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Tag: career pilots (page 1 of 5)

Bidding vacation

I’ve written before about the significance of seniority with respect to bidding, bases, quality of life, et cetera. When you talk to pilots about what factors into their decision to upgrade, change fleets or switch domiciles, a number of factors crop up, and one of those is vacation.

Pilots accrue vacation based on years of completed service, with two weeks for the first four to five years behind standard issue, followed by three weeks for several years, and topping out with five or maybe even six weeks a year. Every airline has to figure out a way to have a certain number of allotted vacation weeks in each seat, in each fleet, in each base, every year. For example, there might be eight slots to take vacation starting the first week of April in a given year, but there may only be six slots the first week of July, because July is the peak of the travel year.

From a pilot’s perspective, this is critical because at any airline, most anyone can tell you what kind of vacation weeks their seniority can hold. As you might imagine, summers are difficult to get because everyone wants time off during the summer. These positions tend to go senior, and if the company allows pilots to bid consecutive weeks, the junior pilots are virtually frozen out of getting a summer vacation.

There are other times of the year that cause similar issues: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Fourth of July, and the end/beginning of the school year. To make matters worse, bidding for vacation usually begins no later than 14 months from the end of the vacation year, because the bidding process takes time, and because it’s critical to get the awards for the first month of the year into the computer so that pilots can bid their regular schedule around it.

Vacation also affects training scheduling for both recurrent training and new position/equipment training. Scheduling around recurrent isn’t usually too difficult; you just can’t bid for both concurrently. Extended training events, however, can wreak havoc on vacation planning. Depending on the airline, you may be able to defer the training event for your vacation, but that might mean waiting months for your next chance to get that long-awaited time off. On the other hand, you may lose the week and see it pushed into another year (some find this desirable), or you may have to forfeit it in exchange for pay or a 401(k) deposit.

Most airlines also allow some kind of vacation “slide,” which means you can move your vacation forward or backward from the posted start date. Three days either way is fairly typical, which means that if you can’t hold consecutive weeks, you may be able to get two weeks that are six days apart, and slide them each to produce consecutive weeks, or you can try to bid the days off in between them.

Changing your current base, seat, or fleet can wreak absolute havoc on your plans. Usually, you’ll lose your scheduled vacation, because of the aforementioned allocation of slots based on staffing for each category. If you have vacation later in the year, and then take advantage of a captain position, you will have to bid for whichever weeks are left over in your new position. If there aren’t any, you’ll have to take your fate per the rules at your airline. Often, pilots who know they are planning to upgrade or change positions will do so after their vacations are used up, or start negotiating with the chief pilot to keep the week(s) off if there are plans set in stone.—Chip Wright

The minutiae of seniority

Most people know that seniority is the way of life at the airlines. But seniority is a fickle thing. It matters in all aspects of your day-to-day lives, and some pilots will study the minutiae of seniority until they can’t see straight.

When I was at Comair, there was a captain who was famous for having been the most junior captain in the company for a number of years. He was on reserve, and he had the worst possible schedule one could get. He never had weekends off; he got the vacation nobody wanted; he had the worst trips. But, as he always pointed out, he was a captain. The guy who was one number—one lousy number—below him was the most senior first officer. The FO had the best schedule, his first choice in vacation, and a lot of days off, but he was still an FO making significantly less money. He also was not logging turbine PIC time, which was making his future job searches much more difficult.

In every airline, in every category, there is that one person who is just one number away from being where he or she wants to be. This person’s reasons and desires aren’t always known, but in time those desires can be fleshed out. It becomes most obvious when the company opens a new bid for something, and you see pilots trying to jump in to get what they want. With all of the advancement taking place now, it’s almost a linear progression for a lot of pilots who have waited years for what they want. But there are also strategic bidders.

For most airlines, being on reserve is the least desirable option, and in some cases, it’s downright brutal. Many first officers will try to wait until they know they will be assured of being off reserve before moving over. This is risky on a couple of fronts.

First, unless you know what other, more senior FOs are thinking, you may find yourself getting left behind for the left seat more than you might have imagined.

Second, even though this is a boom time, you run the risk that movement will stop for unforeseen reasons for an indeterminate amount of time. The captain I mentioned above made his move for exactly this reason. Had he waited, he would have been stuck in the right seat at much less pay for a number of years.

Another common unknown is an impending change to the union contract. If new work rules or better pay rates are on the horizon, a strong argument can be made for making the move to the left seat sooner versus later, especially if you will be a relatively junior captain.

Studying the minutiae of seniority can also tell you just when you can expect to hold weekends off, holidays, morning versus evening trips. Vacations are tougher to figure out because not everyone wants or needs a summer vacation or the week at Christmas, but you can still see which way the trend is going for your seniority. And, as is so often the case, there is almost always a stark dividing line between two pilots who are just one number apart.—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

Reviewing cold weather operations

As summer comes to a close, it is worth remembering that in some places, colder weather will hit while the rest of the country stays warm. In the northern climes, the onset of fall means colder temperatures at night, and that means there is a distinct possibility of frost. This may mean deicing, even though you can still wear shorts in the afternoon.

Even though it is still hurricane season, this is a great time of the year to begin reviewing cold weather operations. Believe it or not, most airlines start planning for winter ops around the first of June. There is a lot of background work that needs to be done. Deicing trucks need to be tested and maintained. Fluid needs to be ordered and strategically placed (in some places, this is handled by the airport, but not always). Employees need to be trained, equipment needs to ordered—the list goes on, and everything starts with an honest review of what did and did not work well the last couple of seasons.

On the pilot front, most airlines issue flight manual updates in the fall, and these almost always include updates to deicing procedures. In 2017, many airlines began using a new liquid water equivalent (LWE) concept that takes into account multiple variables at one time. In the past, deicing ops were predicated mostly on precipitation intensity or type. LWE takes into account temperature, dew point, and humidity as well to more accurately predict the hold-over times that can be used while deicing. The result is longer holdover times without compromising safety, which minimizes the risk of re-deicing—a time-consuming, expensive process.

Updates will also consist of new procedures—will the flaps be up or down for deicing this year?—that might be specific to the fleet, the airline, or the airport. Pay attention, because we can easily forget the details, and sometimes the changes are significant and dramatic.

A review will also make it easier to find quickly the sections of the manual needed when something is out of the ordinary, such as an inoperative APU. A lot of the updates will be buried in the company-specific pages of the Jeppesen charts, and while most airlines do a good job of communicating these, inevitably something will get through the cracks.

I always make a point to review cold weather ops just after Labor Day. This year will be no different. It’s a great habit, and having done it now for almost 20 years, I’d feel naked if I didn’t. Ice can be deadly and dangerous, and it deserves respect. Company procedures need to be followed. As always, two heads are better than one, and a good captain appreciates a first officer who is on his or her game.—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. 

Per diem

One of the less discussed, but still critically important, aspects of a career involving travel is the issue of food and expenses. In the working vernacular, this is shorthanded as per diem.

In nonflying occupations, employees get a certain per diem allowance each day, and it usually covers hotel and food expenses. At the end of a stint of travel, expense reports are submitted, and once they are verified by the accounting personnel, the employee is reimbursed.

The airlines do things a bit differently. Per diem is paid by the hour, starting with the official report time for the trip. It ends whenever the pilot is considered done with the trip, be it a one, two, three, or even 15-day assignment. So, if a pilot reports at noon on the first day of a trip and goes home on day four at noon, he will have logged 96 hours of what is called time away from base (TAFB). If his airline pays $2 an hour per diem, he’ll receive $192 in per diem expenses, which is intended to cover the cost of meals and incidental expenses; the company pays for the hotel directly.

At the majors, there is almost always a slightly higher rate for international trips to cover the higher cost of food in those locations. Per diem is usually paid on the second check of the following month, which allows the folks in payroll time to conduct due diligence on the record keeping.

Under the tax law, if a pilot flies a one-day trip, the per diem is taxable as regular income. If the trip has any overnights, the per diem is not considered taxable. For this reason, it’s common practice at the regionals for pilots and flight attendants to take a lot of their own food on trips, which allows them to pocket per diem as though it were extra income.

The downside to the way the airlines pay per diem is that the rate is always the same. That means that you’re getting the same allowance for dinner in an expensive city such as San Francisco as you’re getting in a less expensive town such as Cedar Rapids. Until the tax law changed this year, pilots and flight attendants could use the IRS meal and incidental expense (M&IE) tables to determine how much they were entitled to in each city, and their accountant or tax software would compute how much of the difference they were entitled to. Under the 2017 tax law, early interpretations are that this allowance has been eliminated, thus increasing the cost of eating on the road.

If the early interpretations of the tax law changes hold, it’s possible that per diem will paid and computed differently. Either way, as an employee, it’s up to you to verify that your per diem is paid to you properly, as well as understand how the rules apply to you and when.—Chip Wright

Early career housing options

A friend of mine is buying a house. She flies for a large regional, and her husband flies for a legacy major, and they have a young child. Talking to her was a reminder of my years as a renter, as well as someone eventually in the market for a home to own.

As you enter the airline industry, it’s important to understand the need to be flexible. Virtually every airline has multiple crew bases, some of which may or may not be in the hubs of their major airline partners. With all of the growth and movement going on in both sectors, it is not unreasonable to assume that you will change bases multiple times.

If you’re single, or married to someone with a sense of adventure and a mobile job (teacher, nurse, flight attendant, et cetera), your best decision might be to move with the job. This will eliminate the stress of commuting, it could save you money in the long run (crashpads and hotels), and it could allow you to make more premium pay money by being able to get to work quickly when Scheduling is in a jam for available pilots because of severe weather or other issues.

Renting is a short-term solution that has benefits. The down payment is usually only a couple of months’ rent (one of which you’ll get back when you return the unit in good condition), as opposed to 20 percent of the purchase price for a house. Renting also forces you to minimize your personal stuff, since you’ll need to fit it all into your car and maybe a U-Haul trailer. Upkeep and maintenance are someone else’s problem, as long as you report any issues in a timely manner. With a roommate, you can cut your payment in half and start saving for that eventual house.

The key is to rent for as short a term as possible, which is usually a year. But, you might be able to negotiate something with a flexible landlord. Going to a month-to-month situation gives you quite a bit of flexibility. Another trick is this: When you negotiate your lease, ask for a clause that lets you out of the lease without penalty in the event you get transferred or lose your job. Explain in simple terms what could happen, and emphasize that it isn’t likely, but you need the protection just in case.

Buying a home is something you should wait on until your life is a bit more settled. It generally takes four or five years to be able to sell a home and be able to walk away with no more obligation on your mortgage. That obviously isn’t universal, but it’s a good rule of thumb to use. Renting will often make more sense for a while, and by the time you’re in a position to buy, you’ll have a better idea of where you want to live, what you can afford, what you can afford if you change jobs, et cetera. After all, it’s one thing to be on the hook for 12 monthly payments, and something else to be in for 360 of them.—Chip Wright

Applying the news

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

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

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

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

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

Know thyself

I’ve met so many people on my journey in aviation. Some of them were ridiculously happy, thankful every day for the ability to go to work as a pilot. Others were jaded and surly, giving the distinct impression that they’d rather be scratching their fingernails along a never-ending chalkboard than be anywhere around an airplane or airport. Sometimes those two people were even the same age, doing the same job at the same company and making the same money!

Now we all have our good days and our bad ones. But how could their outlooks on life in aviation be so divergent? Is it just a matter of perspective? I’m sure sometimes that’s part of it. But as the years have passed, I’ve come to wonder if perhaps one of them is simply in the right place and the other one is not. A square peg in a round hole, if you will.

It brings to mind my salad days, which were spent in concert halls and theaters. Most of my formal training is in the arts, and that kind of career involves a lot of auditioning. Even when you’ve got a job, the need for another one is never far behind. Much like a student pilot waiting on the weather to improve sufficiently for a solo cross country, it can wear on you after a while.

Say what you will about life as a pilot, at least we’re not interviewing for a gig a hundred times a year!

Anyway, one of the best pieces of advice I ever received from my years in the performing arts field came from a well-known casting director. She said it was important to “know thyself.” In other words, the odds of success were much higher if we went after the jobs which best fit our skills, background, and natural talents. Beating the odds meant ensuring your time and energy were directed at the right gigs.

If this sounds self-evident, keep in mind others don’t always see us the way we see ourselves. Sometimes we think we’re heeding this advice, only to learn much later that we were not. I recall doing a lot of navel gazing after that pep talk. But in the long run, it was great advice and helped me tremendously.

The same is true for a professional pilot. There are as many different flying jobs as there are stars in the sky. Setting aside the irony of being asked if I ever want to be a commercial pilot when I’m already earning six figures doing just that, most people equate “commercial pilot” with only one thing: a white shirt with epaulets and a bunch of people in the back going to grandma’s house for the holidays. But that only scratches the surface of what’s out there. Just because an airline job is many people’s idea of the brass ring doesn’t mean you have to make it yours.

I’ve met more than one person who was completely dissatisfied with a $200,000+ job flying top-of-the-line business jets to exotic locations. I knew a guy who had probably 20 days off each month on top of it all. And he still didn’t like it. Eventually he quit and went off to sell insurance. Or maybe it was real estate. I was too dumbfounded by the whole situation to focus on that part. Either way, the point is that he worked harder and made less money at the new job—and yet he was markedly happier.

Perhaps some of these folks would be better served by teaching, crop dusting (don’t laugh—those guys can make great money), flying for a scheduled airline, or owning their own business instead of working for someone else. Maybe they belong in the bush. Or on the side of a glacier. Or giving helicopter tours of the Grand Canyon. Flying airshows. Ferrying airplanes. Zipping around the San Juan Islands in a floatplane. Working for law enforcement. Or doing any one of a hundred different things.

“Shiny jet syndrome” isn’t just a cute phrase. Sometimes the equipment, the lifestyle, the paycheck, and/or the Instagram feed can lead us down the wrong path. There are only 24 hours in a day, and we spend a third of that sleeping. The remaining hours are largely spent at work. Life’s too short to do something you hate all day, even if it comes with golden handcuffs.

There are a lot of flying jobs out there, and today an up-and-coming aviator has something rare: choices. Before leaping into a particular segment of aviation, take the time to look inward and really figure out what makes you tick.

You’ll thank yourself for it.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

Deicing

January has turned into February, which in some places is the worst part of winter. The air is cold, the ground is hovering around freezing, and precipitation this time of year often consists of ice, snow, or sleet.

Looking back to my days as a full-time general aviation pilot, the lesson that was constantly pushed on me regarding icing conditions was pretty simple: Avoid them at all costs. That usually meant not flying, which meant that a lot of winter days were spent on the ground.

The airlines operate under a different mantra: While there are some forms of weather that are unsafe, that definition is of a much smaller scope and bandwidth. If there is any way to get an airplane safely airborne, then you’re going flying. The running joke is that it doesn’t matter what’s on the radar or The Weather Channel; we’re going. There’s some truth to that.

In the Part 121 world, snowy weather is countered with deicing operations. The deicing fluids are numbered Type 1 to Type 4, with Type 4 being the strongest. The others can be a mix of fluid and water—and in some cases, you can deice with hot water—whereas Type 4 is a 100 percent mixture of stuff you do not want to drink. It’s thick, it’s sticky, and it’s expensive, so it’s only used when necessary.

Every year there are subtle changes to the various deicing protocols as new information is gleaned from research and real-world operations. From an operational point of view, two things are paramount. The first is the holdover time (HOT), which is the amount of time the crew has to get airborne after being deiced before the fluid loses its effectiveness, and the precipitation type. Mixed precip is the hardest to work with, because you need to use the most conservative HOT. For a long time, ice pellets were a challenge, and it’s only in the last few years that HOTs have been developed for pellets. At the extreme end is freezing rain. Simply put, you’re not going with freezing rain. It affects the wings, brakes, and runway surface.

If you’ve never been exposed to flying in icy weather and you’re looking to fly for an airline or a corporate flight department, take the time to do some research on deicing ops. Don’t worry about the gritty details, because every carrier’s program has individual requirements and nuances. Two carriers operating the same airplane may deice differently—for example, one will deice with the flaps up while the other will do so with the flaps down. But you should have a basic understanding of the different fluids, when they’re used, and what the limitations are. And you should take the time to fully understand your operation when you get on line.

And last, but not least, try to get trips that have you pointing the nose south after the deicing is complete.—Chip Wright

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