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Tag: airlines (page 1 of 11)

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

Sometimes you just can’t get a break

Part one of a three-part series

I often joke about certain things at work by saying that “This was not in the brochure!” People often imagine pilots on layovers sitting on a beach somewhere with an umbrella drink while they bask in the glow of their career and enjoy the scenery and the sun. And that does happen—but certainly not every day, and not for every pilot.

I recently had one of those “not in the brochure” days, and as a pilot who commutes, it took on even more meaning (and misery).

The day started easily enough, with a leg from San Diego to Denver, but getting into Denver was the beginning of the end of any kind of schedule. Storms in the area meant we had to hold for the better part of 20 minutes. Progress was measured by the descents in the holding pattern just east of the Rockies. Initially, we couldn’t get below 25,000 feet, but eventually we were brought down to the teens. For us, fuel wasn’t much of an issue, as our dispatcher had given us quite a bit of extra fuel in anticipation of the weather. Other crews, however, were beginning to talk about diverting. We kept updating the weather on our iPads to see what was going on not only near the field, but also on our anticipated route home.

We could see the weather moving on the radar as we flew circles, and it was moving fairly fast. However, a sizable area was affected, and I was already worried about our outbound flight to Newark. After all, I only had about an hour on the ground in Newark to catch my flight home, and hey, we all have priorities, especially with a week off coming up after having been home one night in the previous two weeks.

At long last, we began getting vectored to the final for Runway 8. Just north of the field, we got a visual on the weather. It was big, and it was ugly. That said, we could see a few places where we should be able to take off and get through the line before it closed up.

On the ground, the ramp had just opened up after a brief closure for lightening, another sure sign that we weren’t out of the woods. When we downloaded the flight plan, the route looked pretty straightforward: We’d go a bit north, and then beeline east to join the arrival. If only…

Soon enough, a message came over the ACARS (sort of an in-flight email/fax/texting device) telling us that we needed call clearance for a reroute. When I dialed in the frequency, it was jammed, so I patiently waited. I waited so long that I finished the USA Today crossword puzzle. Finally, I got a word in, and I got our new route, which I was immediately told was no longer any good.

Three out of the four departure gates were closed, and the one runway that ATC insisted on using was causing all kinds of problems for everyone. It was too warm to use because of Denver’s elevation and the tailwind. For reasons I still don’t understand, they wouldn’t change runways despite the fact that nobody could use the runway that was being advertised.—Chip Wright

In the second part of this three-part series, the weather gets worse and Chip wonders if they will get off the ground in time. 

Is more leg room coming?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After an accident or incident

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will there be any more consolidation?

The airline industry has gone through several cycles of consolidation in the last 10 to 15 years: ValuJet/AirTran, AirTran/Southwest, TWA/American, USAir/America West, USAir/American, Delta/Northwest, and United/Continental at the majors. At the regionals, Republic/Chautauqua/Shuttle America, SkyWest/ASA/ExpressJet and Mesaba/Pinnacle have changed the landscape. Alaska and Virgin America are the most recent to announce plans to wed.

Of late, there have been rumors about a jetBlue merger, and there has long been talk of Spirit and Frontier. JetBlue seems to be the most interesting one, because that airline has become a major powerhouse with hubs in New York, Boston, and Orlando, along with a sizable presence in Fort Lauderdale. JetBlue also caters to both business and leisure travelers.

Historically, airline mergers have had to meet several criteria, the most important of which is the maintenance of access to travel for passengers. This became less important as Congress recognized in the last round of mergers that there was too much service at airfares that were too low. With the mega-carriers now operating, profits have soared. However, what makes a merger with jetBlue difficult is the potential choke-hold that its hubs would provide to whomever buys the airline. Congress could require some kind of a fracturing of the company in order to support a merger. JFK, the crown jewel, would be the ultimate bargaining chip.

But here’s the rub: Too much of what jetBlue does out of JFK replicates too much of what other carriers already offer from their own East Coast coast hubs. An airline would need to add service from JFK that jetBlue doesn’t have, or service that supplements existing international service from that market.

Orlando is a leisure market with lower yields, and it doesn’t lend itself well to being a southern connecting hub such as Atlanta and Charlotte, though it does provide ready access to points south in the Caribbean and South America. But, many of those are also load yield, so the problem doesn’t immediately solve itself.

Mergers also create other huge challenges, not the least of which is  bringing together drastically different work cultures and product offerings. Nothing will clog up a merger like disgruntled employees that are also being swamped with new procedures, rules, and policies. The end result is billions of dollars lost and millions of unhappy customers.

I won’t say that jetBlue won’t or can’t get caught up in a merger, but it has to be accomplished wisely, with the realization that the end product will be drastically different. I do, however, think that a couple of the ultra-low-cost carriers will be forced to eventually merge, with Spirit and Frontier being the logical choices. They compete for a segmented market offering low fares that are hard to turn into profits. Customer service is less of a concern, but it still matters. I think Allegiant will continue to be a stand-alone carrier because its niche is different, and it sells the whole travel package as a vacation, not just a ticket from A to B.

The regionals are harder to predict. Their existence depends on capacity purchase agreements with the majors. However, even SkyWest, which was long considered “the place” to work, is having trouble recruiting and retaining pilots. It’s possible that, down the road, SkyWest and Republic may have to at least do the dance.

Consolidation is probably over for now. However, in such a dynamic industry, anything can happen. Change is constant, and it stands to reason that offers will at some point be made and entertained. Whether they will be consummated will depend on the circumstances in place at the time.—Chip Wright

Applying the news

The past few months have seen a number of high profile people lose their jobs following allegations of sexual harassment or sexual assault. Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose, and most recently, Matt Lauer, all have been forced aside. If public figures are being exposed for illegal behavior, I have no doubt that average people are now beginning to deal with the same thing.

Working at the airlines means working in a very dynamic environment in which the potential for getting in trouble is most definitely there. Most pilots are male, and most flight attendants are female. Gate agents and ramp agents tend to be a mix. There is tremendous opportunity to meet a lot of great people, and it’s very easy to begin flirting or joking around, especially when you’re part of a crew that will be together for several days at a time. You share a work space, and when the day is over, you head to the same hotel, and often end up eating together. Things happen.

In 20 years as an airline pilot, I’ve seen and heard things I wish I hadn’t. A first officer I flew with groped a flight attendant on an overnight—in Canada. The same FO groped another flight attendant on an elevator in an airport. There were no witnesses, but his behavior was well known; one flight attendant I knew would not be alone with him on the airplane. I knew of flight attendants who had reputations that may or may not have been deserved, and of pilots who were known to push the limits of acceptable social behavior.

I’ll be surprised if every airline doesn’t mandate some form of sexual assault/harassment training. In 16 years at a regional, I never received any. But it’s time that we all get it. We work in close quarters with each other, and too often a joke or a gesture is ill-received or goes too far, and it too often puts someone else in the middle, uncomfortable and unsure of what to do. And just as important as learning what is and is not OK, it’s also important to discuss and train employees about the ramifications of making false accusations. This, too, is something I’ve unfortunately seen run its course, and it has no place at all in any work environment.

I’m not one to suggest that pilots shouldn’t date each other, or that pilots and flight attendants shouldn’t date or marry. But it’s critically important that proper boundaries be respected, and interpersonal behavior be kept totally professional in the work place, with any romantic interest (or disinterest) clearly stated and understood. If a relationship doesn’t work out, both parties need to be able to walk away and remain professional.—Chip Wright

Scheduling nightmare

As I wrote this, American Airlines was dealing with a crisis of its own making. Due to a computer glitch, they had a scenario in which more than 15,000 flights might not have been staffed between December 17 and January 1—one of the most important travel periods of the year. How, you might ask, does this happen?

Every airline has some form of trip trading, drops, pickups, et cetera, that pilots and flight attendants can use to adjust their schedule when the monthly lines come out. Some airlines are more flexible than others, but all have rules, policies and procedures in place to ensure adequate staffing.

Each airline defines “adequate” differently, and what one company feels would be a razor-thin or negative staffing model might be one that another embraces. Generally speaking, the models are based on known assumptions as well as a few guesses. Companies will use historical data to figure out how many employees are likely to call out sick, how many of those sick calls will come from line holders versus reserves, how many will run into issues with commuting, and how many extras are needed based on potential bad weather. There is also a bit of plain guessing involved.

As long as the computer software shows that staffing will be sufficient, a fair amount of leeway will be given in schedule modifications. Crews can drop, add, and trade based on the rules in a particular union contract. I don’t know all of the details involved in the American fiasco, but somewhere a human being screwed up, and those flights suddenly were understaffed by at least one pilot.

Every union contract has language in it that deals with scheduling snafus after the schedules are awarded, and generally the company has to eat the mistake. This situation, however, is different. Nobody can afford to have thousands, or even hundreds, of flights get cancelled over Christmas. It’s in the best interest of both sides to work out a deal that entices pilots to pick up as much of the flying as possible. Some won’t, as they may never have been off for Christmas or are certain they won’t be home for Christmas next year. But many will come in, especially if a monetary incentive is offered.

This story is a big deal because of the scope of the problem and the time of year, but it’s by no means unique or unheard of. I was at Comair in 2005 when the scheduling software failed, and more than 1,100 flights were cancelled (also over Christmas). I’ve also seen other issues come up that threatened scheduling integrity, and I’ve learned that the software that handles all of this is incredibly complex, and sometimes, a problem comes up because of a hole in the code that simply needed the right circumstances to become known.

I’m sure American will power through this, but it’s a lesson all can learn from: Take nothing for granted, and when it comes to the holidays, always ask for them off. You just never know when something will work in your favor.—Chip Wright

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