December 15, 2015

Left Behind by the On-Time Machine

I could see the bright glow of the clock though my eyelids; and, in frustration, I placed a pillow in front of the darn thing at some point during the night. I may have cursed at it under my breath as well, but that's really between me and the clock. Knowing the time wouldn't change anything and being conscious enough to interpret the clock would only decrease the chance that I might actually fall back to sleep. I’ve learned to resist the temptation to look.

Now, wide awake and well past scheduled departure, the clock was mocking me again. Scribbled on a piece of paper next the bed was a reminder that I needed to be downstairs, ready to leave the hotel at 8am. I marked through that number hours earlier and made note of the new time…about an hour late. That time was crossed out too. Departure time for my first flight of the day had slipped a total of 8 times before I finally left the room, clad in blue polyester.

The current plan, not that I was holding my breath, was to land in Miami, Florida around 9pm, spend the night, and deadhead home the next morning…but, I had a better idea. As long as the schedule didn’t change again, I should have just enough time to catch the last flight home. It was my daughter's 18th birthday and I’d make every effort to see her before the day was over.

Once at the gate in Miami, I gathered my belongings and did my best impression of a speed-walker past the 20 or so gates that stood between me and my flight home.  On the way, I contacted crew scheduling to get permission to deviate from my schedule, all the while hoping the gate agent was in a giving mood. She wasn’t. I arrived at the gate 15 minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave, which is cutting it way too close for my liking.  I knew my chances were not good, but still…it was worth a try. Technically, our company requires me to be at the gate no later than 15 minutes prior to departure in order to gain access to the jumpseat. I had a shot.

I could feel the burn in my calves as I approached the gate, arriving just in time to see the jet bridge move away from the aircraft.  About a minute later, the agent emerged and started to shake her head "no" before I had a chance to plead my case.

It was barely less than 15 minutes before the flight was scheduled to depart. Company policy dictates that the aircraft door must be closed 10 minutes prior to departure and, in my mind, there was plenty of time to get me onboard and still meet that metric. All of the cargo doors were open and there were still several carts full of luggage to load. This was the last flight of the day. It was my daughter's 18th birthday!  I really hoped that last one would tug at the gate agent’s heartstrings, but no luck.

The reality is that I was not a paying customer, and I did arrive late...not to mention the fact that leaving me behind cost the company nothing outside of a hotel room and an employee with a sour attitude. As I walked away, I couldn’t help wonder about the true cost of the many paying customers left behind every day in the all-important quest to leave on-time.

A Dose of Reality

I’d like to get one thing out of the way before I continue. The published departure time is not the time at which the jetbridge door is closed. Departure time is not the time at which the aircraft door is closed either. I often have a similar conversation with my fellow crew members regarding hotel departure time, commonly referred to as “van time.” Van time is the time the van leaves the hotel, not the time you waltz off the elevator looking for a hot cup of coffee. The same rule applies at the airport. Departure time is the time that you and your belongings are onboard and the aircraft actually leaves the gate.  Gate Departure Time, as defined by the Department of Transportation (DOT), is the time at which “the pilot releases the aircraft parking brake after passengers have loaded and aircraft doors have been closed.” Clearly, in order for a flight to leave “on-time” in the eyes of the DOT, the jetbridge and aircraft door must be closed before the flight is actually scheduled to leave. 

With all of this in mind, most airlines close the jetbridge door 10 minutes before they actually plan for the flight to leave. It appears as though many people out there don’t understand this. From my vantage point in the cockpit, I see them saunter up to the gate a couple minutes before departure and throw a fit when they’re told their flight has already left. Yes, the plane is still sitting there, but you’ve missed it.

If I was in charge, every airline would provide passengers with the time at which it plans to close the jetbridge door and only publish the Gate Departure Time to the DOT. Everything in the airport would refer to the time the door would be closed. Only the DOT would be concerned with Gate Departure Time. Maybe that’s too complicated, but it would prevent a lot of tears and heartache.

As it stands, closing the door 10 minutes prior gives the gate agent enough time to close the aircraft door, allows the pilots time to finish last minute checklists and request clearance to push away from the gate, and allows the ground crew time to begin pushing the aircraft before the flight is counted as late.

What I’ve described here is basically common knowledge; however, what you may not realize, is just how important departing on-time is to the airlines.

The Big Picture

Like any other industry, the airlines want to make money. They’ll make more money by attracting more customers, they’ll attract more customers if they make more people happy, and they’ll make more people happy if they depart and arrive on-time. Isn’t capitalism great?  

The problem, as I see it, is that the gate agent is only looking at a small part of a significantly bigger picture. Not only that, but they’re heavily influenced by the clock. I conducted an informal poll of gate agents from three major US airlines during the month of October. All indicated substantial pressure, from above, to get flights out on-time. Some airlines reward employees financially for beating the competition’s on-time stats while others resort to threats of job action for tardy flights. One agent told me he was specifically told that he would be fired if he allowed another flight to leave late. That particular agent closed the door on one of my flights a full 20 minutes before departure. Fully aware that he was leaving a passenger behind. I had to make a few threats of my own, but we didn’t leave anyone behind and still pushed back a few minutes early.

There are times when it’s appropriate to allow a flight to leave late. If someone was paying attention to the big picture, an educated decision could be made as to whether the flight should be held for late passengers. What comprises the big picture? Frankly, a lot. Is there another aircraft on the ground waiting for the gate you’re occupying? If so, departing late could cause a connecting passenger on that flight to misconnect. Are the pilots or flight attendants running out of duty day? If so, a delayed departure could easily result in a cancelled flight. Many airports have a curfew for landing. Allowing a flight to one of those destinations to leave late could result in a diversion if the flight arrives too late to land.

On the other hand, if winds are favorable, a flight could potentially leave late and still arrive early. Earlier this month, I flew from Dallas to Boston on a flight that was originally scheduled to take 3 hours and 25 minutes. Before leaving the gate, due to stronger than normal forecasted winds aloft, we knew that we would land in Boston well ahead of schedule. With this in mind, the Captain decided to wait for a handful of late connecting passengers that would have otherwise spent the night in Dallas had we left without them. That decision saved the airline the cost of several hotel rooms and created a significant amount of goodwill with the passengers. We paid attention to the big picture and the airline took a hit for the late departure. Personally, I think it was worth it - we arrived in Boston 15 minutes early.

The obvious answer is to hire good, smart people and train them to think about the big picture. Give them access to the information they need to make wise decisions and allow them to do the job they were hired to do. Maybe I’m giving people too much credit, but I think, given the opportunity, tools, information, and training they need, most people would make an intelligent and informed decision that was best for all involved. Certainly there would be missteps, but the end result would be an improvement for the average airline passenger.
It’s All About Me

Maybe it sounds like I’ve argued in favor of that Miami gate agent leaving me behind? I don’t think so. She works for a company that threatens her with job action if flights leave late and rewards her monetarily if they leave on-time. I suppose this is done with good intentions; however, the end result is a workforce unable, unwilling, and ill-equipped to make decisions in the best interest of the company and its paying customers.

As for me, I sat in the gate area for 15 minutes that night watching the ground crew load luggage and prepare for departure. It would have taken 5 minutes, at most, to open the door and let me on; but the agent, afraid for her job, was unwilling to take that chance.

I suggest getting to the airport early. Otherwise, the on-time machine may leave you behind.

October 29, 2015

If it’s good for the airline, then it must be bad for the pilot.

[This is a “p.s.” of sorts to my last post. Click HERE if you’d like to read it for reference.]

If you’re following my daily travels on Twitter, then you know that I still occupy the right seat of a Boeing 737 and that I’ve recently started flying to mostly international destinations. I have a standing bid in place to fly the Boeing 777 or 787, whichever comes up first, and decided to dip my toe into the shallow end of the international pool. Except in rare situations, the 737 doesn’t have the legs to make it across “the pond,” however, we do fly it all over Latin America, the Caribbean, the Bahamas, and a few destinations in South America. The timing of this move was intentional. I wanted to attend the international school offered by my airline and hoped to eliminate some of the newness of international flying before jumping in with both feet on larger, longer range equipment. 

However, I may have made a slight miscalculation. I made the transition at the first of September hoping to enjoy warmer temperatures and a winter on the beach while domestic pilots battled another snowmageddon. That may still be the case, but what I didn’t know, is that September is the single wettest month of the year for many of the cities in this region. The storms have been fierce. One of which, that parked itself over the island of Jamaica, resulted in my first international divert. Here’s what happened:

Let’s make a deal.

I was scheduled to fly a relatively uninteresting three day trip that signed in late on day one and ended around midnight on day three. Then, on the day before departure, the company called me at home with what they described as “a deal.” It’s a commonly held belief among pilots that if it’s good for the airline, then it must be bad for the pilot. What can I say? We’ve learned from experience.  But every now and then, a truly good deal comes around that benefits us both. You see, the company was short of pilots who were legal and available to fly the early morning departures on the following day. Apparently, they were all out of reserves and scrambling to cover the morning schedule. 

Desperate for bodies, the company agreed to remove me from my three day trip (and pay me for it) if I’d fly a three leg, one day turn. Sounded good to me! The plan was to leave Dallas early in the morning on a flight to Montego Bay, Jamaica. After about an hour in Jamaica, we would fly to Miami and I’d deadhead home in time for dinner. What could possibly go wrong? 

The airline I work for provides positive space confirmed tickets to pilots deadheading to cover revenue flights. With a full airplane waiting to get from point A to point B, the airline is willing to bump a paying passenger to staff a flight.  But when the same pilot is deadheading home at the end of a trip…well…no one except the pilot really cares if he gets home and the airline will bump him from the flight if there aren’t any available seats. That was the danger. I knew it, but getting three days of pay for one day’s work was worth the risk.

Storms on the horizon.

Early the next day, we took off from Dallas on a beautiful, unseasonably cool Texas morning. The air was smooth, the skies were clear, and everything seemed right in the world. I know that sounds a little melodramatic, but there’s something about climbing in crisp morning air with my hands on the controls and the warm sun on my face that just feels right. It’s one of those things I’ll dream about some day when I’m an old retired guy chasing my wife around the house.

The first half of the flight was entirely uneventful.  Now on a southerly heading, the bright sun shifted out of my eyes and onto the Captain’s lap. That was fine with me and I removed my “sun in the face” gear - ball cap, sun glasses and window shade. We passed a little east of Houston and went “feet wet” near Sabine Pass, leaving Texas behind with the Gulf of Mexico below. A short time later, the Captain, who was working the radios, checked in with Houston Oceanic for a short flight through non-radar airspace. A little more than half way to Montego Bay, we were back in radar contact and speaking to Merida Center, located on the Yukatan Peninsula, before the first sign of trouble appeared on the horizon.

More fuel, please.

I checked the radar and satellite images before departure and was happy to see the absence of any convective activity. There was a small chance of storms in the forecast, both along the latter portions of our route and in Montego Bay, so we had extra fuel onboard for enroute deviations and a possible divert to nearby Kingston. 

For me, as a relative international newbie, the possibility of diverting to Kingston added a new level of complexity. Domestically, there’s almost always a long list of possible diversion airports. Can’t get into Miami? No problem. Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm, Ft. Meyers, Tampa, and Orlando are all close by. They’re also served by my airline and it’s definitely nice to have your own personnel, a place to park, and a standing agreement with the fuel vendor. Conversely, when you’re flying to an island, alternate airports are often scarce and a significant distance from where you really wanted to land. That’s all fine as long as you’re prepared.

There are three things in aviation that are of no use to a pilot. Altitude above you, runway behind you, and fuel in the fuel truck. It’s also been said, that the only time more fuel is a bad thing, is when you’re on fire. As thunderstorms began to build on the horizon, the Captain and I turned on the weather radar and began to consider our options, thankful that we had a little extra fuel to burn.

We were abeam the western tip of Cuba before we made our first deviation for enroute thunderstorms. Most of the significant weather was below our altitude and we easily made it around the tops of everything else with small deviations to the left and right of course. When you’re actively deviating around storms, you need the radar to be on a relatively small scale, getting increasingly smaller as you approach a storm. It’s also important to take a look ahead every now and then to make sure you aren’t boxing yourself into a canyon of storms without a safe way through. As we cleared what I thought was the last thunderstorm, I set the radar scale to 320 miles. Montego Bay was just barely on the screen at that range and it was completely covered up by red radar returns.

Storm or island?

It’s unusual to see a strong radar return from that distance. There were bright white cloud tops on the horizon, but I still held on to the hope that what I was seeing on the radar display was just the island, and not a storm. Since we don’t get radar returns off the surface of the water, land masses sticking up out of the water often have the appearance of a storm on the radar screen. When you’re painting a land mass on the radar, it doesn’t take much positive tilt to clear the screen of the return, but the closer we got to the airport, the clearer it became that we had a problem.

An example of radar mapping. With the radar beam tilted down, the only visible returns are from the land mass ahead. Recognize the southern tip of Florida?

As we started our descent, I decided to level off at an altitude above some of the smaller build-ups and asked for a holding pattern north of the island while we decided on a course of action. The airport appeared to be completely engulfed by the storm, but another airline ahead of us on the arrival decided to go in for a look. That flight made it all the way to the missed approach point, reported heavy rain and “at least moderate turbulence,” but never saw the runway. The Captain and I immediately agreed that we had no interest in attempting the approach.

This is where the whole island thing complicated an already complex situation. We planned for this eventuality and had enough fuel to hold for about 30 minutes, but the storms were building and some were headed for Kingston, our one and only alternate. If we waited, the skies might clear over Montego Bay. On the other hand, the storm might intensify and spread far enough to the east that landing at Kingston would no longer be an option. You’ve probably connected the dots here, but if we exhausted our holding fuel and couldn’t land at Montego Bay or Kingston, then we wouldn’t have enough fuel to make it to another island. I’m no Sully - and I had no desire to recreate his “Miracle on the Hudson” landing down in the Caribbean. The situation forced our hand a bit, but we decided on the more cautious approach and headed for Kingston while we still could.

“There are no problems in Jamaica - only situations.”

Generally speaking, we were well received in Kingston. The storms hadn’t reached the airport yet and we had no trouble landing. We weren’t exactly sure where to park, but our station personnel took good care of us, providing a gate, catering needs, fuel, and all the paperwork we needed for the short flight back to Montego Bay. All was good until a representative from the Jamaican Health Ministry arrived. 

Now keep in mind that we were supposed to land in JAMAICA, and diverted to another airport in JAMAICA. It’s not like the country wasn’t expecting us. We were about to fly a short distance across the island and drop all these people in the same country, but the health ministry acted like we were trying to unload 160 people infected with the Bubonic Plague. Each passenger had to be inspected. We were required to sign documents indicating that none of the passengers were ill and the health ministry sprayed some unknown mist throughout the cabin before we could leave. The whole thing was very strange.

I would describe the passengers on this flight as young, college types. They were playful and in good spirits, most wearing shorts and flip-flops, obviously ready for the beach. Two hours later, that’s exactly where they were. The weather at Montego Bay never improved to what I would call “beach worthy,” but did improve enough for us leave Kingston and make a safe landing in Montego Bay. Thankfully, there was no sign of the Jamaican Health Ministry when we arrived.

P.S. Remember that part about not wanting to deadhead home at the end of a trip? I was originally scheduled to deadhead home on the second to last flight to Dallas. This was a fact not lost on me as we diverted to Kingston earlier in the day. As a matter of fact, while politely arguing with the Jamaican Health Ministry, I made peace with the idea of having Cuban food and a cold beer in Miami that night. We finally made it to Miami with 35 minutes to spare before the last flight home – and I still had to make it through customs. 

Thankfully for me, Montego Bay wasn’t the only place with nasty weather that day. Earlier storms in Miami delayed the operation there and my flight was delayed. I arrived just before they closed the door and took the last available seat on the plane.

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.