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Author: Chip Wright (page 2 of 25)

The minutiae of seniority

Most people know that seniority is the way of life at the airlines. But seniority is a fickle thing. It matters in all aspects of your day-to-day lives, and some pilots will study the minutiae of seniority until they can’t see straight.

When I was at Comair, there was a captain who was famous for having been the most junior captain in the company for a number of years. He was on reserve, and he had the worst possible schedule one could get. He never had weekends off; he got the vacation nobody wanted; he had the worst trips. But, as he always pointed out, he was a captain. The guy who was one number—one lousy number—below him was the most senior first officer. The FO had the best schedule, his first choice in vacation, and a lot of days off, but he was still an FO making significantly less money. He also was not logging turbine PIC time, which was making his future job searches much more difficult.

In every airline, in every category, there is that one person who is just one number away from being where he or she wants to be. This person’s reasons and desires aren’t always known, but in time those desires can be fleshed out. It becomes most obvious when the company opens a new bid for something, and you see pilots trying to jump in to get what they want. With all of the advancement taking place now, it’s almost a linear progression for a lot of pilots who have waited years for what they want. But there are also strategic bidders.

For most airlines, being on reserve is the least desirable option, and in some cases, it’s downright brutal. Many first officers will try to wait until they know they will be assured of being off reserve before moving over. This is risky on a couple of fronts.

First, unless you know what other, more senior FOs are thinking, you may find yourself getting left behind for the left seat more than you might have imagined.

Second, even though this is a boom time, you run the risk that movement will stop for unforeseen reasons for an indeterminate amount of time. The captain I mentioned above made his move for exactly this reason. Had he waited, he would have been stuck in the right seat at much less pay for a number of years.

Another common unknown is an impending change to the union contract. If new work rules or better pay rates are on the horizon, a strong argument can be made for making the move to the left seat sooner versus later, especially if you will be a relatively junior captain.

Studying the minutiae of seniority can also tell you just when you can expect to hold weekends off, holidays, morning versus evening trips. Vacations are tougher to figure out because not everyone wants or needs a summer vacation or the week at Christmas, but you can still see which way the trend is going for your seniority. And, as is so often the case, there is almost always a stark dividing line between two pilots who are just one number apart.—Chip Wright

The other details of the job

Every job has certain aspects that are relatively unknown or don’t often go seen by the general public. Sitting in the pointy end of a plane is no different. Everyone knows that we fly from point A to point B, and some even understand how that’s done, but in addition to the flying, the flight planning, and hopefully a greaser of a landing, there’s more to it. Here’s a list of some what a day’s work often entails, all from only a couple of my more recent trips:

Wheelchair needs. Passengers are often loathe to admit when they need a wheelchair at the destination, though in some cases, they may not realize how tired they are until they get there. At the last minute when these crop up, it’s usually the pilots who have to make a radio call for wheelchairs.

Sick people. A flight this week had a young boy who got sick pretty early on. His vomiting must have been pretty bad, because it set a record for a chain-reaction event. No fewer than nine rows of seats needed some degree of cleaning, and the unfortunate cabin crew ran out of all of their cleaning supplies and sick sacks. It was only a two hour flight.

Fearful fliers. I’m not a fan of drugging Nervous Nellies. One passenger helped his elderly mother by giving her a sleeping pill right before departure. Within a few minutes, she was totally zonked out, and had to be carried off the plane by several people. What if there had been a need to evacuate? Helping her potentially put others at unnecessary risk.

Cabin supplies. This takes up an inordinate amount of time before a flight, and honestly, it shouldn’t. Flight attendants never seem to be lacking for paper towels, headsets, trash bags, and blankets, to say nothing of the improperly loaded food and beverage carts that were put on the wrong planes.

Dirty windshields. This is a major issue in the summer, but it can be one all year round, due to bugs and bird strikes. It’s a safety issue because with a dirty window you can’t see other traffic in the vicinity.

Wi-Fi issues. Airplane Wi-Fi is known to be fickle, in large part because the airplanes have a hard time keeping a signal when moving so fast. In the wired world, passengers demand on-board Wi-Fi, even though it has some pretty severe limitations. That said, we spend a lot of time trying to keep it working.

Connections. Pilots have virtually no control over passenger connection issues, and most airlines have sophisticated computer systems that do most of the decision making with respect to determining what connecting flights will be held versus those that won’t. That said, we will try to find out as much as we can as fast as we can, but there is usually nothing we can do to change the outcome.

Pets. People traveling with pets want to know where they are and if they were actually boarded. I always say something to the flight attendants when I see pet crates while doing the walk-around, but I don’t always see all of the animals that are bound for a particular flight, especially in extreme weather, since they will be brought to the plane just prior to closing the doors in order to keep them comfortable. All we get is a note that animals are on board, not necessarily which animals those are. But the track record for matching animals with owners is excellent.

This is just a partial list, but it gives a bit of an idea what else is entailed. Little details come up every flight, and all must be attended to in some form or fashion. There is more to flying than just flying!

Jump-seat etiquette

Most airline pilots will at some point likely have to ride in the cockpit jump seat. The jump seat is a third (or fourth) seat that is installed for the FAA or a company check airman to do observation flights. However, the majority of the time, it remains empty. Qualified pilots—in this case qualified is limited to FAA-approved Part 121 pilots—are allowed to ride in the jump seat with the concurrence of the captain. U.S. airlines use a computerized system to verify eligibility at the gate or the ticket counter, but in all cases, the captain has the final say. Nearly all airlines have a minimum dress code that is, essentially, business casual: no jeans or shorts, a collared shirt, and a professional appearance. The rider presents his company ID and the boarding card provided by the agent, and if requested, a copy of his license or medical, to the captain.

It should be noted that other qualified personnel are allowed to ride the jump seat as well, but the specifics are individual to each airline. As a general rule, pilots, dispatchers, air traffic controllers, NTSB personnel, and designated company leadership individuals all have access. The FAA and Secret Service agents trump everyone else.

You can expect a briefing from the crew if you’ve never ridden in the cockpit of the particular airplane. The briefing will consist of operating the seat, which is usually stowed, the oxygen mask, cockpit door, radio, and anything unique to that airplane (the CRJ, for example, has an overhead escape hatch). Most captains will gently remind you that you are a part of the crew, and that is a key concept to understand: The jump-seater, even if from a different airline, is considered an essential crewmember. That means no alcohol, and it means you should not request the jump seat if you’re sick.

Once underway, there are a few simple things worth remembering. The most important is the concept of sterile cockpit. Any conversation below 10,000 feet msl is to be limited to safety of flight only. No personal or extraneous communication is allowed. However, you are expected to point out traffic or other obvious safety-of-flight issues if they occur. Likewise, if you are listening to the radio—and you should, either on the speaker, your own headset, or the one provided by the crew—and you catch an obvious mistake or a missed radio call, you’re expected to point it out and help the crew. Not only is it expected, but it’s appreciated.

Riding the jump seat is also a great opportunity to just observe. Even though you may be riding in the same airplane that you fly, it may with a different carrier, and you will be shocked at how differently airlines can operate the same equipment. The checklists will vary; flows, procedures, and callouts will often be wildly different; and points of emphasis will not all be the same. That said, it’s important that you don’t question a crew’s apparent lack of action as a mistake. If you do have a concern, it’s best to try to phrase it more as a question of curiosity than as doubt.

Don’t assume anything on the jump seat. If you have food to eat, ask permission before you eat, and if possible, offer some to the crew. Introduce yourself to both pilots, not just the captain, as well as the lead flight attendant. When you arrive at the gate in your destination city, give the crew a chance to finish their checklists before talking or opening the door, and be sure to thank them. Realize that sometimes weight and balance will not work out in your favor, and you’ll have to get off. Most importantly, do not get on the airplane and announce that you’re “taking the jump seat.” It is the captain’s decision, and such an entitled attitude is one that will surely lead to confrontation or your dismissal.

The jump seat, which is hands-down the most uncomfortable seat there is in nearly every airplane, is a privilege and a great tool, but there are certain rules of etiquette that need to be followed. Learn them and follow them, and show your appreciation for the free ride home or to work.

Sim landings versus the airplane

Airline training is always conducted in a simulator these days because of costs and safety. Back in the day, training was done with a combination of simulator and in the airplane (prior to that, it was all done in the airplane). Sims are great procedures trainers, where much time can be saved in getting in the necessary repetition.

But one thing that simulators are not great trainers for is learning how to land. As good as the graphics are, sims don’t provide the necessary depth perception, though they have gotten magnitudes better over the years. Further, wind simulations for landings have never been very good, and so getting an accurate, realistic feel for the effects of various winds is difficult. I say this not only from my own experience of hundreds of hours of simulator time, but also from friends who are experienced sim instructors.

I’ve also seen this problem from flying with new-hire first officers who are inexperienced in the airplane. Believe it or not, the most difficult procedure to fly is the visual approach without reference to guidance from an approach source. Keep in mind that every airline wants you to use whatever approach aids are available, but there will be times when one isn’t available, and as a basic skill you need to be able to land strictly using the eyeballs.

The transition to the airplane is difficult for several reasons: It’s much bumpier (and the bumps are realistic) than the sim; the sounds are a bit different; and most of the time you won’t be the only airplane on the radio.

Engine response to thrust input may differ slightly from airplane to airplane, and unlike in the sim, you can’t always set a thrust setting and leave it there. Moreover, as I mentioned, the winds are vastly different. In the sim, when the winds are set, they are fairly universal. In other words, you won’t see a 15-knot tailwind at 3,000 feet that shifts around to a 10-knot headwind at touchdown. The effect of terrain is on wind in the sim is not there, and the gusts are virtually non-existent.—Chip Wright

NADP 1 versus NADP 2

As a private pilot, you learn some basic lessons about planning for takeoffs and climbs designed to get your airplane up to altitude as quickly as possible, versus doing so at a more leisurely pace. In addition to certain performance requirements, such as clearing the FAA’s permanent 50-foot tree, you can also minimize noise by getting away from populated areas.

Similar concerns exist for jets and turboprops at the airlines. Most of the time, the concern is noise, but performance concerns can also exist. Two basic international standards are used, and they are established and defined by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The first is Noise Abatement Departure Procedure (NADP) 1. Three altitudes come into play with NADP 1: 800, 1,500 and 3,000 feet above field elevation. Most of the world uses NADP 1 departure standards, all in the name of minimizing noise for people around an airport.

Pilots are expected to climb at a given speed (usually V2 plus 15 to 20 knots) to 800 feet. At 800, in the event of an engine failure, the crew will transition to flying the single-engine departure profile. Under normal circumstances, however, climb power and V2 plus 15 to 20 knots will be maintained to 1,500 feet. At 1,500 feet, power is reduced, but the reduced speed is continued. At 3,000 feet, pitch is decreased, and the flap retraction schedule begins.

During an NADP 2 procedure, the only number that counts is 800 feet. Thrust reduction, acceleration, and flap retraction all begin at 800 feet—which is still the altitude where a single-engine transition occurs.

In the United States, NADP 2 is the standard procedure. Internationally, NADP 1 is expected and even demanded. If crews fail to comply with NADP standards, the airline can face stiff fines from the local controlling agency.

As you might expect, there are some exceptions to these rules based on aircraft, engines, and terrain. In the United States, when NADP 1 is used, it’s almost always in order to meet single engine performance requirements, usually because of terrain (San Francisco is an example). In some communities, noise abatement is the issue (John Wayne Airport in Orange County is an example). Company policy can also vary, and crews will be trained accordingly.

All the performance info is calculated taking into account the airport, the runway, aircraft weight, temperature, and runway conditions. From this, the flap setting and the thrust requirements will be determined. In the most automated aircraft, the flight management system and the flight director will be working together to guide the pilot, and the autothrottles will control the thrust; otherwise, the pilot will have to make the necessary pitch and power changes.

Your company will train you on the specifics of how you will be expected to fly. This is a very brief overview as an introduction, but the need for an understanding of how it all works is critical, especially when the major concern is ensuring you have the power and terrain clearance you need in the event of a catastrophic engine failure.—Chip Wright

Fuel planning

Like any other business, airlines are hawkish about keeping costs in line. The biggest expense for an airline is fuel. Recently, oil prices have climbed, and as a result, airlines predictably have begun to re-emphasize fuel-saving strategies that often are allowed to wane. Single-engine taxi operations, minimizing APU usage, and flying a cost-efficient flight plan are all common ways to stretch the company dollar.

Balancing the pilots’ needs with those of the bean-counters to save money is a never-ending source of tension. In general aviation, it is standard procedure to fill the tanks and go, no matter how short or how long the flight is. Preventing water condensation in the fuel is a common rationale for this, especially for an airplane that doesn’t fly every day.

But in a jet, topping of the tanks is almost never an option. Most of the time, this will cause a landing weight that exceeds the limit. Further, it’s very expensive. Roughly 3 percent of the fuel on a jet is used to carry the fuel on a jet, and that is a number that adds up. Dispatchers, who actually file the flight plans, will take into account the anticipated weather and regulatory needs and fuel the flight accordingly. Each airline has a different policy when it comes to planning fuel, but most will plan to land with the legal reserve plus a small cushion.

Further, every airline keeps extensive records on fuel burn. Historical burn data is tracked for each route, flight, time of day/month/year, individual aircraft, each engine, and even for each captain—and the accuracy of the data is uncanny. Analyzing this info allows an airline to keep fuel costs in check without comprising schedule integrity or safety.

One of the most common data points used is the frequency of a diversion based on the amount of extra fuel carried. For example, an airline knows that a given flight has a normal completion percentage of X. For every so many minutes of extra fuel, the completion percentage needle may move incrementally upward. At some point, no amount of extra fuel is going to make a statistical difference, but it will harm the bottom line. And, once that point is reached, the success of other flights (the connections) comes into play, because if one airplane diverts for weather, odds are that a whole bunch will divert.

For pilots, there is almost never too much fuel, but there does need to be an acceptance that you can’t save every flight, and sometimes a diversion is the best option for all involved. Over time, the cost of carrying extra fuel begins to exceed the potential savings. As a result, it is incumbent upon us to realize that we need to think of fuel in terms of extra minutes. How many extra minutes of fuel do I need or want, based on weather, anticipated routing delays, et cetera? What amount of fuel am I comfortable landing with at the destination? There is nothing wrong with adding some extra fuel, as long as it is done with the big picture in mind. Adding extra fuel for the sake of adding it is a waste and only hurts the bottom line, and it runs the risk of driving up ticket prices and chasing away your passengers.—Chip Wright

Professional PAs

One of the most overlooked skills in being a professional pilot is using the public address (PA) system. Few pilots are natural performers; most of us are not. While a few give their PAs while standing in full view of the passengers, most of us do not.

Airlines usually require the pilots to give a PA anytime the seatbelt sign is turned on, and some require a PA at the beginning of the flight. Outside of that, much discretion is given to the crew. The general rule is that one should be given just prior to departure, one just prior to the top of descent (TOD), and during any weather encounters.

The PA at the beginning of the flight should be a genuine welcome, along with a quick summary of the flight time, the expected quality of the ride, and perhaps a note about the destination weather. Also worth noting might be certain items that are not working on the airplane that could affect everyone, such as problems with the air conditioning, the on-board WiFi, or unusually long taxi delays caused by weather. The Passenger Bill of Rights also plays a role in this, as does common courtesy. The passengers, after all, pay our salaries, and once the door closes, they’re trapped in a vacuum with little to no information.

Turbulence expectation announcements serve two purposes. First, they let the passengers know that it may not be safe to get up, and they should keep their seatbelts fastened. Second, it lets them know that the flight attendants may not be able to conduct their service in full or in part, or may have to delay it. This is an area that has received a lot of attention in the last few years, because changes in weather patterns have made turbulence encounters more frequent and more dangerous. Injuries to flight attendants who are standing have increased, so the airlines are responding in kind.

I’ve always made it a point early in the mornings to limit my PAs as much as possible because passengers are trying to sleep. When I can, I give them a heads up that we will say as little as possible to avoid disturbing them. That said, it’s important to do a PA prior to the TOD so that passengers who are standing, or need to use to the lav, or return something to the overhead bins, can do so safely. I also try to pass on updated arrival gate information on flights that have connecting passengers. When I can, I tell them where the airplane we are on is going, unless it doesn’t make sense (for instance, if the flight is from ABC to XYZ, and the airplane is going back to ABC, the odds are good that nobody is reversing course after an hour on the ground).

Prior to onboard screens and apps, sightseeing announcements were popular, but that’s no longer the case, especially if someone is watching a movie or a show on a TV screen that will be interrupted by the PA. But…sometimes a good sight-seeing announcement is warranted. On longer flights, the TOD announcement should include the remaining flight time and the weather, along with any anticipated bumps in the descent.

Announcements need to be professional and courteous, not to mention reasonably brief. A great way to practice is to practice giving them while you’re driving or in the shower.

Develop a general outline that you can follow and stick to it. If the flight will be delayed or even cancelled by a mechanical problem, be honest without going into so much detail that you overwhelm your audience. Tell them what you know, and tell them what you don’t know, and don’t make anything up.

Avoid using humor that may fall flat. Over time, you will learn when you can lighten the mood or how to do so in a way that isn’t going to make you look foolish for doing so, but tread lightly. Even on flights to happy places, there may be somebody on board who is going to a funeral or dealing with tremendous personal stress. Try to respect that.

PAs are a great way to make a positive impression, and done right, you will. Practice until it is second nature to hit all the key points. Be genuine, as well as professional. Learn to enjoy them, and recognize that nervous flyers are counting on you to set them at ease. Your PAs may be the reason passengers buy tickets on your airline again. And, they may be the reason that they don’t.—Chip Wright

Airports that are the same, but different

It’s all supposed to be done the same, but it often isn’t. Worse, nobody seems to be able to say how the differences came about or why the old ways are still in place.

I’ll give you an example. In nearly every airport, when an airline crew is ready for push-back, they call the ramp tower, if there is one, or they call ground control and advise they are ready for push. Ramp or ground then makes sure the area is clear and grants permission for the push-back to begin, possibly following with a specific disconnect point. It’s pretty straightforward.

A few airports have their own way of doing things that are not immediately obvious. Boston (BOS), for example, requires a crew to call clearance delivery with the ATIS code and the assigned transponder code—even if the same controller just read the clearance and the assigned transponder code to the crew. If you try to call ground, you will be sent to clearance delivery, but not for a clearance. Worse, do you know what clearance delivery will do? He or she will tell you to monitor ground control, and then lean over to the ground controller and say, “Hey, this one is ready.”

Other airports use what is called a metering frequency, but this one makes a bit more sense. Think of metering as an intermediate buffer between the ramp and ground. O’Hare (ORD) is a great example. Ramp control issues the push and immediate taxi clearances. The crew then moves to a designated spot, where they call metering. Metering then verifies that the crew has the right transponder code (the transponder will be on), and tells the crew to monitor ground. However, during bad weather, metering can pass on to the crew that they need to go to clearance for a new route, or pass on other information that will avoid cluttering up the ground controller’s frequency, such as runway changes, et cetera. Used properly, metering frequencies are one of the FAA’s better inventions, and some airports that don’t have one should get one (I’m looking at you, LGA).

Some airports don’t have controlled ramps, and crews are responsible for pushing back on their own with the marshallers and the tug drivers ensuring that the ramp is clear. Orlando (MCO) does this for some terminals, while others have a ramp control, so there are odd differences even at one airport. What is frustrating is that some of this information is either not published, or was published so long ago that nobody knows where, or worse, it’s sometimes published incorrectly by an airline in its internal manuals. It’s become institutional knowledge, and controllers tend to think that every pilot has been to their field every day.

Most of the time, the standardization efforts made by the industry are honored and they work. But like secret local traffic patterns, some airports continue to defy convention. Pay attention out there!—Chip Wright

Say it right

There seems to be a spate of bad radio use lately, and I don’t know where it comes from, but it needs to stop. The FAA is very clear when it comes to proper radio phraseology. In fact, it might be the only thing that they are so clear about, and the requirements apply to them (in the form of ATC) and us.

At airports around the country, I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of pilots who are dropping the ball when it comes to reading back hold-short clearances. If the controller says, “Airman 123, right on Echo and hold short of Runway 22 at Golf,” you are required to read back the clearance verbatim.

What I’ve noticed—and increasingly agitated controllers have noticed as well—is that pilots are reading back the clearance in an abbreviated format, such as, “Hold short at Golf.” Or, “Airman 123 right on Echo to Golf,” or some other variation. None of those is sufficient. The proper read-back must have the hold-short point as well as the full call sign. It is the only way for controllers to verify that their instruction was received and understood.

This is particularly important at airports where runway crossings are unavoidable. Newark, Orlando, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Washington Dulles, San Francisco, and Seattle are a few that come to mind. All have parallel runways, and the general convention is to use the innermost runway for departures and the outermost for landings. Controllers need to keep the flow moving, so they will usually line up a number of airplanes at various crossing points for the departure runway, and when those points are full, a slew of airplanes will be cleared to cross.

The proper read-back does two things: First, it ensures that a crew doesn’t enter an active runway, and second, it makes sure that there is not an inadvertent back-up at one of the crossing points. This can be critical at an airport like San Francisco or Newark, where two airplanes may be nose to tail, and the trailing airplane may not be totally clear of the landing runway.

Seattle is an airport where the hold-short call is important for another reason. There are three parallel runways (34 and 16 L/C/R), and the controllers will frequently direct a crew to cross the center runway immediately after clearing the arrival runway…but not always. It’s also important to remember that you will never be granted permission to cross two runways in the same transmission. ATC is required to wait until you cross the first runway before clearing you to cross the second.

Radio shortcuts are fairly common. Pilots make these transgressions more frequently. Controllers have little patience for poor hold-short clearance read-backs. Besides, they have the big picture of what is going on at the airport.

Another area where pilots get lazy or rushed is the proper phraseology of a “climb via” or “descend via” clearance, which can also be a gotcha because of potential intermediate altitude requirements. Your best bet? Skip the shortcuts, and transmit correctly on every call. This is basic IFR airmanship.

Major life events

Getting married and having a family is a big deal for anyone, and pilots are no exception. There are, however, some other considerations that come into play.

As with any other big event, planning ahead is a big key to success. When I got married, my airline acted like nobody had ever been married before, and that my wedding was going to cause the entire operation to shut down. Fortunately, friends had given me some advice about how to broach the subject.

Because everything a pilot or a flight attendant does is based on seniority, the first order of business is to figure out how much vacation time you have. Since most companies let their employees accrue vacation time in advance, theoretically you should be able to count on your annual VA allotment for the following year. If you have the seniority to be able to hold the desired week(s) off, better still.

Once the engagement is set, it’s time to start a dialog with your chief pilot—not the assistant CP or the secretary or anyone else. You need the chief pilot on your side from the beginning.

Plan a reasonable and realistic amount of time off for the pre-wedding events such as the rehearsal, the ceremony, and the honeymoon (if you’re taking one right away). If a move of any sort is required as well, factor that in, and also plan to give yourself two or three days off before returning to work so that you’re not totally exhausted. Two weeks is usually pretty easy to get, and three weeks is not unrealistic. If it’s any more than that, then you may need to plan to ask for an unpaid trip drop, which means you also need to plan to lose a week’s pay.

Every chief pilot starts with one simple request: Bid for the time off you need, first, then come talk to me. The easiest way to do this is to plan on your events taking up the last part of one month and the first part of another. That minimizes staffing hits and makes it easier for the CP to justify giving you time off you may not be able to get with vacation accruals.

If the wedding is several months out, keep in touch with the CP office as a courtesy. If other pilots come in with similar requests, you want to be at the head of the line when it comes to getting days off you need.

In addition, you need to contact your human resources office early to start the process of adding your soon-to-be to your benefits, especially if you’re planning to use your flight benefits on your honeymoon. (Free advice: Don’t plan to use your flight benefits for your honeymoon—buy tickets for the peace of mind.) This is an easy thing to forget, but it’s an important step—especially if one of you is planning on a name change. Airlines have had to deal with dishonest employees abusing flight benefits, so expect to be required to produce what seems like an onerous amount of paperwork to prove that your intentions and actions are pure.

Part of this process is getting your future spouse on your health insurance and as a named beneficiary for your life insurance and retirement savings plans. The health insurance is especially important if you’ll be traveling outside the United States after the wedding. If a stepchild is also part of the package, address those needs as well.

Planning for childbirth is also a bit different. For starters, you may be on a trip. Once the pregnancy is underway and appears to be headed to term, have a discussion with the CP about contingency plans if you’re on a trip and need to get home. Most of the time, all you’ll need to do is make a phone call, and the wheels will be set in motion. However, if you’re on a trip to a fairly remote location and an emergency crops up, you may need to operate a flight to get out, which may have you flying in the opposite direction of where you want to go.

When it comes to having a baby, you can use FMLA provisions to take time off of work before and after the child is born, and generally you can use VA time to cover lost pay (until the VA bank is empty). Being financially prepared for the initial arrival of the baby helps. You should plan to be off the week before the due date, and for as long after the delivery as possible. Fortunately, pilot schedules make this easier, since most of us only work 12 to 15 days a month.

On the flip side, there are plenty of women who are pilots who also want to have children. Their planning situations will be a bit different. The FAA doesn’t specify a specific point in the pregnancy for a woman to stop flying. In theory, as long as the pregnancy doesn’t interfere with the pilot’s ability to do her duties, she can fly. However, this point in time will vary for each individual, and most airlines have a point at which the pilot must provide weekly or bi-weekly doctor approval to continue flying, and some will require the pilot to take time off starting around 30 to 32 weeks. Many suggest not flying at all in the third trimester.

Considering that most folks are going to want as much time off as possible, a new mother also may be facing an expiration of landing currency, or missing a scheduled training event. To the extent possible, phone calls should be made about the preferred method for handling these as soon as is feasible to minimize the headaches in returning to work. Nursing issues, day care, and other day-to-day concerns should be addressed as fully as possible before the downtime begins, with the realization that curve balls will likely follow. All the jokes about a lack of asleep aside, returning to work just for rest is not a good idea. You need to be well-rested, so coming up with a strategy with your partner to share night time duties as much as possible will be necessary to ensure your performance at work is up to par.

As with the wedding planning, you’ll need to get in touch with HR early on the get the FMLA paperwork filled out and approved. This is key, because many airlines use different forms for pilots and flight attendants than they do for hourly or salaried employees. The last thing you want is a delay in approval or pay because you didn’t get the paperwork right.

State and local laws vary with respect to FMLA, and of course, the federal law also applies. If you’re not based where you live, make sure you know both your rights and the rights of your employer. Because FMLA issues are commonly addressed in a collective bargaining agreement, touch base with a union rep early on to help guide you through everything—they’ve seen this before, and they’ll know which buttons to push.

Whether it’s a wedding or a childbirth, or even a death, major life events happen, and most will involve some help from the chief pilot and the staff. Once it’s all over, take the time to send a note and make a phone call to personally thank them for any accommodations they may have made. If the event is a baby, include a picture!—Chip Wright

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