Posts Tagged ‘maintenance’

Diversions and aeronautical decision making

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Aeronautical decision making (ADM) first began to appear in the training lexicon in a heavy fashion in the mid-1990s. It was always “there,” but it wasn’t necessarily a separate subject. Instructors were expected to simply incorporate the decision-making process into each lesson whenever and wherever possible. This sounds great on paper, and at times it even seems logical, but the reality is that the old adage that says that the airplane is a terrible classroom exists for a reason.

Dealing with diversions is a subject in the decision-making process for which a formal classroom session has always made sense. Diversions can take two broad forms in flight. The first is a change in the route but with no change in the destination. The second is a change in the final destination. The first is far more common, but the second is usually more significant. After all, if you are flying to Baltimore and have to divert to Frederick  because of weather, you have new set of problems on your hands. Just as with any other aspect of your life, the impact of such a significant change in plans can make you more resistant to executing the change in the first place.

At the airlines, the decision is often a bit easier, because the rules are so cut and dried. But that doesn’t change the fact that pilots generally are can-do people, and when other people are counting on you, you don’t want to disappoint them.
But one area in which diversions at the airlines are so different is the level of communication. I bring all of this up because more airlines are using ADM scenarios as part of the interview process. You are placed in a hypothetical but fairly realistic scenario in which something goes wrong, and you have to make a decision. Sometimes, the basic diversion decision is easy (“the airport is closed, so you will be diverting”) and sometimes it isn’t (“something smells bad in the cabin, but I don’t if it’s burned food or worse”).

The pressure is ratcheted up in some other fashion that will force you to make a decision quickly. Southwest and United airlines both give you a seven-minute window in which to assess the problem, evaluate the options, and come up with a solution. In some of the scenarios, you are short on fuel. In some, weather is a major factor. In others, it’s the ambiguity of the problem. But in all of them, the goal is to see you make a decision and stick with it.

At the airlines, you need to communicate with multiple entities, and this is where the two-person crew comes in handy. Someone needs to talk to air traffic control, while someone else handles everything else. In the real world, the first officer usually handles ATC and the captain does what he gets paid to do. If you are in an interview, make yourself familiar with what airports that airline serves. You don’t need to commit them to memory, but have a general idea, because in the ADM scenario you will likely be using them.

So, who needs your attention? Assuming that you are not given a major catastrophe like a fire or a flight control failure, you need to talk the flight attendant(s) first, if for no other reason to tell them that there has been a change in plans and that you will get back to them shortly. That phone call should take less than 15 seconds.

Next you need to talk to the dispatcher, who is jointly responsible for your airplane and flight. The dispatcher can give you up-to-the-minute weather at your possible alternates as well as any notices to airmen you may need. He or she can also save you a radio call by contacting the two stations involved and letting them know your change in plans (hint: If the person playing the role of the dispatcher doesn’t offer this service, ask for it). If the dispatcher can’t (or won’t) call the station to which you are diverting, then you need to call (this may be thrown at you in one of the timed sequences). Cover your bases as well by telling the dispatcher that you will call once on the ground to clean up any loose ends.
If maintenance needs to be consulted, do it via dispatch, since the dispatcher needs to know of any issues that may affect performance.

Next, you need to advise ATC what you are doing. If critical fuel is going to play a part in the scenario, it will usually be included in the briefing. If it is, you need to remember to declare either minimum fuel or an emergency as the case may be.

Once ATC is in the loop, somebody needs to brief the flight attendants and the passengers. If the diversion point is extremely close, say Miami to Fort Lauderdale, then you may want to ask the flight attendant to notify the passengers, and to tell them you will provide more information on the ground.

Once you have operated in the airlines, and especially as a captain, you realize that the scenarios are really the same thing you do every day. As someone new to the industry, you need to show that you have some idea of how the system works—and it’s very similar from one company to the next.

ADM is a critical part of any pilot’s aviating career, and for those looking to go to the airlines or advance up the ladder, it becomes a bigger and bigger part each step of the way. Start mastering it early, and remember, conservative is always better.—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

Remember when?

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

Flying as an industry has undergone some dramatic changes in the last two decades, and it can be a bit mind-boggling to look back and consider the impact of some of those changes.

When I first got hired, direct deposit had just been introduced. Knowing what I know now, I can’t imagine the challenges of this job when you faced the possibility of not being able to access your pay check for up to two weeks because you wouldn’t be home to cash it. Married guys could make special arrangements, but the single guys…not so much.

Most of the pilots I talked to while this transition was going on told me that over time they had been forced to build a reserve in their checking accounts so that they could pay their bills. Plan B was to get a line of credit from the bank, but that wasn’t always easy, especially for bottom-feeder first officers. Bear in mind too that getting your check deposited was only part of the battle. Back then, you still had to write checks for everything. I can easily remember when a roomful of pilots would bring their bills and their checkbooks with them to work, and would spend a break or an overnight in the hotel getting their bills in the mail. Online bill pay was a pipe dream.

Speaking of the Internet, nothing else has had such a dramatic effect on the way airlines run. It has put travel agents in museums, and people can check in at home the day before a flight. For the flight crews, it is now possible to fly a career and only talk to a chief pilot or flight attendant overseer on the day you interview and the day you retire. Email communications take care of most issues, and even changes in our schedules can be acknowledged on a cell phone screen. Pilots dread talking to
schedulers, and online acknowledgement makes that totally unnecessary now.

The cell phone has revolutionized our lives, and while it isn’t always for the better, it often is. For pilots, checking weather radar is right at the fingertips, as is tracking the location of your next ship, calling MX Control without having to go back to the gate, or putting in a bid at the last minute because you forgot to do it on vacation.

Speaking of which, back in the day, a pilot on vacation had to call a trusted friend–with a calling card, from a pay phone–and ask that person to submit his or her monthly bids. Those bids were often blind, because with no internet, you couldn’t see the bid packets and the trips that were available. The joke was to always call someone senior to you who wouldn’t have a motivation to manipulate your bid, or call the secretary in the office. Our Mother Hen was the best, and she would not only put in your bid, she also would tell you how to improve it. Now, even if you are on the other side of the globe, you can put in an accurate bid on time…if you remember.

Some things never change, and even those that supposedly will may not pan out well (I personally think the whole NextGen project will just be huge quantities of money wasted). But many of the changes are such that the people that preceded me or you in this industry wouldn’t even recognize it. Not being able to check the weather on my phone? I shudder at the thought.—Chip Wright

A flat start

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

A good pilot is always learning.  Here’s what I learned a few weeks ago: If you don’t  fly for two weeks, and you don’t visit your airplane within that two weeks, you could find this the next time you want to go flying:

Flatter than the proverbial pancake, the tire’s sidewall most likely had been compromised, and so the folks at Landmark Aviation removed the tire, installed a spare (a spare tire for airplanes! Who knew?) and a brace for the wing, and prepped a new tire and tube. They had it installed and ready go to within about 90 minutes of my discovery.

On the grand scale of airplane maintenance, this is minor. It went flat at my homedrome, and it didn’t blow on a takeoff or landing roll. The repair was quick because Landmark had the tire in stock. I was able to go flying in a couple hours. The winds had picked up by then, which was a minor annoyance, but not a compelling reason to cancel the flight.

But you can bet your next tire change that I will not let two weeks–or even one week–go by without checking on my airplane and giving it a once-over. After all, it’s tough enough to get the stars aligned so that your schedule, the weather, and airplane availability work in your favor. Why stack the odds against yourself? —Jill W. Tallman