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Tag: airline pilots (page 1 of 4)

Alcohol standards are tightening

Recently, other countries have adopted more stringent rules for pilot drinking, and in the United States, at least one state (Utah) has moved to lower the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) for driving to 0.05 percent.

It’s always a big deal when a pilot is arrested or implicated in an alcohol- or drug-related arrest. We are held to a higher moral standard, because of the lives we are responsible for, both in the air and potentially on the ground, on each flight.

In parts of the world, there is a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol. While the FAA still allows a 0.04 percent BAC, most airlines also have a zero-tolerance rule, so even though you may not be outside the bounds of the federal aviation regulations, you might still find yourself on the unemployment line if you test positive. In other countries, any positive BAC test could put you in jail in a legal system that you do not understand.

In the United States, the opioid epidemic has forced the addition of more drugs onto the screening profile. A positive test will result in an immediate grounding, and it could lead to a full revocation of your certificates. You may be able to go through rehab and participate in the Human Intervention and Motivational Study (HIMS) program to get back your medical, but you may be forced to reapply and re-test for all of your certificates—an expensive endeavor no matter what. If you’re at a regional airline when all of this happens, you may render yourself unemployable at a major.

I’ve known several pilots over the years who have been forced to deal with a positive test. Some walked away from aviation, believing that the lifestyle of a pilot contributed to the problem. Others traveled the long, hard road of rehab and recovery. A few were unable to stop the cycle of destruction and suffered an untimely death. All had to deal with painful fallout with family, friends, and coworkers.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying a few cold beers or a glass of fine wine on a trip. But the temptation to have more than a drink or two on a long overnight can be stronger than some of us can handle. Throw in a chance encounter with another crew in the bar or restaurant, and things can quickly get out of hand. If you find yourself unable to control your intake of either drugs or alcohol, get help sooner rather than later, and take whatever steps are necessary to avoid becoming another unfortunate statistic. Employee assistance programs are a great resource and can help you navigate the health insurance process along with any HR issues. They can also help point you toward resources that may allow you to keep flying while you seek treatment instead of playing Russian roulette with a drug test.

Pilots may be held to a higher standard, but we’re human, and we have the same fallibility and issues as any other group of people. If you need or want help, get it. You’ll be glad you did.—Chip Wright

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

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

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

Buddy passes

The buddy pass is one of the perks of working for an airline. It is just what it sounds like: a pass for a buddy to fly for a rock-bottom price. Virtually every airline offers them to employees, and at first glance, they sound great. You can take a friend or a family member on a trip and do so for a fraction of the price of a regular ticket. But, as with every airline ticket, there are catches.

The most important caveat is that a buddy pass is a space-available seat, meaning that your friend—or soon-to-be enemy—is only getting on if there is an empty seat and there isn’t a weight and balance restriction. In this day and age, with planes flying 80 to 90 percent full, an empty seat is hard to come by. I always tell people that the only thing a buddy pass guarantees is a positive space trip through security. That’s it.

That’s because, in terms of priority, buddy pass riders are listed behind revenue passengers; revenue passengers trying to change flights; employees being moved around by the company, employees that are non-revving; and, in some cases, retirees (a few airlines put retirees after pass riders). There is usually an exception in place if the pass rider is traveling with the employee, and that can be a significant advantage. Pass riders on their own truly are the last ones on the airplane.

Boarding last creates other issues along the way. The gate agents’ first concern is getting the flight out on time, and they’ve been known to leave some pass riders behind on occasion. Second, if you have a bag of any consequence, the overhead bins are likely to be full, and your rider may or may not be charged to check the bag, potentially increasing the cost of the trip.

Back in the day, pass riders had to rely on the employee to create the listing. Today, most airlines provide some avenue for a pass rider to look up loads and explore connecting options. As an employee, it’s up to you to make sure that the buddy can navigate the process without any help from you.

Buddy passes are charged based on either a zone formula (so much for traveling within a zone or a radius of a certain amount) or by charging so much a mile. And this is the rub, because it’s possible for the ticket price to climb to a point where the gap in price of a buddy pass and a positive-space ticket is close enough that a positive-space ticket will make more sense and provide the peace of mind of knowing you’re going to get on a flight.

Here’s an example: A friend of mine wanted a quote for a buddy pass to go to Australia. The first class rate (more on this below) for a round-trip ticket was $1,300, and around $700 for coach. But, there was a sale fare of $1,000 round trip, and my suggestion was to just buy a ticket, especially since it was such a long trip with few options. Speaking of paying for a buddy pass, most of them are payroll deductible, so make sure you get paid ahead of time, and settle up after the flight if the price varies.

But the biggest issue with buddy passes is making sure that everyone understands the rules (including you, as the sponsoring employee).
Unfortunately, too many people don’t seem to understand the limitations of flying stand-by.

In certain markets, giving someone a buddy pass is almost cruel (think Florida for spring break, or Hawaii any time). Flexibility is key, and the rules vary from one airline to another. For example, some airlines will allow you to list for a first-class seat, but they’ll put you in economy if that’s the only section with seats, and charge you accordingly. However, you may not be allowed to list for coach and then go to first class if a seat opens up there. This happens a lot on international flights, so pay attention to the rules for listing.

Dress code is important as well. United made the news about a year ago when a couple of pass riders were denied boarding because they were in violation of the dress code for pass riders. Most of these rules are available in a PDF format, so print them out for your buddies and also email them so that they can reference them as the get ready for the trip.

If your buddies don’t get on a flight, some systems will automatically roll them over to the next flight to that destination—but some won’t. The agent may manually do it for them—but they may not. It’s ultimately the buddy’s responsibility to figure that out.

Having flown for the airlines for more than 20 years now, I’ve learned that the best piece of advice I can give you about buddy passes is this: Don’t use them. Too many things can go wrong, and too often somebody says they “have to get there,” and that’s a sure-fire sign they need to buy a ticket. And too often the buddy doesn’t understand or respect the rules, and the person who gets in trouble is the employee.

The one exception I make is that I will give buddy passes to someone who used to work for an airline or has used them and is familiar with the process, the risks, and isn’t going to lose any sleep if they don’t make their flight.

If you insist on using buddy passes, be aware of the rules. And don’t say that I didn’t warn you.—Chip Wright

Dragging passengers

It has happened again: Last week, a passenger was dragged off a Southwest flight. Unlike the infamous United incident a few months ago, this passenger was carried off by police officers, and there is no “it wasn’t our flight, but one of our regional partners” argument to be made.

However, it does appear that the passenger in question had a number of reasons or excuses ready to go at the beginning of the incident as she tried to stay on the airplane, first claiming a severe allergy and working her way through the ever-popular “I need to get where I’m going.”

I can’t speak for what the policy is at SWA with respect to pilot actions in these kinds of incidents. Every airline has its own protocols to follow, and while the captain is generally considered the final word once the airplane leaves the gate, the final say-so is sometimes a bit murky at the gate. Gate agents don’t like having their judgment questioned after they’ve let a passenger on. Further, they don’t want to be blamed for a delay, and they don’t always know what a crew had to deal with once the doors close. That said, more than one agent has been guilt of trying to pass the buck and just get the airplane off the gate.

Flight attendants are the ones who have to deal with the passengers once the door is closed. They are on the lookout  for passengers who might be a problem, whether from intoxication, anger or frustration at broken travel plans, or a fear of flying or claustrophobia. If they sense that a medical issue could (or already has) materialized, they want to deal with it on the ground. In their mind, and with good reason, their preferred course of action is usually to have the passenger removed.

The pilots are in an odd spot at the gate. While they are clearly the final say once airborne, they have to trust others to do their jobs before leaving. Generally speaking, if the cabin crew wants someone off the airplane, the pilots will accommodate that request, and will often risk a scene to do so. Sometimes, passengers make it easy to make a decision by acting in an inappropriate fashion. All of this said, the captain is responsible for the safety of the flight as a whole, and anything that happens on his watch can be thrown back in his face—and will be.

I’ve had to deal with a few of these at-the-gate types of incidents in my career. Three stand out. They aren’t easy to deal with, they’re unpleasant for all involved, and while tact is often desired or needed, sometimes it just doesn’t help or have a place.

I wasn’t there for either of these two events. The crew, in my opinion, could have taken a stronger stance by simply announcing that the flight wasn’t going to go anywhere until the passengers in question removed themselves from the airplane. This is a harsh line in the sand, but it may be the most effective choice under the circumstances.

The chances are that another crew is not going to be handy to call to gate to operate the flight, and even if there is, once they hear about what is going on, they aren’t likely to step into a minefield by taking the flight. In my experience, even if the Chief Pilot’s Office got involved in something like this—either in person or on the phone—they tend to back up the pilots and agree that the flight will not operate until the offending passenger is removed.

A secondary option, though one that is not always available, is to push for an equipment swap if another airplane is available. This would require everyone to deplane and move to another gate. At the new gate, the gate agents and airport police can prevent the offending passenger(s) from boarding.

In the three cases that I can recall in detail involving passenger disruptions at the gate, one ended with a trio of intoxicated men agreeing to leave with no resistance when the police came on board. The second required intervention from a family member traveling with the individual in question, along with an assertive discussion with the gate agent, who felt she was going to be blamed.

The last one was the most similar to the UAL and SWA incidents. The passenger was a belligerent woman who was being extremely uncooperative and verbally abusive. To allow her to stay on would have undermined the authority of my flight attendant, and could have therefore affected her safety. I had to explain to the woman that we were having her removed and why, and when she began to say she wouldn’t get off the airplane, I made it clear we’d cancel the flight outright. I had to make the same comment to the gate agent, since he was pushing us to keep her. When he realized he’d be responsible for rebooking an entire cabin of passengers versus just one, he agreed to work with us.

All of this brings up another point that was lost in the shuffle of the Republic/UA debacle. Back in the day, regional airlines had their own gate agents. They don’t anymore. The agents are either contracted from a third company (and get paid around minimum wage) or are employees of the mainline brand. This often creates tension and a disconnect, because when situations like this arise, not everybody is on the same team. All anyone knows is that somebody at HQ is going to start asking questions, so everybody gets defensive.

As the pilot, it is best to remember who is ultimately going to be held the accountable, and for that matter, who has the most to lose. The answer is simple: It’s us. That’s no different in a Cessna 150 or a Boeing 747. If you’re willing to exercise the responsibility of being pilot in command in one airplane, you need to be ready, willing, and able to do it in all.

In either of these cases, it would have just taken one pilot to stand up and say they weren’t going to take a problem passenger. To emphasize how far this goes, the same can be said if the problem is one of the cabin crew. Fly for an airline long enough, and you’ll also have to deal with a flight attendant who shouldn’t be at work that day.

When it comes to the passengers, though, no matter how upset they are or how bad their day is going, once they step on the airplane, they have to behave themselves. They can file all the complaints they want later. But from entering to exiting, they need to play by the rules, even if they are asked to leave the flight. And as operators of the airplane, we need to recognize that everything we do is likely being recorded, and make sure that we do whatever we can to avoid someone being dragged off.—Chip Wright

Dispatchability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The non-rev dress code flap

Much has been made recently about the passengers who were denied boarding on a United flight because of the choice to wear leggings in lieu of something else. When the dust settled, it was brought to light that the decision to deny boarding was because the passengers were non-revenue pass riders. That is, they were using employee benefits and/or buddy passes to ride on a space-available basis.

The dress code at UAL is crystal clear about what kind of attire is considered acceptable for employees, their families and designated travel partners, and the friends to whom they provide buddy passes. Further, there are specific stipulations that must be met if those passengers are to be allowed to ride in first or business class as opposed to coach class. If there is any gray area or question about the acceptability of the choice of clothing, the gate agent will be the final decision maker. The fault in this case lies with employee who didn’t make sure that the passengers were in compliance with the dress code.

The ability to fly for free and to offer substantially reduced fare tickets to friends and family is one of the best perks of working for an airline, but it is a privilege, not a right. Further, it comes with certain expectations of decorum and behavior, one of which is the dress code.

Every airline has some form of dress code, and while the new norm is fairly relaxed—shorts are usually allowed—it is not a free-for-all. United, for instance, doesn’t allow flip-flops, and most airlines don’t allow torn (even by design) jeans or shirts, and none allow for any kind of profane, offensive or provocative material. And don’t assume that just because you got on the airplane you’re in the clear. The flight attendants can have you removed if they think the gate agent dropped the ball.

Pilots have another issue to contend with, which is attire that is acceptable for the cockpit jumpseat. Most carriers don’t allow jeans or a T-shirt to be worn if occupying the jumpseat. As a result, you’ll often see commuting pilots wearing their uniform, or perhaps the uniform pants with a collared shirt, especially if the flight is fairly full. Another option is to wear the uniform, but to remove the epaulets, wings, et cetera, from the shirt.

I try to avoid giving anybody my buddy passes because I just don’t think they’re a great deal, especially if someone is on a schedule. But if you get hired by an airline and decide to issue your buddy passes, make sure that your friends understand all of the rules associated with such travel. The dress code is important, and so is the general behavior, so spending a lot of time at the airport bar is not a good idea. To that extent, your friends or relatives shouldn’t brag to other passengers about getting such a cheap (or free) seat. Those passengers with such expensive tickets, after all, are paying the employees’ salary and helping to provide that benefit. Don’t throw it in their face.

I’ve known several employees whose pass privileges were suspended or revoked because of abuse. Some sponsored passengers who acted inappropriately or yelled at gate agents, and a few were caught trying to sell buddy passes for a profit (this almost always gets you fired). But, whether it’s a buddy pass or yourself, pay attention to the rules of the carrier in use. If you need to ask yourself if something is appropriate, it probably isn’t. When it comes to dress, be conservative.—Chip Wright

Dealing with odd behavior

Having worked in the airlines for more than 20 years, I’ve seen a few things that have made me scratch my head—be it management decisions about company strategy, policies that are ill-advised, or passengers who act out in ways that are not only unusual, but unacceptable. Unfortunately, I’ve also witnessed a few employees conduct themselves in ways that are both professionally and socially unacceptable.

Most companies of any size will eventually deal with an employee who acts bizarrely or out of character. Most of the time, it doesn’t get any play on the local news, let alone CNN. However, the airlines are different, and when somebody does something that garners attention, it often goes viral within minutes. Too often, by the time the company hears about it, the incident has been disseminated to millions.

So, what to do? What not to do? Within an airline, the only two work groups that are required to pass an FAA medical are the dispatchers and the pilots. While the company can (and will) have certain expectations about your fitness when you show up to work, only pilots and dispatchers are required to meet a minimum established by the FAA, and are therefore expected to self-monitor their mental and physical well-being. Being sick does not mean you have to be down with the flu or a broken leg. It simply means that for any number of reasons you may not be up to the task. You may be overwhelmed by a problem at home: divorce, new baby, even a sick dog. If in your own judgment you can’t call yourself fit for duty, you are obligated to call in sick. It is, in fact, a federal aviation regulation.

But what happens when somebody chooses to come to work anyway, even though they shouldn’t? Or what if they don’t even realize that they shouldn’t come to work, or if they act…strangely? FAR 117 helps put the onus on the captain to vouch for the fitness of the first officer, but the rest of Part 91 helps make it clear that the FO does the same if he or she believes that the captain or one of the flight attendants is sick. As an FO, I once had to tell a captain that he was in no shape to fly and needed to call in sick. He thanked me then and later, and told me that I had done the right thing.

In recent years, there have been several instances of pilots acting in strange ways. On the ground, the first thing an FO should do is try and talk to the other pilot, especially if they’re working the same flight. Often, a simple conversation will provide valuable insight into the other person’s mood and state of mind. If the individual starts to put up red flags, try to ask another nearby person to speak to them. But if it’s clear that something is wrong, such as incoherent speech, random thoughts that don’t correlate to the conversation, the odor of alcohol or drugs, or apparent physical instability, then more drastic action needs to be taken. Every airline has a different specific plan of action, but the generalities are pretty common.

In such a case, the first call needs to be a manager on duty, such as a chief pilot or the head honcho for the day in scheduling. Even calling dispatch is sufficient. All you need to do is reach someone who can delay a flight long enough for you to allay your concerns to those up the chain of command. Phone calls to scheduling are almost always recorded, so calling via the scheduling department may not be a bad way to get started.—Chip Wright

When tech fails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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