000, when the FAA issued what is commonly called the “Whitlow Letter.” At that time, the standard practice at the airlines with regard to reserve pilots was to work under the assumption that if a pilot was on reserve, he was not technically on duty until he actually reported for an assignment. This meant that if a pilot woke up at 7 a.m. and went on reserve at noon for a reserve window of availability of 14 hours (which was, and still is, common practice), the company could call him up at the tail end of his window—2 a.m. in this case—and keep him on duty and flying until 4 p.m. the following afternoon. This pilot faced the possibility of being awake for 32 consecutive hours. No rational person would consider this to be safe.

Fortunately, one of those rational people was James Whitlow, then-chief counsel at the FAA. He was responding to a letter of inquiry from Rich Rubin, a captain at American Airlines who was requesting specific guidance on FAR duty and rest rules when he turned the industry on its ear.

Whitlow’s response was a body blow to the old practice, and it was met with fierce resistance by the Air Transport Association (ATA), the airline trade group. The ATA immediately went to court to try to get the interpretation thrown out; they lost. The new interpretation forced the airlines to consider the start of a reserve period to be the start of duty. In the example above, the pilot would start his reserve at noon and would be released from all duty at 2 a.m., even if he did not report to work until 6 in the evening. In practical terms, in many the duty day was also shortened by virtue of the fact that a pilot who is at home and gets called needs to have time to get to the airport, park, get through security, and check in. Common policy is a 90-minute report time window.

Further, Whitlow also said that in any given 24-hour period, a pilot needs to have at least eight hours of uninterrupted rest.

The airlines realized right away that the Whitlow letter would force them to hire more pilots, and schedulers and pilots both became adept at doing 24 look-backs calculated down to the minute.

While the Colgan crash was the event that forced the FAA to develop a more scientifically based rest rule that takes into account circadian rhythms and the effect of crossing time zones, it was the Whitlow letter that gave the pilot bloc the momentum to start pushing for serious change. Unfortunately, as is so often true in aviation, the rules are often written in blood–in this case Colgan Flight 3407.—Chip Wright

Flying over the holidays

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crew transition

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

When I first began my career as an airline pilot, I really didn’t have any idea what to expect. I knew I would be flying—a lot—and I knew that I would be traveling—a lot. But beyond that, I really didn’t know what the job would be like. I knew there would be an autopilot, and I was pretty stoked about that. I knew I’d be wearing a uniform, and while many pilots can’t stand wearing the hat, it never bothered me.

But the one thing that I was relatively unprepared for was the crew concept. I’d had a bit of experience with it thanks to my previous job, which included using an airplane to photo-map the state’s farmland. We also did some atmospheric sampling work, but the “crew” on those flights were nonpilots. The photo-mapping projects, on the other hand, were a true team effort, and while it could be done with two pilots, it was really a three-person job. But, it wasn’t the same kind of crew that you’d find in an airline cockpit.

The transition to a crew environment wasn’t all that hard. What was hard was realizing how much help I really had, and how little I had to do for myself. For instance, in my previous job, the pilot flying did everything flying-related except talk on the radio. That was handled by the yahoo sitting in the other seat (usually one of my bosses, who were among the finest yahoos I ever knew, except for when they were flying together).

In the crew world, the pilot flying flies…and that’s pretty much all he or she does. The gear, flaps, radio, checklists, and almost anything else you can think of are done by what we used to call the nonflying pilot, but whom we now refer to as the “pilot monitoring.” I still call them “the yahoo sitting next to me.” After all these years, why worry now about political correctness?

It took me a while to get used to not working the gear or flaps, especially since, in the Brasilia, the gear handle was in front of my left knee, and the flap handle was right next to the same knee. I also had to learn just how much I was allowed to ask for. If I wanted the radar on, all I had to do was ask. If I wanted the power set at a certain setting, all I had to do was ask. I did have to work my own HSI, and I got to control my nav radio if I was quick enough to beat the captain to it…which wasn’t often.

There were, of course, other duties that came with the territory, such as calling the company on the radio prior to every arrival and after every departure. Talking to a dispatcher was new as well, but it was a Part 135 operation at the time, so we pilots were still more involved in flight planning, though nowhere near to the degree that I had been. I knew more about the route of my first dual cross-country than I have about any airline trip I’ve flown, and I wish it wasn’t so, but short turn times force you to rely on a dispatcher more than you ever would have thought. Besides, trying to follow a sectional from the flight levels or at high speeds would be a challenge.

But it was that transition to a total crew environment that really opened my eyes. I was the low man on the totem pole, and I had to learn how to work with (and sometimes get along with) a captain and a flight attendant. Neither was hard, but it was a period of adaptation that is now effortless, and, I now realize, much better and safer than much of what I’d done before.

There are always going to be stories of cockpit dictators, and occasionally even a story about a fist-fight or some kind of ugly confrontation between two people who simply can’t get along. But those are rare. Airlines do a great job of training crews to work together, and while you won’t walk away from every trip with a new BFF, you won’t always have a new mortal enemy either.

Unless, of course, you insist on doing everything yourself, which will not only aggravate the person next to you, but will also make you extremely busy. Plus, you will be branded as the next yahoo.—Chip Wright