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Pilot tools during delays

The airlines are probably better than any other industry at angering their public. Ticket prices fluctuate wildly, flights are deliberately oversold, and schedules can change with no obviously acceptable explanation.

But, when push comes to shove, passengers only care about two things: the price of the ticket, and being on time. Once the ticket is purchased, the bar for satisfaction is actually pretty low. Sure, folks want the free drinks; and nobody likes paying to check a bag; and friendly employees go a long way toward minimizing negative social media hits. But the airlines have the data to back up one fact: on-time performance trumps all, and nowadays, the airlines are required to publish on their websites the performance reliability of each flight.

Pilots have several tools they can use on this front. Aside from getting the airplane ready on time and taking care of maintenance and other issues as quickly as possible, actually pushing back from the gate on time should be a major goal. The schedules are built with the expectation that flights will leave on time, so push-back crews, gate agents, and other support personnel are staffed accordingly. If you encounter a delay, it’s not uncommon to have the delay magnified by the need to wait for a push-back crew to take care of another flight. After all, there’s no point in making multiple flights late just to accommodate one.

Flying the flight plan is tool number two. Almost all airlines fly what’s called a cost index (CI), which is a tool for measuring the most optimal way to operate a flight. There are times when flying as fast as possible and burning the extra fuel is the most cost-effective way to fly. Likewise, there are times when flying slow and minimizing fuel burn is the best decision. Before you get the flight plan, the CI decision is made by a combination of the dispatcher and the main computer systems that track a flight. Airplanes that are behind schedule are usually flight-planned to fly fast to make up some of the time.

Flying the schedule factors in as well. When you land early, especially in a busy hub, you run the risk of a gate not being ready or available upon your arrival, and this can actually make you even later as ATC and the company move you around to kill time. I’ve had the misfortune of landing early only to find that the gate wasn’t ready, and the subsequent taxiing that took place had us actually arrive more than 30 minutes late. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do to avoid this problem, but if you can, you should.

The biggest difference we can make in the passenger experience is in the way we communicate with the passengers about what’s going on. When a crew doesn’t keep the folks who pay their salaries abreast of what is happenings, the negative comments start to show up immediately on social media. Further, thanks to smart phones, everyone has access to your company’s app, website, and other data points. Gone are the days when a crew would make multiple announcements en route to the destination, because with apps and on-board entertainment systems, just about everyone has a viewable map to see exactly where they are at any point in time.

Timely announcements at the gate prior to departure or during long departure delays go a long way, because the view out the window is so limited. This is especially true during ground delay programs (GDPs). On the other end, long taxi delays getting to a gate can be immensely frustrating to passengers because of tight connections or a need to get somewhere at a certain time. Most airlines have a policy requiring an update on set time schedules during delays.

The real go-getters are the pilots who will walk up to the gate house and make an announcement from the gate prior to boarding, especially for long delays. Not everyone is comfortable doing this, but it does make a great impression on people.

I recently flew on an airline I don’t work for, and we were delayed getting to our gate because we were early and the flight at our gate was a few minutes late getting out. The public address announcements from the cockpit were not very good. They didn’t sound polished, and they didn’t sound confident. Making good PAs isn’t hard, but it does take practice. Practice while in your car or in the shower, and do it until it doesn’t sound stilted or fragmented. You’d be amazed at just how far some solid, accurate information will go, especially for nervous flyers.—Chip Wright

Be reasonable

This piece of advice no doubt applies to just about any line of work, and it isn’t limited to pilots. That said, it bears repeating.

It isn’t uncommon for pilots to have to spend money out of their own wallets for certain work-related expenses. Cabs, crew meals, and hotels fall into this category, and at some airlines, even the fuel bill can initially become the pilot’s responsibility.

Most folks will use an element of common sense in these situations. Hotels usually become an issue at the last minute when a crew has to deal with an unexpected diversion or the company hotel clerk(s) make a (monumental) mistake. Crew meals can become an issue under the diversion scenario or on holidays. The question becomes how much to spend.

It’s one thing to be stuck in a Smallville, USA-kind of place with no typical hotel rooms, and find yourself forced to take a cab to high-end Hilton or Marriott in order to get your crew (or even just yourself) some sleep. What will likely raise eyebrows will be booking your crew into the Ritz or the Waldorf-Astoria. Rest (pun very much intended) assured, this has happened. These events usually have a reasonable and even humorous backstory, and it usually comes as a result of a pilot trying to make a point about a series of issues.

But such a strategy isn’t always wise or wallet-friendly. The best bet is to find a reasonable accommodation at a hotel similar to what your company provides, and if the price is higher than normal because of local demand, so be it. But buying rooms at a thousand bucks a pop is a risk.

Meals create similar opportunities for abuse. A pilot at a major airline that provides crew meals to its crews was entitled to put in a reimbursement for a meal that didn’t get boarded. Mistakes like this don’t happen often, but they do occur. The intent in this case was for the pilot to get a meal as soon as practical for a reasonable price. What was not intended was to try and get away with expensing a meal for four in excess of a hundred bucks at Disney World (yes, this actually happened).

When you exceed any normal sense of reasonable behavior, the end result is that the rules are changed and made more punitive for everyone else. Don’t be that person.—Chip Wright

Delays

Delays don’t happen often, but when they do, they are a source of great aggravation and concern.

The airlines are all about customer service—or at least they are supposed to be. Most of the time, things go pretty much as advertised, but some days, for whatever reason, they don’t. Examples might be missing blankets, bundles of paper towels, broken toilets, or a catering screw-up. Catering can consist of the sodas and snacks in the main cabin, or it can consist of issues with the meals that are served in first class—which the first-class passengers have paid for and have every right to expect.

Flight attendants are required to be on duty at the majors ahead of the pilots, because boarding can start without us. In fact, on larger airplanes, this is pretty common in order to get everyone on board expeditiously for an on-time departure. Part of that early arrival is to give the cabin crew time to spot any issues as quickly as possible. It might be something mundane like some trash, or it might be something more serious such as broken seat belts or missing or damaged emergency equipment. Some of these things are obviously show-stoppers, like the emergency equipment, but most items can be deferred for later maintenance or addressed quickly with a phone call.

Catering, on the other hand, always takes time, because there are only so many catering trucks, and they don’t always have what you need. Hot meals are a great example. There isn’t much worse than having the flight attendants announce that the expected dinner is going to be replaced by breakfast, or vice versa, or that coffee won’t be available (I might be the only one that doesn’t get concerned about this, since I’ve never had coffee, but I’ve seen what happens when people don’t get it, and it ain’t pretty).

Sometimes, no matter how many times you plead on the radio with Operations, things just aren’t going to get fixed. At that point, the decision often comes down to what the flight attendants want to do, since they’re the ones who have to deal with the passengers directly. An announcement over the public address system can help, as can a personal explanation to those most affected.

Most of the time, if the flight isn’t too terribly long, the decision is made to close the door and go. Longer flights require a little more tact and thought.

Airlines have collected extensive amounts of data on just what the paying passenger expects, and as much as we all like to complain when things don’t go our way, the number one issue for passengers is getting to the destination on time. Not only is that most important, but the gap between on-time performance and every other expectation is huge. Further, when an airplane leaves the gate late, the risk is that the flight inbound to that gate is going to be delayed, and the airplane may fall behind schedule for the rest of the day. It’s one thing to be late for maintenance, but to be late for some missing meals or bottles of water is a different issue entirely.

The other form of delays that cause problems are delays off the gate going to or from the runway (going to seems to be much worse). Most of the time, these are driven by bad weather or a ground stop. It helps when the weather is right on the airport and can be seen. Passengers don’t always understand that the bad weather affecting a flight may be several hundred miles away.

Most carriers encourage openness and honesty with people when delays of any kind hit, but ground stops and weather delays are definitely no place to try and pull a fast one. In the day and age when everyone has a smart phone, you can expect that people are looking up delay data either from the FAA or from your airlines app. Consistent with safety and your company policy, keeping passengers updated with a PA every 15 to 30 minutes will go a long way to keeping people from getting restless, especially first-time or nervous fliers. You can’t do anything about potential missed connections, but you can keep them informed of any progress or updates from ATC. These announcements should be short, factual, and devoid of any jargon. Humor can go wrong, so don’t use it unless you know how.

The risk with a departure delay is that someone may insist they want to get off the airplane if they’re going to miss a connection or an event, or just get nervous. This can be a tricky situation, because sometimes going back to the gate can lead to such a delay that the flight cancels and everyone gets inconvenienced. Often, continuing toward takeoff is the lesser evil. But if they insist, the captain needs to coordinate with Dispatch to make the best decision.

Delays after landing pose their own issues. I’ve been on time or early during the beginning of a weather event, only to sit in a penalty box for an hour or more waiting for a gate to open up. International flights present a particular challenge because only certain gates are set up to funnel passengers to Customs and Immigration, and this is something that needs to be articulated to the passengers.

Other gate delays are usually (but not always) driven by weather affecting the outgoing flights. Passengers, however, start getting antsy when they feel trapped. Again, good PAs will help, as will conveying any developing situations in the cabin to Operations so that they can appreciate the seriousness of what is going on.

Delays are a part of flying for both passengers and crew. How you handle them is key. Communication is everything: the flight attendants, the passengers, and the company. You may not win all of the battles or make everyone happy, but you’ll greatly improve the odds, which will improve the odds of ensuring repeat business.

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

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

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