Posts Tagged ‘professional pilots’

A (very) brief explanation of ticket prices

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

I’m going to stray a little bit from my typical career advice, and I’m going to discuss a few of the airline business practices that tend to drive everyone crazy. One of those is the issue of ticket prices.

As most of you know, airline ticket prices can vary wildly even on the same flight. It’s very possible to have two passengers sitting next to each other who paid a difference of hundreds of dollars for their tickets. What gives?

512px-NWA_Airline_Ticket_JL2703First of all, it helps if you think of an airplane as a venue for a concert or a baseball game. When you buy tickets to a game, you expect to pay more for a better seat, such as one behind home plate or along one of the baselines. You expect to pay less to sit in the “nosebleed” section.

Flights are similar. First class, business class, and seats with extra legroom demand a higher fare because of the benefits or added comfort of sitting in those seats. That’s simple enough. But what drives the rest of the pricing differences?

American Airlines, under Robert Crandall, perfected the use of modern pricing algorithms (it’s actually a trick he learned working for, of all places, Hallmark). With today’s computerized reservations systems, airlines use sophisticated computer models to adjust the pricing of every seat as soon as a seat is sold. This is one reason why it costs less to buy a seat well in advance of the flight.

The airline already knows what the basic cost of a flight will be, and therefore how much it needs to sell each seat to make money on that flight, which allows it to set the basic fare.

Next, it needs to collect all of the various fees and taxes that might be required—landing fees, passenger facility charges, security fees, et cetera. These can easily add more than $100 to the price of a ticket.

As soon as seats begin to sell, prices begin to change. (In fact, if you use the same computer to check the prices of a flight several times, the website can [and often will] use the cookie it has placed on your computer to gauge your interest and raise the fare.) Prices also change as the date of the flight gets closer.

Because airlines get most of their revenue from business travelers, the prices go up quite dramatically within 14 to 21 days of a flight, since this is when business travelers buy most of their tickets. This is similar to the concert or ball game analogy: Supply has diminished, and demand often rises. The airline is, in effect, scalping its own seats, and it is doing so to its best customers, because roughly 5% of the passengers provide almost 95% of the revenue.

Something else is at play as well. The airline doesn’t collect nearly the revenue from leisure travelers as it does from business travelers on a per-seat basis. So, if the mix gets slightly out of whack, ticket prices will move, especially if the “out of whack” portion of the equation means that more leisure travelers are buying tickets than usual. In addition, if passengers are using frequent flyer miles to buy the seat, either prices will increase or the number of seats available for redeeming miles will decrease or even disappear (think of Hawaii).

Just like a concert or a ball game, there can be a last-minute deal, and it can be great one for the consumer. The Yankees may sell a few tickets in the second or even third inning, but an airline can never sell a seat on a given flight once that flight has left the gate, and even the Yankees won’t sell tickets after the fourth inning or so. Therefore, sometimes they will offer steep discounts just to fill the seat at the last minute.

Ticket prices are maddening at times, but there really is a method to the madness, and a madness to the method. Or something like that!—Chip Wright

Flying like a professional: Talking on the radio

Monday, June 1st, 2015

Orlando Showalter MentoringThere are many marks of a professional that can be attributed to airline pilots—whether it’s the way they wear their uniforms, or brush their hair, or use the checklist. Another one is the way in which they talk on the radio.

The radio is essentially a party line, meaning that everyone on the frequency can hear you. How you conduct yourself says a lot about you.

I’ve been flying now for more than 25 years, and I’ve heard more than a few things that have made me cringe. That isn’t to say that I haven’t heard a few things that were funny, even if they weren’t always appropriate; I have, and I’ve laughed heartily. But I’ve also heard pilots (and even controllers) belch, swear, bloviate, lose their temper, and otherwise make a fool out of themselves.

For many new pilots, using the radio is intimidating and even a bit frightening.

But radio-speak is a skill that gets better with practice, as well as with listening. If you live near a busy airport, one of the best things you can do is turn on a handheld transceiver and listen to a local frequency—especially if it’s for a tower or approach control.

You can achieve the same thing using, a popular website that has a link to hundreds of live ATC audio streams. You can also study the examples in the Aeronautical Information Manual and the Pilot/Controller Glossary, but it isn’t exactly exciting reading.

Pay attention to the airline pilots. The most professional-sounding ones will speak with an even cadence and tempo, and they will not allow a high level of activity affect the way they transmit. This is important, because a controller doesn’t want to spend a lot of time repeating transmissions—and often does not have that time.

It doesn’t take long to pick up how a few tidbits, such as how a transmission is to be structured; or what commands to expect at a certain time; or when it may be acceptable—even if it isn’t always right—to just respond with a call sign or some other verbal shorthand. You’ll also learn that the true professionals limit themselves to what needs to be said and do not add extraneous filler to their transmissions. It isn’t necessary, and it doesn’t help anyone.

Talking like a professional and sounding like one is not hard, but it does take practice. Listening to LiveATC or a handheld will help tremendously. Practice giving your responses in your car, where nobody can hear you. You’ll get the hang of it before you know it, and when you begin to tackle more complex airspace, you too will sound like a pro.—Chip Wright

Flying like a professional: Checklists

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

DC10ChecklistIf you are in training with the intention of moving on to the airlines or corporate opportunities, have you thought of trying to train and fly as you would for the job you eventually want to have? Or even if you aren’t planning on flying the “heavy and fast” metal? It’s not as hard as you think.

One of the easiest things to do is to develop an almost sick obsession with checklists. Most people, including general aviation pilots, would be surprised at the level of checklist discipline that airline pilots use. It starts at the gate, usually with a checklist for “Accepting” or “Receiving” the airplane, and it doesn’t end until the airplane is shut down or handed off to either maintenance or another crew.

Some of the checklists are ridiculously long, and some are absurdly short. It doesn’t matter. They all have to be done, in full, every time. Moreover, many are required to be done verbally so that the cockpit voice recorder can be used to verify that the checklist was done in the event of an accident.

The rote process of doing checklists becomes ingrained, and it gets to the point of, quite literally, physical discomfort when one is not completed (not to be confused with what happens when one is simply forgotten).

When I was flying for a regional airline, we had a checklist on a turboprop that we had to complete when passing 18,000 feet. It consisted of changing the settings of the propellers (to reduce noise) and setting the altimeters to the standard of 29.92 inches.

Two items. That’s all. But it would create a lot of angst if someone didn’t get it done on time or was unable to complete it on time (usually because of radio chatter).

We had a couple of similar checklists on the CRJ. In addition, we had a few that were quite wordy, and they’re even worse for inducing a bit of anxiety, because they seemed to be so prone to interruption at the worst possible time—which often meant starting over.

Airline and military pilots don’t let the rush to get home or to the hotel distract them. The checklists are completed the way in which they are supposed to be completed, every single time. They have to be. As I said, the CVR records them, and if we make a mistake, our careers depend on them. I’ve been in situations in which we had very little time to get out of the gate and get to a runway before we would run the risk of not being able to complete the flight, but every checklist still had to be finished. It’s just the way it is. Sometimes the checklists get rushed a bit, but they do get done.

In your training, develop the same mindset. It doesn’t matter how “obvious” something is, or how “simple” an airplane is. Get in the habit early. Not only is it a good one, but it might save you from embarrassment later. It might be something as simple as turning on a transponder or as important as making sure the landing gear is extended. You’ll find that when you don’t complete the checklist, you’ll be squirming in your seat until you do, and when you finally complete it, you’ll suddenly relax.

And the gear will be down.—Chip Wright

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

Writing letters of recommendation

Monday, May 4th, 2015

As the airlines begin to hire, many pilots will be on both ends of a common act: letters of recommendation. You will at some point need to ask for some, and at some point you will likely be asked to provide some. For many, the actual request turns out to be the easy part. We’ll assume for the sake of discussion that you have no problem writing a letter for the person asking for one.

When it comes to writing the letter, there isn’t necessarily a formula per se, but there are a few things to keep in mind. First, if the person uses a nickname, start by using the formal name, and revert to the nickname later. This lets the reader know that the applicant may go by more than one name, and also that you know the person fairly closely.

Second, letters of recommendations for pilots need to cover two distinct areas. You need to talk about the applicant as a person, and you need to discuss his or her flying skills. It doesn’t really matter which comes first, as long as you do both. I prefer to cover the flying skills first, since that’s what the company is most interested in. Discuss your subject’s basic stick-and-rudder skills, as well as instrument skills and, if appropriate, deeper knowledge of technical material and/or aircraft systems. This may only be appropriate if the person has flown some something fairly sophisticated, such as a turboprop or a jet, or if he or she has developed a reputation as an instructor or teacher in that airplane.

When discussing the person as an individual, it’s important that you think like a recruiter. If you’re writing for a pilot applying to a regional, this may even be more important. The pilot will be spending an awful of time in a small space with one other person on trips that might last as long as six days. It is imperative that he or she be able to get along with a multitude of personalities. Conflict simply isn’t acceptable. When you’re describing the person, concentrate on what makes him or her a positive influence, whether it’s a sense of humor, a way with words, or an ability to laugh at himself.

One of the most important items in a letter of recommendation is the quality of the writing. It is imperative that you use good grammar and sentence structure. Spelling and punctuation count. If you are not a strong writer, ask for help from someone who can provide it. The worst thing you can do is provide a poorly written letter to someone looking for work, because it will reflect on that person as well as you.

This is a two-way street. When you ask for a letter, you need to make sure that one written on your behalf meets the same basic guidelines. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to decide whether to keep it or politely ask the writer to redo it. Just make sure that you won’t be offending your friend!

Another common mistake involves writing letters for pilots seeking interviews or jobs with multiple companies. You need to make sure that a letter for airline X does not mention airline Y. It happens, and it leads to quite a bit of embarrassment. Put the letters in separate envelopes and label them accordingly. If you’re writing for one of the airlines that uses, ask the applicant to log on and read your letters to make sure you got the right airline matched up with the right letter.

Asking for and writing letters of recommendation are important pieces of the job hunting puzzle. Being asked to write one is an honor, and you should treat it accordingly. It’s also a favor you may need the other person to return, so do it well.—Chip Wright

Applying flying skills to life, and vice versa

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Learning to fly is a complicated pursuit. For many, it is the first real foray into the three-dimensional world. It requires learning a complex series of skills in a machine that never stops moving. There is no pulling over at a gas station to ask for directions or use a restroom. Every flight involves at least a rudimentary level of planning.

One of the neat things about learning to fly is that many of the skills are transferable to other endeavors. Likewise, there are skill sets from other hobbies that can be transferred to flying. Take flight planning, for example.

At its most basic, flight planning requires at least a look at the weather and the fuel gauge even if you are only planning a flight in the local area. But longer flights or flights over more challenging terrain, require more attention. There is a close correlation to two common activities here: scuba diving and traveling by car. Divers often use mnemonics or even checklists to make sure that they are prepared for diving. Pilots do the same thing. Divers have to plan their air supply so that they return to the surface with a minimum amount of air in the tank. Pilots are taught to always keep fuel in reserve. Flights, like the traditional family vacation, are often broken up into legs in order to minimize fatigue or plan fuel and/or food stops.

A good percentage of flying involves preparing for emergencies or “non-normal” situations. This is pretty intuitive, considering that we are not in our natural environment. Where pilots learn to plan for engine failures and electrical malfunctions, divers learn to cope with flooded masks or leaky regulators. Teenage drivers learn early on how to change tires and use jumper cables (or they should, anyway).

When I was an active flight instructor, I always tried to correlate what I was teaching with something from everyday life or from the students’ personal background that would help them grasp and retain the essence of what I was teaching. Many hated using the checklist because it was so foreign to them. Some of them learned to look at it as a step-by-step recipe, as if they were cooking, and a few looked at it as the only way to avoid trouble with the FAA (the lawyers). People whose career consisted of working with numbers would approach flight planning from a numerical perspective: We have X amount of gas, which we’ll burn at Y gallons an hour, so we should be able to fly for Z amount of time (math teachers and accountants).

Flight planning can be a consuming task, as I mentioned. I’ve known pilots who have traveled in general aviation aircraft around the globe. Planning such a trip can take a year or more, and it involves a tremendous effort to coordinate because of the various laws of flying over certain countries. These folks tend to carry over much of the mindset to their non-aviation lives: They carry extra oil in their car; they always seem to dress for worse weather than they expect; there are several maps or GPS units available, et cetera. As one of them told me, planning for an emergency in the middle of an emergency is no place to plan for an emergency. Everything he did followed that mantra.

Use flying to broaden your thought process for other arenas in life, and use your own personal experiences elsewhere to enhance your decision-making skills in the airplane. And, plan ahead for the emergencies!—Chip Wright

Follow your gut

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

Check Out ChecklistOne of the common problems in aviation is that of routine and repetition. It’s easy to assume that because we do certain tasks every time we fly, with no change, that perhaps those tasks don’t need to be completed every time we fly. Two examples come to mind: the preflight check and the flight control check.

When you rent an airplane from a flight school, it’s tempting to avoid the preflight or walk-around, because you know the airplane flies every day (or close to it). It’s even more tempting to skip it when you watch the airplane land (or even do a few touch and goes) and then taxi to the tie-down spot. I mean really, it just landed! What could you possibly miss?

A lot, actually. The other pilot might have missed cord showing on the tire because that cord may have not been showing when the flight started, or it was on the bottom of the tire, out of sight, when he conducted his own walk-around.

It’s also possible that there might be damage to the airplane from an unseen bird strike, such as a missing antenna, which the previous pilot might not have noticed if he wasn’t using that particular radio. Fluid leaks also are possible.

Flight control checks are another area in which it’s easy to get complacent. As a student, you’re told that you are checking for flight control functionality and proper rigging (making sure the controls deflect in the proper direction). This is especially true if the airplane has been in maintenance. But there is also something else to test for, which is a general feel for the controls. If you fly the same airplane enough, you will know when it just doesn’t “feel” right, and you should learn to trust that little devil on your shoulder.

I’ve experienced two examples of this. The first was about five years ago on the CRJ. The flight controls were the first officer’s responsibility. One day, my FO immediately said something as he was checking the elevator. What happened next is a long story, but the gist of is that the airplane was broken. It stayed in Richmond for four days, and the tail was basically rebuilt. It took the mechanics 10 pages in the logbook to record all of the work.

Recently, an airplane I was flying had a funny feel to the rudder pedals when the captain checked them. The mechanics were never able to quite duplicate the sensation, but they kept digging and eventually found a failure of a part in the back of the airplane. The flight was cancelled and the airplane was sent to the hangar for repairs.

We do walk-arounds and control checks so frequently that either can become a mindless task. It’s important not to let that happen. Take each of these tasks seriously, and something just doesn’t feel right, remember: It may not be.—Chip Wright

The first officer, the teacher

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015


A recent trip reminded me of something I had not seen in a long time. When I was a first officer for Comair (back when I was a young warthog), we had a lot of pilots bouncing among fleets. We had jet first officers upgrading to captains on the EMB-120 Brasilia (a turboprop), and Brasilia captains moving over to the jet. Some of these guys had never flown their new fleet type; others hadn’t flown it in years. In time, we became an all-jet company and it didn’t matter.

In my current job, I’m a junior FO who occasionally flies with people who are new to the fleet type. Some of these pilots flew the “newer” model of the 737, and some flew the “classics,” but did so years if not decades ago.

I find history repeating itself: I am often helping, in many ways, to train these folks. Let me explain.

When I was in the right seat of the RJ, I’d often fly with captains whom I knew were low-time (airlines are required to track pilots with fewer than 75 hours in both seat and type). I quickly learned to ask them if they were new to the airplane, or just new to the seat.

The ones who had flown the airplane didn’t need much help, other than asking me to go slow while they learned their new routine. The ones who were new to the airplane, however, asked a lot of questions, and expected—and needed—a lot more help. Some were better than others, and in the case of movement from a turboprop to a jet, the speed difference at times was overwhelming.

The fellow I was recently flying with had gone through several transitions in the previous few years. This one, he hoped, would be the last one. To compound the issue, he was also new to the Pacific region, and there are stark differences between trans-oceanic flying and anything else. What’s more, there are some cultural differences between our base and the “domestic” way of doing things.

I found myself offering all kinds of advice and help, and the captain was constantly asking for more, soaking up what I had to offer—which had me offering even more. At one point, he made the comment after I pointed out something that didn’t quite work the way the book said it should: “That’s what I need. Tell me what’s reality and what isn’t.”

It’s healthy to ask for help when needed. I’m relatively new myself to the company and the airplane, but I’ve accumulated a bit of know-how in a short time, and my captain was smart enough to ask questions for areas where he knew he needed help. It was a good reminder that FOs too can be effective teachers, and we really do work best when we work together.—Chip Wright

The hardest parts of the job

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

My dad was an attorney, and I distinctly remember periods of time when he did a lot of traveling, and times when he worked a lot of weekends. Because he litigated cases, he spent a lot of time in court, and those weekend work sessions were often spent preparing for a trial that was either upcoming or ongoing.

As I got older, I asked him a lot of questions, and one of them was, “What’s the hardest part of your job?” His answer generally was getting ready for certain trials.

When I got established in my career, I was often confronted with the same question. As I suspect my dad also experienced, one answer didn’t always do the question justice. Here are three main challenges, any of which might stand on its own.

  • Training. This refers to either initial training or training on new equipment. My first training event was definitely my worst. I had no idea what I was in for, let alone what I was doing. It was overwhelming and hard. However, future events were made easier by the knowledge of how to handle it. But some pilots have never learned to relax in or enjoy training, and they get extremely stressed. Some pilots become physically ill before returning to the simulator for recurrent training. Good study habits are the best tonic for making it through training unscathed.
  • The schedules. Pilots get a lot of time off, but we’re also gone a lot. We’re away from home for two or more weeks a month. We never know our schedules more than six weeks in advance, and if your seniority is bad, you’ll be working every weekend and holiday. I prefer working weekends because it’s easier to get errands done during the week, but with kids, weekends are the best times to be off.
  • The other problem with the schedules is the constant adventure of living out of a suitcase. You can either love it or tolerate it and be OK, but if you hate it, your career as a pilot will be short. It isn’t unusual to wake up in a hotel and have no idea where you are. In fact, I’ve woken up in my own bed and found myself momentarily confused.
  • Time away from family. If I had to pick one thing, this would be it. You miss a lot as a pilot, especially when your kids are younger. Some pilots have never been home for Christmas, and that’s hard. It’s no fun missing your kids’ activities or games or big school events, but it is part of the deal, unfortunately. Spouses need to be on board with it or resentment becomes an issue. Sometimes, you just want to be home to soothe hurt feelings or to fix a broken toy.

The job has a lot of benefits, and it’s a lot of fun. But it has its challenges and pitfalls. You’re gone a lot, but you’re home a lot. The time away from your family is only equaled by the fact that when you’re home, you’re home, and not working (unlike my dad). In the end, it’s what you decide to make it.—Chip Wright

The basics of ETOPS

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Aviation is about many things, and one of those things is the pursuit of reliability. Starting with the earliest engines and airframes, the pioneers of the industry have been in constant pursuit of making everything as dependable as possible. In the modern era of flying, this has produced two things: mounds of red tape and bureaucracy, and very dependable processes, airplanes—and engines.

If you’ve ever conducted any international travel, you’ll notice that more and more international flying is done in airplanes with only two engines. After the 747, the next generation of wide-body aircraft to enter service all had either two or three engines: the DC-10, the L-1011, the 757/767, and in the last few decades the 777 and 787. The cost advantages are obvious, but what about safety concerns? After all, if two engines are good, then three or four must be better, right?

The FAA and its foreign counterparts have adapted to the world of long-range flying by creating a program called Extended (Twin) Operations, or ETOPS. ETOPS programs can be established for airplanes with any number of engines, but we’ll stick with the twin-engine derivative here. With an ETOPS program, airlines are able to establish that they can operate twin-engine aircraft for long distances over water with the equivalent safety margins as for a four engine jet.

There are rules that must be followed. One of the most important is that of maintenance. With an ETOPS program, the FARs require that certain procedures be followed if maintenance is being conducted on matching parts. For instance, if a mechanic changes the oil on the left engine, he is not allowed to perform the same task on the right engine. The theory is that if that mechanic makes a mistake or is sloppy in his work, it is best to isolate the possibility of the same negative consequence occurring twice on the same plane. This rule applies to a number of tasks in the routine maintenance of the airplane. It applies to work on the tires and landing gear, engines, and several other systems with duplication.

There are other requirements for ETOPS as well. Because participants must be able to travel great distances over water, communication needs change. There are multiple options to establish and maintain adequate communications. The most common is the high-frequency (HF) radio, which works by bouncing the signal off of the atmosphere, and as a result depends on the weather for a good signal. Another option is the satellite phone, which can also suffer from occasional signal reliability and is expensive to operate. ACARS (Aircraft Communication and Reporting System) is also common, and acts essentially as an onboard email, text, and fax system.

The most obvious need on long ETOPS flights is for extra fuel, and there are a number of FARs and exemptions that can be used to set forth a particular airline’s fuel requirements. But, when comparing the alternate fuel requirements for flight of similar distances over land and water, the water route will carry more fuel and thus will cost more.

ETOPS is generally required for twinjet airplanes when the airplane will be more than 60 minutes from an adequate airport, where the word “adequate” generally means just a runway. It doesn’t need to be new or fancy or even have a ground-based approach. It just needs to be a concrete or asphalt strip long enough to safely land an airplane in the most dire circumstances. A flight operating under an ETOPS flight plan can be dispatched for varying lengths of time. An ETOPS 120 flight is one that will be 120 minutes, or two hours, from an airport at some point in its journey.

It is not uncommon to see 737s with ETOPS approval for flights across the Gulf of Mexico or from the northeast to the Caribbean. The longest stretch of pure open-water flying in the world is between Hawaii and California, and the 737 is a common airplane for the route.

ETOPS adds several layers of safety and protection for passengers and crew, and while it’s a cumbersome process, it pays dividends. Just in the last few weeks, a Delta 757 diverted to Iwo Jima in the Pacific en route to Guam. Iwo Jima is a common alternate for Pacific flights. In this case, the system proved once again that it works as intended—red tape and all.—Chip Wright