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Category: Chip Wright (page 1 of 8)

Bidding vacation

I’ve written before about the significance of seniority with respect to bidding, bases, quality of life, et cetera. When you talk to pilots about what factors into their decision to upgrade, change fleets or switch domiciles, a number of factors crop up, and one of those is vacation.

Pilots accrue vacation based on years of completed service, with two weeks for the first four to five years behind standard issue, followed by three weeks for several years, and topping out with five or maybe even six weeks a year. Every airline has to figure out a way to have a certain number of allotted vacation weeks in each seat, in each fleet, in each base, every year. For example, there might be eight slots to take vacation starting the first week of April in a given year, but there may only be six slots the first week of July, because July is the peak of the travel year.

From a pilot’s perspective, this is critical because at any airline, most anyone can tell you what kind of vacation weeks their seniority can hold. As you might imagine, summers are difficult to get because everyone wants time off during the summer. These positions tend to go senior, and if the company allows pilots to bid consecutive weeks, the junior pilots are virtually frozen out of getting a summer vacation.

There are other times of the year that cause similar issues: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Fourth of July, and the end/beginning of the school year. To make matters worse, bidding for vacation usually begins no later than 14 months from the end of the vacation year, because the bidding process takes time, and because it’s critical to get the awards for the first month of the year into the computer so that pilots can bid their regular schedule around it.

Vacation also affects training scheduling for both recurrent training and new position/equipment training. Scheduling around recurrent isn’t usually too difficult; you just can’t bid for both concurrently. Extended training events, however, can wreak havoc on vacation planning. Depending on the airline, you may be able to defer the training event for your vacation, but that might mean waiting months for your next chance to get that long-awaited time off. On the other hand, you may lose the week and see it pushed into another year (some find this desirable), or you may have to forfeit it in exchange for pay or a 401(k) deposit.

Most airlines also allow some kind of vacation “slide,” which means you can move your vacation forward or backward from the posted start date. Three days either way is fairly typical, which means that if you can’t hold consecutive weeks, you may be able to get two weeks that are six days apart, and slide them each to produce consecutive weeks, or you can try to bid the days off in between them.

Changing your current base, seat, or fleet can wreak absolute havoc on your plans. Usually, you’ll lose your scheduled vacation, because of the aforementioned allocation of slots based on staffing for each category. If you have vacation later in the year, and then take advantage of a captain position, you will have to bid for whichever weeks are left over in your new position. If there aren’t any, you’ll have to take your fate per the rules at your airline. Often, pilots who know they are planning to upgrade or change positions will do so after their vacations are used up, or start negotiating with the chief pilot to keep the week(s) off if there are plans set in stone.—Chip Wright

Answer honestly–or not?

A recent exchange on social media with some friends led to an interesting discussion. One of them commented that a pilot was asked in an interview with a regional whether he intended to stay with said regional for the rest of his career.

In this day and age, it’s a silly question, especially for a young pilot (as this was) just starting out in a career. It’s fair if the pilot is a late-bloomer or a career shifter who is closer to retirement, in which case the airline just wants to get back their investment. But for a young person just starting out? It’s pointless. Virtually nobody enters the regional sector looking to make a career out of flying RJs. Some do, obviously, but almost nobody plans to do that. Most pilots want to move on to more secure and stable options.

The obvious question is, how does one handle a situation in which the truth is not going to be music to the listener’s ears? And why would a regional ask a question that sets up an answer that will be feigned at best, and a lie at worst?

For the latter, I have no idea. When I was beginning my regional career, it was made plain to me that the company wanted to see us move on after a certain time. It made the company look good to produce pilots who made it to the majors, and keeping the average seniority level down kept costs down. It’s a win-win, so long as the pace of hiring keeps up with the pace of attrition.

Today, keeping up with attrition is indeed the challenge, and the current market is such that the airlines need the individual pilots more than the pilots need the individual airlines. I’m not sure what the best way is to answer this particular question, but in our discussion, we agreed that it’s best to say what you think they want to hear in order to get the job, figuring that nobody can be forced to stay anywhere they don’t want to work. If you’re prepared, you can say something like, “I will work anywhere that values my services and pays a fair wage for them.” That’s more honest, and it leaves some wiggle room, but it isn’t a firm answer either way.

The pilot in question decided he didn’t want to be dishonest, and told them as much. He wasn’t going to commit to staying for a career any more than the company was going to guarantee that it would be around until he retired. Consequently, he told them he was going to take a job with a competitor. I’m not sure either was happy in the end.

Once in a while, you will run into similar scenarios, and the best strategy is to pause and think for a second, and give an answer that is convincing, even if it’s…not entirely true.—Chip Wright

Paper versus electronic QRH

In the last several years, airlines have made the transition to electronic flight bags. Nowhere is this more common than with charts and flight manuals, and the reasons are obvious. Updates are automatic; currency of publications is assured; and the decreased weight saves fuel.

An often-overlooked issue from the past was on-the-job injuries, which were very common because of shoulder and back injuries sustained from manipulating the bags (some airplanes were worse than others for causing injuries).

But there are still some skirmishes being fought. For years, pilots have relied on paper quick reference handbooks (QRHs), which contain Abnormal and Emergency checklists. The temptation is to switch to an electronic QRH for some of the same reasons: cost, efficiency, currency, et cetera. However, there has been some strong pushback from pilots on this, and for good reason.

The paper QRH might be a last resort, and it doesn’t have a battery that can die or overheat. It also isn’t prone to fat finger dialing. Imagine, if you will, the adrenaline rush that kicks in during some of the more dire emergencies, such as a catastrophic engine failure, a pressurization issue, or some other calamity. The electronic checklists often have hot-links in them, and during a bumpy ride or one in which your nerves have your fingers shaking, it can be easy to make a mistake and tap the wrong link, which can lead to confusion. Or worse.

Another advantage of a paper QRH is the ability to pass the book back and forth, if necessary, without worrying about bumping the screen and triggering an unexpected change. One compromise that some airlines have reached with their pilot and union reps is to ensure that there is at least one paper QRH on board versus the two that some had. Pilots are usually asked to demonstrate proficiency with the tablets in the classroom or the simulator, but they have discretion as to which one to use. Most find it easier not to have to worry about toggling between multiple apps when dealing with abnormal procedures.

The electronic flight bag is definitely here to stay, as it should be. It’s a great tool, and it needs to be utilized as much as possible. Sometimes, the old adage “less is more” applies. This definitely applies, in my opinion, to the QRH. I also sometimes wish we still had paper maintenance logs, which didn’t have as much of the tracking history in them, which made it easier to find more recent trends if you needed them.

Life is much easier with the electronic flight bag, and I have no desire to go back to paper charts, revisions, or 40-pound bags of dead weight. I do miss a few of the advantages of paper, but the one tool I don’t want to lose is my paper QRH. Here’s hoping that the airlines will recognize that is a small expense to be paid for an easy enhancement to safety.—Chip Wright

Breaking the chain to get the job you want

Recently, I’ve had to sit on the cockpit jump seat during several commutes because of heavy loads during the holidays. It isn’t the most comfortable seat in the house, but hey, a free ride is a free ride and full airplanes bode well for my job security and profit sharing. This has led to all manner of conversations with the crew—outside of the sterile cockpit realm, of course.

Most of these commutes tend to be on Republic, which is one of the largest regionals in the country, and also the world’s largest operator of the Embraer E-170/175 series of jets. In fact, following Republic’s bankruptcy a few years ago, it’s the only airplane the company operates, having shed the older E-145 “Jungle Jet.”

Almost without exception, the conversation at some point turns to the topic of hiring at both the regionals and the majors, rumors, fact-checking, and seeing who knows who. Republic flies on behalf of United, American, and Delta, and it is a key cog for each carrier. Numerous pilots have relayed to me that it’s extremely difficult for Republic pilots to get on directly with one of their code-share partners; friends who work for Republic have told me the same thing. The conclusion and consensus is that the three “brand names” don’t want to contribute to a shortage of pilots at one of their key regional partners. That said, all three have other carriers with whom they have preferential hiring or interview programs set up, but those other regionals tend to be much smaller. and the process is tightly controlled in order to manage the flow of pilots in such a way that metal can still be moved.

I saw this when I was at Comair. For years, Delta had three regional partners responsible for over 90 percent of its regional flying: Comair, ASA, and Skywest. When Delta needed to hire, it tended to take pilots from one of the three carriers in chunks, and when that carrier called Atlanta to complain about losing pilots, the ratio would shift to favor pilots from one of the other two.

This is a bit of a simplistic explanation, but the reality was that Delta didn’t want to leave any of its regionals with a shortage that would only hurt Delta, so the company hired relatively evenly from all three. By doing so, the company also got pilots that were intimately familiar with the Delta system, so it was a win-win. Keep in mind that Delta was also getting pilots experienced in flying jets when that was a relatively rare phenomenon, unlike today.

Those days are largely over, and the pilot shortage is real enough that the majors with regional feed need to consider the ramifications of their hiring decisions on their regional partners. As a result, pilots at Republic are forced to consider “breaking the chain” if they want to get on one with one of the big legacy carriers. Essentially, this means that many are opting for a carrier such as Spirit, JetBlue, Allegiant, or one of the cargo ACMI operators like Southern or Kalitta. Many are also going to Southwest.

Once they get hired by someone outside of their brand of choice, they test the waters for a year or so and make a decision about going through the job-searching process, a new training cycle, et cetera, taking into account career goals and the disruption to family life.  As you might expect, many stay, especially with strong carriers like Southwest and JetBlue. But not all do, and they find that getting hired at UA/AA/DL is much easier when they are no longer directly tied to those carriers. Passing muster in a bigger airplane also helps.

None of this is necessarily fair, but it is the reality of the current job market, and it’s a strategy that people in other fields have been using since the dawn of time. Pilots are no different: Job One is looking out for yourself. Hopefully, Republic will enter into genuine flow or feed agreements across the board, which would benefit all parties. In the meantime, pilots at carriers in a similar position need to be willing to consider the same strategy.—Chip Wright

Choosing the regionals as a career

No pilot has ever begun a career with the goal of becoming a career pilot for a regional airline. It almost always happens unexpectedly.

For some it is the result of bad timing, such as getting into aviation late in life and being held back by a series of economic downturns. For others, the lack of a four-year degree becomes an insurmountable obstacle, and others are denied a chance to move on because of a poor training history, DUIs, medical issues, or just bad luck. Most of the pilots I know who chose to stay at the regionals until retirement didn’t need the extra income that a job at the majors would provide. They often had another source of income, military pensions, a spouse with a great job, or had done well enough in previous career fields that flying for a regional was all they needed. As a percentage of the total, however, these folks represented a small group.

Most of the time, career regional pilots wake up and find themselves in the most common of situations: a mortgage, perhaps a spouse who isn’t working outside the home or works part time, kids, car payments, and numerous other trappings and obligations of a middle-class family. They decide that the move to a major isn’t for them. Many cite their current schedules, seniority, days off, et cetera, and believe that they will be too long in getting back to a similar point before the kids are grown.

Should you opt for this lifestyle, or feel forced to stay in it, keep in mind that your job security is tied to circumstances beyond your control. Network managers for your major airline partner decide which regionals come and go, how big each will get, and what you’re going to get paid. Your company controls absolutely nothing that matters.

That said, there are ways to maximize such a career in a way that will keep you competitive if you ever need to get that next job, while providing personal enrichment and satisfaction. One of the easiest is to get involved in the training department, which is larger than most people realize. Sim and ground instructors are the obvious choices, and great teachers with line experience are always valued. Becoming an examiner increases pay and responsibility and looks great on a resume. Training management experience can be parlayed into careers outside of aviation and will never provide a dull moment.

Involvement with updating manuals and procedures is another area of expertise that sounds more dull than it is. Airlines modify or tweak procedures all the time based on human factors studies, accident and incident reports, manufacturer recommendations, and more. When one thing changes, it often triggers an avalanche of manual revisions, which must be done in concert with the FAA. Working with the feds increases your contact network and can lead to great opportunities.

Safety departments also attract a certain kind of person, both on the company and the union side, and they often work hand in hand. Nowhere is this more true than with ASAP programs. The beauty of safety work is that this is an area in which the airlines freely exchange information and data, because safety is universal. There are numerous conferences every year in which safety data is discussed, analyzed, and shared (much of this also includes folks in training).

Staying with the regionals isn’t the typical choice, but for those that make it (or are forced to make it), there are ample opportunities to make a difference, and the job can be as satisfying as you want it to be. You can also stay connected with others in a way that you can use to move on if you choose or have to move on, all while staying current in the airplane. If this is you, broaden your horizons as much as possible, and dive into some of these chances. You’ll be glad you did.—Chip Wright

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

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