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Author: Chip Wright (page 1 of 20)

New regional first officer pay agreement

Every month it seems that more evidence comes out about how extreme the pilot shortage is getting. I got an email tonight that was as clear as could be that it’s getting worse. ExpressJet Airlines, which at one time was the regional feed for Continental and is now owned by SkyWest Airlines, has been struggling for awhile to find enough qualified pilots to staff its airplanes. The union leadership at ExpressJet and ASA (also owned by SkyWest) has agreed to allow the company to hire pilots with previous FAR 121 experience and pay them based previous years of service.

That means that a former Comair pilot with 15 years of experience can get hired and get paid at year-10 pay. The news release doesn’t get very specific, but since ExpressJet only has an eight-year scale for first officers, it could mean that the 10-year pay includes captain time.

If so, that would mean that a new hire with the appropriate experience will get paid $81 per hour versus $37 per hour—a difference of $44. Further, the benefit of previous experience is also being extended to the 401(k) plan and vacation. The new pilots will still be at the bottom of the seniority list, so they’ll be on reserve, they’ll be junior FOs, and they won’t be hired as “street captains.”

Still, this is a huge step. It’s an admission that current recruiting efforts for pilots are not bearing any fruit. To take that a step further, it’s of even greater significance that the union agreed to this, because this practice goes against almost 100 years of industry norm.

It has the potential to ruffle some feathers among the pilots on property, but—in theory—it shouldn’t, since those hired previously are still getting paid based on total experience. If I read the press release correctly, pilots who were previously hired and would have met the requirements to get paid more will also get a pay bump. The only catch to this new rule is that the new-hire pilot is required to have left his or her previous carrier on good terms. In other words, it’s OK to have been furloughed or to have resigned, but if you were fired, you’re out of luck.

There’s virtually no chance of this sort of deal coming to fruition at the majors, since the number of pilots applying for those jobs far exceeds the number of jobs available. It also helps that the pay at the majors is also substantially greater than the pay at the regionals.

Still, this is a deal that can’t be made without at least some blessing of management at the majors, since they’re the ones that pay the regionals, and this is going to drive up the block hour cost of regional flying. For regional pilots who have checked out of the industry for awhile, this just might be the enticement they need to come back. We’ll see how the details pan out, but this could be a golden opportunity for many.—Chip Wright

Getting Lucky

One of the coolest things about working in the aviation field is that you get to see and experience a lot of really cool, unusual events with a view that most can only dream of having. Some aren’t so great, but it’s the good ones that you remember and cherish. I’ve seen the space shuttle launch from abeam Cape Canaveral on the Fourth of the July; that same day, I saw the oldest ship in the Navy, the Constitution, under sail in Boston.

Recently, I was scheduled to fly during the total solar eclipse. Prior to the flight, my captain and I did some research about the path of the eclipse, and we each took some screen shots of various maps and time tables. Our flight plan from Houston to New York had us crossing Nashville within a few minutes of the cone of totality. An ATC ground delay worked in our favor, and we were able to adjust our speed such that we would cross the path of the eclipse at the exact time that the moon would be blocking out the sun. As luck would have it, I had the only unobstructed view on the plane. The sun was almost directly overhead, but my window curved up just enough that I was able to look up and back (with my viewing glasses on, of course!) and watch the moon and sun cross paths.

The excitement was evident everywhere. Our passengers were chatting about the eclipse as they boarded, and the traffic on the radio was amplified. There were a number of NASA aircraft following the event, recording observations and collecting data that will be studied for years. As we neared Nashville, a number of aircraft were asking for vectors and even holding patterns with the hope of being able to experience the entirety of the eclipse. They were all denied.

By the time the sky began to darken to a noticeable extent, the sun was mostly covered. When the eclipse was actually taking place, the outside air temperature dropped enough that the smooth ride we were experiencing began to deteriorate to continuous light chop. We should have anticipated this, but we didn’t, and while my view of the eclipse—sans glasses—was spectacular, getting a decent picture was virtually impossible because of the ride. That said, I was able to get some video of the darkness with just a hint of light off in the distance. The ground was lit up, and stars were visible in the sky. It was an unforgettable experience.

My logbooks are mostly mundane flights from A to B, but there are, sprinkled throughout, events that will stay with me forever: 9/11, the loss of the shuttle Columbia, my first flights with my kids, first trips to certain locations, and some sunrises and sunsets that are etched in my memory. My job has allowed me to see much from both the ground (I also seen a total lunar eclipse) and the air that I’d never see otherwise. Those hours, and those memories, are to me a treasure chest filled with gold that I’d never trade.

Storm Operations

As I write this, the remnants of Hurricane Harvey are still working their way towards Tennessee and Kentucky. Houston is underwater, and the totality of the destruction is just beginning to be understood. I was on the ground in Houston as the rain began to fall, and I flew around the storm on my next flight to go south towards Central America. The next day, the weather up and down the east coast was effected. And as the storm dissipates, all eyes are wearily turning toward Hurricane Irma, which is still a week away and forecast to become a Category 4 fury of wind and rain.

In addition to the personal preparation and, in too many cases, the aftermath, companies and businesses have to cope as well. The airlines all had their own strategy, some borne of experience, and some based on the particular dynamics of the storm. Harvey developed very quickly, and didn’t provide a lot of time for contingency planning.

As the track of the storm became more certain, airports were shut down. Houston Hobby (HOU), which is further south, was shut down first. At Intercontinental (IAH), the initial plan by United, the main stakeholder, was to run a full schedule through the storm. In order to allow the employees to tend to their personal situations, Southwest and United flew in employees from around the country who volunteered to work in Houston. However, the storm stalled, and like a well-planned military invasion, the plans were drastically altered as soon as the first shots were fired.

Both companies began flying evacuation flights to move as many people as possible, and eventually shut down operations. IAH sits at an elevation of nearly one hundred feet, and is north of the city, so it had less exposure to the brunt of the storm and the rain, and as soon as the airport authorities felt it was safe to allow people to and from the airport, it was opened. The first flights in were humanitarian, bringing back stranded flight and cabin crews, food, water, and other critically needed supplies. In the meantime, damage assessments must be made of the terminals, parking garages, etc. From a navigation standpoint, the ILS antennae, VORs, etc. also need to be checked, and possibly flight-tested.

The recovery from the storm—any storm of this magnitude—takes even more work. Planes are stranded, and may be out of their normal maintenance schedule. Crews are all over the planet, and many of them just want to get home to help their families. Hotels in and around the two airports are full, assuming they can even open. Crews that live and are based in Houston may not even have uniforms they can wear to work.

Behind the scenes, hundreds of people are working extra shifts, flying extra flights, and doing the jobs of three people, all while trying to juggle the disruption to their own personal lives. Passengers, after all, still have tickets, and extra seats are hard to come by on other carriers.

And all eyes are turned east, to the Atlantic, hoping that Irma will turn to the north, but knowing that if she doesn’t, that this scene may be repeated in just a few short days.

Picking a domicile

One of the never-ending challenges in the airlines is deciding which domicile to choose. This is not to be confused with choosing the airplane you want to fly, since, as a new hire, you’re usually not given much choice. Besides, you can be “frozen” in an airplane for a while, but you can still move from domicile to domicile in that particular airplane.

There are a couple of factors to consider when choosing your base. For most pilots, the first consideration is getting off of reserve and getting a regular line. A line means more money, more days off, and peace of mind knowing what you’ll be doing and when, versus waiting for the phone to ring—which is what reserves do. Generally speaking, the best way to get off of reserve is to pick the largest domicile.

Larger domiciles also offer the best variety of flying, as you’ll see a combination of longer and shorter flights, trips that may range from one day to four, and trips that offer report times that suit your personal preference.

Pilots also pick domiciles based on how easily they can commute to and from work. If a domicile is in a major hub, commuting usually is pretty easy. If it’s at an out station or a smaller “focus city,” the commute may be much more difficult.

When I was at Comair, we had a small base  in Greensboro, North Carolina. The base existed because the company had built a hangar there, but it was a challenging commute, since direct service was offered to only four or five cities, and not all of those had a great deal of frequency. Most of the pilots tended to live within driving distance.

Our Cincinnati, New York, and Detroit bases had a number of options for getting back and forth to work. Taking multiple flights to work is never a lot of fun, and it greatly diminishes your enjoyment of the job.

The last consideration that usually comes into play when choosing a domicile is the time it takes to upgrade to captain, or, to take that a step further, to have the best schedule as a captain. At the regionals, that upgrade is critical so as to accumulate your pilot-in-command time as quickly as possible. Ironically, a smaller or less-desirable domicile can be the best option for upgrading quickly. It depends on the carrier.

Generally speaking, if you’re considering a base that isn’t a hub, you should consider it a base that is forever at risk of being closed down. The economy can change, and a viable outstation base can suddenly be losing money. Hubs tend to stay hubs.

Picking a base is not always as cut and dried as it seems, but it usually comes down to one or two factors that drive the final decision. This is especially true if you’re going to live in base.—Chip Wright

The non-memory-item memory items

Just about every airline or corporate flight department—and for sure the military—has a certain number of checklists that are considered to be memory items. That is, they are considered so important that, when needed, the pilot doesn’t have time to look up the checklist and go through it line by line. Therefore, the checklist must be committed to memory. Some of these are fairly obvious, such as certain fire warnings, sudden cabin depressurizations, or a rejected takeoff.

Most of the time, the carrier determines the checklists that are designated as memory items, and there is usually a bias toward certain items based on the experience of the company, or of the fleet manager. Sometimes, the memory items are determined by one of the local FAA oversight personnel—again based on his or her past experience and/or unfamiliarity with a particular airplane—and sometimes by the manufacturer. Some carriers take things overboard and have far too many memory items.

But what about non-memory-item checklists? Are any that are not memory items actually memory items? Yes. A common example is the rejected takeoff.

Considering the speeds at which a rejected takeoff can take place, this makes sense. In nearly every jet airplane, the speed brakes should extend when the thrust levers are brought to idle, thus killing the lift of the wings and getting the weight of the airplane back on the tires, which improves stopping performance. The operative word is “should.”

Some operators have a specific rejected takeoff memory item that includes checking or manually deploying the handle, and thus the speed brakes. This shouldn’t really be necessary, because you can feel immediately if the speed brakes have deployed, but somewhere, somebody decided this is a good idea. And so it is.

Another non-memory-item memory item is the wind-shear recovery procedure. Again, this is something that is occurring in a fast-paced, dynamic environment, close to the ground. Considering the severity of the situation, it isn’t the time to be pulling out a manual to look something up.

Generally speaking, a memory item is something that you only have one chance to get right, and survival may depend on the outcome. But, as I mentioned, airlines can go overboard with this as well. At my first carrier, we had to memorize an unnecessarily complex emergency evacuation procedure that was too easy to mess up, and would have been difficult to perform correctly in the stress of an emergency with adrenaline pumping and your mind racing. A good memory item is one with only a couple of steps, and when possible, it is similar to other checklists to ease its recall.

However, the procedures that are not necessarily referred to as memory items but need to be committed to memory are just as important. Learn them, commit them to memory, and review them, so that when you need them, your performance is flawless.

Get ready to use pounds, not gallons

In general aviation, fuel is ordered in gallons. Fuel capacity is stated in gallons, and the fuel burn of a Cessna 172 is eight gallons an hour. The only time fuel is measured in pounds is for the sake of weight and balance, and most of those problems (if we’re honest with ourselves) are only done during checkrides.

But when you start burning Jet A, the rules change. Jet fuel is measured in pounds because the volume of the fuel can change based on temperature, whether it’s Jet A, JP-4, etc. This is especially critical at high altitudes where the temperature will be minus-40 to minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit. Further, fuel is burned by mass, not by volume.

But where this really comes into play is in weight and balance. In larger airplanes, the weight of the fuel becomes a much greater part of the total equation, and therefore it becomes a major consideration. The 737-800/900 burns roughly 6,000 pounds of fuel an hour. The CRJ 100/200 burns roughly 3,500 pounds the first hour and 2,500 pounds an hour subsequently. That’s a lot of weight, and it needs to be properly accounted.

Another consideration that will be new to you as move up the ranks is the concept of zero fuel weight (ZFW). This is a number computed by the manufacturer, and it simply means that all weight above that number must be in the form of fuel. The basic operating weight, passenger load, and cargo added together must come in below the ZFW. At times, it may even be the limiting weight for takeoff. On the CRJ, this would happen on very short flights flown at low altitudes, but it rarely created a problem in terms of payload.

Pounds has become the universal standard in fuel units. Part of this is due to the famous ‘Gimli Glider’ accident, Air Canada 143, a Boeing 767 that ran out of fuel in 1983 during a transcon. Part of the problem was confusion in ordering fuel in kilograms, which could be measured in liters, and then converting it into pounds for the sake of operation, along with a chain of other events. One of the results of the accident was the movement to an industry standard of pounds in order to mitigate the risks of another airplane running out of fuel.

In the United States, using pounds also helps when it comes to doing quick-and-dirty calculations regarding max landing weight for a diversion or return to the departure airport, etc. There is no need to convert from one unit to another, which is especially helpful during a busy, stressful event.

So, get used to using fuel totalizers and computing fuel in pounds. It’s a sign of the step up to the big leagues, and it really does make your job much easier.

Vacationing as an airline employee

Free travel is one of the greatest perks of working for the airlines. It’s also one of the most frustrating.

Free travel is great for the obvious reasons: You can fly for free, or nearly so, on dozens of airlines around the world. It’s frustrating because the airlines have become so incredibly good with their capacity discipline that you never can be sure of whether you’ll make it or you won’t.

I’ll give you two recent examples. This summer, one of my kids went to Spain for three weeks. The package included airfare for her. However, my wife wanted to accompany our daughter to Paris, where she would catch a connecting flight to a small city in Spain.

In the meantime, my wife and a friend of hers (whose husband works for the same airline I do) would spend a few days in Paris taking in the sights. For weeks, the flight was looking good. In the last week or so, however, it began to fill up rapidly. The uncertainty lasted until the morning of the departure. My wife and daughter went by the airport early to check in her bag, and the agent at the counter told my wife she should give it a shot. Her friend, who lives in Detroit, started driving.

At the gate that night, the number of standby passengers appeared to exceed the number of available seats. Following our tried-and-true mantra of not leaving the gate until the airplane pushed, my wife (im)patiently waited.

A family of five was unable to get on as a group, and two seats opened up, so off they went. Had she gone strictly by the listings she could see online, she would’ve had to come up with a plan B (there was one in place).

A week after my wife got home, we were scheduled to go on our summer vacation. The trip was to the Cayman Islands, which is one of our favorite places to go scuba diving. Our rule of thumb is to buy tickets whenever we check bags, and we always travel with our own dive gear, which has to be checked. When we booked our trip in the spring, we were tempted to chance using our pass benefits. The flights were wide open, and it would save some money. I sat on it for a few days, and finally decided that the peace of mind was worth it. I took advantage of the discounted tickets that employees can buy, and bought seats.

On the day of our trip, the first flight in the morning took a mechanical delay that would eventually exceed four hours. Some of those passengers spilled over to our flight, and the airplane was full on the first leg. The second leg, which had been pretty promising, sold out during our layover, which means that even if we had started the night before, we wouldn’t have made it.

It was dumb luck that we didn’t get burned by the late departure of the first flight. We considered buying seats on that one, but we didn’t since the layover would have been so long. That flight wound up touching down just as ours was leaving. It would have cost us a full day of our trip.

So, there you have it: two international flights, two different methods of travel. One was pure fun (had my wife not made the Paris flight, she and her friend were going to go to Scotland, which was wide open), and the schedule was a non-issue. The second one, with considerable money invested up front for the resort and diving package, spoke for itself with respect to the logic of buying a ticket. The peace of mind was money in the bank, as was knowing that the airline would take care of us in the event of a disruption to our itinerary.

Not everyone is willing to spend the money on tickets, and not everyone is willing to risk the wrath of the non-rev gods. As the song says, you have to know when to hold them, and when to fold them.—Chip Wright

Buying a new fleet

The Paris Airshow just wrapped up, and as usual, the various manufacturers jockeyed for some large orders. Virtually all orders that are announced at Paris and Farnborough are in place before the airshows, but the airlines and the manufacturers use the events to make a big splash, and this year was no different.

In the U.S. market, United announced an order for 100 new 737s and four new 777s. There was some hand-wringing over the UAL deal, because Scott Kirby, late of America West/USAirways/American, is known to be an Airbus guy, and there were rumors that UAL was going to announce a larger order of A320s and A321neos. So what happened?

Buying an airplane is a major decision for any airline, and for a global carrier like UAL or Delta or American, the narrow-body fleets are the backbone that support the global system. There are three major cost considerations. The first is the actual unit price. As with cars, this is negotiated. Nobody pays sticker price. However, this price is significant nevertheless, and it becomes the starting point for everything else moving forward.

The second major cost consideration is the operating cost for the airplane. This covers everything from fuel to scheduled maintenance to crew costs, and it also takes into account warranties on the airplane as a whole or on the various parts. Somewhere in every airline, there is a bean counter who has broken down to the penny the actual cost of each airplane under consideration, taking into account more variables than most of us can imagine.

The final cost to consider is the long-term cost, which includes the cost of integrating the airplane into the current fleet—especially if it’s a new piece of equipment or represents a departure from the current norm.

In the case of UAL, the bulk of the domestic fleet is the 737. The A320/321 fleet is much smaller and much older. Bringing in new Airbuses would have led to a dramatic increase in training for pilots, and would have negated much of the advantage of the larger 737 fleet, which operates from Saigon to the Caribbean, and from Alaska to Central South America. There will be a high parts commonality between the 737s in use and the new MAX versions on order. Both are known quantities, and both Boeing and Airbus no doubt made compelling pitches to UAL. If everything was truly equal, it may have been as simple as “Buy American.” But it’s almost never that simple.

Delta, on the other hand, will be introducing a new narrow-body soon when it takes delivery of the Bombardier C-Series. Taking on a new aircraft type is not without risk, as United learned a few years ago with the battery problems on the 787. New airplanes are frequently slowed by unexpected bugs, and the C-Series is not likely to be any different. Further, everything about the program is new: new parts, a new engine, new simulators, and new training programs for pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, dispatchers, and gate agents. A new airplane is expensive, and it takes time for the return on the investment to pay off. With luck it does. Today, UAL is ecstatic with what the 787 has been able to do, and the markets it has opened.

New airplanes are critical to get right, as the decision is one that will affect airlines and their passengers for decades.—Chip Wright

Dispatchability

There’s an expression you will hear a lot at the airlines: “It’s for dispatchability.” In other words, as the expression goes, a plan is moot once the action starts.

Let me explain. The FAA requires airlines to meet certain criteria before a flight can be released, or dispatched. The captain and the dispatcher need to agree on some other items in addition to the standard IFR flight plan items: fuel, weather, alternate(s).

First on the list are any minimum equipment list (MEL) items. These might be as simple as a burned-out light bulb or as complex as a failed nav display.

Second is performance considerations. Everything in the FAR 121 performance world hinges on the loss of an engine. On takeoff, the assumption is that it will fail at V1, which means an abort is no longer an option. On landing, the assumption is that an engine will fail prior to or during an approach, thus necessitating a single-engine go-around. But, go-arounds usually are less restricted by terrain or obstacles, since you’re already off the ground and have the full length of the runway in front of you. That means you can continue to climb for the full length of the runway, whereas a takeoff climb begins somewhere down the runway. You’ll also find that a number of airports have special single-engine procedures developed for an engine failure on takeoff or landing that are also “for dispatchability only,” because they meet certain climb and performance requirements. In the real world, pilots can (and should) use their best judgment (such as in bad weather).

To further add to the confusion, you may find that at certain airports, the single-engine procedures are only used by some fleets…and among the same fleet type, there may be variations from one carrier to the next on those procedures because of engine differences.

All takeoff data is predicated on losing the most critical engine and reaching the four segments of a climb (beyond the scope of this post). Remember, that’s a worst case scenario. When you hear the “that’s for dispatchability” comment regarding takeoff, it means that once you get to V1 and no engines fail, everything else is gravy. You’ve met all of your regulatory requirements, and nothing else matters. But, you still have to assume the worst, which may mean leaving payload behind.

Another area in which you hear it, and where confusion occurs, affects the MEL. The MEL is designed to give certain relief to the carrier to fly with inoperative components. However, when something breaks in flight, it isn’t necessarily a requirement to begin immediate compliance with the MEL. Here’s an example. Jets and pressurized turboprops have two air conditioning packs that provide pressurization and cabin air. If one is inop, the MEL commonly will restrict flight to 25,000 feet or less to ensure adequate cabin air. However, that requirement is only in effect once the MEL has been used to defer the operating pack for later repair. When the issue comes up in flight, the appropriate checklist will be the guiding document—and it may or may not require a descent to FL250. This can be an important consideration when it comes to fuel and range. As long as the checklist doesn’t require the descent, you can continue to cruise merrily along.

But, once the mechanics defer the pack, you’ll be required to meet any and all MEL requirements as a condition of being dispatched with that particular MEL in use.—Chip Wright

The no-longer-annual recurrent training

Until recently, airlines subjected pilots to a recurrent training event in the simulator every 12 months, plus or minus a month. In the past few years, more and more carriers have switched to a nine-month training cycle. That means that over three years, there will be four total training events.

The airlines have collected data that shows certain pilot skills degrade too much when they are not practiced for a full year (or more). Make no mistake, this decision is not made lightly, because it comes with a significant increase in costs. But it makes sense. Just about every carrier does sim training over two days. The first day is the maneuvers validation, or MV. It’s a chance for pilots to demonstrate their skills on V1 cuts, stalls, single-engine approaches, single-engine landings, single-engine go-arounds, encounters with wind shear, and other skills that don’t get much exposure in the airplane. However, they also tend to be the skills that are most likely to suffer from a lack of practice.

Other skills can also be evaluated. Not every airline has an opportunity to do a lot of RNAV approaches, and some approaches at some airports require some pretty solid stick-and-rudder skills—especially in any kind of wind or weather (such as the River Visual to Runway 19 at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport). The MV is also an opportunity for the carrier to simply evaluate how certain everyday skills are conducted.

The second day of sim training is usually some form of line oriented evaluation (LOE), which is a flight between two cities served by the carrier. However, an anomaly is introduced that will force the crew to work together to solve a problem and safely land. Day-to-day skills can be evaluated, as can an adherence to following certain protocols and procedures. CRM is the main focus on a LOE.

Airlines have shared certain safety and training data for years in an effort to meet collective goals and targets that improve the industry for everyone. Obviously, this information is also shared with the FAA, and over the past decade or so, the transition to a nine month-cycle has gained some steam.

The influx of new pilots into the ranks is another factor. Everyone wants to keep an eye on the new, younger generation, along with the number of pilots who are changing equipment—some for the first time in years or even decades.

Training always comes with its own set of stresses and challenges, but shorter intervals will help alleviate some of that, and they will certainly allow for more learning opportunities.—Chip Wright

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