Tag: airlines (page 1 of 13)

Into the Alligator’s Mouth: Installment 3

As  usual  Mother Nature gave me some real-world experience which challenged my own personal minimums on a recent flight.   I head to the Pacific Northwest monthly for business. Having my own personal time machine has allowed me to realize the dream of living and working in two very different states.

Planning for a 4.5-hour trip over some beautiful but inhospitable terrain is a challenge.  With no de-icing or anti-icing systems on my vintage Mooney, weather can be a friend or foe.  For this trip 30-35 knot headwinds were forecast at my “normal” altitude of 10,500-12,500.  Typically, I leave my fuel stop in Northern California and climb right up to cruising altitude.  Due to the forecast winds I decided to fly low until reaching Redding, CA, then up and over the terrain. 

This might not sound like a big deal to many pilots, but altitude has always been my friend and I like the options it affords me, should I become a glider. With this in mind I opted for the northwesterly course around Mt. Shasta.  This flight plan, while not the most direct route, puts me very near Redding, Weed, Dunsmuir and Siskiyou airports.  I have to say that at 8,500 feet I got a great view of the terrain, and the ride was smooth as silk. However, this was a calculated risk, based on my personal guidelines.

It hasta be Shasta

My goal in writing this series is that as PIC you do everything in the airplane intentionally and with forethought.

So here we go.  In the past few months, we began our journey into the mindset needed for the functional implementation of minimums.  As I pondered personal minimums in a pandemic, I reached in to my address book of pilot friends  to ask questions about minimums, guidelines, self-restrictions and the like. I spoke to range of folks from pretty newly minted private pilots, to those working on an instrument rating, commercial, CFI and DPE.  I talked with female and male pilots with hours ranging from low hundreds to 25,000. As one CFI/DPE pondered in regards to minimums…

How far do I put my head in an alligator’s mouth before I can’t get it out?

I had a fabulous time talking with a baker’s dozen pilots and I got a little gem or a pucker factor from each of the conversations. My hope is that our words might start an honest discussion on ways that we can keep ourselves safe in the airplane or on the ground. Because in the end, cheating on your minimums is cheating yourself.

This series centers on the psychology of personal minimums.  Like most relationships, we will focus why we create them, why we commit them to paper [or not], when we fudge on them, what we learn from them, and what we hope never to again experience.

Interviews: For the interviews I asked starting questions and interchangeably used personal minimums and personal guidelines.  The reason for this is some pilots initially thought when I spoke of minimums, I was referencing charted instrument approach minimums.  The answers will be in their voice, the first person.


  • Do you have a current set of personal guidelines or minimums for your flying?
  • If yes, do you have them written down?
  • If so, do you ever review them or alter/update them?
  • What are the areas you consider when you think of your own minimums?
  • Have you had a time where you cheated on your personal minimums?
  • Has there been an experience in the airplane you would like to share that gave you a “pucker factor” that others might learn from?”
  • Do you have a “hidden gem”, or learning tip, to share?

*[For the sake of this article, in their responses, I will simply use the word “minimums”]

K.W. Airline Captain CFI, Mooney owner

Looking down on Sedona, AZ

I got an instrument rating right after private and waited a bit to get my commercial. When thinking about personal minimums I divide things into three categories: the airport, myself, the airplane.

For the airport I am most concerned with surrounding terrain or weather conditions and my level of familiarity.  My minimums would vary if say, terrain was high and my airport familiarity was low.

I am the most important part of the equation. I ask myself if I feel tired, what time of day is the flight and if I slept well. I pay attention to whether I am hydrated and eating well. I like to do airport homework a few days before. I consider destination and alternate airport approaches.

Airplane familiarity is something I consider every flight.  When I am in my personal aircraft which I have owned many years, I know the ins and outs of the maintenance which factors in to my decision making.  I have to say, I am very particular when it comes to fuel on board.  My personal guideline is that I always land with 1.75 hours of fuel remaining.

When I was a private pilot did I not have things written down in terms of personal minimums.  But I wouldn’t go to charted minimums with a 15 knot crosswind. Now that I am flying for the airlines, I have had to fly a variety of aircraft and the limitations are built in to our procedures.

Pucker Factor:  I took off from Galveston some years ago. I’m not sure if I didn’t check for icing, or if icing wasn’t predicted (This flight was pre-ForeFlight and and other easy weather tools). It was typical Gulf Coast winter with 600’ overcast. I expected tops to be around 3,000’. It wasn’t that cold on the ground, maybe 45°F – 50°F. While climbing through the clouds at 1,500 ft I completely iced over. It took about 2 seconds. The windows were covered in frost and I couldn’t see anything. Fortunately, I was still climbing and speed was good. A really long minute or two later I saw sunlight coming through the frosted over windows. A few seconds after that all the ice melted off. It was gone as quick as it showed up. Lesson learned, always know where the freezing level is…even on the Gulf Coast.

Hidden Gem:  I don’t have to fly anywhere, even as a pro-pilot. I have canceled a lot of personal flights when I feel I need to. There is no shame in sticking with your minimums and canceling a flight.

D.J., Commercial, Instrument, Mooney owner

Ice buildup on the Mooney wing.

I love flying, but I am a big sissy.  As an instrument pilot, I  have very high minimums. I don’t want to fly approaches down to charted minimums, my preference is to break out at 1,000 feet.  I also wouldn’t launch on a flight to fly solid IFR.  I have no backup vacuum so that is reasoning for wanting IFR to VFR on top.

I also consider the airport and weather conditions. For example, the cross-wind limitation is 11 knots from the POH.  While I know I could do better on a long runway, for me that is a hard limit on a short runway. I am also particular with minimums about fuel, I always want to have 1.5 hours of fuel left on landing.

Another aspect of  personal minimums is consideration of my health. If my sleep was not good night before, I won’t fly. If I am sick I wouldn’t fly. If I am emotionally upset I wouldn’t fly. I do find that flying is a stress reliever for mild stress.  So determining my stress level is vital.

Pucker Factor:   My airplane was loaded with medical personnel as I was headed to Mexico on a humanitarian flight. I encountered un-forecast icing over Julian [San Diego area] at 8,000 ft. The Mooney could not climb.  Every surface was covered with the mixture of rime and clear ice and it flew like a slug [see photo above]. I  immediately talked to ATC and let them know about the icing.  Fortunately, within 20 minutes the ice had broken off, though we could hear it hitting the tail section.

Hidden Gem: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.  I took off Boise in dense fog.  I accelerated down the runway in the fog, and once airborne I knew I would never do that again.

M.J. Airline Captain, Master CFII and Cessna owner

Over the Yellow Sea between Incheon, South Korea and Beijing, China

My best advice regarding personal minimums, is to write them down and take them seriously. Never change them for a single flight. If you change them for a current flight, they are not really a minimum. I suggest quarterly updates, perhaps in keeping with your landing currency [every 90 days].

During an instrument training and checkride you have to fly down to published minimums. After rated you will need to develop your personal minimums. Do you have one set of minimums for takeoff airport and landing airport [plus alternate]?

I have a lovely, and frequent passenger who isn’t a fan of bumps.  Therefore, when I have passengers on board, I adjust my minimums for wind and turbulence.  My maximum cross wind on landing is 10 knots for passenger comfort. It is important that I consider weather, my currency, proficiency, passenger comfort, day/night, and complete a runway analysis every flight.

Pucker Factor: I would describe my example of pucker factor by a story of one of my flights home from OSH. There was weather over the Rockies, starting right over Boulder, CO and continuing pretty much all the way to our Plan A destination at Grand Junction. My passenger was a fairly experienced CFI, but I was PIC for the trip. We discussed the weather issues (afternoon thunderstorms in the mountains) before takeoff on that leg and agreed on a couple points. First, we established a couple decision points, the first of which was over Boulder. Our criteria at that point was, could we see over the Divide adequately to attempt to cross Rollins Pass and continue, or turn around? Plan B was to divert to Ft Collins, where a friend had offered to put us up for the night. So, we knew what the concern was, had established our decision criteria, and had our options defined. We set another decision point near Eagle, CO, with a Plan C to land there and wait out the storm at a hotel for the night. As we approached Boulder (DP1), we assessed the situation and agreed that the pass looked good to continue, so we pressed on with Plan A and discarded Plan B. Did that again at DP2 and continued along. This portion was a little sketchier, but we both monitored the conditions and the way back to Plan C (landing at KEGE) remained good. In the end, we were able to continue with Plan A and had a very nice dinner at KGJT, and then a great flight on the final leg the next morning.

Hidden Gem:  As pilots we are responsible for two types of environments:  the strategic environment [on the ground planning]; and the tactical environment [in the air reality].  The strategic planning environment is measured, concrete and methodical.  The tactical environment is situational, reality-based, and fluid. Make sure you take both into account on every flight.

I hope you enjoyed this month’s installment.  Please consider using one of the AOPA templates to write your minimums down whether VFR or IFR.  If you have feedback about the interviews, please feel free to use the comment section below.

In the meantime, keep up with online safety seminars, join your state aviation association, and stay involved with your local airport.  Make sure that you consider all aspects of minimums; airplane, pilot, and environment before you yell. “clear prop.”

My flight plans include 4S2 Hood River, Oregon, and KOSH, Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  As my Dad used to say when we touched down, I am looking forward to another successful trip of “Haywire Airlines”




Jolie Lucas makes her home on the Central Coast of CA with her mini-Golden, Mooney. Jolie is a Mooney owner, licensed psychotherapist, and commercial pilot. Jolie is a nationally-known aviation presenter and aviation writer. Jolie is the Region 4 Vice President of the California Pilots Association. She is the 2010 AOPA Joseph Crotti Award recipient for GA Advocacy. Email: [email protected] Web: Twitter: Mooney4Me

Sterile cockpit

A headline of late was of a pilot in the San Jose, California, area going on a rant that was broadcast on the radio. This is not the first time this has happened, and it probably won’t be the last. The usual culprit is a stuck mic switch.

The FAA has announced an investigation into the incident, and it’s safe to say that if the guilty individual is found, there will be some kind of disciplinary action and/or a fine.

Aside from sounding unprofessional, the transmission apparently took place below 10,000 feet, when an airline crew is supposed to be honoring sterile cockpit procedures. The FAA says pilots are supposed to limit conversation only to flight-related discussion below 10,000 feet. Considering that a number of accidents have been attributed to violation of sterile cockpit—to say nothing of other incidents—the FAA is going to wield its power.

Most modern transport-category radios have an auto-shutoff feature that will shut down transmissions after a certain amount of time. This incident is the reason why—not so much because of what was said, but because a stuck mic can create a safety issue if other pilots or controllers can’t transmit and receive over the stuck mic.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of this, because the other pilot will be in the crosshairs as well for what appears to be a lack of effort to bring the conversation back to the appropriate topics.

It would be naïve to say that sterile cockpit violations don’t happen every day. They do, but that doesn’t excuse it. We all need to be aware of where we are and what we are saying, and anytime we are using a radio panel, we need to make sure that what is meant to stay in the cockpit actually does. It’s easy to miss it when your mic continues to stay hot, but a subtle indicator is the change in your own voice in your ear when you’re using the radio versus the intercom. But that’s the problem: It’s a subtle change, and all too easy to miss. Some radios also have a transmission symbol or indicator, such as a “T” or a “TX” that appears on the screen. Some … but not all.

This incident needs to be a reminder of the need to honor the sterile cockpit. It’s easy to get complacent, but it certainly isn’t impossible to comply. In fact, some pilots I’ve flown with have personally requested that anything below 18,000 feet be considered sterile, the rationale being that even the teens can have a lot of traffic and opportunities for missed radio calls. While that isn’t a necessary step, it’s not an unreasonable one either.

In general aviation, the rules are much more relaxed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come up with your own conditions that might be “sterile.” It could be an altitude or within so many miles of an airport, or some other definition that you feel will reduce the risk of an ATC mistake or error. Whatever you decided to use, just remember that whatever you say may not only be recorded, but broadcast live on the internet, and the FAA may want to discuss it.—Chip Wright

Missing the classroom

Training, it seems, never ends. Back in the day, all training took place in a classroom, a teacher lecturing and sharing wisdom, knowledge and a few lies, students dutifully taking notes and pretending to understand what was being said, all the while taking the lies as true gospel.

Nowadays, less training is done in the classroom, and more is done on the student’s own time. Ironically, the general aviation world got a bit of a jump on this with the introduction of self-study books by Gleim, ASA, and a few others. Ground schools, once immensely popular, began fading away.

Nowadays, the trend is to do virtually everything, well…virtually. Even when I was going through new-hire training at my current airline, the actual learning and introduction of most of the material was done through Computer Based Training (CBT) in the hotel, and the classroom time had almost nothing to do with what we were supposed to be learning. This was less true when we began to learn the systems of the airplane, but not by much.

Today, all continuing education is completed on our personal time. We get paid once it’s all done, but we are still giving up some of our personal time so that the airline can save huge sums of money on the costs of hotel rooms, transportation, per diem, et cetera.

A friend just finished training on a new airplane, and we were commiserating how different the learning environment is today versus what it was in the past. We both agreed that the old days were better for learning. There is just something better about listening to a teacher who actually knows the airplane tell you how things work in the real world. The opposite, of course, is having to deal with instructors who have absolutely no real-world knowledge of the airplane, and instead just regurgitate what is on the PowerPoint slide or what they themselves have been told—and that was pretty common for a while.

The classroom setting had a lot of advantages: It facilitated open discussion; questions could more easily be addressed, and confusion minimized. The structure of the day also helped, since most blocks of time were 50 to 60 minutes, which kept you on a predictable pace. Not so much today. I just recently had to finish an online course for 737 MAX return to service, and it was drudgery. Most of it was the same material I had learned when the airplane first came into service, but even the new material was often boring. Worse, I won’t be flying the airplane until at least spring, if not summer or fall, so I may have to do a review when it comes up on my schedule. However, unlike the initial rollout, I will get some sim time, and I’m looking forward to that.

We now do continuing ed around the calendar, and we can space it out or cram it all together. Both systems work, but waiting until the last minute is both stressful and hellacious. Either way, it’s too easy to get distracted and not learn as much as we might, but the old days simply aren’t coming back, and that’s a shame. I miss the days of the “There we were…” stories, as they often made it easier to remember the nuances of whatever was being described.

Now, I just click “Next” and watch the timer creep closer to the next slide.—Chip Wrightзайм великий новгородзайм на счет кивимоментальный займ без отказа

Customer service and COVID

“Customer service,” unfortunately, is not usually synonymous with the airlines. We’ve all heard or experienced the horror stories of lost bags, exorbitant fees, lost kids, and heaven knows what else. But in this era of COVID, customer service is taking on new meanings and new challenges.

In the post-9/11 world, it is all but impossible for a pilot to leave the flight deck to deal with an unruly passenger, yet more passengers seem to be more aggravated and aggressive than before.

With the proliferation of masks, there has been a rise in cases of people who don’t seem to be willing to fully comply with the new rules, though the rapid spread of the virus has helped to some degree. In my recent travels, I’ve seen a number of confrontations that could—and should—have been avoided, and in this case, most of the blame falls on the customers, not the airline.

Every airline is now not only requiring a mask, but also requiring passengers to acknowledge the new rules when a ticket is purchased and/or during the check-in process. There are also numerous announcements made at the airports (which have their own rules), as well as on board the airplanes.

Flight attendants routinely remind everyone of the requirements for a mask, usually as a part of the first public announcement, and then regularly thereafter. On top of that, most captains are also emphasizing the need for a face covering, with reminders that noncompliance will not be tolerated.

In my 20-plus years in the airlines, I’ve never seen such a universal effort to ensure compliance using such harsh measures. Instead of just offering a verbal warning, noncompliant passengers are being escorted off the airplane, and are quickly finding themselves on a list of passengers who are banned from that carrier until at least the end of the pandemic, and maybe longer.

Pilots can still help defuse some situations on the ground, but in flight, they are relying on the cabin crew and potentially any crew members riding along on the flight. There have been several cases of pilots witnessing a disruptive situation from afar, and stepping in to offer support of the employees on the ground (usually the gate agents).

Because the overwhelming number of passengers are folks who fly only once or twice a year, they may be dealing with situations where they have to keep the mask on for longer stretches of time than they are used to. This may make them uncomfortable or just frustrated. That’s understandable. But there are also other folks who are not totally sold on the stated efficiency of aircraft cabin filters, and those are passengers that we can’t afford to lose. Just about every flight in the air these days is losing money. Tickets are cheap and seats are empty.

It is imperative that we all be sensitive to one another, but it is also imperative that we understand that we tacitly agree to abide by certain rules when we go to certain places. That includes, for now, the masks. Speaking up so as to be heard, as well as speaking slowly and clearly, also help. Sometimes someone just needs to be vent and be heard. Often, if they feel some validation when they need to talk, they will readily go back to full compliance. Give eye contact and a genuine ear.

This new norm is going to be with us for a while, and we all need to work together to get to the other side of the pandemic. In the meantime, we all need to use our best “customer service” in all facets of our lives.—Chip Wright

Special engine out procedures, Part 2

There is an old adage that says that being a single-engine pilot minimizes your decision making in an emergency, and there is some truth in that. If your only engine fails, you’re landing.

In a multiengine airplane, you may or may not have options. In a turbine-powered airplane, assuming you have properly loaded the plane and give due deference to published performance data, you will indeed have options. This is especially true on takeoff.

In the FAR Part 121 world that is the airlines, there are certain performance criteria that an airliner must be able to meet, and one of them is the ability to comply with the four segment climb in the event that an engine fails during the takeoff. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem. A properly trained crew can lose the use of one engine, maintain control of the plane, and fly it off the ground safely and figure out where the best place to land will be.

Sometimes, though, terrain or obstacles (or both) preclude the straight-out departure. In this case, there needs to be an alternative procedure. The airlines and manufacturers work the engineers to produce viable options.

These are then tested in the simulator (and probably in a few cases in the real airplane). The procedures are then tweaked and validated and are published. However, they aren’t available in the public domain, because each procedure is ‘owned’ by the airline and/or the manufacturer. Jeppessen, which is the primary producer of aeronautical charts, publishes the procedures as “10-7” pages. And it’s possible that two companies flying the same airplane may have different procedures at the same airport.

Common airports for 10-7 pages, also known as special engine-out procedures, are Las Vegas, Phoenix, or Reno. Most of the time, the issue is terrain, but not always. In a few cases, like Washington National, there may be another issue. Departing Runway 1 at DCA, the issue is Prohibited Area 56 and the fact that a straight-out departure would put you square in the middle of the airspace that protects the White House and the U.S. Capitol.

But terrain is the most common driver of 10-7 development. When I was at the regionals, we had a 10-7 page for Reno that was incredibly complex. The only way to really fly it safely was to brief the first turn and the associated altitude, and then plan on having the nonflying pilot provide a progressive reading of the steps as the flying pilot attempted to fly. In a place like Reno or Vegas, the weather is almost always VFR, so you can plan to maintain visual separation from the rocks. But this isn’t always the case.

Here’s the rub: 10-7 pages are not something the tower is going to be familiar with, so if you have to fly a single-engine procedure, you’ll need to tell the tower that you’re going to be flying a company-specific procedure due to an engine failure. In a high-traffic area, this can get exciting. The best thing you can do is tell the tower to stand by, and do what you need to do to get to a safe altitude and a place where you can trouble-shoot and figure out your plan for getting back on the ground.

A couple of other notes about 10-7 pages: They are often used for a single-engine missed approach as well; and different fleets at airline X may well have different procedures. In fact, it’s possible that some fleets will need a 10-7 page, and others will not.

As a new airline pilot, you can expect an early introduction to 10-7 pages and how to brief them. You’ll also likely get a taste of at least one in the simulator. But, better to see it there for the first time than on the line!—Chip Wright

This is part 2 of a two-part series. See Part 1 here.-–Ed. 

The humble O2 mask

Most passengers—especially frequent travelers—don’t pay much attention to the flight attendant safety briefings. That said, there is actually some good information being passed along, and as a potential professional pilot, it would be wise to start learning some of it yourself.

For instance, how much attention have you paid to the discussion about the oxygen masks falling from the ceiling? You might know that you need to put the mask on during a depressurization situation, but did you pay any attention to the particulars? If not, you should.

The oxygen that you will breathe during a depressurization actually isn’t on the airplane yet. It has to be produced, and guess who does that? You do.

Every jet uses some kind of a pressurization controller to maintain cabin altitude. If the cabin climbs above a certain setting (around 14,000 feet msl), the controller will (should) release the “rubber jungle” into the cabin. If the automatic system fails, the pilots can manually deploy the masks, but first they need feedback from the flight attendants that the masks didn’t fall. If there are a few units that don’t work, the flight attendants can use a tool to pop open the doors of the unit that is right over your seat.

Once the masks are out, there is a catch: Oxygen isn’t generated until you pull the mask toward you. You actually need to give it a little tug, because the hose is attached to a pin that needs to be tripped. When you give that mask a tug, the pin activates a chemical reaction that will then produce the oxygen that you will breathe. This is why you’re told that you should put on your mask first and make sure it’s activated. If the cabin depressurizes at a high altitude, there won’t be much time of useful consciousness, and if you can get your mask working, then you can help a child or someone next to you.

Once the canister is activated, it generates a tremendous amount of heat, so you don’t want to reach up and touch it. It can—and will likely—also produce a bit of a burning or foul odor. You don’t want to mistake that for a possible fire. It is instead a sign that the system is working as advertised. There may also be a bit of dust or smoke, both of which can generally be ignored.

What the flight attendants don’t tell you is this: The canisters only produce enough oxygen for around 12 minutes of breathing, though you may be able to get 15 minutes out of it. Worse, the oxygen is a continuous flow. It doesn’t matter how deeply or slowly you breathe. The good news with that is that if you (or a seatmate) pass out, air is available. The bad news is that if you pull down on two masks at once, you will still only have the 12 minutes of air to use. So, if you are in a row of three seats by yourself, you might have 36 to 45 minutes of air to use if you use them consecutively.

Why so little time? The assumption is that a depressurization at altitude is going to be followed by an immediate and rapid descent to (preferably) 10,000 feet. Since passenger jets are limited to 41,000 feet, the crew would be trying to lose 31,000 feet. In 12 minutes’ time, that works out to around 2,600 feet per minute, which should be very easy to do. Keep in mind that this is a worst-case scenario, because very few full jets can reach FL410.

So, next time you board, pay attention to the safety briefing. There are nuggets of information in there that really can save your life. And in this case, they will also be on a checkride if you are looking to fly professionally.—Chip Wright

Dear FAA

Dear FAA,

I am writing to you from the comfy confines of my pandemic-imposed quarantine-like shutdown, and like many Americans, I have gotten a fair number of things done around my house that needed doing or that I was told needed doing, or that I was told that I wanted to need to do. But I digress.

Doing these things made me realize that there are some housekeeping items that you should have addressed while airlines around the world were basically grounded. In fact, much of general aviation wasn’t flying much either, so you wasted a lot of good opportunity, which is almost as bad as wasting my tax dollars.

In the event that the world shuts down again, please consider using the following as a To Do list:

Clean the runways. Runways everywhere are covered with discarded rubber from tires, and these black patches are slicker than ice when they get wet. Speaking of ice, when that rubber gets snow and ice on it, slick doesn’t even begin to describe what one must deal with. The severe decrease in traffic is a great time to get the rubber cleaning equipment out of the garage and put it to use, so chop chop.

Fix the lights. There are, I’m guessing, millions of lights on and around airports. Runway lights, taxi way lights, approach lights, sign lights, and probably lights I’m not even aware of. Some of them I’m not aware of because they are burned out. I have yet to figure out when lights need to be fixed, but it must be some formula I don’t understand, because some are always (it seems) notam’ed out of service. With fewer airplanes to avoid, this would be a grand time to get all the lights working again. Even the Motel 6 leaves the lights on for people.

Paint! There is no better time than during an aviation-grounding pandemic to whip out some brushes and rollers and start painting taxi lines, runway stripes, lead-in lines, hold-short lines, taxiway markers, spot numbers and anything else that has paint in, on it, or with it. I’m going to cut you some slack on this one, because paint is hard to stay on top of, especially since it needs time to dry. It fades in the sun, gets scraped by plows, runover by vehicles large and small, and pounded by rain and even lightning. But, too many airports have too many lines that are too hard to see, especially at night and in the rain, and this really needs to be fixed, pronto.

This list could keep you busy for a while, so consider this a good starting point, but not necessarily an end point. Pilots everywhere will be grateful and less likely to get lost on one of your aerodromes.

Many thanks, and peace out,
Chip—Chip Wright

Bad overnights

It doesn’t happen often, but once in a while, you have a layover that is just an awful experience. I’ve had a handful in the years since I started doing this.

Most of the time, it comes down to personal comfort. Air conditioning that doesn’t work isn’t all that uncommon, and in the summer, that can make for a long night as you try to sleep and not sweat like you’re camping in the Sahara.

Noise is another common issue, especially around raucous holidays like New Year’s or the Fourth of July. But it’s also an issue with everything from family reunions to weddings to a hotel full of kids in town for a sporting tournament. Loud arguments—or the opposite—in the room next door can also be an issue.

The one thing about noise, though, is the hotel will almost always do whatever they can to contain it or stop it. Crews are generally supposed to be placed in pre-designated places, such as the upper floors or the longest walk from the elevator, all in the hopes of keeping noise down. In my experience, the worst times for noise are when you need to go to bed much earlier than usual because of an early wake-up or a long day coming up. The hotel also knows that if noise is affecting one person, it’s probably affecting others (or will), and they won’t hesitate to call the police if necessary.

I’ve had two memorable experiences with middle-of-the-night fire alarms as well. One was in Raleigh-Durham in the summer, so at least it was comfortable outside. The hotel was one that often had a majority of its rooms used by crews from different airlines, and this was one of those nights. We were outside for well over an hour, from about 2:30 to 3:30 a.m., and all of us were upset. Some of us never got back to sleep. I can’t speak for the other carriers, but ours wound up with a number of fatigue calls that cancelled flights the next day because so many people hadn’t been able to get adequate rest.

The second one was in Buffalo in March, and the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament was going on. Several of the teams were in the hotel, and the rumor was that the alarm was pulled by a student from another school in hopes of affecting the games. This one also lasted about an hour.

One night that didn’t affect me so much did affect my crew as well as most of the hotel. It was the night of the time change in the spring, and the computer in the hotel that handled the wakeup calls malfunctioned, and phones all throughout the building began ringing in the middle of the night, and then an hour earlier than scheduled. I hadn’t checked my phone (this was in the pre-smart-phone era) before I went to bed, and it was just as well: It had been unplugged by a previous guest. Mine never rang, but when I got downstairs, my crew had been there an hour because they couldn’t sleep, and a dozen other guests were ready to tar and feather the poor guy working the desk. But I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Most of the time, sleep comes fairly easily, and occasionally you wake up with no idea where you are. But, as with any other job, bad nights are going to happen. It just feels worse when it happens on the road. That said, there’s always the next night’s hotel to catch up on your sleep.—Chip Wright

The smallest airplanes are getting bigger

When I first started to do any kind of regular travel, let alone fly for a living, turboprops were very common. Dash 8s, Brasilias, ATRs, Saab 340s, and the venerable Beech 1900 were ubiquitous in small towns all over America. Some of the flights were part of the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, and they were subsidized by Uncle Sam in order to provide some degree of air and mail service to the various Smallvilles of the USA.

Passengers, however, never did love the “puddle jumpers.” They were loud, they shook, they vibrated, and they were perceived to be less safe. After deregulation, small commuters sprouted and eventually began to work hand-in-glove with the jet drivers to produce the current hub-and-spoke system, while in some cases marketing a few flights on their own.

In the 1990s the concept of the regional jet gained steam, and while pundits and critics said it was doomed to failure—too few seats and too high an operating cost—the RJ revolutionized travel. The days of the turboprop were numbered, and by 9/11, with a spike in fuel prices and change in travel demand, the turboprop was on its last legs. Fifty-seaters dominated, because of comfort and speed, but those same high fuel costs became an issue for the RJs as well, and the real push for larger small jets began.

Nowadays, as we wade through the COVID-19 pandemic, the 50-seaters by Bombardier and Embraer are the airplanes facing demise. Some have been converted into corporate jets or cargo planes, but most are being sent to the desert. The CR7 and CR9 are now the Bombardier mainstays (the verdict is still out on the C-Series, since sold to Airbus and marketed as the A-220), while Embraer is making the most of its E-Jet series. Both have become major players, to the point that Boeing felt it necessary to buy a portion of Embraer and Airbus of Bombardier.

It’s interesting to see how the smallest airplanes have become bigger. Turboprops with 19 seats didn’t require a flight attendant, and they were cheap to operate. But jets offered far more opportunity and a better experience for the passenger at a premium price. The race now is to determine if there is a true market need for something in the 100-seat range, similar to the old DC-9s and early 737s. There doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus, and airlines would rather fill  up an  airplane up and leave folks behind than fly even one empty seat.

(The same thing has also happened on the other end of the spectrum: The A-380 has proved to be a flop, and the 747 is being phased out of passenger service in favor of smaller, lower-cost twinjets like the 777 and 787.)

As the E-190 appears to be near the end of its run in the United States—American announced plans to park theirs, and jetBlue has been planning to do so for some time—the smallest mainline jets will be the 737-700/A-319 variants, which seat 120-137, depending on configuration. The gap between large RJs and small mainline jets will be either a target of opportunity or a bit of a no-man’s land as we move forward.

For pilots, it means that more and more will get their introduction to airline flying in some of the most sophisticated aircraft in the sky, and not in the old steam-gauge turboprops.—Chip Wright

Coronavirus recovery

In 25 years of airline flying, I’ve either been involved in or observed  several full or partial shutdowns of airlines or the industry as a whole.

In 2001, I was employed at Comair for the pilot strike, and the shutdown of the airline was an organized, four-day process as the company moved to get airplanes and crews in position before the pilots would stop flying. A few months later, we were part of the industrywide immediate cessation of operations when the tragic events of September 11, 2001, occurred.

The following year Comair also weathered a scheduling computer system crash over the Christmas holidays that was anything but orderly. In addition, I’ve watched strikes at other airlines take place, and I’ve seen the fallout of employee job actions, failed websites, and the grounding of fleets of airplanes at unexpected times.

All of these events led to the inevitable restart of operations of some sort, and in the case of 9/11, the spool-up was also followed by the near retirement of fleets of airplanes, mostly the venerable 727.

As we work our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, we are witnessing similar events. We can use these to get a bit of an idea of how the industry will begin the return to service. The closest comparable event is 9/11, and that isn’t even all that close in terms of the damage. Every airplane in the United States was grounded, but only for four days. The rest of the world continued to fly, and even though demand was diminished when flights resumed, it was better than it is now.

C-19 has stopped travel around the world. At one point, 16,000 of the world’s 24,000 airliners were parked at airports around the globe. Entire airlines were shut down or announced that they had or planned to go out of business. People stopped buying tickets, and fewer people flew in a month than normally fly on a single day. Flights in April and early May were averaging 10 or so people.

As in 2001, airlines began announcing  plans to eliminate entire fleets of airplanes. In the United States, Delta and American announced retirements of multiple fleets, to include the MD-88/90, A-330, 757, 777 and E-190, with rumors of the B-717 also being put to bed. Eliminating these airframes will reduce costs dramatically with respect to spare parts, fuel, training, and the occasional equipment swap. Carriers in other countries are planning to park the A-380, the world’s largest airplane, and one that never really found a niche.

In the last few days, there have been some signs of optimism. Ticket sales starting in July have begun to show some positive activity, and passengers are showing a bit more tolerance for close-to-the-neighbor seating in order to get where they need to go. United has quietly made plans to bring more than 60 airplanes out of storage for the July schedule, and Southwest is strategically adding flights as well. While all of the airlines have announced plans to emerge in the fall “at least” 30 percent smaller, it’s clear that they will take into account demand for travel as they add flights and try to bring the daily cash burn to at least zero.

As we move into the fall, everyone will be holding their collective breath on two fronts: How many employees might be furloughed, and how severe might a second wave of C-19 turn out to be? Furloughs are on everyone’s mind right now, and most recognize that the airlines will probably have no choice. But if demand continues to rise at a somewhat predictable pace, hopefully any time on the unemployment lines will be short. The larger issue is the unknown of the resurgence of the virus this fall and how people might react to it.

Some travel will be lost for good, and many leisure trips won’t be taken. But business travelers will continue to fly, and the airlines will adapt to the new demands and whatever cleaning procedures will be ongoing. Ticket prices will undoubtedly rise. More airplanes will come out of storage, but not all. An airline or two may fail, victim of too many dollars going out and not enough coming in. But in time, the system will work itself out. It always does.—Chip Wright

Older posts