Resolving conflicts in the cockpit

Any large group of people is going to produce personality conflicts at some point. Throw in the Type A personality and the sizeable egos of most pilots, and it makes us riper for potential conflict than we might like to admit. Given the tight quarters of an airline cockpit, this can be a dangerous situation if it gets too volatile. How does one deal with this? This is a common interview question.

Each major pilot union has come up with a program to help defuse situations before the company gets involved. Because I am a member of ALPA, and that is the one that I’m most familiar with, it is the one that I will use, but the pilots at non-ALPA carriers use similar processes and tools. The ALPA model is called Professional Standards, and like every other committee within the association, it is staffed by volunteers. These men and women are put through a specific training program to help them help their peers.

Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that one of the pilots has a “personal policy” of deliberately flouting company policy in the airplane. For example, assume that the pilot in question says that he will not do certain checklists as dictated by company policy. This is going to make some pilots very uncomfortable, and it may create a hazard. If the offending pilot can’t be convinced to do things the way they should be done, the affected pilot has two options. One is to go to the company.

But another option is to call someone on the Pro Standards committee and let them try to handle it. Pro Standards pilots do not and cannot act in a disciplinary way. However, what they can do is sort through the details of the conflict, and determine where any wrong (if any) is occurring, and then call and counsel the pilot in question.

The key here is that, sometimes, peer pressure can be every bit as effective, if not more so, than other options. Getting a call from Pro Standards can be something of an embarrassment, especially if it has to do with non-compliance with the company or FAA procedures.

On the flip side, it may be that the pilot who filed the complaint was wrong about something or misunderstood something. If the conflict is a personality clash, then the committee member(s) might be able to offer some ideas and tools for avoiding a conflict in the future. It’s often said that we shouldn’t talk about politics, religion, or sex, and there’s some truth to that. Stick to more basic topics and you can avoid a lot of issues.

There are times, however, when Pro Standards is simply unable to help a pilot correct certain behaviors. Every airline, it seems, has that one person who just can’t get out of his or her own way. If the offending pilot continues to cause trouble, then it might be time to consider getting the chief pilot or other appropriate department heads involved, but you better have your ducks in a row and make sure that it won’t devolve into a mud-slinging contest that will also make you look bad.

Fortunately, most of us get along, even with people that have very different views than we do. But there are those times when two pilots just can’t coexist. There are tools you can use to get through those trying times. Know what they are, and take advantage of them, and your life will be much easier.—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

JetBlue’s new ab initio program

JetBlue has recently announced that it would begin an ab inito pilot training program, which it hopes to kick off in 2016. The company said that the program was not founded because of any impending pilot shortage, but that claim that is dubious at best. While the details are sparse, the apparent structure of the program will be similar to the multi-crew pilot certificate that certain European carriers use.

JetBlueThe multi-pilot license (MPL) works by training candidates with no flight time whatsoever ab initio (“from the beginning”), using simulators for the majority of training. The intent is to immerse students into the crewed cockpit concept as early as possible. Once the basics are mastered, candidates spend large chunks of time flying “flights” that are similar to line operations, but with all manner of problems and issues introduced. Everything from medical emergencies to cabin fires is fair game, and students are required to respond accordingly.

Under a traditional MPL program, pilots will only be qualified to fly certain airline equipment. Depending on how the program is structured, it’s quite possible that a pilot will be fully qualified in the Embraer E-190 (which is the only plane that JetBlue is proposing right now), but would not be able to rent a Cessna 172 at the local FBO.

As noted, the details are scant, and the FAA has to weigh in on JetBlue’s proposal. The early word is that pilots would still get some traditional certificates (probably private, commercial, and instrument), and would then transition to the airline training environment, which would result in an ATP. JetBlue has said that pilots would work with “partners” to get the requisite experience, but it’s unclear if that means sending pilots to work at another flight school, or if they would be sponsored to work for a regional for a while.

So, is this program worth considering for the airline pilot wanna be? That’s a good question, and it’s worth studying when the details are available. While JetBlue has claimed that it will make the monetary investment, nothing is free. It’s a safe bet that there will be some kind of contract required to make sure that pilots don’t get the training and then bolt. Such contracts can be a pair of golden handcuffs.

An alternative possibility is that JetBlue is going to propose a program to the FAA in which the successful candidates will not be eligible to fly for anyone else, thus rendering moot the fear that a pilot will jump ship to a better employment opportunity at another airline (i.e., a non-compete clause). That said, I still suspect a contract will be required in case the candidate decides that instead of flying airplanes, he or she would rather pursue a different line of work.

At present, there are plenty of regional airline pilots that JetBlue can choose from, and the pilots at JetBlue recently voted to join ALPA; negotiations for their first collective bargaining unit are under way, and it’s safe to assume that there will be across-the-board improvements, which will further enhance the appeal of the airline as a place to work. This program is clearly—despite the company denials—a strategy for getting ahead of the pilot shortage while controlling the training of future pilots.

But will it work? Will it last? My early guess is that it will have mixed results at best. Training is expensive, and in this case, there will not only have to be training costs covered, but likely some basic living expenses as well. The core business is still to run an airline, and it will take an awful lot of ticket sales to train a pilot.

While candidates will be exposed to a lot of JetBlue Kool Aid, at some point they will begin to learn to decipher the difference between what the company says and reality, and let’s face it: No matter how great any company is, no company is perfect. Further, smart individuals are only going to be willing to sign contracts with certain limits and restrictions on their ability to move on, and there will always be a few who manage to walk away unscathed.

This presents an interesting situation for airlines. From a competitive standpoint, if nobody else follows suit, JetBlue may have to give this up just because of the cost. Shareholders want to see a return on their investment, and they may not like this idea.

Time will tell if this will be a success. If it is, JetBlue management will look like geniuses. If not, it’s an expensive failure to absorb.—Chip Wright