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Tag: Chip Wright (page 1 of 4)

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

Airline charters

As the calendar turns to winter, regional airlines will be doing more and more basketball charter flights, especially for colleges. RJs of all sizes are ideal aircraft for this particular mission, between the seating capacity, the ability to get into smaller airports, and the cost to operate.

From a pilot’s perspective, charters generally work in ways similar to regular flights, but there are some differences. A charter coordinator from the airline usually rides along. The coordinator is the primary point of contact between the team and the airplane. The coordinator’s responsibilities include making sure that meals are properly catered (this is a major part of a charter, and if this gets messed up, it can cost an airline the contract), that buses are arranged, and, in remote places, that the flight release is properly delivered to the crew. This last responsibility is less of an issue now with the widespread use of iPads, but it’s not unusual that a paper copy is produced as a backup.

The worst part about charters is the unpredictability, and perhaps the hours. While games are scheduled, they can go long, and when they do, things can get interesting in a hurry.

Many charters take place at night, so one of the concerns is getting the airplane in position for its next assignment. I recently worked a regular trip with a morning departure out of Miami. The airplane, however, was coming off a charter for the Tampa Bay Rays, and the game—in New York—had gone into extra innings, delaying the flight to St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, which delayed the ferry flight to Miami. We had to wait for the airplane to be cleaned, given a security inspection, and then made available to us. Our delay was more than an hour. When that happens, the delays can ripple through the day.

Baseball and basketball charters also include a lot of late-night or red-eye flying. Football isn’t quite as bad, but Thursday, Sunday, and Monday night games can be rough.

I did a NASCAR charter years ago (we were carrying a pit crew). We had a mechanical issue that we could not legally defer, and owing to a comedy of errors, it couldn’t get fixed in time. We wound up canceling the flight as our duty time expired (not so comedic), which caused all kinds of mayhem. Companies and organizations pay an awful lot of money for charters, and their patience for delays and cancellations is minimal. Throw in disgruntled employee job actions and the challenges to the airline can be steep.

Some events cause a surge in charters. The NCAA basketball tournaments, the World Baseball Classic, the College World Series, even corporate mergers all can generate a surge in charter activity. It also isn’t unusual for an organization or a college or university to request certain crew members who are known to go above and beyond in their efforts to please. I knew a captain at a major airline who was highly thought of by several of the NFL teams that he flew, and discreet efforts were made to get him assigned to those flights. He considered it an honor and did whatever he could to get the trips onto his schedule. Of course, the opposite also holds true, and you can be banned from charters, if not outright terminated.

Some charters can be a lot of fun, and others can be more tedious, but they all require a fair amount of flexibility. Charters are also guaranteed money-makers for the airline, and the contracts are valuable. Treat them like the important asset that they are and provide the best possible service you can. Heck, you might even wind up with some free tickets to a game or a concert!

Airport reserve

If you’re new to an airline, you’ll soon find that not all of the assignments are of the type that bring fame, glory, and riches. One of the least desirable is going to the airport and just sitting there.

This particular assignment goes by several names: ready reserve, field standby, hot standby, airport reserve. Whatever you call it, 99 percent of the time it is boring.

Essentially, airport reserve is just that: You’re assigned a window of time to spend at the airport, in uniform, ready to go. Your job is to be immediately available to get to a gate and get a flight out that has a sudden shortage of a crew. Last-minute sick calls; mechanical problems; crews timing out on their duty day; diversions of an inbound flight; and ferrying airplanes are common reasons for Scheduling to call the airport reserve crew to save the day.

Most of the time, you’ll go to the airport and go nowhere but home, but as we move into the winter months, there is usually an uptick in the usage of the airport reserve crews. Flu season compounds the problem, especially if pilots wake up to find out one of their kids or their spouse is sick and need to stay home. The contagious nature of the flu also means that people will spread the virus without realizing they are sick themselves. The same is true of the common cold. Summer also sees an increase in airport reserve usage as thunderstorms wreak havoc and force Scheduling to pull out all the stops to keep the operation moving along.

Depending on the airline, airport reserve will last anywhere from four to eight hours. Regionals tend to use this tool more than the majors, but the majors have it as well. It’s also common among cargo carriers, which are very schedule-sensitive.

There may be some overlap from one shift to the next, and there may or may not be rules in place to determine the methodology Scheduling can use to determine if the airport reserve can be called out versus someone sitting reserve at home. Often, you’ll question the logic of how certain people are used when. More often than not, you’ll be right to question those decisions. Hopefully, there will be other rules in place as well to prevent pointless scheduling practices, such as not bringing in a pilot for a late afternoon/evening shift who can’t do an overnight, or bringing in a pilot who has flown enough in the previous several days that he or she can’t do any of the flights on the schedule. It also helps to have a limit on the number a pilot can do in a given month.

The best thing you can do to make the time pass is to bring books and magazines to read, movies to watch, or use the time to catch up on company-mandated training. While you will be technically required to be in uniform, it may be possible to put your uni on a hanger and wear your civilian clothes, as long as you can change in short order and not create an undue delay in getting to the gate.

Airport reserve is one of the least appealing things about being a pilot, but used appropriately, it can be a life-saver for the airline. Done poorly, it can be a waste of money and resources. On some fleets, airport reserve doesn’t make sense, either because the fleet is too small or, for wide-bodies, the duty time limitations prevent it from being used effectively. Your job is to simply be prepared, suitcase stocked, ready to go at a moment’s notice to save the day and get at least one flight completed.—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

Your first trip

A pilot’s first trip with an airline is a combination of both stress and excitement.

The reasons for the excitement are obvious: new job, new airplane, new cities, new coworkers, even the new uniform can be a source of a thrill. The excitement is also equal parts stress, as you try to figure out or remember where to go, learn the protocols of the airline, introduce yourself to flight attendants, gate agents, captains, and other employees who seem like they’ve been around forever. And, of course, you actually have to do your job.

The first several trips, however, are a continuation of your training. The FAA does not allow green, fresh-from-training new hires to be thrown out on the line to fend for themselves. You will fly under the watchful eye and tutelage of a line check airman (LCA), who will introduce you to the day-to-day operation of the company and provide the finishing touches on your aircraft training. This is called initial operating experience (IOE), and you go through it with each new job, each new airplane, and whenever you upgrade to captain.

In some respects, the LCA has the easiest job, and in some ways the hardest, when it comes to training. The transition from the sim to the airplane can be a challenge, and it’s the first time you are truly dealing with all aspects of getting a flight off the gate: maintenance, fuel, catering, aggravated passengers and flight attendants. This is no longer an academic exercise in the schoolhouse. It’s real, and it’s real time.

And speaking of time, the LCA also has to keep the flight on schedule without compromising the instruction. As you might imagine, when it comes to dealing with chaos at the gate, there’s a lot that will generate a “we’ll talk about this in flight” comment or two. At some point, you also have to be signed off on walkarounds.

Once you get underway, you get to deal with a blizzard of radio calls that most pilots new to the airlines aren’t ready for. Ramp control and ground will not care that you’re new or in over your head. They will simply expect you to comply—correctly and quickly. Your captain will probably have to bail you out a few times, and it is nothing to be ashamed of.

Airborne, you may or may not actually fly the first leg. Some LCAs believe in a trial by fire and will let you get into it right away. When I was an LCA, I always flew the first leg with a new pilot just to give him or her a chance to observe and catch up. But eventually, you need to get your hands on the wheel, so to speak, and the best advice is to simply fly it the way you did in the sim. You will be required to log X number of legs or hours as the nonflying/monitoring pilot, but you can expect to fly the majority of the legs so that you can get comfortable with the airplane.

In the sim, you spend a lot of time either dealing with emergencies, doing air work, or practicing all manner of approaches. There is very little time to introduce you to flying as it actually is on the line, though you will take a checkride that features a flight that is representative of life on the line. Even then, you will probably get a minor system failure to deal with on the way.

Your first trip will be an opportunity to see what the airplane is really like with everything working. Further, you will be exposed to all of the little nuances of managing a flight, from energy management during climbs and descents to dealing with the flight attendants and making public address announcements to the passengers. You’ll also see how compressed the time can get as you prepare for arrivals, descents, and approaches.

As a new hire, you can expect a lot of time with the LCA on the ground and during layovers as well. There is a lot of material to review, some of which may be a new introduction to you, depending on how the airline structures the training. You’ll also spend time going over things you have done well as well as things you need to improve upon. The learning—and the teaching—never end! If you are hitting the line during the winter months, you can expect to deal with deicing and winter ops, which is challenging enough for veteran pilots that have been around, let alone for someone who has never had to deal with deicing, holdover times, et cetera.

The first trip is both exciting and exhausting. By the time it’s finished, you will begin to feel as if you are settling into a bit of a groove. By the end of the first day, you will be ready to collapse, and you should sleep well. Every time I’ve gone through OE, I’ve had some trouble sleeping the night before the first trip, and I always sleep well after the first day is in the books.

The end of the first trip is a sign that the training process is almost over, but it’s also a crucial point, as you are now being put into the pointy end of a multimillion-dollar machine and entrusted with all the lives behind you. The company wants to make sure that you are safe, competent, and ready. You want to feel … well, safe, competent, and ready. This is a final chance to ask a lot of questions and to perfect your techniques and procedures.

If the first trip goes well, the last trip (or two) will focus more on getting your required IOE time completed before you do your final line check. Once the LCA puts pen to paper and signs you off, you’re considered ready for the day-to-day grind, and your training is complete. Now you get to embrace life on reserve!—Chip Wright

Rejected takeoffs

As I write this, a business jet was just on the news for rejecting a takeoff at a small airport in California that led to a fire that, by all accounts, destroyed the airplane.

On the same day, I was evaluated during a flight by a check airman, and the rejected takeoff (RTO) procedure was a point of discussion—in our case because my captain, whom I have flown with before, does a more-detailed-than-typical briefing of the procedure. My airline requires a full briefing of the RTO on the first leg of a trip or during a crew change. The reason is simple: RTOs at high speeds are high-risk events.

The airlines typically use 100 knots as the threshold between “low” speed and “high” speed. In the high-speed regime, aborts are generally done for one of four reasons: wind shear; an engine failure; a fire of any kind; or the belief that the airplane is unsafe to fly.

Further, this procedure is practiced every time we visit the simulator, and we practice it during takeoffs from either seat. This is important, because it may be prudent for the first officer—technically the second in command, in a rare moment making a command decision—to initiate the maneuver. Most carriers would dictate that the captain will assume command of the airplane at a safe point in time. This is done not just because the captain is in charge, but also because the RTO checklist is very specific about who does what, and it is predicated on the captain being in control of the airplane as it slows down.

I don’t know what happened in the California event, but there are very few acceptable reasons for an RTO to lead to an airplane leaving the runway and getting consumed in a fire (in this case, thankfully, there were no injuries).

Further, I don’t have any idea what the background or training of the crew was. But that said, any pilot in a turbine aircraft of any kind should not only be proficient in the maneuver of an RTO, but also should brief the mechanical steps that will be executed in order to bring the aircraft safely to a stop on the remaining runway. Closing the thrust levers, activating the thrust reversers, verifying the deployment of the spoilers, and maximizing the use of brakes are pretty standard steps.

RTOs are high risk because they are likely to occur when the airplane is accelerating at an accelerating rate, and may even be close to V1 or rotation speed. Remember that once you reach V1, you are committed to taking the airplane airborne and troubleshooting in flight. In other words, the wings will be generating a fair amount of lift, and the weight of the airplane will not be fully set on the wheels. It’s important to destroy that lift as quickly as possible and get the weight back on the wheels in order for the brakes and the drag of the airplane itself to work to your benefit. Weight on the wheels also will allow the tires to better grip the runway, which will also slow you down.

The act of aviating is terribly unforgiving of indecision and delayed reaction, and arguably, the high speed RTO is the event with the smallest window of time in which a tremendous error in action and judgment can occur. Don’t let it happen to you. Prepare for it, brief it, and fly it.—Chip Wright

Deficiencies in emergency training

I try to be pretty positive about life at the airlines, and for the most part, I am. This will be one of the few times I criticize both industry and the FAA.

Airline training is pretty intense, and some of it can be done in mind-numbing, excruciating detail. However, there are a few areas in which the training required by the FAA is all that is provided, and as a result, the training provided often is lacking. One of those areas is dealing with a water landing or a ditching.

Fortunately, such events are rare. Unfortunately, as a result of this rarity, and also as a result of the relative ease of US Airways Flight 1549 (the so-called Miracle on the Hudson), emergency water training for pilots has not been made a priority. The airlines usually only do the minimum required with respect to training because of the cost.

Flight attendants often get better training than pilots on ditchings, since the assumption is that they are the ones who will conduct the bulk of the actual evacuation. Flight attendants at major carriers are put through training in a pool with a raft and given an opportunity to get hands-on experience with life vests and other emergency equipment. Pilots…not so much.

So what is missing, and what to keep in mind? In a perfect world, where the flight deck crew finishes the landing with minimal or no injuries, and is able to actively participate in the evacuation, the following are points to keep in mind:

The life rafts are stored in the ceiling. In six years of training at a major, I’ve never seen what they look like when they are packed and sealed. I have no idea how heavy they are (I’m guessing about 80 pounds minimum), or how awkward they would be to move from the ceiling and out the door to the water.

Once in the water, there is no “upside down,” as the rafts are designed to be used no matter which side faces up. That said, the sides are fairly high, so I can only speculate what it must be like to try to get in one of these rafts from the water while wearing a full uniform or even a coat. Add to this the possibility of dealing with frigid water temperatures and you can imagine how smoothly this isn’t going to go in real life.

There are ways to work together to get into the raft and once one or two people are in, they can help the rest get in relatively quickly. Getting those first couple in may prove challenging, especially in rough water.

With respect to some of the other equipment that is available, like portable radios, knives, first aid kits, flashlights, et cetera, we are shown them in a classroom, on tables, but we are never given a chance to use them, and we aren’t forced to find them in the airplane. Given how poorly humans respond in situations of great stress, this is a huge shortcoming.

Some of the emergency evacuation training deficiencies go beyond just water landings. In almost 23 years of airline flying, I’ve never had to partake in a simulated evacuation of the cabin. As mundane as this would be in normal circumstances, imagine what it would be like trying to do this while putting on a protective breathing equipment hood in a cabin that is filling rapidly with smoke. Now imagine being forced to help a passenger with a serious injury try to evacuate—someone with a broken leg or even unconscious. We are exposed to none of this. Further, none of our training is done jointly with the cabin crews.

Airline training covers a gamut of scenarios, and most of what we do is done well, but some of the emergency possibilities are extremely limited. It comes down to each of us to think through some of these scenarios to determine the best courses of action, with the realization that some people will freeze and others will panic. The possibility of a water event strikes close to home for me because I spent a few years doing nothing but overwater flying. Even now, I spend a lot of my time on Atlantic routes, and I fear for the day when an airplane is forced to ditch and a crew begins to realize just how poor their training for such a scenario has been.

If I had my druthers, water and emergency training would be required for every new hire, for each airplane change, each upgrade, and every two years that follows. That training would take place in a wave pool and in a simulated cabin fire, and it would require the use of as many pieces of emergency equipment as possible. Further, pilots would be required to learn and demonstrate basic CPR skills, which we don’t have to do currently (flight attendants do).—Chip Wright

Pilot on-the-job injuries

Every job has its hazards, and airline flying is no different. You wouldn’t think that something as benign as flying could at times be so risky—and I’m not even referencing the possibility of an accident. In twenty-three years of airline flying, I’ve seen both predictable and unpredictable on-the-job injuries, all of which call for some increased vigilance. Here are some examples.

A fellow first officer was getting out of the cockpit seat of a Brasilia, which has a very narrow space between the center console and the seat. There was an art to placing your inside foot in such a way that you could stand, pivot, and turn to get out. This guy’s foot got stuck in the worst place at the worst time, and as his weight shifted forward, his foot stayed still. He shredded several ligaments in his knee, which required extensive surgery and a lengthy rehab and absence from work. It was more in line with what you’d see in a bad football injury, but it forever changed the cavalier way in which any of us who were there that day get in and out of a seat. The pain on his face as he sat waiting for an ambulance is hard to forget.

In the pre-iPad days, with flight bags that routinely weighed more than 40 pounds fully loaded, shoulder injuries were very common. Bag stowage in the flight deck was often a secondary consideration of the manufacturer, if it was a consideration at all. Too often, in the interest of expediency, pilots would just reach around their seats and heft the bag out of its location, and anyone could see the potential for an injury. Repeat this act several times a day, and the risks just magnified. At my regional, it was even worse, because the bag had to be picked straight up at least 6 inches just to clear the hole it sat in. Imagine twisting your body 90 degrees, using the outside arm, and trying to get the leverage to lift 40 pounds straight up before pulling it toward you and twisting some more. While shoulders were the most common problem, lower backs and elbows were also affected. It became so expensive in terms of health costs that the parent airline began to work toward a transition away from such heavy bags, and those costs are a common argument made by most airlines as a driving force toward electronic flight bags.

Speaking of bags, several pilots suffered injuries while trying to do more than just their jobs. In an effort to help mitigate the impact of delays on both the company and the passengers, pilots have taken it on themselves to help load or unload luggage, especially valet-tagged bags that passengers are eagerly awaiting before they move on to their connections. Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished, and several pilots have been hurt. To add insult to the literal injury, the company refused to honor workers compensation or to cover the medical expenses because the pilots were outside the bounds of their jobs. While most of these refusals of help result in such a loud cry of outrage the company is forced to reverse its decision, it doesn’t always work out that way, especially after the warnings are given. If it isn’t in your job description, think twice before you do it.

When regional jets were first introduced, very few used jetways, so boarding and deplaning required the use of air stairs on the door. When it rains, air stairs get wet and slippery. Imagine the potential with the aforementioned 40-pound flight bags while trying to navigate the air stairs during a driving rainstorm. I’m here to tell you that it’s a hoot and a half—until somebody gets hurt. More than one pilot and flight attendant has fallen (either forwards or backwards) from the air stairs, sometimes resulting in broken ankles, mangled knees, or even head injuries, to say nothing of torn uniforms. You didn’t even need to be carrying a bag, as the steps are steeper than standard, and slipping was all too easy.

One injury that didn’t take place on the job, per se, occurred in a hotel during a layover, when a pilot was asleep in a hotel and suffered a bite on his ankle from a brown recluse spider. It was right before his alarm was scheduled to go off, so he got dressed and decided to work the flight home. By the time he landed, nearly three hours after the bite, his foot and ankle were so swollen he had to take his shoe off and needed emergency transportation to the hospital. His delay almost cost him his foot, but he eventually made a full recovery and returned to work.

The most avoidable injuries seem to occur in vans and cars taking crews to and from hotels. While accidents are relatively rare, they do happen, and most of the injuries come from not wearing seat belts. A crew getting a ride to the airport on a foggy morning was involved in a single-vehicle accident when the van driver lost track of his location and took the van over the curb. The van driver suffered no injuries, but all of the crew did, as none of them were wearing seat belts.

Pilot on-the-job injuries often come from the files of the absurd, silly, or even humorous, but those affected are rarely laughing. You need to keep your vigilance up, keep a comfortable cushion of hours in your sick bank, and if your company offers short-term disability insurance, you should have it. When you see a situation in which the potential for injury is clear or obvious, use the appropriate means to report it and suggest changes. If the company refuses to consider your suggestion and something happens, you can at least have it on record that you tried to make a positive change.

If nothing else, always wear your seat belts and be careful in the rain.—Chip Wright

Moving around

Hiring is so hot at the airlines right now that pilots are quite literally hopping from one carrier to the next.

In the last few years, I’ve known of several pilots that have been hired by one major only to leave for another in short order. As pilot compensation packages have become more similar across the board, it makes it easier for pilots to either stay in one place or go somewhere else that is more desirable for their individual circumstance.

Even the power-house airlines are not always safe. A handful of hires at Southwest—long considered one of the best, most stable jobs in the industry—have jumped ship in order to go another carrier of choice. The rationale varies from one individual to the next, but it usually comes down to not wanting to commute or move, or desiring to do international flying that may not be available to pilots at Southwest or JetBlue.

Generally, when this kind of turnover takes place, it happens with pilots who have less than a year or two of seniority. Once the first big pay raise kicks in, it’s hard to bring yourself to leave. Also, you start to see the movement up the list that makes  the left seat more of a reality than just a dream. Leaving and starting over means taking a potential pay cut and going back on new-hire probation while possibly learning a new airplane.

But this trend is an issue at the regionals too, as pilots look for the quickest way up the ladder. Signing bonuses and other monetary incentives are being used, and often need to be paid back if taken. Resourceful pilots are not allowing themselves to be bound to any particular loyalty other than themselves, and that’s OK, though it does come with risks. Airlines don’t want to see someone who can’t—or won’t—stay employed at one place long enough to allow the company to recoup their investment. After all, training a pilot is expensive.

The other risk you run is that you can wind up burning some bridges in various human resources departments. I’ve written before that this is a relatively small industry, and word gets around about certain people fairly quickly. You may walk out on a job today, only to find that the person you left in a lurch is an obstacle at another company down the road. If you’re going to make your stay short, at the very least, be professional about it.

All of that said, by all means, keep your applications out there. If you have your heart set on a particular company, don’t give up, and take the first job that comes. If your dream carrier comes through later, you can re-evaluate based on whatever your new circumstances are.—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

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