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The beginning of the beginning of the end

As we enter the second year of the pandemic, there are signs of an ever-so-slow return to normalcy. In the last couple of months, airports are showing more signs of activity, from more crowded terminals to more flights arriving and departing. Airlines are cycling more airplanes in and out of storage, and more importantly, they are bringing some out of storage for good. At three U.S. based carriers—United, Southwest, and American—the Boeing 737 MAX has returned to service.

The three big federal payroll protection program (PPP) grants and loans have gone a long way to help stabilize the industry. Employees who were going to be furloughed are being kept on the payroll. Pilots are being kept current, and those who can afford to take some unpaid time off are being given an opportunity to do so. (Two of these PPP blocks have already been signed into law; the third is currently headed toward the Senate, where it is likely to pass.)

Now that the U.S. FDA has approved a third vaccine, we can pick up the steady march toward herd immunity in the United States while also sending extra supply to other nations that need it. This is critical for helping achieve a return toward normal levels of trade, travel, and tourism. It will take some time for the global economy to rebound, but once that recovery gains traction, it should be a steady improvement. Time will tell.

In the aviation sector, this is all great news. Few industries are as capital-intensive as the airlines with as few direct sources of revenue. A number of airlines have already failed, and more may well follow. But the best news is that several airlines that were talking about having to furlough are now actively spooling up their hiring processes.

During the pandemic, agreements were made with various unions to offer early retirement packages to employees, including pilots, and it now looks like there will be a faster recovery in some sectors than originally anticipated. Leisure travel will recover first, and maybe even fastest, as folks look to get away from home after feeling trapped for so long. Florida is open, except for cruises, and flights to and from the state are full and—for now—usually cheap.

Business travel will take longer to recover, but that might also make it more predictable and easier to manage. The international business community will take longer to return as nations slowly lift their travel restrictions and the vaccines begin to reach more and more people. That said, trade shows, meetings, et cetera, that were postponed or canceled will slowly be returned to the calendar, and advance tickets will be sought, bought, and sold.

All signs point to the beginning of the beginning of the end of the pandemic, with a nation and a globe full of people desperate to return to a more normal, familiar life. If this is indeed the case, the airlines have weathered an incredibly difficult path—one that would not have been possible without federal aid, but still they will have succeeded.

It’s too soon to say if the pilot shortages of 2018 to 2020 will return, or will be as severe, but I think it is safe to say that those who want to find a career in aviation will have the opportunities to do so far sooner than we might have thought even a few months ago, and that is indeed welcome news.—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

Human factors assumptions, part 1

As I write this, the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air Boeing 737 MAX accidents are still being investigated. While we know that the MCAS system is going to get the major share of the blame, there is also a push to change the way pilots are trained. One of the topics that has come up is one that was addressed in the movie Sully, the story of the USAirways dead-stick landing in the Hudson River, and that is some of the assumptions that go into aircraft and systems design.

Engineers—both hardware and software—creating a new design need to make some basic assumptions about pilot reaction time, knowledge, and experience. Reaction time delay is one of the most difficult things to predict. Modern aircraft are so dependable and so reliable that it’s easy to take them for granted. And that’s the problem: When something does go wrong, it’s critical that the time lag of a response be given adequate consideration. As Sully showed, when the crews in the sim knew exactly what was going to happen and when, and were allowed to respond immediately, they had no trouble getting the crippled A320 back to departure airport, especially when allowed to practice several times.

In reality, though, such events almost never go so smoothly—after all, who ever anticipates losing both engines to a flock of geese? Imagine dealing with the shock of some kind of a collision, followed by a marked change in the normal noise pattern of flight, and then the audible chimes and lights and other indications of an anomaly. Then, once that has begun to set in, the brain has to convince itself that what it is seeing or hearing is real.

Media reports indicate  this happened with the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air crews. Additionally, it involved a system that the crew of the Lion Air flight was totally unaware of, and the crew of the Ethiopian Air flight was only marginally aware of. The noise of the stick shaker—which is extremely loud and distracting in the 737 by design—combined with the realization that the airplane was descending and trimming itself nose down must have been overwhelming. In both incidents, there was surely a realization at some point that the crew was unable to overcome the airloads in order to reverse the trim.

It’s one thing for designers to try to anticipate crew responses during the early phases of flight. But they also need to look at human factors from several angles, including crews that might be in the middle of a longer flight on the back side of the clock, such as a red-eye or a transcon. The effects of fatigue on sensory response need to be accounted for, which is another reason that some warnings are designed to be loud and attention-getting.

The type of fatigue matters too. Is the crew tired because it’s the last leg of a six-leg day, or is it because they are flying in the middle of the night? Crew experience also needs to taken into account. An experienced, well-trained crew is going to have a better response under virtually any circumstance, and there is reason to believe that at least one of the pilots involved in the Ethiopian Air crash may have been extremely low on the experience meter. Throw in a similar situation with fatigue or personal stress, and such an individual could easily be overwhelmed. It might impossible to account for every possibility, but realistic common denominators need to be established.

Manufacturers do what they can to test their theories and assumptions in the simulators, but there are limits to the effectiveness. Every pilot knows that during a sim flight, something will go wrong. They may not know what, or when, or where or how, but they are primed for a surprise, so even the surprise isn’t a total surprise. Further, when you know that you’re in a box, you know that you’re eventually walking away. That means that the effect of full-blown fear and panic is almost impossible to test for or measure.

There has already been much discussion about human factors assumptions moving forward as result of these accidents, and it’s a discussion that will go on for some time. Checklists and procedures are already being retested, rewritten, and studied. Pilots have complained for years that inexperienced cockpit inhabitants—usually first officers—are unable to cope with a sensory onslaught of often conflicting information. These accidents seem to bring some evidentiary data to that argument, though we must wait for the final reports to be written.

What we do know is that 346 people were killed in very preventable accidents, and the laws are written in blood. Changes will be coming.—Chip Wright

Learn your airplane on a different level

If knowledge is power, education is the fuel. Pilots have myriad avenues for increasing their knowledge. Before I got hired at my first airline, I had already devoured countless books on aviation safety, accident analysis, accident investigations, human factors, and related topics. I had an enviable library, to say the least.

Once I started flying, I became more and more interested in accidents that involved the airplanes that I was actually flying. Let’s face it: Accident reports on Cessna 172s almost never involve a problem with the airplane. They almost all have their roots in poor pilotage/airmanship, bad ownership decisions, and occasionally a maintenance issue. But by and large, the person flying the airplane does something they shouldn’t do, and the result is an accident or a fatality. Further, the systems are so simple that systems knowledge isn’t really a factor.

In turbine equipment, there are a lot more variables at play. The pilot is still the most important, but systems knowledge, fatigue, maintenance practices, and the like play a bigger role. As a pilot new to a particular airplane, some of what may be involved may be difficult to understand in great detail, but once you have a bit of experience, it will be easier to digest certain accidents or discussions.

With certain accidents or aircraft, it’s not uncommon to come across superstitions about how dangerous certain systems are or how difficult the airplane is to operate. The Mitsubishi MU–2 ran into this because of a relatively high accident rate, but there was a realization that a more rigorous training program could decrease the number of incidents and accidents. And guess what? It worked.

Given that I was flying a turboprop as my first airliner and my first turbine airplane, I wanted to know what was going on in the fleet as a whole. So, I continued by quest by downloading and reading a number of NTSB and FAA summaries and reports. I didn’t necessarily need to read every word of every report, but I did spend a lot of time reading the pertinent sections. I also did this when I got to the CRJ, and when noteworthy events occurred, I’d do the same thing. It was amazing how many errors or mistakes a well-meaning mainstream media reporter could make (it still is).

I’ve since read more reports and books on accidents than I can recall, and while most still come down to the pilots, not all do. But there are more pieces than ever before. Human factors is often much bigger than one would expect, and weather is still the beast we can’t tame. But one of the most fascinating things to me to learn about was how difficult the investigation process can be. For proof of that, just look at the USAir 427, or even TWA 800.

Whether you go into the regionals in the CRJ, ERJ, or E-Jet series, or eventually make it to the majors flying Boeings or Airbuses, it behooves you to educate yourself as much as possible on common causes of confusion or incidents on the airplane you fly. You’ll be surprised at what you learn, what you may not have been taught, and how the past changes what we do in the present or the future.

Plus, you’ll just feel better armed with as much knowledge as you can get.—Chip Wright

Buying a new fleet

The Paris Airshow just wrapped up, and as usual, the various manufacturers jockeyed for some large orders. Virtually all orders that are announced at Paris and Farnborough are in place before the airshows, but the airlines and the manufacturers use the events to make a big splash, and this year was no different.

In the U.S. market, United announced an order for 100 new 737s and four new 777s. There was some hand-wringing over the UAL deal, because Scott Kirby, late of America West/USAirways/American, is known to be an Airbus guy, and there were rumors that UAL was going to announce a larger order of A320s and A321neos. So what happened?

Buying an airplane is a major decision for any airline, and for a global carrier like UAL or Delta or American, the narrow-body fleets are the backbone that support the global system. There are three major cost considerations. The first is the actual unit price. As with cars, this is negotiated. Nobody pays sticker price. However, this price is significant nevertheless, and it becomes the starting point for everything else moving forward.

The second major cost consideration is the operating cost for the airplane. This covers everything from fuel to scheduled maintenance to crew costs, and it also takes into account warranties on the airplane as a whole or on the various parts. Somewhere in every airline, there is a bean counter who has broken down to the penny the actual cost of each airplane under consideration, taking into account more variables than most of us can imagine.

The final cost to consider is the long-term cost, which includes the cost of integrating the airplane into the current fleet—especially if it’s a new piece of equipment or represents a departure from the current norm.

In the case of UAL, the bulk of the domestic fleet is the 737. The A320/321 fleet is much smaller and much older. Bringing in new Airbuses would have led to a dramatic increase in training for pilots, and would have negated much of the advantage of the larger 737 fleet, which operates from Saigon to the Caribbean, and from Alaska to Central South America. There will be a high parts commonality between the 737s in use and the new MAX versions on order. Both are known quantities, and both Boeing and Airbus no doubt made compelling pitches to UAL. If everything was truly equal, it may have been as simple as “Buy American.” But it’s almost never that simple.

Delta, on the other hand, will be introducing a new narrow-body soon when it takes delivery of the Bombardier C-Series. Taking on a new aircraft type is not without risk, as United learned a few years ago with the battery problems on the 787. New airplanes are frequently slowed by unexpected bugs, and the C-Series is not likely to be any different. Further, everything about the program is new: new parts, a new engine, new simulators, and new training programs for pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, dispatchers, and gate agents. A new airplane is expensive, and it takes time for the return on the investment to pay off. With luck it does. Today, UAL is ecstatic with what the 787 has been able to do, and the markets it has opened.

New airplanes are critical to get right, as the decision is one that will affect airlines and their passengers for decades.—Chip Wright

Asking for help

Pilots tend to have egos. We don’t like to admit that we need help, but the truth is that we need it more often that we want to admit. This is especially true when we’re learning something fairly new, or have not spent a lot of time in an aircraft. It might be something as simple as how to program a new fix in the avionics, and it might be something as complicated as…programming a new fix in the avionics.

I’m still learning the ins and outs of the 737, which I’ve been flying now for almost two years. I spend most of my time on reserve, as I am fairly junior in my base, so I don’t fly as much as I’d like. My flight time tends to occur in spurts where I’m flying a lot, and then sitting at home a lot. The result is that I often need to brush up on a few items before I go fly a trip. It’s also not uncommon for me to just forget a few things here and there.

The need for help was driven home recently while talking to a friend of mine who has made the transition from one career to another, having left behind a field she spent 30 years in (finance) for one that is brand new to her (flight attendant). For as much time as I’ve been in the airlines, I must confess that I knew precious little about the training that the cabin crews go through. That’s changed, because my friend, who was hired by a major airline, spent five pretty intense weeks tackling an enormous amount of material, all of which was new to her.

One of the things that quickly became apparent was that she wasn’t going to make it through training on her own. I had forewarned her about that before she left, but I’m not sure that she fully appreciated it until she got into class and got hit with the full brunt of all the information she needed to master. This carried over to the airplane as well, and it was a bit of a surprise to me to hear just how much she relied on her crew mates as she got her feet wet.

It reminded me of my own experiences in the cockpit. Pilots tend to think that flying is flying, and it doesn’t matter what airplane it is. That’s true…to a point. But each airplane is different, and each one has its own challenges. Throw in learning the way a new company does things, and it’s even more complex.

I spent 16 years with my first airline, and moving to the second one involved a lot of “unlearning,” and it’s not easy. I had to ask for help, not only on the basic information about how new equipment worked, but on how to simply fit in. I’m on my third airline now, and I’m still asking for help. Sometimes, it seems like I am asking for help on something that is so simple I should be embarrassed, but I learned a long time ago—usually the hard way—that these are the times when I absolutely must ask for help. Life experience is a great teacher in that respect.

As my friend the FA has said, she asks for help for two reasons. One, she might genuinely need it. Two, it’s often just a way to reinforce what she knows or even just thinks she knows. It’s a confidence- builder. And that alone is enough.—Chip Wright

When is 200 feet not 200 feet?

This is probably something that you have not given a lot of thought, but think about this: When you fly a Cessna 172 at pattern altitude, say 1,000 feet, how high are you? What if you were flying in a Boeing 747? How high would you be if your altimeter in a 747 read 1,000 feet? Clearly, the entire airplane is not at that altitude, especially considering that the tail alone sits more than 60 feet off the ground when the airplane is parked.

If you are an instrument-rated pilot, or thinking about becoming one, one of the topics you will become familiar with is decision height or minimum descent altitude on an instrument approach. Considering that a standard ILS uses a published DH of 200 feet agl, which part of the airplane are they referring to? Does the pilot of one airplane have an advantage “over” another?

In transport category aircraft—that is, airliners—as well as most business aircraft, there is a radio altimeter that is essentially a radar for determining the height of the airplane over the ground. The crew needs to know exactly what is being referenced so that they can make an informed decision about executing a go-around.

The fact is that in larger airplanes, the radio altimeter computes the height above ground with reference to the wheels. This makes sense. Even on narrow-body airliners like the B-737 or the A-320, the crew might be sitting such that their heads—eyes—are 16 feet or so over the ground, which means that they are well over 200 feet agl at the lowest published altitude of the approach. For a 747, the pilot flying would be sitting even higher.

It only makes sense that all the required measurements are based on the height of the wheels. After all, it is the wheels that ultimately must cross the airport fence in order to assure a safe arrival of the plane. If you don’t believe me, just watch any one of the videos on YouTube of 747s crossing the beach and fence in St. Maarten (in fact, there is a great YouTube video that is filmed from the cockpit of a KLM 747 landing at St. Maarten).

As for who has the advantage? I’d say the 172 pilot does, for the simple reason that when a 172 pilot breaks out of a low cloud ceiling, the airplane does too. A 747 crew might well be still enveloped in a cloud while the wheels or even the lower row of passengers is in the clear. In reality, this will rarely matter if the airplane has a working auto-land system. But if it doesn’t, and the crew is forced to fly a standard Category I ILS, they might not see the runway, whereas the CRJ or even the 172 behind them does.

How about that…one-upping a Whale! Who’d a thunk it?—Chip Wright