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Author: Chip Wright (page 1 of 22)

Per diem

One of the less discussed, but still critically important, aspects of a career involving travel is the issue of food and expenses. In the working vernacular, this is shorthanded as per diem.

In nonflying occupations, employees get a certain per diem allowance each day, and it usually covers hotel and food expenses. At the end of a stint of travel, expense reports are submitted, and once they are verified by the accounting personnel, the employee is reimbursed.

The airlines do things a bit differently. Per diem is paid by the hour, starting with the official report time for the trip. It ends whenever the pilot is considered done with the trip, be it a one, two, three, or even 15-day assignment. So, if a pilot reports at noon on the first day of a trip and goes home on day four at noon, he will have logged 96 hours of what is called time away from base (TAFB). If his airline pays $2 an hour per diem, he’ll receive $192 in per diem expenses, which is intended to cover the cost of meals and incidental expenses; the company pays for the hotel directly.

At the majors, there is almost always a slightly higher rate for international trips to cover the higher cost of food in those locations. Per diem is usually paid on the second check of the following month, which allows the folks in payroll time to conduct due diligence on the record keeping.

Under the tax law, if a pilot flies a one-day trip, the per diem is taxable as regular income. If the trip has any overnights, the per diem is not considered taxable. For this reason, it’s common practice at the regionals for pilots and flight attendants to take a lot of their own food on trips, which allows them to pocket per diem as though it were extra income.

The downside to the way the airlines pay per diem is that the rate is always the same. That means that you’re getting the same allowance for dinner in an expensive city such as San Francisco as you’re getting in a less expensive town such as Cedar Rapids. Until the tax law changed this year, pilots and flight attendants could use the IRS meal and incidental expense (M&IE) tables to determine how much they were entitled to in each city, and their accountant or tax software would compute how much of the difference they were entitled to. Under the 2017 tax law, early interpretations are that this allowance has been eliminated, thus increasing the cost of eating on the road.

If the early interpretations of the tax law changes hold, Iit’s possible that per diem will paid and computed differently. Either way, as an employee, it’s up to you to verify that your per diem is paid to you properly, as well as understand how the rules apply to you and when.—Chip Wright

Getting adequate sleep

One of the best parts of flying for a living is seeing the country and the world while somebody else pays the bill. One of the hardest parts of flying for a living is ensuring that your sleep needs are met. Unfortunately, the two issues are tied together.

When flying domestic routes, the biggest issue with sleep usually pertains to the hotel. The air conditioning may not work to your satisfaction; the pillows may not be hard or soft enough; there may be noise outside your room or outside the building that makes it difficult to sleep. The all-time favorite is the middle-of-the-night fire alarm that keeps you out of your room for an extended period of time (this has happened to me twice).

Sometimes, sleep is difficult to come by because of the schedule. Everybody handles the schedule variations differently. I tend to wake up at the same time every day no matter what time I go to bed, which means that if I finish exceptionally late, I have a difficult time sleeping in. Others can sleep anywhere at any time (I do not care for these people!). For cargo pilots, the challenge is being able to sleep during daylight hours when your body is used to being awake, and then staying awake potentially all night to fly.

It’s said that you should just sleep when you’re tired and eat when you’re hungry, and there is some truth to this. Short naps, taken whenever the time permits, will help. Learning how to nap effectively can be an art, but ear plugs and sleep masks can do wonders. Putting a blanket or a sheet over your body to mimic your night-time sleep also helps “trick” the body, as does removing your shoes. If you’re in a hotel, going through your entire bed-time routine—brushing your teeth, adjusting the temperature, taking a shower—can go a long way to catching a good sleep. It also helps if you can allow for at least two hours, so that your body can go through an entire REM sleep cycle.

On those nights that you can’t sleep well, be honest about the reason why. There’s no question that sleeping in a different city every night is a challenge, but if the issue is the hotel, try to fix it. Noise is probably the most common issue, followed by climate control. Try to address the issues with the front desk, and if that doesn’t work, move on to the approved process your company has, which may require the use of a fatigue call. Calling in fatigued is not something done lightly, because of the potential cancellations, but if it needs to be done, it needs to be done. The FAA takes fatigue seriously, and if the hotel is routinely one that causes problems, a few fatigue calls usually will generate a quick resolution. If the hotel is indeed the problem and you don’t say anything through approved channels to fix it, the problem won’t go away.

Sleep is a critical part of your health, and nobody knows better than you when you’ve had enough or are lacking. Listen to your body, learn the tricks of the trade, and don’t sacrifice your safety by short-changing your sleep.—Chip Wright

When a pilot gets sick in flight

An Allegiant Airlines flight made news recently for diverting because one of the pilots had a seizure. While I don’t know any more than anyone else, this is a significant event and a big deal. A pilot who experiences a medical event is, in the FAA’s eyes, a medical emergency. Such is not necessarily the case with a passenger—an airplane, after all, requires a pilot to land, not a passenger.

It’s a rare event that drives a flight to divert with a sick pilot. Most of the time, the pilot can power through the flight and at least make it to the destination. That isn’t to say that to do so is always a great idea, but a diversion usually  occurs only in fairly severe cases. My guess is that the pilot who seized did so fairly extensively (early reports are that he walked off the airplane under his own power).

It’s one thing when the captain makes a decision to divert for a medical event in the cockpit, but it’s a very big deal for the first officer (FO) to make the call. After all, the FO basically needs to assume command of the flight for the duration, and that is not a decision that comes easily. Further, the diversion field needs to be considered. The Allegiant flight in question diverted to Gainesville, Florida—a city that doesn’t have a lot of airline service and is not one of Allegiant’s regular cities.

In more than 20 years of airline flying, I can  think of only a couple instances in which a flight diverted because of a sick pilot—let alone a diversion that went to an off-line airport. That said, sometimes it becomes clear that the captain is the one who is ill, because the FO may ask that the emergency medical technicians meet the airplane on the runway. The FO won’t be able to taxi easily, if at all, because the only control tiller for the nosewheel is on the captain’s side.

If a fellow pilot is clearly sick, an emergency needs to be declared and a diversion checklist needs to be executed. Passengers and flight attendants need to be alerted as quickly as possible so that the cabin can be prepared. A qualified pilot in the cabin who can come up and help is a huge asset, because the workload can quickly over-saturate the remaining pilot.

ATC can help coordinate EMTs on the ground, and can often contact the company if time is short. If the FO will be landing, and concern about getting to the gate exists, ask for air stairs (if appropriate) so that emergency personnel can board the aircraft on the runway and possibly remove the sick individual.

No diversion is fun, but a diversion for a sick crew member is a new level of stress. Stick to your training, use the checklist, and concentrate on a safe landing first. The rest can wait. It has to.—Chip Wright

Single-pilot cargo ops

A recent proposal in Congress included a push for single-pilot cargo operations. This is significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that this is an indication that the pilot shortage is real, and companies are doing whatever they can to reduce their labor costs. It’s also an indication that portions of the industry are pushing ahead toward single-pilot and unmanned flights.

Getting rid of one pilot obviously will save tremendous money in training, employment, and recruiting costs. However, it doesn’t come without serious risks. First, cargo tends to be flown at night, when our bodies are programmed to sleep, so fatigue is necessarily going to be even more of an issue than it currently is. At least with a multi-crew cockpit, pilots can talk to one another and help each other stay awake, if not always alert. Second, most planes have several emergency scenarios in which it takes two people to safely fly and execute the appropriate checklist. Simply put, the plane becomes extremely difficult to control during certain flight control failures, hydraulic leaks, etc., and a single pilot trying to manage all of that while running a checklist from a book is nearly impossible. Third, some planes are not ergonomically designed for fewer than two pilots. This kind of takes a bit from my second example, but as an example, the Embraer Brasilia, a turboprop, was once a candidate for single-pilot operations, but the design for extending the landing gear manually didn’t allow it. The emergency gear extension can only be done from the right seat, not the left. In a case where fuel is low, or the weather is bad, the pilot can’t be trying to jockey between seats.

Single-pilot operations, to be perfectly honest, are probably going to occur at some point down the road. Experimenting with cargo is the logical choice because if there’s an accident, only one person is killed, and let’s be frank: If this is about money (and it is), nobody wants to lead the way into risking a cabin-load of passengers—who, by the way, probably won’t be comfortable with a single pilot for some time.

In order for this to even begin to work, certain conditions would have to be in place or assured. It should go without saying that the first one would be a first-rate autopilot, and maybe even multiple, independent autopilots that can handle more challenging workloads than what we have today on many planes. Computerized checklists that can be accessed from the control wheel via a thumb toggle would be a huge step. Category III ILS capability would be necessary for low-weather, which means some form of head-up display (HUD) or autoland. Fatigue, though, is still a major consideration, and there is no obvious way around this. Humans are not meant to live by sleeping during the day and working at night, and some of us struggle to make this work. How long would the work day be? How many legs a night? What airplanes would qualify? These are but a few of the questions that need to be addressed. Modifying and certifying the airplanes to allow for single-pilot operations would also require a significant monetary investment, one that all parties have to be convinced would equal or exceed the projected savings. Would it just be cheaper to pay the pilots more?

While I personally think that single-pilot cargo operations is a bad idea, I also believe that it’s further off than most people think, just because of the logistical challenges that lay ahead. For now, there is a movement to kill the current proposal in Congress. But, even if the movement to kill the bill is successful, the odds are that this is an idea that isn’t going to go away easily.

SWA 1380

As I write this, Southwest 1380 has already started to fade from much of the public memory. Much has been made about the way the crew responded to such an explosive event—explosive in more ways than one. Nobody ever really anticipates or expects to deal with an engine that blows up in flight, let alone one that also breaks a window and generates a sudden decompression of the cabin.

That said, there is training for something like this. Most airlines in the United States have transitioned to advanced qualification program (AQP) training. Without getting into the nitty-gritty details, part of AQP includes flying scenarios in the simulator that represent real flights between two regular cities, with some kind of a snafu thrown in for the crew to handle. Some scenarios will force a diversion, and some won’t; some are deliberately vague enough that some crews will divert and some will not.

Southwest recently put its crews through an event that included a catastrophic engine failure in cruise  United did the same with its 737 crews a couple of years ago). I don’t know if the scenario included the decompression, but an engine failure is handled almost the same way in either scenario. Like many transport jets, the 737 is designed to fly at or near the highest MEAs on one engine, and it will level off at 22,000 to 24,000 feet at maximum weight on one engine. Obviously, in the case of 1380, that kind of level-off wasn’t possible, but the initial response is the same: Get the airplane into a descent while maintaining a safe airspeed. With the decompression, the goal is to get down to 10,000 feet as quickly as possible so that passengers don’t need oxygen.

Every airplane will respond differently to an engine failure. A wing-mounted engine will cause substantial yaw—possibly a noticeably rolling motion that needs to be addressed fairly quickly. The crew of this flight likely needed a few seconds to register just what had happened—after all, in the sim, everybody already knows what’s coming, but this was real. The immediate response to the cabin pressure change would have been to don their oxygen masks while regaining control of the plane. That means turning off the autopilot (or silencing the disconnect alarm), setting power on the operating engine, and retrimming. This is the “aviate” part of aviate, navigate, communicate.

Every airline dictates who will do what during an emergency, and the final report from the NTSB will spell out how the crew determined who would fly and work the radios versus running the checklist. In this case, there were at least three non-normal checklists that needed to be completed: the engine fire/severe damage checklist, the decompression checklist, and the single-engine approach and landing checklist. The crew at some point also needed to make contact with the cabin crew to get an assessment of the extent of any injuries or damage in the cabin. They likely also asked the flight attendants what they could see out the window as well—and this all happened while dealing with a tremendous amount of noise thanks to the hole in the window.

In spite of the fatality on board, the crew appears to have handled this event as well as or better than expected. No doubt the relatively recent sim event brought a sense of familiarity with the situation, and their years of combined experience helped produce a successful outcome. Like many, I’m already curious to see what the final report will say; expect to see it sometime next winter or spring.—Chip Wright

Is more leg room coming?

The general public loves to hate the airlines. Unfortunately, much of that ire is the fault of the airlines themselves. Among the numerous complaints are non-refundable tickets, oversold flights, baggage fees, and the crowded cabins— made worse with uncomfortable seats.

In the post-deregulation world, two things happened with respect to seats: People got bigger, and seats got closer. Seat pitch—the measurement between the back of the seat in front of you and your seat—has steadily shrunk, especially in economy class.

Running an airline is an incredibly expensive venture, far more so than most businesses. Once an airplane leaves the gate, the empty seats can’t be sold—there’s no clearance rack or discount shelf. The airlines argue that the layout and discomfort of the cabin is simply a reflection of what the flying public demands and will tolerate.

Given that flights are flying with record load factors, they must be more right than wrong. More than 70 percent of air travelers only fly once a year, and by some measures, that number is over 80 percent. From the airlines’ perspective, such infrequent travelers are a bit of a captive audience, and because we as a society are so price-sensitive, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for one carrier to stick its neck out and increase cabin comfort at the risk of lost revenue and profit.

That could be about to change, however, as the FAA funding bill that has passed the House includes a mandate for a new, greater minimum seat pitch, thus offering all of us a bit more leg room. (There is also talk about making the seats a bit wider, but I’m not sure the widening of the waistline will get as much attention as more legroom.)

The airlines have quietly told Congress that they’re willing to hold back on fighting seat pitch as long as the rules are industry wide and don’t single out any one company by name. Carriers, will however, be pointed out by default, as Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier are known to have some of the most cramped cabins. Forcing these carriers to remove some seats will also force them to be more price competitive with the bigger carriers.

But there’s more at play here. The big issue is passenger evacuation in an emergency. The FARs state that a manufacturer has to certify that an airplane can be evacuated in 90 seconds with one exit blocked. Apparently, some of those certification tests include computer modeling. If this is the case, and there really is concern that a 767 can’t be evacuated in 90 seconds, the potential is there for an incredibly expensive recertification process and/or modifications to the planes. It’s a no-brainer to agree to take some seats out while also addressing one of the most common complaints.
If this rule goes through—and that’s a big “if”—it won’t take immediate effect. The airlines will likely have a couple of years to comply. Seat maps will change, and yes, air fares will increase, though marginally.

On the other hand, there will be plenty of spare seats in the hangar if someone gets sick.—Chip Wright

Early career housing options

A friend of mine is buying a house. She flies for a large regional, and her husband flies for a legacy major, and they have a young child. Talking to her was a reminder of my years as a renter, as well as someone eventually in the market for a home to own.

As you enter the airline industry, it’s important to understand the need to be flexible. Virtually every airline has multiple crew bases, some of which may or may not be in the hubs of their major airline partners. With all of the growth and movement going on in both sectors, it is not unreasonable to assume that you will change bases multiple times.

If you’re single, or married to someone with a sense of adventure and a mobile job (teacher, nurse, flight attendant, et cetera), your best decision might be to move with the job. This will eliminate the stress of commuting, it could save you money in the long run (crashpads and hotels), and it could allow you to make more premium pay money by being able to get to work quickly when Scheduling is in a jam for available pilots because of severe weather or other issues.

Renting is a short-term solution that has benefits. The down payment is usually only a couple of months’ rent (one of which you’ll get back when you return the unit in good condition), as opposed to 20 percent of the purchase price for a house. Renting also forces you to minimize your personal stuff, since you’ll need to fit it all into your car and maybe a U-Haul trailer. Upkeep and maintenance are someone else’s problem, as long as you report any issues in a timely manner. With a roommate, you can cut your payment in half and start saving for that eventual house.

The key is to rent for as short a term as possible, which is usually a year. But, you might be able to negotiate something with a flexible landlord. Going to a month-to-month situation gives you quite a bit of flexibility. Another trick is this: When you negotiate your lease, ask for a clause that lets you out of the lease without penalty in the event you get transferred or lose your job. Explain in simple terms what could happen, and emphasize that it isn’t likely, but you need the protection just in case.

Buying a home is something you should wait on until your life is a bit more settled. It generally takes four or five years to be able to sell a home and be able to walk away with no more obligation on your mortgage. That obviously isn’t universal, but it’s a good rule of thumb to use. Renting will often make more sense for a while, and by the time you’re in a position to buy, you’ll have a better idea of where you want to live, what you can afford, what you can afford if you change jobs, et cetera. After all, it’s one thing to be on the hook for 12 monthly payments, and something else to be in for 360 of them.—Chip Wright

After an accident or incident

An accident or incident is never a pleasant thing to think about, be it in a car, a boat, or an airplane. But it could happen, and you need to be prepared.

I’m addressing this from the point of view of a professional pilot instead of the private pilot because a professional pilot will likely draw more scrutiny, but will also have more resources available. That said, a nonprofessional pilot, especially one with any substantial assets to potentially lose, should buy into the AOPA Pilot Protection Services or something similar.

Once you join the ranks of the professionals, you’ll likely join a pilot union. The biggest is ALPA, but the Teamsters also have a significant presence in the industry, and a few large companies have in-house unions that offer the same services (the two largest are those representing the pilots at Southwest and UPS). Early in your career at an airline, the union will introduce itself and discuss its role, purpose, and some of its products and policies. One of the first things that will come up is dealing with the aftermath of an accident or an incident. It should be noted that most airlines have a list of potential events that go beyond those listed in various FARs that qualify as a major event.

One of the first things that you’ll hear is that you should immediately call the 1-800 hotline for the union as soon as possible, and you should not talk to anyone else until you do. That includes the FAA, the media, the police, and even the company.

Communications with the company should be limited to making sure the immediate needs of your crew and passengers are met (hotels, hospital needs, food, et cetera), but any discussion of the events that led up to the phone call should be avoided. The company will understand this, and will (often, but not always) offer to help get the ball rolling with respect to putting you in touch with union reps. There have been far too many events in which the crew made things worse for themselves (and sometimes the company) by talking to the wrong people too soon after a traumatic event.

The unions in the airlines often work together, and they share some resources. They also share some tools. All have people on staff as well as volunteers at each airline who are specially trained to help a pilot or a flight attendant deal with the aftermath of an event. These people will isolate the crew and help them begin to process and discuss what happened.

One thing that you can do to help yourself—before you talk to anyone at all—is to take the time (if possible) and write down everything as you remember it. Date the document for future reference, and add to it as you remember more. Similarly, you can use your phone to make a recording or a video in which you discuss what you remember. Don’t do this within earshot of another crew member, so that you don’t taint each other’s recollections. Once you get in touch with the union reps, let them read or listen to your comments before you do anything else.

An investigation will ensue, so honesty is your best policy. Don’t try to change the narrative, and don’t avoid an uncomfortable truth. But by the same token, don’t hesitate to use the resources that your union or association dues are paying for.—Chip Wright

Put your phone away

A different post than my usual. This one just has some odds and ends—some to help with life on the road, others as job aids.

Don’t do a walk-around while on your phone. It doesn’t look good, and passengers notice. So might your boss if he or she is in the terminal. Passengers will take a picture of you and send it to your boss. It’s OK to use your phone to take a picture of a potential maintenance issue to show the captain or send to the main maintenance folks. In a pinch, you can use the flashlight feature on your phone if it isn’t too dark. But don’t do your job while talking on your phone. It’s a sure-fire way to a chief pilot carpet dance.

Know the difference between transition level and transition altitude. Use the “V” and the “A” to help. “V” points down, so transition le”V”el is the point during a descent when you switch from standard altimeter settings to the local altimeter setting. “A” points up, so transition “A”ltitude is the point at which you go from local to standard settings. In the United States, the transition altitude and level are the same (18,000 feet). But in Mexico, the transition level is 19,500 feet, and the altitude is 18,500. Aruba has an even greater discrepancy: The level is 4,000 and the altitude is 2,500. The data is printed in small print on the approach charts and SID and STAR charts.

Keep pictures of your important documents, such as your passport, company identification, et cetera. Losing one of these can create monumental headaches, and photos can help smooth some feathers. Store the pictures on the cloud or on your phone (if you feel comfortable doing so). If you do a lot of international flying, including Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, memorize your passport number. If you use a company iPad or similar device, take a picture of your ID on a white background that also has your phone number. Make that picture the first thing someone will see when they hit the home button. That way, if your device is lost and someone finds it, they can find you ASAP. You could also include an email address or other information you feel comfortable disclosing.

A few hotel tips

  • Use multiple alarms. Don’t count on wake-up calls, as they frequently don’t get entered into the computer. Worse, they sometimes get entered for the wrong room. If you’re going to use the alarm clock in your room, pay attention to AM/PM and DST settings, along with the volume.
  • If you need to go to bed when it’s light out, or want to sleep in after the sun comes up, use the pant-clip hangers to clip the curtains together to keep the light out, and make sure the previous guest doesn’t have the alarm set for 3 a.m. when you aren’t planning to get up until 10 (ask me how I know this).
  • Always carry a 10-foot phone charger. Some hotels still don’t have convenient outlets near the bed.
  • If you want to put food in the fridge to keep it fresh, put one of your work shoes in the fridge with it, so you don’t forget the food the next day.
  • Text yourself your room number when you leave your room so you remember where your room is (don’t take the key envelope; if you lose it, you’ve given someone access to your room).—Chip Wright

The quick reference handbook

If you’re getting ready for your first job in a turboprop or a jet, you’re about to get introduced to the quick reference handbook (QRH). The QRH has all of the abnormal and emergency checklists in it, based on the equipment and furnishings on the airplane. At the very least, the manufacturer-designated checklists will be included, but often the company or operator will include its own procedures. This book is kept on the flight deck.

QRHs are usually written in some kind of an outline or flow-chart like format, with the intention of minimizing confusion for the pilots. However, lawyers are also involved, as are government representatives, and confusion still finds a way to rear its ugly head. Sometimes the confusion is difficult to avoid because the checklist has to work its way through several potential scenarios to troubleshoot and isolate a problem. Electrical and smoke issues are good examples. Some engine problems can be as well.

Adding to the problem are stress and compressed time. It’s very easy to write a checklist sitting at a desk or in a procedures trainer. It’s something different to determine how things will play out when the actual emergency is underway with a crew or a pilot that may be (pick a few) inexperienced; tired; scared; asleep; undisciplined; poorly trained; or sick. I’ve never seen a QRH that is perfect, and I doubt I ever will. In fact, just turning the page can be an issue. Some QRHs have different options based on what is occurring, and when a page is turned, it’s possible to lose track of which flow of information you’re using.

More and more crews are using electronic flight bags, but there are plenty of paper QRHs still on the flight decks. Paper doesn’t break or require electricity to use, and some books are just too hard to manipulate or use on a tablet, since you can’t mark several places with your finger.

The key to QRH use is to understand the layout of the book, and to use it exactly as intended. Don’t go beyond the scope of the particular problem you’re trying to solve. Too often, you’ll just make the situation worse. When the QRH says to “confirm” something, that almost always means asking the other pilot to verify that you have the correct switch or engine. More than once, I’ve seen a pilot shut down the wrong engine in a sim because he rushed and didn’t give me a chance to verify the correct engine was about to be secured.

Sometimes, the manufacturer will put a checklist in one chapter of the QRH when logic would dictate that it should be in another. For example, some engine issues are addressed in the chapter that deals with fires. Occasionally, a message that indicates as an abnormal is addressed as an emergency in the QRH. For the most part, all you can do is roll with it.

Changing a QRH is daunting, but not impossible. The aforementioned lawyers and bureaucrats want their say, but when real-world experience dictates, QRHs get changed. And that’s another challenge: It’s important to be at least tangentially aware of those changes.

The QRH is a great tool, and in the airline world, you’ll be more familiar with it than you want to be. But, it only helps you when you use it correctly, slowly, and as intended.—Chip Wright

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