Posts Tagged ‘professional pilots’

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

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

Holiday commuting

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

As I write this, I just finished my commute to work after the Thanksgiving holiday. Normally, when I commute, I go to the airport and try to get on a flight by using my jump-seating privileges, and most of the time this works out well. I usually end up getting into my domicile earlier than I’d like, but I’ve also had the misfortune of not making it at all, which means I don’t get paid for lost flights.

This year, when I got my schedule for November, I was surprised to see that I received the Wednesday through Friday of Thanksgiving week off. I’m still relatively junior, though I am in the middle of the pack on my equipment in my base. That said, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is generally the busiest air travel day of the year, so I did something I would normally not do and bought a ticket home. In order to get back, I cashed in some old frequent flier miles (on another carrier). The peace of mind of having a real seat while getting home for such an important holiday was worth the money spent.

My plan worked a little too well. My trip before Thanksgiving was supposed to end early Wednesday morning (following a red-eye). However, my trip got changed on Monday, and I wound up going home a full 24 hours early on Tuesday. My ticket was non-refundable, and so it appears that the money was spent for naught. C’est la vie. Murphy’s Law says that if I hadn’t bought the ticket, I would have spent the holiday stuck in my domicile.

Getting back to work looked like it could have been a bit of a waste as well. However, there were no direct flights on Friday, so I was looking at a connection no matter what. I decided to cash in the miles and go through Detroit. The flight to DTW was open enough that I could have (likely) gotten on without any problems. However, the connection was tight, and we wound up holding because of weather. I made it, but I had very little time to spare. When I’d booked my flight, there were only five seats left, and when I got to the gate, there were only two, and I suspect those were filled before we left the gate.

So, was it worth it? Yes. I had the peace of mind of being a real passenger, and on the flight out of DTW, the airline would have re-accommodated if I’d missed the connection. I didn’t have to wear my uniform, and I was able—and this is important—to leave my house later in the day than I otherwise would have, as I would likely have been forced to start early to maximize my chances on a two-leg holiday commute.

Commuting has its pros and cons, and it’s rare to hear of a pilot buying a ticket, but it does happen. In my case, I’m hoping to reuse the purchased ticket later, but if I can’t, then so be it. I still got an extra day at home, and I didn’t waste any extra time coming back to work.—Chip Wright

Probation

Monday, November 30th, 2015

A common question among airline new-hires concerns the probationary year. What exactly is probation, and how does it work?

Because the airlines are heavily unionized, terminating pilots—even for cause—is not always easy. The union will appeal the termination, and more often than not it is able to get the pilot reinstated.

But when it comes to new hires, the rules are a bit different. Airlines make a significant financial investment in recruiting and training a new-hire pilot. The up-front cost to get a person line-qualified can easily approach $100,000. It’s fair for the company to have an opportunity to evaluate whether that pilot is a good fit.

Probation usually covers the first 12 months of employment, assuming no disruptions such as a furlough or family emergency that require time off. A pilot on probation has no recourse if the company invokes termination. But probation is really not as big a deal as people make it sound.

Because the industry is seniority-based, and because employee numbers tend to be chronologically assigned, it’s pretty easy to figure out when you’re dealing with a newbie on probation.

The easiest way to survive that probation is to simply make sure that nobody knows who you are. If you show up on time every time, don’t call in sick, and follow company procedures, you have nothing to worry about. Being on probation is sort of like checking in with ATC and saying that you are a student pilot.

By that I mean is that most captains and fellow first officers will want to do whatever they can to help you. They will gladly answer any questions, show you some tricks of the trade, and help make your life just a bit easier. In fact, you will usually suffer from information overload, and that’s a good thing.

The same holds for your chief pilot. It’s a common joke that the best way to conduct your airline career is to do it in such a fashion that the CP has no idea you were ever there, and that’s true to an extent. Even so, the CP also wants—needs—to see you succeed, because his or her job is to help keep the operation running. If you have any questions or concerns or something you don’t understand, introducing yourself and saying, “I’m a probationary pilot” will immediately let the CP know that you might need “progressive taxi.”

Pilots do get let go on probation, but it’s never malicious. It’s always related to some aspect of job performance or dependability. I know of a first officer who was fired for stealing window shades. Several were terminated because they could not make the transition to the airplane. One was let go because he called in sick, then used his pass privileges to go on vacation. As long as you don’t do anything dumb, and as long as you apply yourself, probation will be a non-event—followed by a nice pay raise!—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

Mining the message boards

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

Forums.jpgThe internet has become a repository for just about any sort of information you care to find. Some of it is even true. A great example is the glut of information forums, aka “the web boards.” If you’re interested in aviation, there is no shortage of such sites to choose from. One of the most famous in the airline world is Airline Pilot Central. PPrune (short for Professional Pilots Rumour Network) is another, and there are way too many others to list.

How much credibility should you give these sites? That depends. While many are fairly organized, they all contain a tremendous amount of negativity. Further, if you’re new to them, you will find yourself spending hours scrolling through old posts looking for good information. Once you are up to speed, you can navigate them quickly and easily for the intel you need.

There are a couple of downsides to these sites. First, as noted, people hide behind a screen name, and many show a decided lack of maturity in their postings. This leads to a lot of bickering. Second, the overwhelming majority of these posts are written by a very small number of people, which means that the opinion of a few may be presented as the opinion of the majority, even if such is not the case. The actual sample size is fairly small. Third, much of the “information” is speculative only, as it is based on rumor and heresy, if not flat-out lies.

However, if you spend enough time filtering the boards that you are most interested in, you can get good information. You can also figure out which of the posters are level-headed, honest, and objective. When you notice these people, write down their names, especially if what they are posting pertains to the arena of flying you are interested in; it’s even better if they are working (or have recently worked) for a company that you are pursuing.

Once you’ve made note of a few of these folks, initiate personal (“private”) conversations with them. See if they are willing to spend some time on the phone with you. Ask your questions; write down their answers; and ask follow-up questions. Do this with several pilots in each category or forum. You may get conflicting information, but that isn’t necessarily bad. You can assume that many people have different experiences to draw from, and that in and of itself can be good.

One of the problems with being new to these discussions is that you sometimes don’t realize what you don’t know, which can only add to your confusion. The lingo can be new and overwhelming. It’s hard at times to understand how pilots—who clearly love to fly—can find themselves unhappy in their jobs. Some of this is self-inflicted, and some is caused by circumstances they didn’t predict. Your job is to find out which is which, and then try to understand what it is that you would personally have difficulty with, and find a way to avoid a similar fate. Not always easy, but it can be done.

The internet forums can yield significant good information, but you need to know how to find it, and you need to know how to source it. APC is a wealth of great info about the airlines. But it’s only a part of that information. Actually talking—by phone and in person—to pilots who are living the lifestyle you are interested in is another major part of that information.—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

GIGO

Monday, August 10th, 2015

It’s early on in your academic training these days when a teacher refers to the GIGO principle. Simply stated, if you are using a computer, it doesn’t matter how great the machine or the program is if you input bad data. If you put in garbage, it will give you garbage results. Garbage in, garbage out: GIGO.

In flying this is a very real concern, particularly when it comes to programming a GPS. It’s one thing if you inadvertently put in a wrong fix that’s close to the right one, but that’s rare. What’s more likely to happen is that you put in the wrong fix or the wrong piece of performance information, only to suddenly find yourself asking what is going on. When the airplane makes a turn you aren’t expecting, you’ll be scrambling to figure out where the mistake is. It’s great if it happens on the next fix. That usually becomes readily apparent. It’s not so great if you programmed in the wrong fix several legs down the road.

This is an easy mistake to make on a GPS that is programmed with a knob, and it’s an easy mistake to make in a crew environment. I’ll give you an example: I was in a simulator event, and I had the airplane doing exactly what I wanted it to do. Trying to stay ahead of things, I decided to program the climb performance, not registering that the performance I was asking for was for the cruise climb. Asking the airplane to change its profile would cause all kinds of problems on the departure procedure. Following our prescribed procedure, I asked the captain to verify what I was getting ready to do. He did. I hit the button and executed the new plan. To my horror, the airplane began to accelerate and climb like it had a date with Mars.

I quickly turned off the autopilot and autothrottles, and I asked the captain to reprogram “the box” while I hand-flew and kept us out of further trouble. In my peripheral vision, I saw the instructor smile and write furiously. In the debrief, we got kudos for catching the problem immediately and fixing it, but we also got a reminder that GIGO can happen at any time, at any place. It was a great lesson, and it happened in the sim, where nobody could get hurt.

I’ve flown now for more than 20 years, and I have a litany of such GIGO examples—some mundane, some not so much. What I can say is that I don’t tend to make the same mistake twice, but I’ve learned that I am never going to be immune to this kind of error, which is good, as it keeps me on my toes.

But if you want to see how catastrophic GIGO can be, just look at the report for American Airlines Flight 965, which crashed into a mountain in Colombia in 1995 because of a flight management system programming error. It’s a stark reminder of how quickly things can go wrong, even for an experienced crew.—Chip Wright