Posts Tagged ‘career pilots’

Lifestyles: The majors

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

800px-Southwest_Airlines_Boeing_737-7H4_N231WNMuch of the lifestyle of the regionals carries over to the majors, but there are some differences. The majors tend to utilize airplanes that can fly longer legs, especially newer 737s and larger Airbuses. While the MD-80 still makes its living as a workhorse that flies seven or eight legs a day, the typical crew might only do two or three, maybe four. The 737, on the other hand, can do it all. It can fly short legs and long. Transcons—transcontinental flights—are common.

One of the major differences in flying for a major is the dramatic increase you will see in flying at night. Red-eyes, reverse red-eyes (east to west), or all-night flights to the Caribbean or Latin America are more common. The airlines don’t make money when the airplanes are parked at the gate, and where they can squeeze more revenue by flying at night, they will. Certain flights will not have as many passengers as you might think, but the bellies will be loaded with cargo.

In many ways, the job is easier. There is more automation in the system, so the flight planning and the load planning is more in sync. You don’t put out as many fires related to flight plans and passenger loads not working. There are fewer weight-related issues (this is a huge problem with regional aircraft). More stations have mechanics, so if something needs attention, it doesn’t take as long to get it fixed.

Generally, you will be treated better. It is a sad truth that regional pilots are often treated far worse than they should be—by their managers especially, but also by the passengers, the gate agents, or just about anyone at some point in time who finds you an easy target for their personal issue, whatever it is. It isn’t a universal happening, and it doesn’t happen every day, but it does happen. At the majors, there is much more respect and professionalism shown toward the crews. If you need something, it’s not that hard to get, and that includes the occasional time favor from the chief pilot or even scheduling.

As a regional pilot I was lucky in one respect because the hotels we stayed in were usually top of the line. This isn’t always the case. At the majors, you will stay in better hotels, and you will see more of the downtown areas, which means there is more to see and do.

You will enjoy flying for a company that is in charge of its own product, and not beholden to one that controls your fate.

Commuting is generally easier and the schedules are better, but that need to quickly change your sleep patterns likely will still be there. And, of course, you will be paid more. You might earn in a month what you earned your first year as a regional pilot.

And at some point, you will pass one of your old airplanes on a taxiway, and you will look at it and say, “I remember this one time….” And you will share a story about how much fun it was (or wasn’t) or how much work it was (or wasn’t). You might even miss that old bird. And you will realize that that old bird is what put you here.

You still need to learn to live out of a suitcase and get used to Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 instead of Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. You will work your share of holidays. But the reward is making it to the top of the mountain. The view is great, the work is fun, and the country, you will realize, is much bigger than you thought.—Chip Wright

Want to be an airline pilot? See our Career Pilot resources page for information that will help you plot the best course.

How the captain earns the money

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

It is well-known that the captain makes the big bucks. Another joke is that when thegold coin first officer looks to the left, he sees the captain. When the captain looks to the left, he sees a window with a reflection of…himself.

So what is it that the captain does that the FO doesn’t that earns the captain those big bucks?

Airlines use seniority for everything, so the captain’s rank and pay really don’t mean anything other than that he or she was hired first. Even this isn’t absolute. Some FOs decide to stay in the right seat because of personal reasons, and they may actually be senior to their captain.

The pay differential is there because the captain is being paid for generally having more experience (the above example notwithstanding), and for having more responsibility. The captain and flight dispatcher are jointly responsible for the flight—but once the airplane leaves the ground, the captain becomes the final authority.

The captain makes his money not during normal operations, but during abnormal operations, when difficult decisions need to be made. The two examples that most stand out are in-flight emergencies or developments that might require a diversion, and in making a decision that could result in a cancellation.

Diversions usually result from weather, and where there is one diverting aircraft, there are usually several. This is not a big deal by itself. The diversions that become issues are the ones that arise from in-flight mechanical problems. Some of these are cut and dried. Others are not.

If the checklist calls for a diversion, then you shrug your shoulders and divert. It’s the ones that are done more on personal comfort or intuition that get tricky. The dispatcher or even the chief mechanic in charge may believe that the flight can continue, but a captain with thousands of hours in the airplane knows exactly how the airplane is supposed to sound, feel, smell and fly. If the captain—or an experienced FO for that matter—says that something isn’t right, then chances are something isn’t right.

I’ve been in similar situations during which the folks on the ground both supported me and also began to question what I was saying. Diversions are not taken lightly, because they are so expensive. This is less of an issue with weather-related diversions than the odd mechanical diversion in which the airplane may be grounded for days.

The captain also is tasked with other decision-making responsibilities that affect other groups and people. Getting extra passengers on or having to remove them because of weight issues is not an enjoyable experience, especially when you have to see the despair on their faces. I had a group of passengers who were trying to get to a wedding out of Islip, New York. Islip has short runways, and the winds on this day were heavily favoring the shortest of the short. We were over our max takeoff weight, and we had to remove some people. These folks were the unlucky chosen ones (the airline determines that order, not us), and there was a heated discussion between the agent and myself. All the pleading in the world couldn’t change the fact that we were over our weight limit. While it wasn’t by much, we were over, and we couldn’t go with everyone on board.

Someone ultimately has to make the hard choice. The worst possibility is a person who is wishy-washy or incapable of making a decision. Fortunately, that’s rare. Being the captain means being the one with the mindset of “the buck stops here.” As the old saying goes, it’s better to be alive to talk about than to be dead and unable to defend yourself.—Chip Wright

Should you move for a regional?

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diaries of an interviewee

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

People ask me all the time how to get ready for an interview with an airline, and how to do well in an interview. There are two pieces of advice that I frequently offer, and in many cases the advice applies to non-aviation interviews as well.

diary250First, keep a diary. If you are interested in an airline job, do a search online for common questions. Most of them fall into the category of “Tell me about a time…” Also called TMAAT, these questions are just that: relaying a time that you had to deal with a given situation. For those going into their first airline job, you can substitute the opener with “What would you do if…./How would you handle….” You may be surprised at how many other experiences relate to this besides flying.

The best way to avoid coming up empty-handed is to keep a diary. Download the list of questions and start answering them on paper as best you can. If you don’t have a story, then wait. At some point, you probably will. There are only a few questions that you don’t want to have an answer for. For example, if an interviewer asks if your integrity has ever been questioned, the best answer to have is a solid “No.” That isn’t to say that you’ll never have disagreements (you will), but you don’t want your motives or character questioned.

Another reason to keep the diary is to make sure that you have stories that span a long period of time. You don’t want be stuck with a bunch of stories that took place in a six-month window, and it isn’t worth risking a lie to make it sound better. As events happen, write them down with dates, places, and names. You can with-hold the names in the interview (and you should, or refer to everyone as John Doe). Also, know where to find the entries in your logbook that correspond to the stories.

The second piece of advice that gets mentioned by me and ignored by others is to pay for professional interview preparation. Most people don’t realize that they make certain mistakes when they speak, whether grammatical, speaking too softly, or using “um,” “ah,” or the dreaded “like” too, like, often like. A professional will help you polish up your answers, put them in a coherent order, and tell you how to emphasize your accomplishments without sounding like a braggart or an arrogant jerk.

Other common mistakes consist of answering questions that weren’t asked or giving too much information that may create doubt, or worse, a whole new series of questions that you had not anticipated.

A good, professional interview prep will cost a few hundred dollars, so prepare for it just as you would for an actual interview. Better still is if you can get it video recorded so that you can review your performance.

There is a lot of hiring going on now, and those that are best prepared will get the best jobs first. Who knows? Maybe the work you put into the interview will be a good story in your diary for the next job that you really covet.—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

 

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

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