September 28, 2015

Divert (From the Pilot's Point of View)

dəˈvərt, dīˈvərt/
verb: divert; 3rd person present: diverts; past tense: diverted; past participle: diverted; gerund or present participle: diverting
cause (someone or something) to change course or turn from one direction to another.

If you're reading this, there's a pretty good chance you're more than the average airline traveler. You're interested in aviation and what happens on the other side of the cockpit door. An aviation geek...maybe. Please forgive the term if it offends, but I wear the moniker with pride. At any rate, you most likely requested a window seat as no self-respecting #AvGeek wants to sit on the aisle. You peer out the window after reading through SkyMall for the hundredth time as the airplane starts to turn. There certainly isn't anything unusual about an airliner making a turn, except that this turn continues until it's clear you've reversed course.

Holding Pattern

There isn't a single person on the airplane who's happy about a holding pattern. “Why are we holding? I have places to be. Will I make my connection?” The possible scenarios that could lead to holding are almost endless, and albeit the most common, weather is only one. I've held due to fog, thunderstorms, high winds, dust storms, VIP arrivals (Presidents, Vice Presidents and the like), air traffic congestion, other aircraft emergencies, emergencies of my own, and ground equipment failures...just to name a few. An ATC buddy of mine even told me he was once forced to evacuate a major airport control tower due to a break in a water supply line that flooded the facility. I'm sure that event resulted in holding for someone!

Back to your flight.

For whatever the reason, the airport is no longer accepting arrivals and your flight just got caught the ensuing chaos. Fuel conservation may have a direct effect on the outcome, so the pilots have slowed the aircraft to its most economical speed and entered a holding pattern as directed by Air Traffic Control.

This may be the first time you were made aware of the possibility that the airplane might not be able to reach your planned destination. At least not in the time frame you were expecting. Happiness is often directly related to expectations. Were they, or were they not met. Clearly, arriving late or landing anywhere other than your intended destination does not meet your expectations and you aren’t happy about it. Trust me when I tell you that the airline and its employees haven't been plotting against you. Generally speaking, weather forecasts for an hour before and an hour after your scheduled arrival are what drive the need for a planned alternate airport. Thus, a significant percentage of all flights are legally required to plan for the possibility of a divert that never happens. There's no sense in concerning passengers with this information until the possibility becomes reality; but rest assured, your flight dispatcher and pilots have been aware since well-before departure...and they're prepared.

Preparation is the key to success.

Most pilots begin to consider how weather might impact a scheduled trip days before the actual flight. The Weather Channel and the national news are good resources for a big picture view. The day before a flight assignment, I consult the resources provided to me by my employer to educate myself and mentally prepare for the weather conditions I may encounter the next day. Then, on the day of the trip, I use those same resources to obtain a detailed route briefing and often chart my flight and its expected path. Everyone has their own ritual, but the point is this...your pilot knew the weather could be an issue long before you packed your bag.

WSI Pilotbrief for iPad

"Flight 123, I have a holding clearance for you. Advise when ready to copy."

Those are words no pilot likes to hear and they mark the point where pre-flight planning is put to the test. On a lighter note, they also mark the beginning of the blame game. Some member of the crew made plans and really needed to get home. Any diversion is automatically that person's fault!
Seriously though, the first task at hand is to set up and prepare for holding. On an aircraft equipped with a Flight Management System (FMS), the pilots input the holding location, radial, direction of turn and leg distance into the HOLD page of the FMS. If they’re lucky, the holding pattern is published and will load automatically when the holding point is selected. As the aircraft nears the holding pattern, the pilot will slow the aircraft in order to comply with the governing agency's defined speed limits for holding. (In the United States, most airline holding occurs above 14,000 feet where the maximum holding speed is 265 knots.) The aircraft will enter the pattern and remain in holding until the pilot re-programs the FMS or manually commands the aircraft, either through the autopilot or directly with the flight controls, to do something else. Regardless, when properly programmed and confirmed by both pilots, the FMS and the autopilot are typically used to fly the holding pattern (with constant monitoring by the pilots, of course), giving the flight deck crew the opportunity to complete a few very important tasks.


As the aircraft continues to circle, attention shifts to the determination of what is commonly referred to as bingo fuel...the amount of fuel it will take to fly from the holding pattern to the planned destination, execute a missed approach and then proceed to the alternate airport with an appropriate amount of reserve fuel to spare. Anything over and above the bingo fuel can be used for holding and determines how long you'll be able to wait for conditions to improve. Assuming there's extra fuel to burn, the pilots would like to know the reason for the hold and how likely it is that conditions will improve in time to allow an eventual landing at the planned destination. If there’s only 15 minutes of hold fuel in the tanks and thunderstorms aren’t expected to clear for at least 30 minutes, then the pilot might elect to divert early. Advantages for diverting early include being the first one in line for re-fueling and the first one ready to takeoff once conditions improve.

As part of the initial holding clearance, Air Traffic Control issued an Expect Further Clearance (EFC) time to the pilots. However, the EFC can be misleading and is rarely an accurate indication of actual holding time, which may be shorter or significantly longer than the initial EFC. The real purpose of the EFC is to provide the pilots with a time to begin “Lost Communication” procedures in the unlikely event that radio contact is lost and cannot be re-established. Lost Comm is a discussion for another day and I won't bore you with the details.

With attention now squarely focused on fuel, the pilots will attempt to contact the dispatcher working their flight to discuss fuel requirements and to validate that the planned alternate is still a good option. The dispatcher has a big picture view of what's happening. They are able to see the weather and the traffic on a much larger scale. They can see who is holding, where they are holding, and who is being cleared out of the holding patterns. Armed with this information, the dispatcher is in a unique position to dispense valuable advice.

There are a number of reasons why the planned alternate may no longer be a good option. Weather conditions may have changed or there could be another airport in close proximity to the holding pattern that would make a better choice. It's also possible that your flight is late to the divert game. There's only so much room on the ramp at any given airport, so if multiple aircraft ahead of yours diverted into your planned alternate, there might not be a place to park. Another airport may better suit your needs.

Of course, the pilots will use every source of information available to them. The 737-800 that I fly is equipped with a Honeywell FMS system that offers the pilot an "alternate destination" page. This page, pictured to the right, allows the pilot to enter several possible alternates and it displays the distance to, estimated time of arrival, and most importantly, estimated fuel upon arrival at various destinations. It also allows to the pilot to input the same city with a "direct to" fuel estimate as well as an estimated arrival fuel if the pilot elected to fly to the destination, fly an approach and then proceed to the alternate. Handy information.

An announcement no pilot wants to make and no passenger wants to hear.

No, we haven't forgotten about you back there in seat 23A. Those of you who are awake and alert enough to notice are wondering about the racetrack shaped hole we've been burning into the sky. “Sorry for the delay, blah, blah, blah. Thanks for your patience.” That part about "thanks for your patience" evokes a negative response from a lot of people and I rarely use the phrase. The PA should be short and simple. This is what's happening. It sucks. I get it. I'll make it stop as soon as I can. That's all I have to say about that.

We often don't have a lot of information to pass along, but one thing I've found over the years, is that people don’t like being left in the dark. Regardless of the situation, most people find it easier to resist an outward display of their inner frustrations if they receive timely and truthful information. Personally, I set a timer on my company-issued iPad and make certain that information is shared in 15-minute intervals, even if there is nothing new to report.

Decision made: Divert.

At some point during holding, the pilots may have realized a divert was inevitable. Once the best airport has been decided, they retrieved the appropriate charts (or set them up in their iPads), set up for a particular approach, and dialed in the appropriate navigation and communication frequencies. Once the decision has been made, Air Traffic Control and the airline/dispatcher have to be notified and the FMS has to be reprogrammed for a landing at the alternate airport. As those tasks are completed, the aircraft descends out of the hectic environment above. The actual process of diverting the aircraft is relatively simple to execute. The majority of my diversions have been into smaller airports where the pace of life seems to be a little more laid back. The stress level drops significantly and won't rise again until after landing...which for me, is where frustration with “the process” often peaks.

"I'd rather be on the ground wishing I was in the air, 
than in the air wishing I was on the ground."

I've been in both positions and I can tell you the saying has it right. Once safely on the ground, all anyone wants is to get back in the air. Unfortunately, your flight is now what we call an Off Scheduled Operation. An OSO is something the airlines are well prepared to handle, but once a flight is off its scheduled route, nothing happens automatically. After an airplane lands where and when was expected, most of what happens next is choreographed well in advance. Fuel, flight planning, catering, and crew considerations were all planned days, if not weeks in advance. For an OSO flight, nothing is automatic and everything takes intentional effort and extra time.

Many smaller airports are set up for a handful of jet departures per day, many of which may be regional jets that require significantly less fuel. A single large jet could potentially need the weight of an RJ in fuel. Many airports, not accustomed to fueling large jet aircraft, don't have trucks capable of carrying enough fuel for more than one jet. With a trip to the fuel farm needed between each fill up and a long line of jets that need to be fueled, the delay could easily test the limits of the current Tarmac Rule as well as your crew’s rest and duty time limitations.

I hate asking people to be patient, so here's some other advice, take it or leave it. The flight attendant does not know if you will make your connection. Don't bother asking. The pilot does not know when the plane will be fueled or when the thunderstorm will clear the airport. You may be talking to someone on a cell phone who says the weather is fine. This does not mean that it actually is, or that the weather between here and there is passable. Most airlines will let you off the aircraft if you insist, but I advise against it. You most likely will not be allowed back on the aircraft and a rental car will definitely cost you more time and money.

Going home...finally!

For whatever reason…Murphy’s Law maybe, the weather almost always seems to clear up once I’ve committed to a diversion. I’m a strong believer in drawing a line in the sand with respect to bingo fuel, and I refuse to cross that line. Many pilots before me have been talked into reducing their personal minimums when it comes to fuel. I simply won’t do it. As a result, I tend to divert about once every year...usually a result of poor weather conditions at the destination. 9 out of 10 times, the weather at the destination is beautiful by the time we make our tardy arrival. Clear skies, calm winds. Whatever rain fell seems to have long since evaporated. Go easy on the crew as you step off the plane. I guarantee landing at Tiny Town, USA was not on their wish list for the day either.

January 8, 2014

Getting to work the hard way - the glamorous life of a commuter.

While passing though the Dallas, Ft. Worth International Airport earlier this week, I ran into a good friend and newly minted airline employee. As a new hire flight attendant at a major airline, Tyler was, like so many before him, awarded New York City as his initial base assignment - commuting became a way of life.

Tyler lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, flies out of the three New York area airports and spends many of his nights on a ratty old couch inside crew ops at New York LaGuardia. He's not alone. Most people are unaware of how poorly compensated new hire pilots and flight attendants really are.  At my first job as an airline pilot, I brought home less than $1,000 a month and qualified for food stamps (which I did not accept) for the first four years on the job.  Pilots and flight attendants alike often don't have the money or the ability to move to their first base assignments, so commuting often becomes the only reasonable choice. It is both a blessing and a curse of the airline industry that its employees can live in one city and work in another, but it's a tough life and space on the couch is often in short supply.

A slightly more dignified option, and a small step up from the couch, is the "crash pad."  These flop houses often contain multiple bunk beds in each room and a single bathroom to serve a dozen or more people. The assumption is that all occupants will never need a place to sleep at the same time, so far more people are allowed to sign up than there are beds. Think Titanic and the lifeboats. They won't be needed, so put a few where everyone can see them and all will be fine. 

One of the worst crash pads I ever stayed in had two bedrooms, one bathroom and a total of four beds to accommodate 14 pilots. I spent a lot of time on the couch or tucked inside a sleeping bag in the corner of the room.

Of course, hotels were an option, but only those with more seniority and a healthier paycheck could consider spending the money on such luxury. Other more creative options included small RV cities like the one located in the employee parking lot at LAX where many commuters spend their nights away from home. Others impose on family and friends, and some even live in their cars. Sounds glamorous, doesn't it?

Couches, chairs and the floor - oh my!

On several occasions, I found myself unable to find an acceptable place to sleep.  Believe it or not, I'm including the couch on that list. On one such night, a snow storm caused massive power failures that drove people from their homes in search of warmth and electricity. Not surprisingly, the power grid around the airport was a high priority for the city, so most of the airport hotels had power. It seemed as if the entire population of the city was staying within a two mile radius of the airport that night. The nearest hotel room I could find was over an hour away and I had no way to get there. Unable to find anything better, the crew lounge was littered with pilots and flight attendants sleeping on couches, chairs and wherever else they could find a place to shut their eyes. Ops was so crowded that night that it was even difficult to find space on the floor large enough to lay completely flat.

That was the night I decided to purchase a blow up bed. I thought the idea was genius - and to be honest, it was! As soon as I got home, I looked around and happened upon a blow up bed in a backpack. I could carry this thing anywhere and have a bed whenever and wherever I needed it. I didn't need a place to sleep very often, so hotels were my bed of choice, but the blow up bed proved to be invaluable on those unexpected nights in the crew lounge.

The funny thing about the blow up bed is that it almost got me arrested. Yes, feel free to re-read that sentence, but a blow up bed in a back pack almost got me thrown in jail. I purchased the darn thing in my home town with the intent of carrying it through security as carry-on baggage.  Unfortunately, I had not removed the bed from its original packaging and the TSA scanners mistook the tightly packed plastic as some sort of explosive. Apparently, two D cell batteries with wires connected to some sort of motor resembled the remaining ingredients of something really dangerous and before I knew what was happening, I was locked in a room with two angry guys carrying guns. By the way, if you must use the words "blow" and "up" in the same sentence while standing at airport security, use them very carefully and be prepared for delay.

Of course the whole thing was quickly cleared up, but it's only comical in hind sight.

My worst commute...

I have commuted four times in my career, the first time as a freight pilot while living in Dallas, Texas and flying out of Corpus Christi. In a two leg commute, I would jumpseat from Dallas Love Field to Corpus Christi on Monday afternoon and fly night freight on Monday through Thursday night. Four nights a week, I left Corpus at 8pm and flew to San Antonio, Dallas and Austin before one final approach and landing at Corpus around 6am. I had a four hour layover in Dallas each night, during which I would drive home, spend a couple hours in bed with my wife, then go back to work. It was far from ideal, but I was "paying my dues."

My second commute was from my home in Dallas to a regional airline job in Atlanta, Georgia. That commute was especially nasty because the airline didn't have jumpseat privileges on any other airline. While making a mere $14,000 per year, I had to purchase a $90 pass to get to and from work. Sometimes I stayed in Atlanta because I couldn't afford to come home.  I actually did this commute three times. First as a new hire and two more times after getting displaced to Atlanta for short temporary duty assignments. It was not pleasant.

The next opportunity I had to perfect the art of commuting came with my first job at a major airline and involved traveling from my home in Dallas to a new job as a Boeing 727 Flight Engineer in Miami, Florida. Luckily, that commute only lasted three months before I was back at home swearing I would never commute again. I learned a lesson on that one - never say never.

My fourth commute was once again from my home in Dallas, this time after getting displaced from DFW to an assignment in Saint Louis that was supposed to last a year and turned into a four year saga. At the time, almost all of our STL based first offices commuted. The flights were all full and the jumpseats were few and far between.

The Saint Louis commute was probably the hardest of all and got off to the roughest start. The afternoon
before my first trip out of STL, I noticed a severe line of thunderstorms moving toward the Dallas area. A single line of strong storms had the potential to wreak havoc on our operations and I didn't want to be late for my first day at a new base, so I elected to make the trip to St. Louis a day early. I decided I could use the extra time to familiarize myself with a new airport and shake hands with my new boss, but by the time I got to the airport there were only three flights left. I got bumped off the first two and for reasons unknown, the final flight of the night cancelled.

Over the next hour, storms started to impact the area and the flight information boards in the terminal began to list cancelled flight after cancelled flight. I had an afternoon sign in the next day, but within the span of about 5 minutes, all three of my backup flights landed squarely on the growing list of cancellations.

Honestly, as I recall this story, I can't imagine why I didn't just call crew schedule to inform them I had tried by best and failed. We had a commuter policy in place that would have kept me out of the chief pilot's office, but I decided not to give up. I sat at a computer inside pilot ops and checked flight after flight until I finally found what I thought might work.

I took a delayed flight from Dallas to Tulsa, Oklahoma that landed around 2am, couldn't find a hotel room with any vacancy, and spent the night on a couch at the airport. Not that a hotel would have been worth the money as I caught a flight on another airline that left Tulsa at 7am and landed in St. Louis an hour and ten minutes later. I was tired, frustrated and seriously concerned that my experience that night was a precursor of things to come. Thankfully that was as bad as it ever got, but four years later I finally got the transfer back to Dallas and once again proclaimed that I would never commute again.

Hopefully it will stick this time - I don't think I could take another night on the couch.

December 23, 2013

"Amazing Airlines" by 15 Year Old Author Aditya Palnitkar - Worthy of Any Airline Enthusiast's Library

As the sole contributor to Airline Pilot Chatter, I receive almost weekly requests for product endorsements and testimonials, but if you've been reading this blog for long, then you know that I've never said yes...until now. Recently, I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of Amazing Airlines, and as a lover of anything with wings, I enjoyed the book's inside look at what makes the airline industry tick. But what is truly amazing about this wonderful book is the fact that it was written by a 15 year old boy.

Born in Sunnyvale, California, Aditya now resides in India with his family. Given the vast distance between our two homes, a face to face meetup was out of the question, but when I asked this young author to respond to a few questions, I promptly received well-rounded and thought-out responses that once again seemed well beyond his years. While it is remarkable that Aditya wrote Amazing Airlines at such a young age, I would encourage you not to judge the book's merits on that alone.

Amazing Airlines is easy and enjoyable to read, while providing just the right amount of detail about the inner workings of a complicated industry. As you will see from his responses below, Aditya Palnitkar is an intelligent and insightful young man who managed to produce a work worthy of any airline enthusiast's library.

"I find it wonderful that the only thing separating people is not race, religion or nationality, just distance. My dream is to start my own commercial airline and use aviation to link these distant populations." - Aditya Palnitkar

Did you grow up around people who like or work in aviation? If not, what is it that sparked this interest in you?
- Although nobody in my family likes or works in aviation, my parents’ love for travel has provided me with the opportunity to fly extensively. Since my first flight, I've always been fascinated by aircraft and the magic world of aviation. My love of aviation comes from some ineffable, hard-wired affinity that I realized when I was just seven years old. The year was 2003, and I was on a plane flying from San Francisco to Mumbai, India. Instead of watching cartoons, I was tracking the airplane’s flight path and looking out the window at the clouds, fascinated by how high we were soaring in the sky.

At the young age of 15, you have already traveled to more places around world than many people will see in a lifetime. Were these family vacations? Do you have any favorites?
- It is a family custom to do one trip together every year. The primary purpose of these trips to spend a lot of time together as a family. Our vacations are self-planned and somewhat unconventional. We prefer to take public transportation and avoid taxis and tour buses; try out the local cuisine and experience life as locals do. To date, my journeys have spanned 33 different countries across 5 continents on 21 airlines. Over the years, the countries I have visited or flown through worldwide including the United States, France, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, India, Egypt, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Serbia, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, Australia, Taiwan, Korea, U.A.E, Qatar, Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Malaysia.

Aditya in Stockholm, Sweden while on one of the family's yearly vacations.
There are plenty of young people out there who love airplanes, but you have obviously taken it to the next level. What led you to sit down and write a book? How long did it take to write?
- On each trip I have taken, I have always talked to the pilots and the crew about our common interest in aviation. In 2010, during a conversation with the pilots of a Spanish airline, they mentioned how great it would be if everyone my age could understand aviation. At this point, I realized that the language and structure of most aviation books I had read was difficult for young people to understand. I felt that an airline book written in a simple language had the potential to inspire interest among teenagers and young adults. Since a book like this did not exist, I decided to write one. I used notes, photos and videos from my travels as well as talked to people in the industry. Writing the manuscript involved hundreds of hours of research, interviews and correspondences and took me about two years from start to finish. Of course, a few months after this were spent in polishing the content and making it look great. Amazing Airlines was published in August 2012, and my objective in writing the book was to make commercial aviation an interesting topic for teenagers and to help them unravel the mysteries and inner workings of the airline world.

Tell me a little about the process of writing your book. Were there times that you were frustrated? Did you ever think it wouldn't get written?
Amsterdam Schipol Airport
-The process was arduous at the start, because I had to email and call industry experts to do my research. It took me a while to get used to being ignored. I was also just 13 years old when I began work, so obviously with my friends playing video games and spending their time on Facebook, sometimes it felt like a good idea to let the project go. I believe it was my passion for aviation that motivated me to finish the book.

Was this a project that you worked on by yourself, or did you have help from family and friends?
- I received encouragement and support from my father Samir, my mother Anuradha and my brother Sahil while I tackled the task of writing this book and my family members helped me balance the task of book-writing with my school studies. While I drafted the manuscript on my own, friends and family took up the task of proofreading, polishing and sending me their suggestions.

I've worked in commercial aviation for over 20 years, and while I found the book to be easy and straight forward to read, it also contained information that I did not know. Who is your intended audience?
- I think the best part about the book is the smooth narration which anybody can easily read. That is why anyone can read Amazing Airlines. However, little is written about aviation on a level appropriate for teenagers and young adults, it is especially suitable for this segment.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is that you added so many quotes and factoids about the industry. How did you amass so many of these...and do you have any favorites?
Many of these quotes are from aviation books I have read. My favorite quote is:

"To most people, the sky is the limit. To those who love aviation, the sky is home."
- Anonymous

Have you ever had the opportunity to get an in-depth airline or airport tour? If so, where?
- I have had an exclusive insight into the world of airline working because of pilots and flight attendants from the industry. In 2012, I was offered a VIP tour at the Boeing factory in Everett, WA. This gave me an in depth view of airplane manufacturing as well as many interesting facts and stories.

Aditya with a Boeing 777 landing gear assemply.
Boeing 787 cabin seat prototype - 2012
You mentioned at the end of the book that you have aspirations of being a commercial pilot and would even like to start your own airline someday.  If you had to choose, would you prefer to be a pilot or work in airline management?
- I believe that the airline world also involves many things that books can’t cover. There’s a heart and soul to every place and community, which travelling lets you experience. While distant cultures may seem different, they are similar where it matters.  The farmers’ market in Paris has the same commotion as the one in Seattle. Whether it is Stockholm, Casablanca or Tokyo, parks are full of mothers lovingly walking their kids in strollers. I find it wonderful that the only thing separating people is not race, religion or nationality, just distance. My dream is to start my own commercial airline and use aviation to link these distant populations. If given the choice, I would fly as a hobby (get a PPL) and manage an airline simultaneously.

Do you have a favorite airline?  Favorite airplane?
- Although I enjoy the service Asian and Middle Eastern airlines offer, I do not have a favorite airline. My favorite airplane is the Boeing 747, because no other single aircraft has contributed to bringing this world closer together.

What is next for you?  Will you write another book?  Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
- I see myself pursuing an undergraduate education in the field of aviation. I want to use the knowledge and skills I will gain to fulfill my lifetime goals.

Amazing Airlines is currently available on Amazon.  Visit  to take a look inside or to purchase your own copy.

December 17, 2013

The New American Airlines Livery - Will it Stay or Will it Go?

Start lobbying the employees...
they get to decide!

For decades, American Airlines has flown unpainted, polished aluminum airplanes.  The outgoing livery, introduced in 1967, outlasted mergers, shifting tastes and the test of time, but it's time for something new...or is it?  The "New" American livery, introduced earlier this year, dropped the company's signature bare-metal skin that dated back to the era of propeller-driven airliners. Polished skins were declared fuel-saving because an unpainted plane weighs less. But, as with so many other arguments, there are two sides to the story. Cost estimates from Boeing indicate that an unpainted aircraft will actually cost more money to maintain over time due to the increased cost of washing, polishing and painting a polished fuselage through its service life. (Click here to read more on that subject.)

Yesterday, American Airlines Group CEO Doug Parker sent the following message to the employees:  "While I enjoy debating the merits of certain aircraft liveries as much as anyone, I have always believed they are not particularly important to the success of an airline. For our team members who work in, around and on these aircraft day in and day out, it matters a great deal, but I have yet to find a customer who based their purchase decision on the exterior design of the airplane. I think our livery should represent the American well - it should be professional, and it should be cost efficient - but it is not a make or break decision for the airline. And since it is important to our team members, I think our team members should decide."

But wait!  When I went to the site to register my vote, the following note was prominently displayed: "This isn't a ‘vote’ on the new livery … rather it is a way to get your thoughts before we make a decision on how we are going to paint the planes in the future."  Well, at least they're asking for our opinion, even if they don't necessarily plan on abiding by it.  Oh...there's more. Part of the decision has already been made.  There will be "no more buffing - we have to paint."

There are numerous reasons for this decision. American can’t continue with the traditional polished aluminum because, well, their planes are no longer made solely of aluminum. "There is no good way to convert the US Airways fleet to polished silver because of the materials used on Airbus aircraft."  US Airways was the single largest operator of Airbus A320 series aircraft in the world, and the new American has orders in place for many more of the type. Also, in addition to continued deliveries of the A320, American has orders in place for the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350, both of which are composite aircraft that cannot be converted to a shiny metallic look. 

Here's the real kicker.  The decision is between two possible options (pictured below). The body will remain the same - only the tail is up for discussion.  So choose your favorite and make your opinion known.  It's in the hands of the employees.

Questions Answered...

Mr. Parker has said in the past he liked the brand work and didn't anticipate an immediate change. Did he change his mind?
Doug has stated many times his support for the brand that American introduced earlier this year but employees have continued to reach out to him to share their thoughts on the tail of the aircraft livery. The other components of the livery – painted fuselage, new logo and flight symbol – are all here to stay, in addition to the other brand elements introduced including the refreshed color scheme and font. This discussion is only about the tail. The new branding on the whole is professional, bold, fresh and represents American well.

What will you do with the results of the survey?
If employees want to keep the new look, we’ll keep it.  If they want the AA tail, we’ll go back. The bottom line is we want our employees to have input in what our new company looks like.

How many employees are you surveying?
We are surveying all of the employees of the combined airline.  As we build our new company, we want all of our employees to have a voice in who we are as an airline, and that starts with how we present ourselves to the world.

So much has already been done, how much would it cost to revert to the old imagery on the tail?
The overall cost to go back to the previous tail imagery is small and may even be more cost efficient in the longer term.  But the important thing is for all our employees to have input in the decision.

Why only the tail?
Major changes are not cost effective. However you may feel about the new livery and branding, the fact is it would be irresponsible for us to start over from scratch. There are currently more than 200 aircraft in the new livery and the new flight symbol or, “eagle” as it’s sometimes called, and the related signage is up in many airports and facilities already. One of our five imperatives at American is “Provide a Return for our Investors” and we can’t do that by spending their capital redoing a lot of work that has just been recently accomplished. The rest of the branding elements are excellent and will be left in place.

Why can’t we return to a polished fuselage?
We can't continue with the traditional American buffed silver look as there is no good way to convert the US Airways fleet to polished silver because of the materials used on Airbus aircraft.  In addition, the B787 and A350, both of which we have on order, are composite aircraft and that material cannot be converted to a shiny metallic look.  This, of course, is the same dilemma American faced last summer as the first of a large order of unpolished aircraft began to be delivered.

How many planes have been painted to date?
By the end of Q2 2014, a total of 275 mainline and regional aircraft will have the new livery, including new deliveries.

What about the livery for American Eagle aircraft?
Whatever choice is made by all employees (American Eagle, PSA and Piedmont employees are participating in the vote as well) will also influence the livery decision for our regional fleet.

December 9, 2013

American Airlines - The Largest Airline In The World (Again)

Rise and's a new day and the "New American" is officially here, once again the largest airline in the world.

The airline industry in the United States has changed significantly over the past twelve plus years. Several big name players are altogether gone or have merged with other carriers. Gone are names like TWA, Continental and Northwest Airlines in what became merger mania within the ranks of the major US carriers. Ironically, with its 2001 combination with Trans World Airlines, American not only claimed temporary bragging rights of the largest airline in the world, but also instigated a rash of mergers that would not only remove that title, but also created several formidable competitors in the process.

Before the US airline industry began to consolidate, long term stability and profitability was almost inconceivable. With the possible exception of Southwest Airlines, a company that consistently managed a particularly annoying (for anyone who didn't work there) streak of profitability, every other airline in the US struggled through cyclical ups and downs that became the accepted norm. The American Airlines bankruptcy in 2011 marked the 100th time a US carrier moved to reorganize its finances since 1990 and the 40th bankruptcy filing since September 2001. [1]  No longer inconceivable, it is now a very real possibility that the American Airlines and US Airways merger could put the US airline industry as a whole in a position for long term stability and profitability.


But who should be the recipient of the trophy for largest airline in the world? The answer isn't as simple as it may seem and depends on what metric is used to measure the size of these enormous airlines.  As you can see from the charts below, the New American still lags behind in several metrics. For example, American has stated in merger related documents that the combined airline will serve 336 destinations, that number lags behind United Airlines and barely beats out Delta Air Lines for the number two spot.


Fleet Size

If size really does matter, then American gets to brag about the size of its fleet, which is rapidly becoming the youngest in the industry as new Boeing and Airbus jets arrive every month.  As of today, the new American Airlines has a total of 1,494 jets, which puts the carrier squarely on top of the fleet size chart.

Revenue Passenger Miles

Revenue Passenger Miles measures airline traffic by multiplying the number of revenue-paying passengers by the distance they traveled. Once gain, United Airlines comes out on top of the chart. In 2012, US Airways didn't make the top ten, but if the RPMs of American Airlines and US Airways are added together, the New American comes in second place, once again, just barely out-flying Delta. 

(2012, Millions)
Passengers Carried

Once again, it all depends on which metric you decide to use as the New American takes a significant lead in passengers carried. These number are, however, full year 2012 numbers. As part of its settlement with the DOJ, American has already agreed to reduce flying in several key markets and will almost surely reduce frequency in some cities where the two airlines have overlapping flights. Officials from both carriers have repeatedly pointed out that they only compete on 12 out of 680 nonstop routes flown by the two airlines, but the full year numbers for 2014 and beyond will be a better indication of passengers carried.

(2012, Millions)

Facts about the new airline:
(Information from court documents and SEC filings)
  • Following the closing, AMR will change its name to American Airlines Group Inc., or AAG, and will operate its airlines under the American Airlines brand, principally through its mainline operating subsidiaries, American and US Airways.
  •  AAG is expected to integrate American and US Airways into a single airline, under a single FAA operating certificate, within two years following the closing, subject to receipt of FAA approval.
  • After the merger, AAG is expected to offer more than 6,700 daily flights to 336 destinations in 56 countries.
  • Out of the more than 680 domestic nonstop routes that American and US Airways fly, only 12 nonstop flights overlap.
  • American serves 130 cities not served by US Airways, and US Airways serves 62 cities not served by American.
  • US Airways will withdraw from the Star Alliance and join the oneworld Alliance.
  • AAG will maintain all nine hubs currently served by American and US Airways.
  • AAG will be headquartered in Dallas-Ft. Worth and will maintain a significant corporate and operational presence in the Phoenix area.
  • AAG will employ approximately 100,000 people around the world.
  • AAG is scheduled to take delivery of more than 600 new aircraft through 2022, including 517 narrow-body aircraft and 90 wide-body international aircraft.
  • Doug Parker will serve as CEO of AAG from the closing date, Monday December 9th.
  • Tom Horton, the current AMR CEO, will not continue as an officer or employee of AAG following the closing, but will remain as chairman of the board. Mr. Horton will have no transition role at the new American and had his last day as CEO on Friday, December 6th.
  • The New American will have hubs at the following cities: Dallas, Charlotte, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Washington, DC.

Facts about the DOJ settlement:

Slot reductions at DCA and LGA are roughly 14% and 7% of the combined "New" American Airlines.
  • Given the size and scope of the "New" American, these divestitures are manageable with little or no reduction in mainline service.
    • Capacity reductions at DCA and LGA represent less than a quarter of a percent of the "New" American's 2013 total system capacity — in other words, 112 of ~6,700 daily flights total.
    • The reductions in DCA and LGA will have an impact on regional jet flying performed mostly by US Airways contract regional carriers operating 50-seat regional jets.
      • American Airlines currently holds ~14% of DCA slots, and US Airways holds ~55% of DCA slots. Following these divestitures, the "New" American will hold ~57% of all DCA slots.
  • The settlement agreement with the DOJ impacts ~14% of the daily departures operated at DCA by US Airways and American prior to the merger.
    • At DCA, the agreement calls for divestiture of 52 slot pairs. This includes 8 slot pairs currently owned by AA and leased by JetBlue.
      • Taking into account these leased slots, the settlement will result in an actual reduction of 44 slot pairs.
    • To put this in perspective, at DCA today, US Airways and American together operate 294 daily network departures (243 US Air and 51 AA).
      • After the DCA slots are divested, the new AA will jointly operate ~250 daily weekday departures.
Neither airline has been required to divest its exemptions that today allow service beyond the perimeter (1200 nm) from DCA. (For reference, today those exemptions allow nonstop flights by US Airways or American to LAX, SAN, PHX and LAS.) The "inner perimeter" slots are the only slots being divested.

  • The settlement impacts less than 7 percent of the daily departures operated at LGA by US Airways and American prior to the merger.
    • At LGA, the agreement calls for 17 slot-pair divestitures. This includes the 5 slot pairs currently owned by American and leased to Southwest.
    • Taking into account these leased slot pairs, the agreement requires the divestiture of only 12 slot pairs.
    • At LGA, US Air and AA together operate 175 daily network departures (65 US Air and 110 AA).
    • Post-divestment, US Air and AA will operate 163 daily network departures at LGA.
Other Airports:
  • At 5 additional airports, the settlement agreement calls for the transfer of 2 gates and associated ground facilities (which includes things like ticket counters, hold-rooms, jet bridges and operations space):
    • BOS: 2 gates out of 28 (7 AA/21 US Air) currently operated by US Airways and American, pre-merger. (24 gates are currently operated by the airlines.)
    • DAL: 2 American gates out of 2. Those gates are currently leased to Delta.
    • LAX: 2 gates (expected to be 31A and 31B in Terminal 3) out of 26 (23 AA/3 US Air) currently operated by US Airways and American, pre-merger.
    • MIA: 2 US Airways gates in Terminal J out of 67 (65 AA/2 US Air) currently operated by US Airways and American, pre-merger.
    • ORD: 2 American gates on Concourse L out of 71 (68 AA/3 US Air) currently operated by US Airways and American, pre-merger.
Agreement with States:
  • In the settlement agreement with the state attorneys general, the "New" American has agreed to maintain its hubs at CLT, DFW, JFK, LAX, MIA, ORD, PHL and PHX consistent with historical operations for a period of 3 years.
    • In addition, with limited exceptions, for a period of 5 years, the "New" American will continue to provide daily scheduled service from 1 or more of its hubs to each airport in each of the states involved in the original lawsuit that has scheduled daily service from either American or US Airways. This agreement does not include service that is discontinued as the result of the divestitures required as a condition to completing the merger.
  • A previous settlement agreement with the state of Texas will be amended to make it consistent with those entered into today with the other states.
Divested slots may not maintain service to affected communities:
  • The "New" American will not end service to any cities. All cities currently served by American and US Airways will retain service.
  • The divestiture of slots will, of course, require the "New" American to discontinue nonstop service from DCA to some destinations currently served by American Airlines and US Airways. Those cities are not yet known, but "New" American plans to announce the service changes that will result from the divestitures in advance of the sale of the DCA and LGA slots so that the airlines acquiring those slots have the opportunity to maintain service to those communities.
DOJ Divestiture Process Overview
  • DOJ agreement term is 10 years.
  • Process for divesting DCA and LGA slots calls for the sale of slots to occur as quickly as reasonably possible, with full transfer of slots to occur within 90 days of merger close to acquirers that the DOJ must approve; other gates must be transferred within 90 days after the related slot sale.
  • Process for divesting key airport gates allows for 180 days post-merger close. Again, DOJ must approve final acquirers.

December 4, 2013

Engine Failure Part IV - MD83 - Fully Loaded and Overweight

The Captain was working the radios and I was at the controls as we took off from runway 18L on our way to Mexico City for what was supposed to be a simple two leg turn.  We had a full load of passengers and a heavy load of fuel in anticipation of poor destination weather, so the aircraft was well above max landing weight as we roared into the afternoon sky.  

The first 10 minutes of this short international flight passed as so many do...boring and uneventful, just like I like them. But as we climbed through Flight Level 230, an amber MASTER CAUTION light illuminated on the glare shield.  This light is designed to catch the pilot’s attention and directs him to an annunciator panel for more information about an abnormal condition.  Situated above the windshield and below the overhead panel, the annunciator panel is usually blank at this stage of the flight, so the OIL STRAINER CLOGGING light stood out like a sore thumb.

"Master Caution" and "Master Warning" lights in the upper right hand corner.
MD83 Annunciator Panel as it normally looks during flight...dark, no lights
This was a light I had seen before…on more than one occasion actually, but never in the real airplane. The OIL STRAINER CLOGGING light was the abnormality, pre-programmed into the simulator by my instructor, that led to more than one divert during yearly visits to recurrent training.  This time it was real and although I called for the emergency checklist, I knew what was coming.

We were in communication with Houston Center at the time and the captain requested a level off at FL240 because he knew what was coming too.  Following the checklist, I turned the auto throttle off and added pressure to the left rudder pedal as I pulled the throttle back on the right engine. I held pressure on the rudder instead of adding trim because I knew we would start down in a few moments and would have both engines at idle, negating the need for trim.

The warning light remained illuminated, but all other engine parameters appeared normal…oil temperature, pressure and quantity normal…EGT normal…N1 and N2 normal.  We would not have to shut down the engine.  It's much better to leave an engine running at idle if at all possible.  At idle, the engine does not provide enough thrust to be of any use, but it does provide air and electricity and is there standing by to produce thrust if the pilots really need it.

I have declared an emergency on numerous occasions over the years and have always received prompt and helpful service from Air Traffic Control.  This day was not different.  I pushed the throttle up on the good engine in an attempt to control speed and asked the Captain to request a lower altitude.  Given the heat of summer and our heavier than normal weight, we weren't going to be able to maintain FL240.  The Captain declared an emergency and requested an immediate descent and a turn back toward the airport.  We were cleared to descend at our discretion to FL180, an altitude we could maintain on one engine, and were cleared directly to the airport.  We were now headed the wrong way on a heavily traveled departure corridor from one of the busiest airports in the nation, but ATC cleared the path for a straight in arrival.

“145 souls on board, three hours fifteen minutes fuel remaining”

After completing the checklists, the captain was busy keeping the Flight Attendants in the loop, making PA announcements to concerned passengers and coordinating our arrival back at the airport.  He delegated flying the airplane and working the radios to me, and I remember making a conscious decision to make the arrival as normal as possible.  By keeping the profile normal, I hoped to highlight anything that was not.

As we descended with both engines at idle power, there was no differential thrust so the airplane flew as it normally does.  We were approaching the airport from the south and the summer winds were blowing hard out of the same direction, so I planned to fly normal downwind and base legs and planned to pass abeam the departure end of the runway at 8,000 feet so I could make a power off descent to the final approach course.  We had the airport in sight from 20 miles away and were cleared for a visual approach to runway 18R.  We could have had any runway we wanted, but 18R was the normal runway, so we stuck with normal.  We started our turn from the downwind leg back toward the airport as we passed through about 4,000 feet and I didn't have to add power until we were almost over the final approach fix.

I slowed the aircraft and configured for landing as I would for any other flight with the exception of the flap setting.  I typically landed the MD80 with flaps 40, but the single-engine approach and landing checklist required the use of flaps 28, which reduced thrust needed during the approach and improved climb performance in the unlikely event of a single engine go-around.

At about 1,200 feet above touch down, I increased the power one last time on the good engine and stabilized our approach speed.  I'm not embarrassed to admit that the last 1,000 feet of that approach got my blood pressure up.  We were over the max landing weight by almost 10,000 pounds and flying on one engine.  I had successfully flown this approach on one engine many times and in much worse weather conditions...but always in the relative security of a flight simulator and always with the knowledge that we had a redo button in case I screwed it up. This time it was for real. The approach needed to be perfect...and since we were overweight, the touchdown needed to be smoother than normal to avoid damage to the aircraft.

I set the main gear smoothly onto the runway, lowered the nose until the wheel touched and raised the reverse thrust levers as I applied the brakes. I didn't use any reverse thrust on the bad engine, but even at idle, deploying the reverser would help slow the aircraft.  We slowed to taxi speed on the runway and leisurely took the last high speed turnoff from the runway where the “safety vehicles” were waiting for our arrival.  An hour later we were climbing through FL240 for the second time that day, but with slightly more productive results.  On to our destination and back again, I was home within two hours of when my wife was expecting me.  I don’t think she even noticed.

Click the following link for a longer version of this story that I shared back in August 2012.  "Single Engine"

November 27, 2013

Engine Failure Part III - Idle Props are Hard to Hide

You might be surprised how often passengers on board a jet airplane are completely unaware of an engine failure. 80% of the thrust produced by the CFM56 clinging to the wing of most Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s is a product of the fan, which is just a ducted propeller...and since the fan blades are ducted, they are generally out of sight and out of mind for the passengers.  Sometimes an engine failure is a violent and fiery event, shaking the airframe and filling the cabin with smoke, while others failures involve engines that simply "spool down" for one reason or another. Either would be hard to hide on a turbo prop, but if the pilot was quick and smooth with the rudder, or the failure occurred in a low power situation like descent, the failure could easily go unnoticed on a jet.

Below is an interesting video explaining how the CFM56 produces thrust.

This may come as a great surprise, but there was time when the terms regional airline and turboprop went together like bacon and eggs. Turboprops were what the regionals flew. The planes may have been smaller, they might have been a little loud, and they could easily vibrate a can of coke across a flimsy tray table, but they were money makers, using far less fuel to carry the same number of passengers as regional jets do today. Passengers hated them, but they were very good at their mission and for pilots on their way up the ladder, they were a "stepping stone" to the majors.  What is a turboprop?  A turboprop is just a small jet engine with a propeller. During an engine failure on a jet, there is isn't much to see from the cabin...but a failed engine on a turboprop? Idle props are hard to hide.

Where's all that oil going?

I spent six years at a large regional airline, four years flying an EMB-120 Brasilia and two years flying an ATR-72-210...both turboprops. I never had a full-blown engine failure during that time, but I did experienced three fairly serious engine malfunctions that resulted in precautionary shutdowns.

The first occurred on a Brasilia during a low power descent.  With both engines near idle, one of the engines began to slowly lose oil. We had no idea where it was coming from or where it was going, but over about a three minute period, the oil level went from normal to almost empty. As it became clear that oil would completely drain from the engine, we elected to shut the engine down in an effort to avoid any serious damage.

Since the engines were already at low power, the loss of thrust made almost no difference in the way we flew the airplane. That is, until we needed more power during the approach. If the propeller hadn't been static out there on the wing, I don't think anyone on board would have known the difference.

EMB-120 Brasilia cockpit.
I had a similar even on an ATR-72 that was a little more exciting, mainly because we were climbing at the time.  On a short, late night flight from Dallas to Houston, we were climbing through about 5,000 feet when a warning light illuminated in the cockpit. The captain, who was flying the airplane at the time, leveled off as I declared an emergency and retrieved the checklist. Oil quantity was steadily decreasing and oil temperature was on the rise. Again, we wanted to shut the engine down before any serious damage was done and probably would have skipped the checklist and done just that if we thought the engine would run out of oil before completing the official procedure.

ATR 72 cockpit.
As it turned out, we had enough time to follow the checklist, but what really stuck in my mind about this particular emergency was what happened after we got back on the ground.  We were the airline's last flight out that night, and company policy required the ground staff at the airport to remain on duty until we were at least half way to our destination...maybe farther, I can't remember exactly.

There wasn't much traffic at the airport that night, and as we turned off the runway the tower controller cleared us directly onto the company ramp without having to contact ground. But as we taxied in, I couldn't get anyone at the company to answer the radio and there wasn't anyone on the ramp to meet the flight. Keep in mind that this was 1997...neither of us owned a cell phone. Today, I could contact the company via cell phone, ACARS, ARINC or the internet phone mounted on the cockpit wall, but our little regional airline didn't have any of those options in 1997.

We convinced some helpful soul at the DFW tower to attempt contact with our company operations, but that wasn't successful either. Apparently, the entire staff had gone home for the night and we were on our own.  Where would we park? What would we do with the passengers? Could we even get into the terminal?

With further assistance from the tower, we were able to get in contact with another airline who agreed to let us park at one of their gates and even handled the passengers.  I was amazed to learn later that they gave out hotel vouches to our stranded passengers. Normally, an airline will provide vouchers for mechanical delays that result in an overnight stay, but this airline certainly owed us nothing. I'm sure they were reimbursed, but their performance that night was well above what could have been expected.

Are we on fire?

The third event occurred while climbing out of a small town in Mississippi in an EMB-120 Brasilia on our way to Atlanta, Georgia. I was the captain on this flight and as we passed through about 10,000 feet, the Brasilia's warning system chimed in and alerted us to an overheat situation around one of the bleed air ducts. Unfortunately, the system wasn't designed to tell us which one.

Take a look at the schematic below. Sadly, my old Brasilia manuals turned up missing after a recent move, so the picture is from a Boeing 737 manual that I found online...but the concept is the same. Also, the picture is small and difficult to read, but that isn't the point either. The pneumatic system is complicated and the procedures used to diagnose it while in-flight are confusing and time consuming.

Most jet engine pneumatic systems work very much the same way. Extremely hot air is taken from the compressor section of the engine (air gets very hot when compressed) and is then sent through an intricate system of ducts, valves, turbines and cooling devices designed to take air that is hot enough to light a fire and turn it into a cool and comfortable environment for the cabin. The ducts between the engine and the initial cooling devices are especially important, because leaks in this area have the ability to concentrate small blasts of air that have the same affect as a blow torch on surrounding material.

Duct leaks are a serious fire hazard that are always treated as an emergency; and on many airplanes, they involve immediate action items performed by the flight crew from memory. On the Brasilia, the procedure was accomplished from the emergency checklist and one of the first items on that checklist was to start a clock at the first indication of a leak. Next, through the process of elimination, pilots would attempt to identify the location of the leak by individually isolating specific areas of the system, one section at a time, to see if the warning light went out in a prescribed amount of time. If unable to determine which section had the leak before the clock ran out, then the leak would have to be stopped at the source...the engine.

I had already leveled the airplane off at 11,000 feet and notified ATC that we had a problem. I can't really blame them, but Air Traffic Control always has a lot of questions that I don't have time to answer during an event such as this...I asked ATC to "standby" and handed control of the airplane to my first officer. As a side note, my FO was an Embry-Riddle grad with just over 500 hours experience. Regardless of the claims made by proponents of the new 1500 hour rule, he was a capable aviator and an asset to me that day. I was completely comfortable handing him the airplane as I focused on the problem.

I've always hated complicated, long winded emergency procedures like this one. There was a lot to the procedure and I could easily waste valuable time with a simple mistake. However, we were at a safe altitude, the airplane was under control and I was assisted by a capable first officer.  The worst case scenario was that I would have to shut the engine down and return to the airport...and we could handle that.

I isolated the first area then waited the prescribed amount of time, but the light refused to go out. I really wish I had that old Brasilia manual so I could refresh my memory about the exact sequence of events, but suffice to say, after running the entire checklist, time ran out and the warning light was still glaring in my face.

Shutting an engine down in flight creates an awful lot of work for the non flying pilot. Honestly, the guy flying the airplane has a much easier job. Airlines spends an inordinate amount of time training pilots to fly airplanes on one engine, and once you get everything trimmed up, it isn't really all that different than flying with two. Call it selfish or call it smart with a relatively inexperienced first officer, but I wanted the landing and took it. That forth stripe comes in handy every now and then.

Many pilots will go their entire aviation career without losing an engine, but pilots love to tell stories about airplanes and being able to tell one about losing an engine is somewhat of a badge of honor. I remember talking to my dad later that day. He had successfully completed a 32 year airline career preceded by 6 years in the Army flying OV-1 Mohawks over Vietnam and never experienced an engine failure...I've had four. (You'll read about the fourth next week) Dad's reaction might surprise you, but I could tell he was little jealous.