Posts Tagged ‘Chip Wright’

The challenges of too much information

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

I sometimes miss the old days of preflight planning. In the not-so-distant past, my airline preflight planning was amazingly simple. I’d turn on the Weather Channel, see what was going on, and then head to the airport.

Once I was there, I’d get my dispatch release and look at the radar and satellite images. If I had any other questions or concerns, I’d talk them over with the dispatcher. The whole process took amazingly little time on most days.

At my current airline, much more has been put back into the hands of the pilots. With the proliferation of electronic flight bags (EFBs) on iPads and tablets, preflight planning has gone to a new level, but the convenience is also exacerbated by the time required to look at all of the available information. It seems that it takes me longer than ever to get all of the “necessary” stuff done.

After I download the release and the flight plan, I start looking at the weather, and at times it’s information overload. There is the regular weather from the WSI app that we use, which has so many tools that I’m still learning about them after years of use. Then there is the abundance of information from the Jeppesen FlightDeck Pro app, which can be a nice complement to WSI, but it sometimes provides contradictory information.

Once I have the weather, it’s a matter of getting the information from it that I need. This time of year, icing information is critical, especially on the arrival and departure. Turbulence is another critical area. Not only is it critical to find the most comfortable ride for our passengers, but we also need to be in the smoothest air possible for our flight attendants. When they are out of their seats—especially when they are conducting their service—they are very prone to injury. Even when they’re given a heads up, they need time to stow the carts and buckle in. Turbulence-related injuries have been a major area of concern in the airlines for several years, and it’s often the first point of discussion when the crew comes together before the flight.

Storms are always a matter of concern, because every deviation we make affects our fuel planning. Most of the time, this is addressed by the dispatcher, but sometimes the captain wants more fuel. It’s a balancing act with extra fuel, because fuel costs money, and the more fuel you have, the heavier the airplane is, so the more fuel (and the more money) you burn.

The more information I have, the more I seem to want. However, at some point I have to accept what I have and move on to actually operating the flight. I know I’ve done my due diligence, and everything either works out or it doesn’t.

And if anybody wants to question my decision making, I can just show them the massive amount of intel I’ve collected on my iPad.–Chip Wright

How NOT to network

Friday, February 5th, 2016

networkingI’ve written several blog posts about networking, and what is involved in creating a good network. This time, I want to emphasize what is not networking.

In review, a good network is a group of friends or colleagues who can provide you with tips and information in your pursuit of a job. In the ideal case, they can walk into the office of a direct supervisor or the human resources folks, hand them your resume, and make a strong case for hiring you. And in the ideal case, that’s exactly what will happen.

Creating that network requires effort. You need to keep in touch with people when it isn’t always convenient, and you need to make sure that you keep those people apprised of changes in your status or qualifications.

So what is the “improper” way to network?

In the airlines, a lot of folks meet other pilots via the jump seat (the extra seat in the cockpit that pilots sometimes need to use while coming and going to work) or spending time in the airport. If you have another pilot sitting in your jump seat as he commutes on your flight, that does not constitute “flying with you.” It’s inappropriate to ask him to use that flight as a means to say that he’s flown with you so that he can write you a letter of recommendation. I’ve been asked to do that before, and the answer is always no, especially when we don’t work for the same airline. I’m not suggesting that such arrangements haven’t been used before, but that doesn’t make it right.

Spending five minutes eating lunch with another pilot in an airport deli is not a network either. If the pilot volunteers to help you, that’s one thing. But to blatantly ask with no real relationship established is sure to backfire far more often than it succeeds.

Losing track of someone and asking them months or years down the road, out of the blue, hardly counts as well. Likewise, asking for help from someone who is not in your desired line of work is also risky. They don’t know nearly enough about the ins and outs of being a pilot to be able to speak honestly about you or the job, and it puts them in a bad spot of things don’t work out. It’s one thing to ask for a character reference from a nonpilot, but that’s as far as it should go.

I recently rode home on the jump seat of another carrier. The crew did some bellyaching that was borderline unprofessional, but not unusual. We spent some time talking in cruise, as they were peppering me with questions about the company, rumors, et cetera. At one point, one of them came right out and asked for my help with a letter. It didn’t sit well with me, and I politely declined, saying that it was my personal policy not to write letters unless I had actually flown and worked with an individual. That said, I offered to provide my contact info if he wanted to keep in touch; he declined. I think he realized that he had crossed the line as far as I was concerned.

Networking is such a critical skill, but it’s really one of common sense. Be polite, be genuine, and keep in touch. It’s really that simple. Anything else is pandering, and it often fails miserably.—Chip Wright

When the company airplane is your airplane

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

One of the perks of being a pilot is the ability to do things that others can’t do—specifically, taking an airplane to travel in a fraction of the time that it takes to do so in a car, while enjoying a unique experience that can only be had in the air.

There are myriad reasons to want to make a career out of flying: the mental and physical challenges of mastering flight, the financial rewards, the opportunity to command some of the largest machines ever made. One of them becomes more obvious as you get more involved, and that is taking advantage of the free travel while working. Talk to any pilot or flight attendant, and one thing we all do is take full advantage of layovers to schedule our trips.

I grew up in Maryland, and my parents stayed there after my sister and I left, thus breaking the law that says all seniors must move to Florida or Arizona. In my regional days, we used to have quite a few layovers in the D.C. and Baltimore areas. I would bid the trips to see my folks. Some of the overnights were fairly short and didn’t afford time for much of a visit. Others were long enough that I could go spend the night in their house. On those trips, my wife and kids would often travel out ahead of me to spend some time with the grandparents. It was beneficial for all of us.

When I was a first officer at Comair and newly married, I used to bid five-day trips with all Florida overnights. My wife, a teacher who hailed from Jacksonville, would spend the summers at her parents’ house and would come to Orlando when I was in town, which was three nights a week. Instead of going home on the days I was gone, she’d stay with friends. Our company hotel got to know her so well that she’d walk into the lobby and they would recognize her and give her the key to my room. It was a great deal for us.

For a couple of years, I was able to get long overnights that allowed me to visit my sister and her kids.

I still take advantage of this little perk, bidding trips that take me to places where I can visit friends I haven’t seen in years. It’s one thing to keep in touch on Facebook or via phone, but it’s something else entirely to spend time together in person. If it’s someone whom the expression “a little goes a long way” (and let’s face it, we all know those people), short visits are a handy excuse for getting to bed early.

Recently, I was able to use an overnight to visit a good friend who has had a major health scare. While he’s expected to make a full recovery, it was a reminder that this job is a real blessing when it comes to the ancillary benefits of what we do. Likewise for one of my flight attendants who was able to overnight in her home town and surprise her entire family with a visit on Christmas Day.

Often times, the fact that you’re paid to do this suddenly just doesn’t matter.—Chip Wright

A look back at 2015

Monday, January 11th, 2016

As 2015 settles in the rear-view mirror, it’s a good time to look back and see where we’ve been and where we’re going, in this case as a career field. For years, we’ve heard about the impending shortage of pilots facing the airlines. At long last, it’s here, and it’s a sellers’ market.

With help and backing from their major airline partners—the ones actually paying the bills—the regionals have been forced to dramatically increase pay, and nowhere has this been more important than in the slave wages that had been paid to first- and second-year first officers. For several years, regional airline managers tried to work around their collective bargaining agreements by offering some kind of signing/retention bonus, and for a while this worked. In a few cases, it backfired, because the unions argued that it was a violation of their contracts (it was), and forced the company to stop paying the bonuses and address the issue in collective bargaining, which opens up the entire contract. But that didn’t stop the race to pay, and while some of those bonuses reached $10,000, at least one airline is paying up to $80,000 spread out over four years.

In the last 18 months, regional pay has improved dramatically, with first-year pay averaging around $40,000. This is more than double what it was just a few years ago. Better still, with the majors retiring (and hiring) thousands of pilots, first officers are not looking at the decade-long wait to become captains, which means they will jump fairly soon to the $65,000-$70,000 level of pay if they so choose.

Is there a potential downside to all of this? Perhaps. Because of the severity of the cutbacks on regional flying the last several years, combined with the pay, student starts among those looking to fly professional dropped dramatically. It will take time to play catchup, especially with the new rules put into effect for new pilots to become entry level first officers after the Colgan 3407 accident.

Secondarily, the majors are trying to shed as many 50-seaters as they can, because as cheap as fuel is now, it won’t stay that way, and when it climbs, the 50-seater becomes exponentially more expensive to operate. The move now is toward far more 70- to 76-seat airframes.

For regional pilots, the downside is simple: As regional pay (costs) rise, along with the number of passengers affected, it becomes much more expensive to deal with a cancellation that might be attributed to a lack of crews. At some point, it becomes more economical to have the pilots at the main line fly those larger regional jets. American (via USAirways’ E-190), JetBlue, and Delta have already started to migrate to that model, and it may happen across the rest of industry as well. Time will tell.

Two thousand fifteen, however, was a banner year in many respects, as the airlines hired at a record pace, and 2016 promises more of the same (United alone will bring on 1,000 new pilots in 2016, a number that will likely not change much in the ensuing years). Record profits were recorded thanks to better marketing, the effects of consolidation, cheap fuel, and good winter weather (fewer de-icing events). The pilots at Delta and Southwest recently turned down significant pay raises, signifying that they think more is available, and United’s pilots will be voting on a significant raise in January (it includes language to “snap up” if Delta then tops it).

It’s been a long time coming for this sort of optimism in the airlines, especially at the regionals. Movement will occur, and new jobs will be available. If you’ve been on the fence and are at all qualified, this is a great time to give some serious thought to making the leap.—Chip Wright

Can you prepare for class?

Monday, November 9th, 2015

It’s one thing to hear the training is like drinking from a fire hose, but it’s another to actually live that. What can you do to make the transition easier?

Most airlines do almost nothing to provide materials that you can study in advance. At a carrier where your equipment won’t be decided until you get to class and bid on it, this carries slightly more logic (but not much more). At carriers where the equipment is a foregone conclusion, it doesn’t make much sense at all. There is certainly material that could be provided to you for study that won’t violate security-sensitive rules established in the wake of September 11, 2001.

But, since that information from your future employer won’t be coming, you are on your own. If you are indeed going to a company where the equipment is already known, you can try to get your hands on the memory items and limitations that you will be expected to memorize. If you have a friend at that carrier, great. If not, find one.

Another thing you can start learning are some of the complex weather rules. While many of these don’t change from one carrier to the next, every airline has certain rules that are specific to that carrier. Alternatively, not every carrier is able to get all of the various exemptions, so what is in effect at one won’t necessarily be at another. Unless you can get the actual information from someone currently employed there, don’t assume that anything generic will work.

Airplane systems are usually fairly consistent, but every airline teaches them differently. Airline A may put a lot of emphasis on one system that Airline B appears to gloss over. Further, there can be differences based on certain avionics and/or engine packages. Again, if it doesn’t come from the source, be careful. Most of the major systems, such as flight controls, pressurization, fire suppression, and hydraulic will be the same from one carrier to the next for a given fleet, but instead of committing a lot of information to memory, concentrate instead on a more superficial familiarity that will make it easier to absorb the details later.

Even if the systems are consistent, the operational philosophies will vary from one carrier to another. For example, I flew the CRJ for 14 years, and I sat on the jump seat of several carriers that also flew it. At Comair, walking away from the airplane with the auxiliary power unit running was to risk your job. At another carrier, this was standard practice. On the other hand, we had much more lenient restrictions on taking off with the brakes above a certain temperature than a different carrier I rode on did. None was “wrong”; we all just did it differently.

If you can get current information about your soon-to-be employer, the best way to prepare for class is to stick with memory items and limitations and weather policies, and perhaps a general understanding of FAR 117. Everything else will fall into place later. More accurately, it will come from the fire hose later.—Chip Wright

Career progression

Friday, October 9th, 2015

Career progression. It’s a huge point of discussion among pilots. But what is it, and what exactly does it mean? It depends on the carrier.

At an airline like Southwest or Alaska, which only flies one kind of airplane, career progression means something entirely different than it does at a carrier that flies multiple fleets. The same principle holds true at the regionals.

At a carrier like Delta or FedEx, career progression generally refers to movement both up the seniority list and up the pay scale. Most airlines pay the same rate for new hires, no matter what equipment they fly. But from Year 2 on, pay usually reflects the size of the airplane, given that larger airplanes produce more revenue, and hence can pay more.

Pilots generally want to maximize salary first, with schedules and quality of life following in importance. In order for that to happen, a couple of pieces need to fall into place.

First, retirement of more senior pilots has to occur in order to open up positions on larger equipment. Second, hiring needs to occur. More specifically, there can’t be any shrinkage or stagnation of the pilot group as those retirements take place. Third, overall fleet growth can significantly help. This is a key part of the equation at single-fleet airlines, because a first officer can become a captain simply by virtue of growth—even if the seniority list consists of relatively young pilots.

This is how I was able to become a captain at Comair in less than three years. In fact, over my 16 years there, I only moved up 500 total numbers because the average age was so low.

The last piece of the puzzle at a multi-fleet airline is the contractual freeze. Every airline incurs a freeze when you bid from one position to another in order to minimize training cycles and get a return on the investment of training you in a new airplane. Those freezes are generally two years, and usually there are substantial roadblocks to bidding backwards.

But not every airline works the same way with regard to pay. It’s becoming more common to have pay “bands,” in which groups of similarly sized aircraft pay the same. United pays the same on the 737, A320, and smaller 757 fleets. The 747, 777, 787, and A350 all pay the same as well. This is designed to take away the incentive to bid up based on pay, and  encourage the pilot to bid based on other factors, such as schedule or preferred domiciles. UPS is a prime example; it pays all captains and first officers the same rate no matter the equipment.

To use United as an example, the airline operates the A320, B737, 757/767, 747, 777, and 787, and will add the A350 in a couple of years. To fly all of them as a first officer while complying with the two-year freeze would take a minimum of 14 years.

But career progression is as much choice and preference as anything else. Most pilots want to fly the best schedule their seniority can hold in the domicile that best suits them—which might be because they live there or because it makes for the easiest commute. There are almost always opportunities to make extra pay that can often make up for the difference in the pay rates from one airplane to another, so pilots will bid fairly selectively. It’s not uncommon to see a first officer fly his or her first airplane for several years, then move on to a wide body for a couple years, with possibly a mid-range aircraft thrown in if the stars align. When the opportunity to fly as a captain comes up, the re-evaluation process starts over. As tempting as the money is, the schedule matters as well. Remember, seniority determines your domicile, the trips you can fly, and the weeks of vacation you can hold. Learning a new airplane is a stressful experience for any pilot, and the training process can be fairly lengthy, which affects the family life.

The same process holds at the regionals. The difference, however, is that regional pilots  tend to bid much more aggressively because of the low first officer pay and because everyone is jockeying to get their pilot-in-command time to move on. Very few pilots go the regionals with the intention of staying.

Progression is an individual definition as much as anything. Often, being able to fly the schedule you want is more important than the increase in pay you might see on a larger airplane. But eventually, assuming your seniority can hold something bigger, the increase in pay becomes too much to ignore.—Chip Wright

The times, they are a’ changin’

Monday, September 14th, 2015

My, oh my, how the times have a’ changed.

I’ve been doing the airline gig now for almost 20 years, more than 16 of which was were the regionals. When I got my first job, it was the norm to have pilots pay for the own training. In my case, it was a check made out to the Comair Aviation Academy, for $10,995, plus another $2,000 in lodging and food during that training. To make things worse, I didn’t officially get hired until after I had passed thecheckride. Instead, I was in an aircraft-specific “training course.” This was a common practice for companies to work around prohibitions in union contracts that forbid—on paper—pay-for-training policies.

Once I got on line, I was making $16.79 an hour, with a 75-hour guarantee. My first full calendar year (1997) saw me make $14,605 dollars—which included a $7-an-hour raise for the final six weeks of the year—a net pay for the year of less than $1,000.

For years, first-year pay at the regionals was an embarrassment, and while the percentage increase in years two and three were substantial, it was still pretty lousy, especially if you were the lone bread winner. Today, the regionals are reaping what they (and their major airline partners [both management and pilots]) have sown: the long-awaited pilot shortage is finally here, and it’s hitting the bottom line. Flights are canceling, and airplanes are getting parked for a lack of crews.

The airlines are responding. Understand that the regionals can’t just raise pay for two reasons: Union contracts must be collectively bargained, and a regional gets its revenue from its major partners. Even if they have wanted to raise pay, they can’t do so until they get assurance from their major affiliates that they will be reimbursed for the added costs. Only when both of these provisions are met can pay raises be implemented.

Of late, the solution has been for regionals to offer some sort of bonus to new hires. This gets them around the collective bargaining issue, and it also allows them to dictate the terms of the bonus.

Loan repayments also are an option. For instance, Envoy offers both $5,000 and $10,000 bonuses, depending on whether or not you are coming from an affiliate flight school. However, the bonuses require the pilot to agree to a two-year commitment. Even Skywest, which took over Comair’s position as the regional of choice, is offering a $7,500 bonus. In fact, Skywest has recently been doing a lot of recruitment-by-mail, sending post cards to pilots on the FAA registry in the hopes that they might be interested in a job. They are casting such a wide net that they are even recruiting some of their own pilots!

The result of all of this has been a dramatic effect on first-year pay. According to ATP’s website, the average first year pay is now more than $30,000, and in a couple of cases, it approaches $40,000. It’s by no means a king’s ransom, but it’s a vast improvement over days gone by. There is still a long way to go to get pilot pay where it needs to be, especially considering how many pilots the industry needs to attract and convince to make the investment in a flying career over the next couple of decades.

But this is a start.—Chip Wright

Disability insurance

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

When you’re in your 20s and 30s, it’s hard to imagine that your health will ever be seriously affected by anything. It’s bad enough to imagine getting cancer or a sleep disorder, but what about something less serious, such as a broken bone (or two or three)?

Pilots are unique in that our health affects both our direct and our legal ability to report for work. Something as simple as back pain can keep us at home. We are bound by the terms of our medical certificate to be of sound mind and body. If you work in an office and break your leg or your arm, you can still come to work. You may even be just as productive and as efficient with the injury as you are without it.

Not so with flying. If you break a leg skiing or an arm playing softball, you’re grounded until it heals. Further, if your medical expires during your injury, you will likely need a flight physical to return to work. If you don’t have sufficient sick time in your leave bank, you could face a financial strain. Most airlines only allow a sick time accrual rate of a few hours a month.

I don’t want to sound like a salesman, but I’ll take the risk. If you get hired by an airline, opt into whatever short- and long-term disability insurance the company and/or the union offers. Rates are based on age, so it’s cheaper when you’re younger, which is also when you’re not so well paid. It’s an investment that is worth making in yourself.

Over my career I’ve seen young and old pilots be out of work for extended periods of time through no fault of their own. One, in his late 20s, was out over a year because of a severe automobile accident. One was out for two months with a broken leg that was slow to heal. Another was out for nearly two years with a form of liver cancer. A number have been incapacitated by mental health issues and/or alcoholism. In the last couple of years, the FAA has attempted to crack down on overweight pilots. If they ever succeed in doing this, a large percentage of us will be looking at long periods of time off while we try to shed the extra weight.

As a professional pilot, take nothing for granted—especially your health. Get the STD/LTD coverage early, and keep it. With any luck, you’ll never need to thank me for it. But if you do, at least you won’t have to worry about coming up with the money for a stamp.–Chip Wright

Familiarity versus unfamiliarity

Monday, August 24th, 2015

There’s a saying that familiarity breeds contempt. Unfamiliarity can do the same thing. In aviation, we see the familiarity side of things when we throw caution to the wind (or worse). We ignore checklists. We rush. We do…dumb things. Most of us have been guilty of this. Examples abound: forgetting to turn off the master switch in the FBO’s Cessna, only to get a phone call later; forgetting to untie (or tie) the tiedowns; forgetting to lower the landing gear.

It’s natural to let your guard down when you’re in a comfortable environment. The good news is that you are comfortable in a place where you don’t really belong. The bad news is that you are prone to making mistakes because “it could never happen to me.” That’s probably what you said the last time you locked your keys in your car. In fact, such a dumb, easy mistake has forced the automobile manufacturers to idiot-proof cars as much as possible to try to avoid this, but people still find a way to validate human idiocy.

When you are overly familiar with something, either it’s time to force yourself to re-adapt the good habits, or it’s time to change your habits. Take the car keys. Once you’ve made this mistake, you quickly learn to check that the keys are in your pocket/bag/purse/suitcase/whatever before you close the door. You’re still looking to make sure that they aren’t in the car, but instead of looking to see if they aren’t where you don’t want them, you’re looking to see if they are where you do want them. The goal is the same, but the process is different.

With the master switch, an easy way to fix the problem is to always leave the anti-collision light on. That way, if you walk away from the airplane and see the beacon on, you’ll know that the master switch is on.

Unfamiliarity also can create problems, especially when the change from one piece of equipment to another is fairly drastic. For example, at my old airline there was a famous story—true—of a captain who transferred out of the turboprop and into the jet. Without getting bogged down in details, he was forced to leave an engine running after pulling into the gate. That by itself is no big deal; it happens all the time. Generally speaking, within a few minutes, he would be able to shut it down. Well, a few steps in the chain weren’t completed, and he was new to the airplane, so he was out of his comfort zone. Further, in the turboprop, a running engine could be easily seen (the spinning propeller) and heard (it was right next to the cockpit window). With a tail-mounted jet, you don’t see anything, and you don’t hear much more than anything.

He found out that he had left the engine running when he got a call from the station after he had arrived at the hotel. He had to talk the ground folks through the shutdown over the phone. In the end, nobody was hurt, but the lesson was learned: Try to know what you don’t know.

Familiarity and unfamiliarity can both be dangerous, but for different reasons. If you find your normal routine is not working, change it to one that does.—Chip Wright

Where is my DeLorean?

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

Back to the futureThirty years ago, Marty McFly and Doc Brown got into a garage-modified DeLorean, activated the flux capacitor, and took off for…well, this year, to try and save Marty’s son from himself. Back to the Future played on a long-standing wish: flying cars.

As 2015 winds down, it’s easy to wonder why we don’t have flying cars. The easy answer is that the FAA would make such a dream a bureaucratic nightmare. That’s undoubtedly true, and if you throw in the Federal Highway Administration, you can see how such a great idea would be dead on arrival. But let’s take those two entities out of the equation.

Driving is two-dimensional. You move forward, backward, left, and right. Driving is also pretty easy. It’s not totally skillless or brainless, but we’ve done everything we can to make it so. Still, tens of thousands of people die every year on the highways in spite of some pretty impressive safety mechanisms and rules. Seatbelts are required (and their use is enforced, which wasn’t always the case); cars have roll cages, air bags, anti-lock brakes, and more. Still, no matter how idiot-proof we make a car, we manage to find ways to crash.

Flying, on the other hand, is three-dimensional, and that transition to and from the ground is, statistically, the most dangerous part of the flight. In the air, we have to deal with turbulence, even close to the ground. Imagine semis trying to fly next to a Camry. Unlike the DeLorean, we need to accept that a flying car will have wings, and those wings will be sized based on the payload. Semis and Camrys would be at constant risk of hitting each other because of the necessarily long wings on the semi, not to mention the wake turbulence. If you think on- and off-ramps are crowded now, imagine what it would be like trying to merge such disparately sized vehicles on and off the ground.

Infrastructure would be an issue as well, as we’d have to have much longer merge lanes to allow vehicles to get up to rotation speed. Consider that highways are designed to try to contain certain elements of a high-speed wreck (even if the only design element for this is building it in an isolated area). With skyways, we’d have to take into account that an in-flight collision would spread debris over a much larger area—which would necessitate additional safety enhancements for the drivers not only traveling quickly but now also falling to the ground. Buildings would need to be built to account for potential falling debris on the roof or through the windows.

In the end, flying cars just aren’t practical. In fact, if the skyways got too crowded, you’d be better back on the road, which is right where we are now. As fun as it is to daydream about defying gravity in every aspect of our lives, the truth is that without a quantum leap in strong, lightweight materials and powerful engines, it’s just not the way. But if you stick with flying airplanes, then where you’re going, you still don’t need roads.—Chip Wright