Posts Tagged ‘flight attendants’

Asking for help

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Pilots tend to have egos. We don’t like to admit that we need help, but the truth is that we need it more often that we want to admit. This is especially true when we’re learning something fairly new, or have not spent a lot of time in an aircraft. It might be something as simple as how to program a new fix in the avionics, and it might be something as complicated as…programming a new fix in the avionics.

I’m still learning the ins and outs of the 737, which I’ve been flying now for almost two years. I spend most of my time on reserve, as I am fairly junior in my base, so I don’t fly as much as I’d like. My flight time tends to occur in spurts where I’m flying a lot, and then sitting at home a lot. The result is that I often need to brush up on a few items before I go fly a trip. It’s also not uncommon for me to just forget a few things here and there.

The need for help was driven home recently while talking to a friend of mine who has made the transition from one career to another, having left behind a field she spent 30 years in (finance) for one that is brand new to her (flight attendant). For as much time as I’ve been in the airlines, I must confess that I knew precious little about the training that the cabin crews go through. That’s changed, because my friend, who was hired by a major airline, spent five pretty intense weeks tackling an enormous amount of material, all of which was new to her.

One of the things that quickly became apparent was that she wasn’t going to make it through training on her own. I had forewarned her about that before she left, but I’m not sure that she fully appreciated it until she got into class and got hit with the full brunt of all the information she needed to master. This carried over to the airplane as well, and it was a bit of a surprise to me to hear just how much she relied on her crew mates as she got her feet wet.

It reminded me of my own experiences in the cockpit. Pilots tend to think that flying is flying, and it doesn’t matter what airplane it is. That’s true…to a point. But each airplane is different, and each one has its own challenges. Throw in learning the way a new company does things, and it’s even more complex.

I spent 16 years with my first airline, and moving to the second one involved a lot of “unlearning,” and it’s not easy. I had to ask for help, not only on the basic information about how new equipment worked, but on how to simply fit in. I’m on my third airline now, and I’m still asking for help. Sometimes, it seems like I am asking for help on something that is so simple I should be embarrassed, but I learned a long time ago—usually the hard way—that these are the times when I absolutely must ask for help. Life experience is a great teacher in that respect.

As my friend the FA has said, she asks for help for two reasons. One, she might genuinely need it. Two, it’s often just a way to reinforce what she knows or even just thinks she knows. It’s a confidence- builder. And that alone is enough.—Chip Wright

People per plane

Monday, July 9th, 2012

I will be the first to admit that pilots can be pretty myopic and focus only on their own issues and causes, especially when it comes to pay and/or job advancement or security. While a few of these grumblings may be misplaced, most aren’t. A few, sometimes, just aren’t understood or realized.

I’ll give you an example. It’s a common refrain that airlines plan on X number of pilots and flight attendants—often lumped together as crews—per airframe on the property. On the low end it might be eight to nine pilots, and on the high end it might be an average of 11; the most common is 10 pilots/5 crews, and wide-body international birds might need as many as 14. But that isn’t the end of it by any stretch.

Each airplane must support the livelihoods of others whose livelihood is to support the airplane. For instance, the airline must carry a certain number of mechanics, dispatchers, fuelers, cleaners, accountants, advertising folks, et cetera, to get the job done. The more airplanes in the fleet, the more people who are needed. At the height of the bloated payrolls in the early 2000s, many airlines averaged more than 100 employees per ship. Now, that number is much lower.

Some of this is a result of contracting out certain services (which could be the topic of a number of books, let alone this blog), and some of it is a result of more efficiency, especially with regard to computing power. The most obvious example of this is the severe reductions in the number of ticket agents, thanks to the ability to check in at home or at an airport kiosk. The days of standing in a long line every time you go to the airport are over.

When I got hired at Comair, I went on a tour of the company offices. One thing that stood out as a shock to me was the bags and bags of torn ticket stubs that had to be reconciled by hand. Same with the monthly pilot payroll summary sheets. No more. Those items are totally automated, and many of those jobs were eliminated.

Likewise, we and every other airline had a staff of people whose job was to sift through lost bags and find the owners. Today, that is much easier and faster, and it requires fewer people because of the new industrywide tear-proof bag tags that are bar-coded. A scan gun can save tons of time and money when a bag is lost. If the bag tag does get separated, then it becomes much more work-intensive. Thank goodness, that’s rare.

But some things never change. Pilots still fly the airplanes, and the FARs do much to dictate the staffing of crews. Likewise with dispatchers, who are also required, and whose work days are legally limited. One dispatcher can handle a fair number of flights, so adding one airplane may or may not lead to new jobs in that department. But at some point, you will need to spread the workload. Crew schedulers, fuelers, and gate agents—actual, at-the-gate agents, not the ticket counter—are still needed as well, and are only added when the number of airplanes added to the fleet (or flights are added to the schedule) forces the workforce to be grown. Some of those skilled employees are more expensive than the non-skilled workers: mechanics, pilots, avionics techs, even the mechanics for the airport ground equipment.

The new industry average for employees per plane is now closer to 85-90. A friend at Southwest tells me that theirs is 62. Keep all this in mind when you see your ticket price. It covers a lot: employees beyond the crew; spare parts; fuel; lease payments. If you see 10 people at the airport who directly affect your flight, there are dozens more you don’t see whom you can’t travel without, just like you don’t see the new tires and fuel pumps that were put on the airplane late at night, or the facilities to store all of those parts.

I’m not always a fan of workforce efficiency improvements and the lost jobs that come with them, but it is the basis of capitalism, and all of us have a certain level of price sensitivity. After all, even I buy tickets on occasion, and I will be the first to admit that price is the most important factor. And yes, I will check in at home whenever I can.—By Chip Wright