Posts Tagged ‘aviation safety’

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

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

Moms, flying, and flying moms

Thursday, May 10th, 2012
Mother’s Day is coming up. I don’t know how many readers had supportive moms when they were learning to fly, but if you did, be thankful. She probably had to deal with some fear and anxiety whenever you were 5,500 feet in the air with no parachute.
 
Director of eMedia Alyssa Miller (left) and her mom, Pam Miller

As a parent of two teenagers, I vividly recall those days when my daughter was learning to drive. I put as much of it on my husband as I could, but eventually I had to climb into the right seat with her. I’d have to clench my hands together, else I’d be twisting my fingers into knots, and she would see that from the corner of her eye and know what I was communicating to her. When she began driving by herself, I’d curl up in my armchair and pray.

 
Now imagine a parent whose child is learning to operate a vehicle that not only moves in three axes, but also can’t be pulled over to the side of the road if something happens. It’s a wonder any teenager gets to take flying lessons!
 
Senior Editor Dave Hirschman and his mom, Wilma Melville

Those who do largely seem to come from flying families. Their moms and dads are as familiar with flying as the rest of us are with driving cars. Their parents understand the safety issues behind operating an airplane; they know about limiting risk. They know what it means when an aircraft stalls, and they recognize that little airplanes do not fall out of the sky if the engine stops. They know that pilots train for emergencies and practice for those situations a lot.

 But your mom–if she is not already a pilot or a right-seater–might not know these things. Why not teach her sometime? Tell her what you would tell anybody who is not a pilot: that flying has risks, but you are learning how to manage those risks. Tell her that accident statistics show that when you’re flying with a flight instructor, you’re much less likely to be involved in an accident. (The 2010 Nall Report will back you up.) Tell her you want to be the safest pilot that ever was.

It might not keep Mom from curling up into a ball whenever you’re in the air, but it might help her to understand a bit more about your passion for flying. And who knows, when the time comes and you have your pilot certificate, she might be willing to take a flight with you and find out for herself what all the fuss is about. And that will be a great day indeed.–Jill W. Tallman

FOQA

Monday, April 30th, 2012

In a previous post, I discussed the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) that is used at some airlines to create a new kind of safety environment. In addition to ASAP, there is a program called the Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA, pronounced “Foe-KWA”). Whereas ASAP relies on self-disclosure for its success, it is limited to those reports that are turned in, as well as by the information that is actually provided in the narratives, thus limiting its scope and effectiveness.

FOQA, like ASAP, requires a joint approach among the airline, the FAA, and the pilot unions. Where FOQA differs is in the fact that the information is gleaned from the flight data recorders (FDRs) on board the airplanes. The data from the FDR is downloaded by the designated personnel, and the information that identifies flight numbers, crews, et cetera, is immediately separated.

Using some pretty sophisticated and slick computer software, it is possible to choose which parameters to study. Say, for instance, you want to check out all flights that exceeded a certain rate of descent in the terminal area, and did so for more than 10 seconds. You can find that.

Or, if you want to flnd flights that landed more than so many pounds over the max landing weight, you can. There are hundreds of parameters that can be searched individually, or thousands of combinations can be created. There are usually certain trends that the airline wants to track at a given time, so they will search those, as well as any other trigger points that have their interest.

The information can be viewed numerically or graphically, and it can also be viewed as a video playback, which allows it to be seen in real time and in context. It’s all very slick, but it’s also very time consuming to produce the videos, so only a select few are made.

Even if the folks in the FOQA office find that certain performance parameters are being exceeded by a certain amount, they can’t just call the crew or ground them—remember, they don’t know who the crew is, and nor does the FAA. Further, cockpit voice recorder (CVR) downloads are not used. However, they can reach out to the designated representative(s) from the union, who can then “open the envelope” to see who the crew is. Only the designated contact persons can actually contact the crew, and the crew does not have to share any information at all—or they can share whatever information they want to, without fear of retribution or discipline.

The reason that the program works this way is that it is against the law to use FDRs for discipline; CVRs are not used because voices are too easy to identify. In fact, the FDR and CVR can only be used when there is an accident. For some pilots, the very thought that the FDR information can be viewed outside of an accident is unsettling. FOQA works because the respect for the privacy of the crew is not only paramount, but also it is the fundamental basis on which the program is designed.

In fact, no crew will ever know that one of its flights or actions is being scrutinized unless the designated contact person calls. More importantly, the company and the FAA will never know. The tradeoff is that the airline—and the FAA—are able to extract extremely useful information that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to get. As an example, a major airline was able to find out from FOQA that crews on one of its fleet types was unable to meet certain visual approach criteria at a particular airport. Thanks to the FOQA data, changes were made.

The U.S. airline industry is in the midst of an incredible run with regards to safety and accident prevention–which is proof that, done correctly, ASAP and FOQA, along with other safety and training programs, work. Industry and government have both embraced each program, and we have all embraced the results…even if we didn’t know it.—Chip Wright