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Making the most of holiday flying

The Fourth of July holiday is this week. I’m fortunate to be off, but at least half of my fellow pilots will be working. This isn’t all bad. Although some holidays are easier to work than others, the key is a positive attitude and a glass-is-half-full approach.

When I knew I didn’t have the seniority to hold the big days off, I decided to use the system to my advantage. There are a lot of great cities in which to enjoy the festivities of the Fourth. Using the bid package and knowledge of the hotels as a guide, you can find a layover that will allow you to see some great fireworks, often in a downtown location on the roof of a hotel. Boston, Washington, D.C., New York, and coastal cities in Florida all come to mind as great places to enjoy the holiday.

Even if you have to fly a leg at night, it isn’t all bad. One of my most memorable flights was a Fourth of July flight just after sunset, and along the entire route we saw fireworks non-stop—some right below us and some miles away. We couldn’t hear them, but it was a visual spectacle. When we landed, even the passengers were smiling at their luck, as they saw more fireworks in one passing than they had ever seen combined.

Christmas can be tough because we all want to be with our families. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to fly to Florida, especially south Florida, getting some warm weather can be a nice alternative. You’ll still be feeling the pangs of homesickness, and you can’t entirely make that go away, but being able to take a walk on the beach in shorts and a T-shirt or having a slice of pizza and a beer outside in December has a way of making things just a little less depressing. You might even be able to go for a swim in the hotel pool if isn’t too cold.

Like the Fourth, you can plan your Christmas travel by using the bid package as a guide. It’s very common for Thanksgiving and Christmas to have a full day in a layover city, as the flight schedule is often a skeletal one at best. Find those layovers, and see if there are any festivals or events that might make the down time more enjoyable. Likewise, see if they are cities where friends or family may be that you can visit and have a home-cooked meal…and get paid for it. These are likely to be in smaller cities, but not always. The one benefit of being a junior pilot working on a holiday is that layovers and trips you might not normally be able to hold suddenly make themselves available. Take advantage of it!

Last but not least is the option of taking your family or significant other along on a trip. This may require some planning or purchasing tickets or extra hotel rooms, but it also means not being alone and miserable. Holiday work isn’t always fun, but it doesn’t have to be something to dread. Use your job to your advantage, and you might find yourself enjoying those holidays more than you ever thought you could.—Chip Wright

Pilot tools during delays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alcohol standards are tightening

Recently, other countries have adopted more stringent rules for pilot drinking, and in the United States, at least one state (Utah) has moved to lower the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) for driving to 0.05 percent.

It’s always a big deal when a pilot is arrested or implicated in an alcohol- or drug-related arrest. We are held to a higher moral standard, because of the lives we are responsible for, both in the air and potentially on the ground, on each flight.

In parts of the world, there is a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol. While the FAA still allows a 0.04 percent BAC, most airlines also have a zero-tolerance rule, so even though you may not be outside the bounds of the federal aviation regulations, you might still find yourself on the unemployment line if you test positive. In other countries, any positive BAC test could put you in jail in a legal system that you do not understand.

In the United States, the opioid epidemic has forced the addition of more drugs onto the screening profile. A positive test will result in an immediate grounding, and it could lead to a full revocation of your certificates. You may be able to go through rehab and participate in the Human Intervention and Motivational Study (HIMS) program to get back your medical, but you may be forced to reapply and re-test for all of your certificates—an expensive endeavor no matter what. If you’re at a regional airline when all of this happens, you may render yourself unemployable at a major.

I’ve known several pilots over the years who have been forced to deal with a positive test. Some walked away from aviation, believing that the lifestyle of a pilot contributed to the problem. Others traveled the long, hard road of rehab and recovery. A few were unable to stop the cycle of destruction and suffered an untimely death. All had to deal with painful fallout with family, friends, and coworkers.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying a few cold beers or a glass of fine wine on a trip. But the temptation to have more than a drink or two on a long overnight can be stronger than some of us can handle. Throw in a chance encounter with another crew in the bar or restaurant, and things can quickly get out of hand. If you find yourself unable to control your intake of either drugs or alcohol, get help sooner rather than later, and take whatever steps are necessary to avoid becoming another unfortunate statistic. Employee assistance programs are a great resource and can help you navigate the health insurance process along with any HR issues. They can also help point you toward resources that may allow you to keep flying while you seek treatment instead of playing Russian roulette with a drug test.

Pilots may be held to a higher standard, but we’re human, and we have the same fallibility and issues as any other group of people. If you need or want help, get it. You’ll be glad you did.—Chip Wright

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

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