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Author: Chip Wright (page 1 of 18)

When tech fails

Every major airline has been hit by a tech fiasco or two in the last several years, leading to severe delays, cancellations, and upset passengers. In the modern age, all of the systems at an airline need to talk to each other, and it’s not as simple as saying one is more important than another.

Passengers are quick to assume that the reservation system is the most important one, and it may well be the largest. But, there are other cogs in the wheel. While Southwest, Alaska, Virgin America, and Spirit fly one fleet of airplanes, they fly variations with different seating configurations. That means that if a Southwest 737-800 has to come out of service, it may not be possible to re-accommodate everyone on a smaller 737-700. Needless to say, at a company like United or Delta, it can be much more complex.

The reservation system also needs to communicate with the other systems in the network. While the airline can plan for a certain flight to be on a certain piece of equipment, there has to be some connection between, say, reservations and maintenance. When it comes to scheduling which airplane will be used on each flight, the maintenance schedule ultimately drives that decision.

Scheduled maintenance (certain inspections or periodically scheduled tasks) is the first consideration, followed by short-term unscheduled maintenance. For example, let’s say a 737 is scheduled to go in for a normal inspection at the end of the week. However, today the main cabin door has become difficult to open. The airline will try to rework the schedule to get the airplane to an airport (usually for an overnight stay) to get that door fixed—which may force the scheduled inspection back a few days because of modifications to the schedule.

Another wrinkle is a merger. Union contracts usually are specific about how a merger will work, including which pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics can touch which airplanes. All of this has to be programmed into the system. Further, airlines in a merger may fly the same airplane, but with vastly different seating and galley configurations.

From a pilot perspective, there is also the calculation of takeoff and landing performance data. The airlines use ACARS (Aircraft Crew and Reporting System), which is a communication network that connects the headquarters to the airplanes. ACARS has become a backbone upon which much of the day-to-day operation depends, and when it fails, it can bring things to a grinding halt. ACARS is the system by which performance data is transmitted to the airplane, and rarely is there a backup in place. It’s that reliable—until it isn’t.

These are just a few examples of the connectivity that takes place, but the gist is simple: It’s all tied together.

As a pilot, it’s critical that you understand all of the tools at your disposal, and just as important, you need to know what the back-up systems are and how to use them as efficiently as possible. Sometimes it’s as simple as a phone call, but sometimes it isn’t. Take notes and pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. And believe me when I say that the time will come when you find yourself wishing for the days of a simple POH and a couple of charts or graphs to determine if and when you can take off.—Chip Wright

Deicing

January has turned into February, which in some places is the worst part of winter. The air is cold, the ground is hovering around freezing, and precipitation this time of year often consists of ice, snow, or sleet.

Looking back to my days as a full-time general aviation pilot, the lesson that was constantly pushed on me regarding icing conditions was pretty simple: Avoid them at all costs. That usually meant not flying, which meant that a lot of winter days were spent on the ground.

The airlines operate under a different mantra: While there are some forms of weather that are unsafe, that definition is of a much smaller scope and bandwidth. If there is any way to get an airplane safely airborne, then you’re going flying. The running joke is that it doesn’t matter what’s on the radar or The Weather Channel; we’re going. There’s some truth to that.

In the Part 121 world, snowy weather is countered with deicing operations. The deicing fluids are numbered Type 1 to Type 4, with Type 4 being the strongest. The others can be a mix of fluid and water—and in some cases, you can deice with hot water—whereas Type 4 is a 100 percent mixture of stuff you do not want to drink. It’s thick, it’s sticky, and it’s expensive, so it’s only used when necessary.

Every year there are subtle changes to the various deicing protocols as new information is gleaned from research and real-world operations. From an operational point of view, two things are paramount. The first is the holdover time (HOT), which is the amount of time the crew has to get airborne after being deiced before the fluid loses its effectiveness, and the precipitation type. Mixed precip is the hardest to work with, because you need to use the most conservative HOT. For a long time, ice pellets were a challenge, and it’s only in the last few years that HOTs have been developed for pellets. At the extreme end is freezing rain. Simply put, you’re not going with freezing rain. It affects the wings, brakes, and runway surface.

If you’ve never been exposed to flying in icy weather and you’re looking to fly for an airline or a corporate flight department, take the time to do some research on deicing ops. Don’t worry about the gritty details, because every carrier’s program has individual requirements and nuances. Two carriers operating the same airplane may deice differently—for example, one will deice with the flaps up while the other will do so with the flaps down. But you should have a basic understanding of the different fluids, when they’re used, and what the limitations are. And you should take the time to fully understand your operation when you get on line.

And last, but not least, try to get trips that have you pointing the nose south after the deicing is complete.—Chip Wright

Conducting yourself in public

Pilots are often held to a very high standard. Even the average private pilot is often viewed with a mixture of admiration and respect, and it’s easy to understand why: Flying is not something we do naturally, and many feel that it’s beyond the average person’s ability.

Move into the professional ranks, and those standards go even higher. While the non-aviators of the world may not know the full extent of the training we undergo, they know it’s intensive and often difficult. Add in the acquisition of experience, and it’s not hard to understand why pilots get an awful lot of questions at a neighborhood party.

Now, throw into the mix the fact that there are only a handful of airlines in the United States, and chances are that nearly everyone will be at least familiar with your place of employment. They know that you are expected to meet certain standards of decorum and behavior at work.They may expect those standards to carry over beyond work.

I was recently on a trip when I saw some of the unfortunate side effects of this come out. In certain cities, it’s common for crews from a number of different airlines to use the same hotel, and those hotels are often very high quality. It’s also common for those hotels to be the same ones that many of the passengers utilize. I was in a hotel restaurant chatting with crew members from several airlines, mine included, when one of the pilots of another carrier began to severely disparage his own company. Now, we all have legitimate gripes about where we work—it’s only natural—and within any particular industry, many of those complaints are universal and are often a point of jokes and humor laced with a bit of sarcasm.

But complaining about something doesn’t mean you want to get into a rant or even a rage. In this case, the pilot was getting more and more vocal and more and more upset. The issue at hand was fairly insignificant, and to his coworkers, it was getting to be embarrassing. A few of us quietly slipped away to avoid the association, but his peers wanted to get him calmed down before he further embarrassed himself or their company. Another diner in the restaurant had apparently been on the pilots’ flight that day, and said something to the rest of us about not wanting to fly on that carrier again. He made it clear that he would be contacting the company and registering his dismay.

I’ve written on this blog before about the need to control the amount of alcohol consumed on a trip. But that’s not the only behavior that needs to be kept in check. Much of what we might get upset about is not easily understood by nonpilots. The perception is that we all make tons of money and don’t work very hard, the truth be darned. Belly-aching about work in public is almost never going to end well.

I have no doubt that the pilot in question was confronted by his coworkers or his chief pilot about his behavior, and he was probably made to feel ashamed about his histrionics. It’s important to remember that no matter who you work for, when you work for a public company such as an airline, you are always representing your employer—even if you don’t want to be. It’s too easy for someone to lodge a complaint about your personal conduct.

Don’t give them an opportunity. It isn’t worth it.—Chip Wright

Go-arounds

It doesn’t normally stand to reason that airlines would encourage any activity that would cost money, and one of the most expensive things a crew can do is to execute a go-around.

The airlines plan fuel down to the ounce, and the flight almost never leaves with anything more than is legally required to safely operate the flight. That is, taxi fuel, reserve, and the projected burn for the flight are all part of the planned fuel load, and it’s almost never a full set of tanks. The dispatcher or the captain may add some fuel based on certain contingencies, such as potential weather delays, shifting headwinds, or higher than expected traffic volume at the destination. But fuel is expensive, and carrying fuel requires fuel, so there isn’t a lot added. Go-arounds, while always a possibility, are not necessarily planned for. The expectation is that a professional crew can get the airplane on the runway on the first try.

And that’s the problem.

The airlines track crew performance on hundreds of variables, and approach performance is a big piece of that. Approach performance is broken down into lateral and vertical navigation performance, airspeed control, configuration parameters, and where the touchdown occurs, to name just a few. Generally speaking, crews fly well within the established limits, the landings are safe, and everyone goes home happy.

But just as in the general aviation world, mistakes occur, and sometimes approaches are salvaged. The professional crew is human, and it’s not unheard of for an approach to become unstable. But, often, the crew is able to get things trending in the right direction and put the airplane down on target and on speed. The problem is that there are times when a go-around is a safer option—a better option.

Go-arounds are too often viewed as a failure, and it’s easy to see why. Chances are that the flight is not going to be on time, which could delay the subsequent departure(s). There is a definite monetary cost measured in the thousands of dollars of the extra fuel being burned, not to mention the extra time paid to the crew. And, more obviously, there is the simple fact that you didn’t do your job, even if doing your job means that going around is correct choice of action. Add to the fact that airline crews almost never go missed—many fly their entire career without a missed in the airplane—and there is a mindset of “we’re going to make this work no matter what.”

The airlines long ago adopted a policy—pretty much across the board—that go-arounds will never be questioned. Many have gotten away from any sort of paperwork or reporting by the crew, which used to be common, in order to reduce any barriers to performing go-arounds. If anything, they are now encouraged, because no price can be put on safety. Further, the airlines also share a lot of their non-competitive airplane and crew performance data, which allows them (along with the FAA) to spot potentially troublesome trends. By encouraging go-arounds, not only are crews making safer decisions and not worrying about potential repercussions, but data is also collected on approaches and ATC practices that may need to be redesigned or even eliminated.

Encouraging go-arounds also has an added benefit: Crews will be more likely to go around sooner, which decreases the risk of something going wrong near the ground, which reduces risk. Subconsciously, this will help encourage proper aircraft control sooner, which will reduce the risk of a go-around in the first place. So, as you can see, what goes around…goes around!

Pay formulas

If you’re getting ready to enter the airline ranks, it’s natural to wonder exactly how and what you’ll get paid. I’ve covered the basics of the pay scales before, and the pay rates for most airlines are published on AirlinePilotCentral.com.

To figure out a rough annual income, multiply each wage by 1,000, since pilots average 1,000 hours a year of pay. If you want to guess low, multiply the wage by the number of reserve hours guaranteed in a month, and then multiply that number by 12.

But what about the day-to-day workings? You may hear about trip and duty rigs, and you may not understand them. Here’s a quick rundown of how you can expect to get paid.

Generally, you’ll get paid for what you fly, which won’t be more than eight hours a day and will average five to seven. There’s a minimum number of pay hours each day guaranteed, known as “min day,” but the airline will generally try to have you fly more than that. It can be as low as three, and as much as six, but five hours is typical.

The duty rig takes into account getting paid for your time at work on a given day. Not every airline has a duty rig (most regionals don’t), but when they do, it’s typically a 2:1 ratio, which means that for every two hours at work on a given day, you’re guaranteed one hour of pay. This is designed to prevent having the company schedule you for one flight at the beginning of the day and another at the end, with nothing to do for hours at a time in between. So, if you work a 10-hour day, you’ll be guaranteed at least five hours of pay. But if you fly more, you’ll get paid more.

Then there’s the trip rig. The trip starts the minute you check in, which is usually an hour before the first departure, and it ends shortly after the last leg blocks in (the exact time varies by company,  usually 15 to 20 minutes, but it may be more after an international flight to take into account the need to clear Customs and Immigration). This time is known as time away from base, or TAFB. TAFB is also what is used to calculate your daily per-diem allowance, which is paid by the hour.

Depending on the airline, the TAFB ratio is usually somewhere between 3.5 to 4, meaning that for each 3.5 to 4 hours away from base, you’re guaranteed at least an hour of pay.

I recently flew a typical four-day trip that started at 8 a.m. on Day 1 and ended at 2:46 p.m. on Day 4, for a total TAFB of 78:46. The total flying time was 22:28. The formula for the rig is 3.5:1, which means that 78:46/3.5 guarantees me 22:30 of pay, a difference of only two minutes over the scheduled flight time.

There are times when the company can’t avoid long layovers—holidays, some international destinations, and charters are examples—so the trip rig is designed to ensure the pilot gets paid for time away from his or her family while giving the airline an incentive to fly you as much as possible while at work. The airline is “penalized”  when it uses soft time. The system generally works.

At the end of the trip, the duty rig, flight time, and trip rig are examined, and the one that pays the highest is usually what you’ll get paid.

Most companies pay for cancelled flights, so the crew isn’t making decisions based on pay implications, and vacation and sick pay are different for each airline. Once you’ve become immersed in the industry for a while, you’ll understand the subtleties of the various rules, and which ones are most desirable.

There are always exceptions, and there are different rules specific to each company, but this gives you a feel for what you can expect in terms of calculating the various pay options.—Chip Wright

Hurry up and slow down

Airlines make money by running on time. Running late does them no good whatsoever: Passengers miss their connections; bags don’t get transferred; maintenance takes a delay; crews time out. It’s a mess. There isn’t always nothing you can do about it, especially when the root cause is bad weather. If there is any luck at all, at least one pilot will be on time to the airplane, and most of the busy-work can be completed while waiting for the one who is running late.

When both pilots are late, it’s best to follow whatever the normal setup procedure is. What I mean by that is that most pilots tend to follow certain patterns. Generally speaking, there are certain tasks that first officers tend to do, and there are certain tasks that generally are left to the captain. One of the worst things that can happen in the running-late scenario is for one pilot (usually the captain) to get involved in the routine that is normally the FO’s.

A great way to think of this is that it’s the principle of hurrying up to slow down. If there are certain things that the FO does, then let the FO do them. Getting involved or interrupting the pattern that has been honed and perfected only causes a distraction that will inevitably slow things down. A great way for a captain to handle this is to volunteer to do the walk-around or to have a quick brief with the cabin crew, make the initial public address announcements, verify the logbook, et cetera.

On modern airliners, most of the setup is centered on the FMS and the ACARS, and if two pilots are involved, mistakes get made and critical items get overlooked. A good captain will ask the FO what needs to be done, then get out of the way.

The alternative is also true. If the FO is running behind, then the captain should do everything he can before the FO shows up, and then explain quickly what’s been done and what hasn’t. At that point, the FO may well be better off letting the captain finish up to avoid throwing off his rhythm. At the end of the setup, the route needs to be verified, especially standard instrument departures and standard arrival routes.

The last opportunity to really hurry up to slow down is to use the checklist to make sure that nothing has been missed. A good crew can get an airplane ready in a blazing hurry, but they can also make some fundamentally stupid mistakes. No matter what the rush, getting it right is more important. That’s an easy thing to forget, especially if both are experienced and comfortable in the airplane and with each other. That sort of complacency is a never-ending battle. It has to be. Pilots are goal-oriented people, but the long-term goal (to be on time) can’t be sacrificed for the short-term goal (proper set-up).

Hurry up…and slow down.—Chip Wright

Talking mergers and airline politics

It’s common knowledge that religion, politics, and sex should be avoided as topics of conversation on the flight deck. That doesn’t mean those topics are avoided—far from it. But it’s up to the individuals involved to know how far to take a discussion before changing the subject.

But what about airline politics? There have been a lot of mergers in the last 20 years. Just at American, there are the Reno/American, TWA/American, USAir/America West, and USAir/American mergers to discuss. Delta and Northwest have legacy mergers involving Ozark, Republic, and Western. United has the United/Continental merger, and within that are Continental with Eastern, People Express, and the original Frontier, while United has some Pan Am history.

Southwest and AirTran have the sub-AirTran/ValuJet merger. Alaska and Virgin recently announced one, and there have been rumors for a while about Spirit and the new Frontier. JetBlue also has been mentioned as a target. The regionals have their own examples, as Skywest/ASA/ExpressJet shows. Envoy, which used to be American Eagle, is a who’s-who of former localized regional carriers.

Why does any of this matter? To the people involved, mergers often linger as a sore spot (or a not-so-sore spot) for decades. Mergers affect every employee group, with the pilots and flight attendants often in the nastiest fights because of the impact of the integrated seniority lists and new contracts. Some people just can’t let go of their anger.

If you want to navigate these conversations tactfully, you should do some research into what happened. For the record, research does not consist of scrolling through posts on sites such as Airline Pilot Central.

Seek out the various hearing filings and documents, as well as arbitration rulings that deal with the particular merger. Talk to the elected union representatives who were actually at the table in the discussions. Don’t just rely on the stories as told by the pilots you will fly with, but don’t totally discount them either. Arbitration rulings will be among the most informative, because they always include a summation of the basic facts, the arguments of either party, and the points of dispute, along with how the decision is reached. That said, there will always be people who simply will not accept the rulings of an arbitration panel, no matter what.

Mergers leave behind a lot of bad blood. Most employees can eventually let it go, but some can’t, and they view any questions as an attack on them or on their side. If the topic simply can’t be avoided, just let the person talk, or ask fairly specific questions, but start off by prefacing them with, “As you see it, how/why…” Use your questions as a way to gather information, not to point fingers. But at the end of the day, you may need to simply state that you are keeping an open mind because you didn’t have a dog in the fight and are just happy to be there.

I’ve never gone through an actual merger, but I was hired at United just before the seniority list was merged with Continental’s. It was a tense time, and I heard more about it than I wanted to, but in time, the immediate anger and concerns passed. But I studied the written arguments on both sides, as well as the arbitration rulings, and I made a point to see it from the perspective of both legacy carriers. And I’m also glad I didn’t have to participate in it. Now, when the topic comes up, I change the subject as quickly and gracefully as I can.—Chip Wright

Declaring an emergency

There is always a wish to avoid declaring an emergency in flight, because of the mythical “paperwork” or the modern equivalent of the Inquisition that will follow. Instructors often try to pound it into students’ heads that declaring an emergency is not a big deal.

The problem is, most instructors have never had to declare one, so they have little to no experience in that department to draw upon.

I can tell you from experience two things: Declaring an emergency is really and truly no big deal, and for the average general aviation pilot, there is no paperwork involved, unless you decide to file a NASA ASRS report, which is strictly voluntary.

For the professional pilot, there is usually some required reporting to be done, but it’s no big deal. Every airline handles it differently, but the general process is as follows. Nearly every airline spells out in the company manuals those events that it deems an emergency situation, and the crew is often required—not asked, not prodded, not recommended, but required—to declare an emergency with ATC.

Common triggers are engine failures, flight control failures, pressurization problems, etc. There may be some variations based upon the fleets, the underlying terrain, and general company guidelines, but either way, when certain events happen, the captain is expected to declare an emergency and proceed accordingly. This will often, but not always, mean a diversion.

Sometimes, a pilot declares an emergency for reasons that may not be listed in the company manual. For example, years ago, I was the first officer on a flight in which a line of weather was building in front of us. We needed to stay within 50 miles of the shore, and the deviation over the water was going to take us in excess of that, and it was also going to be dicey on the fuel. If we could go the other way, we’d be around it in 20 miles, and all would be well. The controller, on the other hand, was not being cooperative to the point that she began to ignore our calls. As he watched the storms get bigger in the window, the captain declared an emergency, and what had been a very busy frequency got very quiet. The controller asked us what the problem was, and he told her that we had started deviating in the direction we needed. She tersely acknowledged his call, and when we were clear of the weather, he said the emergency conditions were over, and that was that. No paperwork, no phone calls, nothing.

When an airline crew has to declare an emergency—and especially when a diversion is required—there’s usually some kind of report required. The report is fairly simple: the date, city pair, the crew, ship (aircraft) number, and a summary of the events. There are usually two objectives to be fulfilled. First, the airline discloses the event to the FAA, and the FAA can use the data to track trends across the industry, especially if a mechanical issue is involved. The agency can also use it to get feedback on its services. Second, if a passenger later writes or calls to complain to the airline about the flight or wants more information about what happened, the report gives the company something to reference.

Declaring an emergency is simply not a big deal, and it shouldn’t be avoided just to evade providing information. If anything, declaring an emergency should be properly used as the tool that it is to maximize the resources that a pilot has available.—Chip Wright

Passenger illnesses

A couple of recent in-flight medical incidents, followed by questions from some friends, got me thinking about the fact that most people don’t really know what role the pilots of an airline flight play in the event of a medical emergency on board.

As far as the FAA is concerned, there are two classes of medical situations. The only true medical “emergency” is one in which one (or more) of the pilots is incapacitated or unable to perform. The second event is one involving a passenger, which we may consider an emergency, but the feds don’t because it doesn’t have any impact on the safe continuation of the flight (though bad decisions resulting from such an event very well could turn it into an emergency).

What happens during an on-board illness? Thanks to the post-9/11 world, the cockpit door must remain closed. This means that the flight attendant(s) have the awesome responsibility of making some weighty decisions. If it isn’t something they can handle easily, you begin to get the requests for medical experts on board, and they reach for whatever equipment (including their manuals) that they need to work their way through the event. At some point, they put in a call to the cockpit.

The pilots will get as much information as they can, and if they can offer input, they will. They will then contact their company. Many airlines contract out with a third-party medical company that specializes in on-board medical emergencies, and that company will often be brought into the loop to gather information and help make an informed decision about whether to divert or continue to the original destination. In some cases, the flight attendants can participate in those calls via a special phone in the main cabin, but not all airplanes are so equipped.

Not every incident is a four-alarm fire, so to speak. Depending on how far from the destination the flight is, it may not make sense to divert. For example, if you just passed over Chicago at 35,000 feet and are en route to Cincinnati, it probably makes more sense to continue to CVG. The descent time is the same, the response time by the first responders is the same, and Chicago is a massive hub, whereas CVG will have a much shorter taxi to the gate.

But, if the flight is transcontinental and a serious incident happens midway, it may make more prudent to divert. In this case you have to trust a medical professional. That said, if the crew finds themselves spending as much time dealing with the sick passenger as flying, then they may be better off diverting and getting the appropriate help.

Pilots definitely play a role in what happens in dealing with a sick passenger, but unlike in the movies, the real event is often much less dramatic and fairly mundane. Fortunately, relatively few people get sick, and in most cases, the flight can continue as scheduled.—Chip Wright

Where to live?

One of the perks of an airline job is that you have tremendous flexibility in where you live. You can live in base, or you can live out of the country and commute. The question is, which is the best choice? At the regionals, the bases can be in the major hubs such as Dallas or Chicago, or they can be at smaller outposts such as Dayton, Ohio, or Kansas City, Missouri.

If you’re looking to spend as much time at home as possible, living in or near the base is the way to go. There won’t be the wasted time or stress of commuting, and you’ll have much more flexibility in picking up extra flying on short notice to make more money. The downside is that if you’re at a regional, bases can open and close with little notice, including in the major hubs, where logic would dictate that the base would stay open. But at the airlines, logic is often a sparse commodity.

At the majors, living in base makes a lot of sense, especially if it’s a major hub like Atlanta or Chicago or Dallas, where you can count movement up the seniority list that will allow you fly progressively bigger equipment throughout your career. The downside to this is that hub-to-hub commuting is usually a nightmare, so you’re essentially stuck in that hub, unless you’re willing to move again.

The other major downside to living in the hub is cost. Living in or near any large city is expensive, and some are worse than others. Nearly every airline has a hub in the Northeast, and all but Southwest and Alaska have one in New York. Most have hubs on the West Coast as well, and those are expensive too. But, for some, the convenience of driving to work is just too good to ignore.

The best middle-of-the-road compromise is to live in easy range of a commute to multiple hubs. If you live in the Midwest, you have doable commutes for Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, and the Northeast area. As much of an inconvenience as commuting is, you have the option of changing your base at any time to fit your personal needs or wishes. So, if you decide that commute to the Northeast is too hard, you can switch to a different hub. Or, you can easily switch airplanes within your hub if you need to.

Commuting is a challenge, but being selective about where you live can make a huge difference in your potential career progression as well as in the amount of money you have left over after expenses. To give you an example, I live in Kentucky. To have the equivalent home and standard of living in the New Jersey/Pennsylvania area, which would allow me to drive to work, would cost me at least $15,000 a year more than I pay now (and that’s a conservative guess). But, by staying where I am, I have the ability to easily pick up trips to pay me extra (if I choose), and I can switch bases without doing a hub-to-hub commute. This could let me move up the list of airplanes faster. The downside? More time away from home.

Choosing where to live is always a challenge. If you’re not sure what you want to do long term, then rent first, and if you’re being honest with yourself, trying living in several different cities before making a more permanent choice.—Chip Wright

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