Menu

Tag: Southwest Airlines

Breaking the chain to get the job you want

Recently, I’ve had to sit on the cockpit jump seat during several commutes because of heavy loads during the holidays. It isn’t the most comfortable seat in the house, but hey, a free ride is a free ride and full airplanes bode well for my job security and profit sharing. This has led to all manner of conversations with the crew—outside of the sterile cockpit realm, of course.

Most of these commutes tend to be on Republic, which is one of the largest regionals in the country, and also the world’s largest operator of the Embraer E-170/175 series of jets. In fact, following Republic’s bankruptcy a few years ago, it’s the only airplane the company operates, having shed the older E-145 “Jungle Jet.”

Almost without exception, the conversation at some point turns to the topic of hiring at both the regionals and the majors, rumors, fact-checking, and seeing who knows who. Republic flies on behalf of United, American, and Delta, and it is a key cog for each carrier. Numerous pilots have relayed to me that it’s extremely difficult for Republic pilots to get on directly with one of their code-share partners; friends who work for Republic have told me the same thing. The conclusion and consensus is that the three “brand names” don’t want to contribute to a shortage of pilots at one of their key regional partners. That said, all three have other carriers with whom they have preferential hiring or interview programs set up, but those other regionals tend to be much smaller. and the process is tightly controlled in order to manage the flow of pilots in such a way that metal can still be moved.

I saw this when I was at Comair. For years, Delta had three regional partners responsible for over 90 percent of its regional flying: Comair, ASA, and Skywest. When Delta needed to hire, it tended to take pilots from one of the three carriers in chunks, and when that carrier called Atlanta to complain about losing pilots, the ratio would shift to favor pilots from one of the other two.

This is a bit of a simplistic explanation, but the reality was that Delta didn’t want to leave any of its regionals with a shortage that would only hurt Delta, so the company hired relatively evenly from all three. By doing so, the company also got pilots that were intimately familiar with the Delta system, so it was a win-win. Keep in mind that Delta was also getting pilots experienced in flying jets when that was a relatively rare phenomenon, unlike today.

Those days are largely over, and the pilot shortage is real enough that the majors with regional feed need to consider the ramifications of their hiring decisions on their regional partners. As a result, pilots at Republic are forced to consider “breaking the chain” if they want to get on one with one of the big legacy carriers. Essentially, this means that many are opting for a carrier such as Spirit, JetBlue, Allegiant, or one of the cargo ACMI operators like Southern or Kalitta. Many are also going to Southwest.

Once they get hired by someone outside of their brand of choice, they test the waters for a year or so and make a decision about going through the job-searching process, a new training cycle, et cetera, taking into account career goals and the disruption to family life.  As you might expect, many stay, especially with strong carriers like Southwest and JetBlue. But not all do, and they find that getting hired at UA/AA/DL is much easier when they are no longer directly tied to those carriers. Passing muster in a bigger airplane also helps.

None of this is necessarily fair, but it is the reality of the current job market, and it’s a strategy that people in other fields have been using since the dawn of time. Pilots are no different: Job One is looking out for yourself. Hopefully, Republic will enter into genuine flow or feed agreements across the board, which would benefit all parties. In the meantime, pilots at carriers in a similar position need to be willing to consider the same strategy.—Chip Wright

SWA 1380

As I write this, Southwest 1380 has already started to fade from much of the public memory. Much has been made about the way the crew responded to such an explosive event—explosive in more ways than one. Nobody ever really anticipates or expects to deal with an engine that blows up in flight, let alone one that also breaks a window and generates a sudden decompression of the cabin.

That said, there is training for something like this. Most airlines in the United States have transitioned to advanced qualification program (AQP) training. Without getting into the nitty-gritty details, part of AQP includes flying scenarios in the simulator that represent real flights between two regular cities, with some kind of a snafu thrown in for the crew to handle. Some scenarios will force a diversion, and some won’t; some are deliberately vague enough that some crews will divert and some will not.

Southwest recently put its crews through an event that included a catastrophic engine failure in cruise  United did the same with its 737 crews a couple of years ago). I don’t know if the scenario included the decompression, but an engine failure is handled almost the same way in either scenario. Like many transport jets, the 737 is designed to fly at or near the highest MEAs on one engine, and it will level off at 22,000 to 24,000 feet at maximum weight on one engine. Obviously, in the case of 1380, that kind of level-off wasn’t possible, but the initial response is the same: Get the airplane into a descent while maintaining a safe airspeed. With the decompression, the goal is to get down to 10,000 feet as quickly as possible so that passengers don’t need oxygen.

Every airplane will respond differently to an engine failure. A wing-mounted engine will cause substantial yaw—possibly a noticeably rolling motion that needs to be addressed fairly quickly. The crew of this flight likely needed a few seconds to register just what had happened—after all, in the sim, everybody already knows what’s coming, but this was real. The immediate response to the cabin pressure change would have been to don their oxygen masks while regaining control of the plane. That means turning off the autopilot (or silencing the disconnect alarm), setting power on the operating engine, and retrimming. This is the “aviate” part of aviate, navigate, communicate.

Every airline dictates who will do what during an emergency, and the final report from the NTSB will spell out how the crew determined who would fly and work the radios versus running the checklist. In this case, there were at least three non-normal checklists that needed to be completed: the engine fire/severe damage checklist, the decompression checklist, and the single-engine approach and landing checklist. The crew at some point also needed to make contact with the cabin crew to get an assessment of the extent of any injuries or damage in the cabin. They likely also asked the flight attendants what they could see out the window as well—and this all happened while dealing with a tremendous amount of noise thanks to the hole in the window.

In spite of the fatality on board, the crew appears to have handled this event as well as or better than expected. No doubt the relatively recent sim event brought a sense of familiarity with the situation, and their years of combined experience helped produce a successful outcome. Like many, I’m already curious to see what the final report will say; expect to see it sometime next winter or spring.—Chip Wright

Dragging passengers

It has happened again: Last week, a passenger was dragged off a Southwest flight. Unlike the infamous United incident a few months ago, this passenger was carried off by police officers, and there is no “it wasn’t our flight, but one of our regional partners” argument to be made.

However, it does appear that the passenger in question had a number of reasons or excuses ready to go at the beginning of the incident as she tried to stay on the airplane, first claiming a severe allergy and working her way through the ever-popular “I need to get where I’m going.”

I can’t speak for what the policy is at SWA with respect to pilot actions in these kinds of incidents. Every airline has its own protocols to follow, and while the captain is generally considered the final word once the airplane leaves the gate, the final say-so is sometimes a bit murky at the gate. Gate agents don’t like having their judgment questioned after they’ve let a passenger on. Further, they don’t want to be blamed for a delay, and they don’t always know what a crew had to deal with once the doors close. That said, more than one agent has been guilt of trying to pass the buck and just get the airplane off the gate.

Flight attendants are the ones who have to deal with the passengers once the door is closed. They are on the lookout  for passengers who might be a problem, whether from intoxication, anger or frustration at broken travel plans, or a fear of flying or claustrophobia. If they sense that a medical issue could (or already has) materialized, they want to deal with it on the ground. In their mind, and with good reason, their preferred course of action is usually to have the passenger removed.

The pilots are in an odd spot at the gate. While they are clearly the final say once airborne, they have to trust others to do their jobs before leaving. Generally speaking, if the cabin crew wants someone off the airplane, the pilots will accommodate that request, and will often risk a scene to do so. Sometimes, passengers make it easy to make a decision by acting in an inappropriate fashion. All of this said, the captain is responsible for the safety of the flight as a whole, and anything that happens on his watch can be thrown back in his face—and will be.

I’ve had to deal with a few of these at-the-gate types of incidents in my career. Three stand out. They aren’t easy to deal with, they’re unpleasant for all involved, and while tact is often desired or needed, sometimes it just doesn’t help or have a place.

I wasn’t there for either of these two events. The crew, in my opinion, could have taken a stronger stance by simply announcing that the flight wasn’t going to go anywhere until the passengers in question removed themselves from the airplane. This is a harsh line in the sand, but it may be the most effective choice under the circumstances.

The chances are that another crew is not going to be handy to call to gate to operate the flight, and even if there is, once they hear about what is going on, they aren’t likely to step into a minefield by taking the flight. In my experience, even if the Chief Pilot’s Office got involved in something like this—either in person or on the phone—they tend to back up the pilots and agree that the flight will not operate until the offending passenger is removed.

A secondary option, though one that is not always available, is to push for an equipment swap if another airplane is available. This would require everyone to deplane and move to another gate. At the new gate, the gate agents and airport police can prevent the offending passenger(s) from boarding.

In the three cases that I can recall in detail involving passenger disruptions at the gate, one ended with a trio of intoxicated men agreeing to leave with no resistance when the police came on board. The second required intervention from a family member traveling with the individual in question, along with an assertive discussion with the gate agent, who felt she was going to be blamed.

The last one was the most similar to the UAL and SWA incidents. The passenger was a belligerent woman who was being extremely uncooperative and verbally abusive. To allow her to stay on would have undermined the authority of my flight attendant, and could have therefore affected her safety. I had to explain to the woman that we were having her removed and why, and when she began to say she wouldn’t get off the airplane, I made it clear we’d cancel the flight outright. I had to make the same comment to the gate agent, since he was pushing us to keep her. When he realized he’d be responsible for rebooking an entire cabin of passengers versus just one, he agreed to work with us.

All of this brings up another point that was lost in the shuffle of the Republic/UA debacle. Back in the day, regional airlines had their own gate agents. They don’t anymore. The agents are either contracted from a third company (and get paid around minimum wage) or are employees of the mainline brand. This often creates tension and a disconnect, because when situations like this arise, not everybody is on the same team. All anyone knows is that somebody at HQ is going to start asking questions, so everybody gets defensive.

As the pilot, it is best to remember who is ultimately going to be held the accountable, and for that matter, who has the most to lose. The answer is simple: It’s us. That’s no different in a Cessna 150 or a Boeing 747. If you’re willing to exercise the responsibility of being pilot in command in one airplane, you need to be ready, willing, and able to do it in all.

In either of these cases, it would have just taken one pilot to stand up and say they weren’t going to take a problem passenger. To emphasize how far this goes, the same can be said if the problem is one of the cabin crew. Fly for an airline long enough, and you’ll also have to deal with a flight attendant who shouldn’t be at work that day.

When it comes to the passengers, though, no matter how upset they are or how bad their day is going, once they step on the airplane, they have to behave themselves. They can file all the complaints they want later. But from entering to exiting, they need to play by the rules, even if they are asked to leave the flight. And as operators of the airplane, we need to recognize that everything we do is likely being recorded, and make sure that we do whatever we can to avoid someone being dragged off.—Chip Wright

Talking mergers and airline politics

It’s common knowledge that religion, politics, and sex should be avoided as topics of conversation on the flight deck. That doesn’t mean those topics are avoided—far from it. But it’s up to the individuals involved to know how far to take a discussion before changing the subject.

But what about airline politics? There have been a lot of mergers in the last 20 years. Just at American, there are the Reno/American, TWA/American, USAir/America West, and USAir/American mergers to discuss. Delta and Northwest have legacy mergers involving Ozark, Republic, and Western. United has the United/Continental merger, and within that are Continental with Eastern, People Express, and the original Frontier, while United has some Pan Am history.

Southwest and AirTran have the sub-AirTran/ValuJet merger. Alaska and Virgin recently announced one, and there have been rumors for a while about Spirit and the new Frontier. JetBlue also has been mentioned as a target. The regionals have their own examples, as Skywest/ASA/ExpressJet shows. Envoy, which used to be American Eagle, is a who’s-who of former localized regional carriers.

Why does any of this matter? To the people involved, mergers often linger as a sore spot (or a not-so-sore spot) for decades. Mergers affect every employee group, with the pilots and flight attendants often in the nastiest fights because of the impact of the integrated seniority lists and new contracts. Some people just can’t let go of their anger.

If you want to navigate these conversations tactfully, you should do some research into what happened. For the record, research does not consist of scrolling through posts on sites such as Airline Pilot Central.

Seek out the various hearing filings and documents, as well as arbitration rulings that deal with the particular merger. Talk to the elected union representatives who were actually at the table in the discussions. Don’t just rely on the stories as told by the pilots you will fly with, but don’t totally discount them either. Arbitration rulings will be among the most informative, because they always include a summation of the basic facts, the arguments of either party, and the points of dispute, along with how the decision is reached. That said, there will always be people who simply will not accept the rulings of an arbitration panel, no matter what.

Mergers leave behind a lot of bad blood. Most employees can eventually let it go, but some can’t, and they view any questions as an attack on them or on their side. If the topic simply can’t be avoided, just let the person talk, or ask fairly specific questions, but start off by prefacing them with, “As you see it, how/why…” Use your questions as a way to gather information, not to point fingers. But at the end of the day, you may need to simply state that you are keeping an open mind because you didn’t have a dog in the fight and are just happy to be there.

I’ve never gone through an actual merger, but I was hired at United just before the seniority list was merged with Continental’s. It was a tense time, and I heard more about it than I wanted to, but in time, the immediate anger and concerns passed. But I studied the written arguments on both sides, as well as the arbitration rulings, and I made a point to see it from the perspective of both legacy carriers. And I’m also glad I didn’t have to participate in it. Now, when the topic comes up, I change the subject as quickly and gracefully as I can.—Chip Wright

The QRH

As I write this, we are only a few days removed from the in-flight engine failure on Southwest 3472, a Boeing 737 that experienced an uncontained failure of the left engine just after reaching its cruising altitude.

While the cause of the incident is far from being determined or disclosed, one thing is clear: The pilots did a great job of getting the airplane on the ground safely as quickly as possible while complying with the appropriate checklists.

Larger airplanes generally have a book called the Quick Reference Handbook (QRH) on the flight deck to deal with certain emergency or abnormal conditions. Printed by the manufacturer initially, the book can be modified to a degree by the operating airline with the consent of the manufacturer and the FAA. The modifications usually take into account certain equipment configurations and/or operational experience that leads the airline to think there may be a better way to execute a certain procedure.

The QRH is usually compartmentalized in one of two ways. The first is to have all of the Emergency procedures in one section, subdivided by the various systems (usually alphabetically). The Abnormal/Caution section then follows, also broken down by each aircraft system.

The second method is to simply list all of the systems in alphabetical order and then spell out the various procedures within each chapter. Emergencies will still be first, followed by an alphabetical listing based on the problem or indication presented to the crew.

The checklist will then go through a process of confirming what problem has been presented, and then a series of corrective actions is presented. This will be often be followed by some IF/THEN scenarios that talk the crew through troubleshooting. The IF/THEN steps can be confusing, and a tremendous amount of time is dedicated to minimizing the possibility of mistakes.

In a case like the one of SWA 3472, the crew would have run a Severe Engine Damage procedure that would have had them systematically prevent further damage by shutting down fuel flow to a potentially burning engine. Once the engine (or what was left of it) was secured, the next step would be getting the auxiliary power unit (APU) started. The APU is a small turbine engine in the tail of the airplane that has a generator for providing electricity and air conditioning. While it’s primarily used on the ground, it is designed to be a back-up source of electrical power in flight.

Once the emergency is stabilized and an appropriate destination is determined, the next step is getting the airplane properly configured for a single engine landing. Fortunately, this is driven home in training, and for each airplane, the setup is pretty consistent. In the 737, the flaps will be limited to 15 degrees, as opposed to the usual 30 or 40. The 15-degree setting greatly improves performance in the event of a single-engine go around. Approach speeds will be computed accordingly, and they will be higher. All of this could affect which airport might be suitable for the landing.

An airport that the airline already serves as the alternate is always the first choice, but it isn’t always the best choice. A suitable airport will be one that has crash/fire/rescue capability, but it may not be a station for your company, and while that can create some logistical nightmares, passenger, crew, and equipment safety is the most important consideration.

Engine failures and other major malfunction emergencies are, fortunately, rare. Preparation and good training are the key to success, along with keeping calm. The old adage of aviate first, navigate second, and communicate third always applies, and it doesn’t matter what kind of airplane is involved: You have to maintain control first before doing anything else. Then, and only then, can you use the QRH—and any other resources—to help save the day.—Chip Wright

Career progression

Career progression. It’s a huge point of discussion among pilots. But what is it, and what exactly does it mean? It depends on the carrier.

At an airline like Southwest or Alaska, which only flies one kind of airplane, career progression means something entirely different than it does at a carrier that flies multiple fleets. The same principle holds true at the regionals.

At a carrier like Delta or FedEx, career progression generally refers to movement both up the seniority list and up the pay scale. Most airlines pay the same rate for new hires, no matter what equipment they fly. But from Year 2 on, pay usually reflects the size of the airplane, given that larger airplanes produce more revenue, and hence can pay more.

Pilots generally want to maximize salary first, with schedules and quality of life following in importance. In order for that to happen, a couple of pieces need to fall into place.

First, retirement of more senior pilots has to occur in order to open up positions on larger equipment. Second, hiring needs to occur. More specifically, there can’t be any shrinkage or stagnation of the pilot group as those retirements take place. Third, overall fleet growth can significantly help. This is a key part of the equation at single-fleet airlines, because a first officer can become a captain simply by virtue of growth—even if the seniority list consists of relatively young pilots.

This is how I was able to become a captain at Comair in less than three years. In fact, over my 16 years there, I only moved up 500 total numbers because the average age was so low.

The last piece of the puzzle at a multi-fleet airline is the contractual freeze. Every airline incurs a freeze when you bid from one position to another in order to minimize training cycles and get a return on the investment of training you in a new airplane. Those freezes are generally two years, and usually there are substantial roadblocks to bidding backwards.

But not every airline works the same way with regard to pay. It’s becoming more common to have pay “bands,” in which groups of similarly sized aircraft pay the same. United pays the same on the 737, A320, and smaller 757 fleets. The 747, 777, 787, and A350 all pay the same as well. This is designed to take away the incentive to bid up based on pay, and  encourage the pilot to bid based on other factors, such as schedule or preferred domiciles. UPS is a prime example; it pays all captains and first officers the same rate no matter the equipment.

To use United as an example, the airline operates the A320, B737, 757/767, 747, 777, and 787, and will add the A350 in a couple of years. To fly all of them as a first officer while complying with the two-year freeze would take a minimum of 14 years.

But career progression is as much choice and preference as anything else. Most pilots want to fly the best schedule their seniority can hold in the domicile that best suits them—which might be because they live there or because it makes for the easiest commute. There are almost always opportunities to make extra pay that can often make up for the difference in the pay rates from one airplane to another, so pilots will bid fairly selectively. It’s not uncommon to see a first officer fly his or her first airplane for several years, then move on to a wide body for a couple years, with possibly a mid-range aircraft thrown in if the stars align. When the opportunity to fly as a captain comes up, the re-evaluation process starts over. As tempting as the money is, the schedule matters as well. Remember, seniority determines your domicile, the trips you can fly, and the weeks of vacation you can hold. Learning a new airplane is a stressful experience for any pilot, and the training process can be fairly lengthy, which affects the family life.

The same process holds at the regionals. The difference, however, is that regional pilots  tend to bid much more aggressively because of the low first officer pay and because everyone is jockeying to get their pilot-in-command time to move on. Very few pilots go the regionals with the intention of staying.

Progression is an individual definition as much as anything. Often, being able to fly the schedule you want is more important than the increase in pay you might see on a larger airplane. But eventually, assuming your seniority can hold something bigger, the increase in pay becomes too much to ignore.—Chip Wright

Diversions and aeronautical decision making

Aeronautical decision making (ADM) first began to appear in the training lexicon in a heavy fashion in the mid-1990s. It was always “there,” but it wasn’t necessarily a separate subject. Instructors were expected to simply incorporate the decision-making process into each lesson whenever and wherever possible. This sounds great on paper, and at times it even seems logical, but the reality is that the old adage that says that the airplane is a terrible classroom exists for a reason.

Dealing with diversions is a subject in the decision-making process for which a formal classroom session has always made sense. Diversions can take two broad forms in flight. The first is a change in the route but with no change in the destination. The second is a change in the final destination. The first is far more common, but the second is usually more significant. After all, if you are flying to Baltimore and have to divert to Frederick  because of weather, you have new set of problems on your hands. Just as with any other aspect of your life, the impact of such a significant change in plans can make you more resistant to executing the change in the first place.

At the airlines, the decision is often a bit easier, because the rules are so cut and dried. But that doesn’t change the fact that pilots generally are can-do people, and when other people are counting on you, you don’t want to disappoint them.
But one area in which diversions at the airlines are so different is the level of communication. I bring all of this up because more airlines are using ADM scenarios as part of the interview process. You are placed in a hypothetical but fairly realistic scenario in which something goes wrong, and you have to make a decision. Sometimes, the basic diversion decision is easy (“the airport is closed, so you will be diverting”) and sometimes it isn’t (“something smells bad in the cabin, but I don’t if it’s burned food or worse”).

The pressure is ratcheted up in some other fashion that will force you to make a decision quickly. Southwest and United airlines both give you a seven-minute window in which to assess the problem, evaluate the options, and come up with a solution. In some of the scenarios, you are short on fuel. In some, weather is a major factor. In others, it’s the ambiguity of the problem. But in all of them, the goal is to see you make a decision and stick with it.

At the airlines, you need to communicate with multiple entities, and this is where the two-person crew comes in handy. Someone needs to talk to air traffic control, while someone else handles everything else. In the real world, the first officer usually handles ATC and the captain does what he gets paid to do. If you are in an interview, make yourself familiar with what airports that airline serves. You don’t need to commit them to memory, but have a general idea, because in the ADM scenario you will likely be using them.

So, who needs your attention? Assuming that you are not given a major catastrophe like a fire or a flight control failure, you need to talk the flight attendant(s) first, if for no other reason to tell them that there has been a change in plans and that you will get back to them shortly. That phone call should take less than 15 seconds.

Next you need to talk to the dispatcher, who is jointly responsible for your airplane and flight. The dispatcher can give you up-to-the-minute weather at your possible alternates as well as any notices to airmen you may need. He or she can also save you a radio call by contacting the two stations involved and letting them know your change in plans (hint: If the person playing the role of the dispatcher doesn’t offer this service, ask for it). If the dispatcher can’t (or won’t) call the station to which you are diverting, then you need to call (this may be thrown at you in one of the timed sequences). Cover your bases as well by telling the dispatcher that you will call once on the ground to clean up any loose ends.
If maintenance needs to be consulted, do it via dispatch, since the dispatcher needs to know of any issues that may affect performance.

Next, you need to advise ATC what you are doing. If critical fuel is going to play a part in the scenario, it will usually be included in the briefing. If it is, you need to remember to declare either minimum fuel or an emergency as the case may be.

Once ATC is in the loop, somebody needs to brief the flight attendants and the passengers. If the diversion point is extremely close, say Miami to Fort Lauderdale, then you may want to ask the flight attendant to notify the passengers, and to tell them you will provide more information on the ground.

Once you have operated in the airlines, and especially as a captain, you realize that the scenarios are really the same thing you do every day. As someone new to the industry, you need to show that you have some idea of how the system works—and it’s very similar from one company to the next.

ADM is a critical part of any pilot’s aviating career, and for those looking to go to the airlines or advance up the ladder, it becomes a bigger and bigger part each step of the way. Start mastering it early, and remember, conservative is always better.—Chip Wright