Posts Tagged ‘airlines’

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

The non-competing competitive competitors

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

The airlines are a weird industry in a lot of ways. One of them is in the area of competition. If you pay any attention to the advertising or the talking heads on TV, you would think that the airlines are hyper-competitive in every respect, such as price, frequent flyer programs, providing the worst service for the most money. And they are. Sort of.

The exception is when it comes to what they actually do: the flying, and specifically, the pilots. That isn’t to say that pilots are not a competitive bunch. We are. But when it comes to flying, safety is involved, and we don’t mess around with that. If you ever need proof, just spend a few minutes listening to air traffic control in a busy sector when the weather is bad (log on to LiveATC.net when the Northeast is getting hammered, and listen to chaos). Pilots will readily pass along pilot reports about the rides, turbulence, breaks in a line, or wind shear on final.

There are areas in which pilots will look for bragging rights, and in many cases, it’s obvious who the bragging rights belong to. Once you are in the industry, you become immersed in the details of what makes one company better or worse to work for than another, and you begin to understand some of what the public doesn’t. Airline work rules, pay, schedules, domiciles, commuting—even the vagaries of the chief pilots and what they like to enforce—take on a different meaning once you have begun the lifestyle. Figuring out who gets paid more is easy, but figuring out which work rules are better isn’t always as obvious. But in the end, it becomes pretty clear pretty soon which airlines are run well and are a joy to work for versus those that are looked down upon.

But when it comes to the two guys in the front actually doing their job during the course of a flight or a day, there isn’t really any competition. Part of that is because the airlines operate their flights in much the same manner. But more importantly, nobody is going to deliberately compromise the safety of another. When a line of thunderstorms exists that runs from Canada to Mexico, everyone tries to help each other find the best place to jump the line. There is no thought of, “Well, let’s trick these guys into going into a Level 6!” It simply doesn’t happen. Instead, the updates are a live feed of what’s a good idea and what isn’t.

The best example I can think of is bad weather over a major hub, especially at night. If holding is in effect or if delays are piling up, pilots usually want two pieces of information. First, in rain, they want to know what kind of wind shear or convective activity to expect. Second, in snow, they want to know what the braking action is. And sometimes, it just takes one flight to voice that funny gut feeling that others already have. “We’re going to divert for fuel/weather,” is one call that usually triggers a chain reaction. Once one crew makes it, everyone seems to like the idea. But with wind shear or snowy or icy runways, the pireps become a lifeline of critical information.

When it comes to safety, cooperation trumps competition…every time.—By Chip Wright

Canceling the first flight

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

I’ve touched on the topic before of cancellations in this blog, but the reality is that there are cancellations…and there are cancellations, and you as a passenger may or may not be victim of one directly…or indirectly.

As an example, I recently had to cancel the first leg of the day at an outstation. In this case, it had been raining fairly hard all night, and when we got to the airplane, it was raining in the cabin almost as much as it was outside; one of the antennas had a bad seal that was allowing water to get past. It isn’t as big of a deal as it sounds, but we could not operate a revenue flight. We needed to get the airplane to a hangar (or an airport where it wasn’t raining) so that it could be resealed, then time allowed for the seal to cure.

From the airline’s point of view, the problems were just beginning. This was a city that has several flights a day, but they all have a very high load factor. Rebooking was going to be tough. Some passengers would be forced to drive, others would have to simply cancel their trip, especially if they were on a time-sensitive schedule (meetings, certain international connections, et cetera).

And then there was the issue of the effect on the schedule. Taking the airplane out of the rotation for the day meant that the potential for the down-line schedule to be hit was high. There would be a domino effect on every flight scheduled on this particular ship. We could end up running hours late all day, as has happened to me in the past. They might be late, or they might cancel. Fortunately, our leg was a short one, so at least we as a crew would be back in position fairly easily, and the repair we needed would take less than a full day in getting the bird back on line. Finding this squawk so early in the day made it more likely that a spare airplane would be available to cover the flying scheduled for the affected ship.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Often, a broken airplane will lead to a series of cancellations, either because there is no aircraft to pick up the slack, or because the crew will be out of position or time out. At times the result is obvious to see (it was scheduled to fly all of “these” flights, so we’ll cancel them), and at other times, it isn’t so obvious as the company will then strategically cancel flights based on a number of factors: loads, connections, scheduled maintenance, crew availability or even flights the next day.

But, the first flight cancelling in the morning always has the potential to cause major headaches that carry through the day. Ironically, it makes it easier to get the crew back on schedule at some point, but if the airplanes aren’t available to cover the flying, things get ugly…fast.

Lucky for me, on the day in question we stayed on schedule, and the only flight affected was the first one…but that didn’t help the passengers who were left behind.—Chip Wright

The short list

Monday, August 20th, 2012

As much as pilots like hanging out with pilots, the fact is that in every population group, there is a small percentage that the larger percentage wish just wasn’t there. One of my favorite questions for folks I fly with is, “Who’s the worst captain you’ve ever flown with?” I ask this in part just for my own entertainment, but also because sometimes you can learn something from the stories.

As you might expect, certain names tend to be fairly common, making up what I call the short list. When I was a first officer, there were four or five, maybe 10, names that every FO wanted to avoid. That hasn’t changed much. Sometimes, a name comes up that others are surprised to hear.

When I was flying the right seat, I got stuck flying with a fellow for five days—my first five-day trip. By the end of the second day, I wanted to tar, feather, and set him on fire. We just didn’t get along. He was arrogant, cocky, and totally dismissive of any suggestions from someone who wasn’t…him. At least, that was how he presented himself to me. Others were shocked. Then again, other pilots complained about captains whom I would have been willing to fly with every day. Go figure.

But the one on my short list was also an owner of one of the out-of-nowhere airline pilot training schools that sprung up in the nineties. He quit to go to work for the school full time, and a few years later, one day after taking $80-100 thousand dollar deposits from several students, they shut the doors. It was an evil thing to do, and I hope he’s in jail for it. If he isn’t, I sure hope I never have to fly with him again…because I won’t.

But the list of those captains that people don’t like is so predictable that, as an FO begins to tell me a story, I can write the name down of who I think it is, show him the paper, and be right most of the time. The obvious question is, “What makes these guys so bad?” In a word, it is certain eccentricities. There is usually one trait that becomes overbearing to other crew members.

For instance, one was notorious for wanting certain numbers interpolated to make them as exact as possible. It was a ridiculous task; it wasn’t approved (nor required) by the FAA or the company; and it drove FOs nuts. Another would file ASAP reports over the most mundane items. The chart has a typo? ASAP report! Can’t read the mechanics’ writing? ASAP report! Another simply didn’t handle certain distractions well, would get flustered, then stutter.

A lot of times, it comes down to trust. If a captain is not a confident individual—and by that I mean if he doesn’t really trust his own ability to do his job well or his knowledge of it—he will trust the FO even less and scream and yell and carry on whenever the FO so much as sneezes. The biggest source of contention among FOs is the captain who claims to be standard and fly by the book, and then proceeds to list a series of “except for…” statements. You’re either standard, or you aren’t.

One was unpopular because all he did was break wind…the smelly kind. One would insist on eating tuna out of a can. One gave so many PA speeches it’s a wonder he had time to fly. But all were easy to fly with, and were good pilots and otherwise well liked. It’s the ones who come across as not-so-good that make you shake your heads.

I’ve been on the jumpseat of other airlines, and similar stories have come up. A name gets mentioned, and everyone on the flight deck knows who the individual is. Sometimes that notoriety is good to have, but other times…not so much.

The disappointing thing as a captain is to find out an FO you flew with has turned into one of the guys nobody likes. That makes me feel like I did not do as much as I could have to help mentor that individual. But the fact is that some guys are just destined to be on the short list, and sometimes it’s very predictable. Other times it isn’t, and when it isn’t, you try to explain how easy the guy or gal was to fly with when they were FOs, and you have to really argue your point. All you can do is sigh.

But one my favorite captains once said to me when I was a new hire, “You will learn far more about how to be a good captain from the (unmentionable name goes here) than you will from the good guys. The good guys make it appear so easy and fun because that’s what it should be. The (unmentionable name again goes here) just show you how to make life miserable.” Truer words were never spoken.—Chip Wright

Jumpseating

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

I’ve written on this blog about the general issue of nonrevenue travel and commuting as an airline pilot, but I’ve not touched a great deal on the specific issue of jumpseat travel.

The jumpseat is the term for the third seat in the cockpit. Every two-person airliner, with the exception of some smaller turboprops, has a cockpit jumpseat. Some jets, such as the Airbus family and some Boeings, have more than one. Many also have a flight attendant jumpseat in the cabin. Beyond the first jumpseat in the cockpit, the installation of additional jumpseats is a decision usually made by the airline that took delivery of the airplane from the factory.

The intent of the jumpseat is for the FAA or company check airmen to observe or evaluate operations in the cockpit. This means that the overwhelming majority of the time the jumpseat is empty.

When it is not in use for another purpose, the jumpseat is usually available for pilots of any reciprocating airline to use as a seat to get to or from work if the cabin is full. As the airlines have reduced capacity, it has become more and more common for commuting pilots to have to use the jumpseat not just as a term, but in the literal sense as well.

The protocol is pretty simple. Access to the cockpit jumpseat is based on a mutual agreement between airlines and/or pilot groups to accept each others’ pilots. That is still in place, but in the post-9/11 world, it is no longer that simple. There are certain security requirements that must be met, so I won’t disclose them here. But the general rule is that the person looking for a ride must ask the captain of the flight for permission to “ride your jumpseat”; you do not say, “I am taking your jumpseat!”

Assuming no weight and balance issues exist and the jumpseat is not deferred for any reason, the answer is almost always yes. If a seat opens up in the cabin, the jumpseater is almost always offered that seat instead—that third seat in the cockpit is almost universally uncomfortable.

The rule of thumb is that pilots of the airline operating the flight get first dibs, usually in seniority order, but in a few cases it is first come, first served. After that, there is often a pecking order that is followed, but for the most part it is first come, first served. Even if you can bump a pilot from another carrier that has higher rights than you, it is considered poor form and only done in dire situations. Universally, you must be at the gate by a designated time, and you must treat the gate agents with a great deal of respect. Some resent the extra work created by jumpseaters, and others just resent that only pilots can ride in the cockpit. Most, however, are more than happy to help.

Rules vary from company to company. Some airlines will only allow as many jumpseaters as they have actual jumpseats installed. Others will allow as many jumpseaters as there are empty seats. This is definitely the best rule, and the goodwill it generates is tremendous. There are also certain dress rules. Back in the day, it was expected that you would either be in uniform or a suit. Now, the uniform still always works, and the dress code for the most part is business casual; shorts and sneakers need not apply. Once in the seat, you are expected to act as a third crew member, which means honoring sterile cockpit procedures, looking for traffic, and if possible, listening to ATC and (gently) pointing out a potential error by the crew.

Most airlines prohibit the use of jumpseating for anything other than leisure travel or getting to or from work. Using them in the pursuit of business interests is risky, but it has been done. If you work for one airline, and are going to an interview with another, then riding their jumpseat is a great way to learn about the company.

On occasion, stories crop up of a pilot getting in trouble for misusing or abusing the privilege, and it is just that—a privilege. Likewise, there have been “jumpseat wars” in which pilots try to use the jumpseat as a political weapon by denying it to pilots of another carrier during a dispute. This is almost always a bad decision made by a pilot who doesn’t commute. Commuting is hard, and pilots who don’t commute don’t appreciate the challenges that it presents. To try and make a point by denying jumpseaters not only makes you look bad, but it stands to punish and ostracize your fellow co-workers who may totally disagree with your particular point of view.

Jumpseating is a great perk of the job, and at some point as an airline pilot, you will probably need it. I’ve been coming home from vacation with my family, and I had to use it in order for all of us to get on. I routinely use it to get to and from work. It’s fun to see other airplanes I don’t fly, or to see how other companies operate the airplane that I do fly.

If you ever have the opportunity to fly for an airline, embrace the jumpseat and use it as intended. And take some Advil before a long flight in one. Your back and legs will thank you.—Chip Wright

Editor’s note: The accompanying photo of a Boeing 767 cockpit and jumpseat was taken by Kent Wien and appeared in the April 13, 2009, Gadling blog Plane Answers.

The Valley of Blue

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

I’ve written before about the fact that I am a warm weather guy—my wife and I very nearly moved our family to the Virgin Islands several years ago—but I prefer to deal with many of the inconveniences of winter flying versus one minute of dealing with a thunderstorm.

That conviction was reinforced in spades in July, when I was scheduled to fly a CVG-GSO turn. This happened during the stretch of 90- to 100-degree days when a front decided to assume a stationary stance along the I-70 corridor.

Our normal route of flight on this city pair takes about 50 to 55 minutes, and essentially is a direct line from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International to Piedmont/Triad International Airport in Greensboro, N.C. I’ve done it enough times that I could do it with my eyes closed.

On this day, however, little was going right. We were running late because the airplane was late getting to us for our first leg in DTW. We had some passenger connection issues as well as some other run-of-the-mill airline stuff go wrong that put us about 15 minutes behind all day. Had we been on time, we just might have made it out of the CVG area in time to punch the line and fly the normal route to GSO.
Instead, we were forced to take a journeyman’s route, flying from CVG due east until we were past Pittsburgh, and then finding a spot to turn south and race the weather. I held off on the controller’s request to start south until we were well clear of the eastern band of weather that was on our route, and as a result, we got a nice smooth ride into GSO.

The return flight, however, was not going to be any easier. Our dispatcher loaded us down with a truckload of extra Jet A and wished us luck. He confirmed to me on the phone that the weather would not be a factor in CVG, though the forecast would require an alternate. In reality, the worst of it was west and south of the field. The radar on my phone seemed to confirm that.

Getting home required almost a reversal of our route down, but with one major constraint: We were filed for FL300, but we could not get past FL220 because of traffic saturation. We could see it on our TCAS, and when we checked in with Washington Center, we could hear it on the radio. More than once, the congestion was so bad that our initial transmission was a press of the Ident button on the transponder—we simply could not get a word in edgewise.

We, along with (it seemed) every airplane on the East Coast, were stuck in a “Valley of Blue.” The sky above us was clear, and it wasn’t too bad going north either. East didn’t look great, but even if it had, it didn’t do us any good, and we could not find a clear hole to the west—not one that both of us could agree to try. When I liked one, the first officer didn’t, and vice versa. We kept going onward, again sneaking in the Pennsylvania area. The controller occasionally would ask us when we planned to turn. We never had a good answer. We tried to get a higher altitude, because in several places, it looked as though even a few thousand feet would get us over the weather. No dice. It was one of the few times that I heard a controller announce, “[a]ll aircraft cleared to deviate as necessary.”

Wow.

Finally, when I began to think that we might need to announce to the RCMP that we were coming to Canada, eh, we found a hole to our left and floored it. Three or four minutes later, we were firmly established on a heading that again paralleled the weather, going west. We had to argue with several more controllers as we worked around a sizeable cell, and we had to contact the dispatcher about the 8,000-foot difference in our altitude and the effect on our fuel burn, but the farther west we went, the better the ride got. A normal flight of an hour took 90 minutes. Two hours later, we were on the ground in Baltimore for the overnight.

I hate thunderstorms…but I so want to move to a tropical island and fly VFR for the rest of my days.—Chip Wright