Sunday, June 29, 2014

New Look

I've updated my blog template to make this blog a little easier to read. Let me know what you think.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Trouble in Automation Paradise

Holman Jenkins who writes the Business World column for the Wall Street Journal often uses his column to write about aviation issues. I suspect he may be a frustrated pilot, but he usually gets it right which is rare in journalism today.

In his latest column, he addresses the problems with the gradual replacement of humans by automation in systems previously controlled directly by humans. Specifically, the problem which is now showing up in aviation is that as reliance on automation increases and the scope of direct human involvement necessarily decreases, human competence will suffer.

In simpler language, sitting and watching the machine fly the airplane all day makes a pilot rusty.

The recent Asiana crash in San Francisco is an example of over-reliance on automation allowing skills to atrophy though I'd argue that the skills were never there to begin with:

Critics now insist Boeing should have included an alert or automatic override in case pilots might fly the plane into the ground using the tools Boeing gave them. That's a cop-out. The chief pilot later claimed "it was very difficult to perform a visual approach with a heavy airplane," according to the NTSB, which would seem to indicate the real problem: The crew was nonplused, perhaps nearly panicked, at the prospect of having to maintain a proper glidepath without help from the airport's sophisticated landing aid. 
Diligent annotators of this column will recall Captain Malcolm Scott from nearly a decade ago, who criticized a British Airways decision to ban manual thrust control (which Asiana's pilots should have employed to maintain the plane's airspeed) by its Airbus pilots. Flying skills would atrophy, he warned, suggesting that the industry's implicit goal was to remove the human factor from the cockpit altogether.

The question in the future design of aircraft automation is not where we'd like to go, completely automated aircraft control, but how do we get there? A straight line extrapolation of a diminishing role for real pilots doing real hands-on flying appears to be unwise. A rusty pilot thrown cold into a situation needing precise aircraft control such as when the automation unexpectedly fails is a recipe for disaster, let alone flying a routine visual approach as Asiana demonstrated.

If airlines are going to employ human pilots in any fashion who may be expected at some point to actually fly the airplane, they are going to have to be kept in practice by actually flying. This will mean requirements for regular and routine manual control of the aircraft. This is not the case today.

At such time that automation systems are robust enough to conclude that manual control of the aircraft will never be needed, pilots will be replaced by system operators who are not expected to have or maintain flying skills as none will be foreseeably needed. This point may be further in the future than many automation advocates envision.

While this problem of atrophying flying skills is not new and has been addressed in various aviation fora, I personally thought the problem was mostly confined third world carriers lacking a reservoir of experienced aviators upon which to draw as does Europe and the US. I have recently been disabused of this notion by several alarming events at a large domestic airline.

Several incidences of sub-optimal handling of airplanes on go-arounds were relayed to us during our latest training event. These events resulted in the aircraft being well out of accepted parameters for attitude, altitude, and airspeed resulting in a potentially hazardous outcome. While all the events resolved without incident, I had personally never heard of such gross mishandling of an aircraft by one of my fellow US aviators. Go-arounds, while requiring proper attention, are not difficult to accomplish.

Why now would problems be showing up in go-arounds? The answer may lie in this carrier's automation policies and equipment. Boeing makes an autopilot capable of fully flying an approach and should the need arise, to fly a perfect go-around while never being disengaged or requiring manual control of the aircraft.

For whatever reason, this particular airline chose to configure their system to have the autopilot dump full manual control into the pilot's hands right at the time the decision to go around is made. Choosing to go-around disconnects the autopilot just when the aircraft is at its lowest point in the approach at its slowest speed. Assuming the arrival and approach were flown using automation as is normal policy, being given a handful of airplane just when the pilot was expecting to land seems to me to be the wrong time for this to happen.

What actually happened on these incidents is known only to the safety investigators (and the pilots) but it does seem interesting that highly qualified aviators are making rookie mistakes like this just as automation becomes more pervasive.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Mighty C-5: A Story

I came across this video of a C-5 transport aircraft in a public affairs video making the rounds on YouTube. It's interesting because the airplane is from Travis AFB, my old base in northern Cali. I've even flown this particular aircraft on more than a few occasions. It sports tail number 60016, affectionately known as "Balls One Six", a B model aircraft if I remember correctly.

The flight takes off from Travis and then heads north over lake Berryessa, our old water ski lake. Lots of memories there. It then passes over Mt Lassen and on to the coast to fly past Mendocino and Pt. Reyes. The flight finishes as the plane passes over Vacaville and the fields of the central valley to land on runway 21R back at Travis. 

About midway through the flight is a demonstration of anti-missile flares. These are to be fired if an on-board system detects a missile launch. The heat in the flares is supposed to distract the heat-seeking missile into following them and not the heat from the aircraft engines. Smart engineers, though, can program the latest missiles to distinguish between the heat signatures of flares and that of the engines rendering the flares useless. Or if a radar guided missile is fired, there is no defense. 

The flare display does look pretty cool though, and it's been said in certain aviation circles that it's better to die than to look bad. Here's to looking good.

Notably in view on final approach is the Vacaville Sanitary Landfill, otherwise known as the dump. Besides having taken loads of refuse there, the dump is haven for thousands of seagulls and other birds. I'm guessing that the base, there since WWII, predates the dump. Birds and planes are uneasy partners in the sky and thousands of them nesting at a dump under final approach seems unwise though I never personally hit one.

After a few minutes of this video, boredom will probably set in for those not familiar with or emotionally attached to this airplane. After all it doesn't really do any tricks like a fighter. The real trick to this airplane though is its size. One of the largest aircraft ever built, it can carry objects as large as the M-1 battle tank weighing in at about 150,000 lbs or the Navy's DSRV rescue submarine clocking in at about 200,000 lbs.

I've carried both of those things and it is the loading and unloading that really boggles the imagination. Imagine a snake eating a bullfrog. You don't think it'll fit, but it does.

Flying the C-5

Flying Fred (our informal name for the C-5) was a real kick simply because it's so stinking big. Imagine driving a machine around that weighs nearly 3/4 of a million pounds. Those guys driving the gargantuan digging machines in strip mines might have a similar feeling but they're moving at several miles per hour while we were scooting around at .78 Mach.

The C-5 was a very forgiving aircraft to fly with it's relatively light wing loading and 25 degree wing sweep. A three axis stabilization system kept the airplane from wallowing around, and 24 main landing gear tires make setting this beast down gently a breeze.

For years, the Air Force wouldn't let pilots fresh out of pilot training be assigned to the aircraft for their first assignment. Only more seasoned second assignment pilots could get that job. The first pilot to get the C-5 right out of school was Frank P, who eventually became our commander at the 312th Airlift Squadron (USAF Reserve). Frank went on to do well in the USAF pinning on two stars as a general before retiring. American Airlines was probably wondering if he'd ever come back to fly for them.

The old girl did refuse, though, to be taken for granted and would take her revenge if not treated right. With a normal landing weight in the 600,000 lb range, quick adjustments on short final were not an option. Like an ocean liner, this aircraft does not turn on a dime and should a landing not be setting up just right, the best option was a go-around rather than wrestling with a lot of momentum 50 feet above the ground.

With the main landing gear hundreds of feet behind and below your seat, being the slightest bit low on approach could have disastrous results as several unlucky aviators discovered over the years. On at least two occasions, one in Oklahoma, and one on a remote island in the Aleutians, the aircraft landed just short of the runway and had a landing gear or two ripped from the fuselage. The Oklahoma accident resulted in the smash country hit "I lost my bogie in Muskogee"

Keeping Her in the Air

Systems-wise the aircraft was a plumbing nightmare. With four separate hydraulic systems, two APUs, both forward and aft opening cargo doors, six landing gear, 28 tires and brakes, optical and nitrogen fire detection and suppression systems, and checklists with titles like "Emergency Bogie Rotation (Normal Hydraulic Pressure Not Available)", keeping the beast in the air could be a real chore at times should things go wrong. Which they routinely did.

There was, however, only one "bold face" or emergency action item that was needed to be committed to memory for any system problem. That was to swing around in your seat and say "Engineer?"

Luckily, the airplane was crammed with redundancies and while it broke a lot, one could always hope that it would break in a place near a beach or at least a place with good per diem. We could even occasionally decide where the airplane would break by deciding when and where to enter the "defect" into the logbook thereby requiring a maintenance response. For some inexplicable reason, Hickam AB (Hawaii) probably saw more than its share of maintenance issues from transient aircraft.

General Honeybadger, Phil (the Thrill) and the Trip to Hell

One of my favorite stories is how we drug a beleaguered bird down to Australia and back. Well almost back. It was the wing commander's "finis" or last flight in the C-5 before retiring. The scheduler dangled the word "Aussie" in front of me as bait to take the trip somehow neglecting to mention that the general, his vice commander, a colonel, and an instructor, Lieutenant Colonel Phil (the Thrill) B. would be the crew. That made me, the major, the bag boy.

The plane started falling apart right away. The general, a bona-fide hero having won the medal of honor for valor in Viet Nam, was a real horses' ass. Winning that medal  back in the 70s made his career, guaranteeing him a star, and was also his last action of any significance. He took the landing in Pago Pago and hammered the jet onto the runway so hard that it was a small miracle that the oxygen masks didn't drop. I suspected that they'd been permanently sealed into their containers. Nice landing, sir. Must've been a gust!

So then the rear gear, which are supposed to caster during a turn wouldn't function properly. General Honeybadger didn't care. He just wrenched that thing around for a 180 on the runway as it was bucking like a bronco, the aft gear protesting over being drug sideways.

Next, a fuel gauge quit. No prob. Just watch the matching gauge on the other wing for a good estimate of the tank quantity. We get to Aussie-land and the general announces that he wants to go on with just Phil and himself to the next destination inland and back. So being left in Sydney, the colonel, a Delta captain and a decent sort, an engineer, and I take the general's car and go on a walkabout (okay, driveabout) to an interior national park. One of the perks of travelling with a general: you get a car.

Many hours after their scheduled departure time, we hear the unmistakable growl of Freddy's TF-39 motors as they climbed out of Richmond RAAF base near Sydney. Freddy apparently didn't like the general either.

Phil "Breaks" the Jet

The remainder of the trip was uneventful until we got back to Hickam AB in Hawaii. It was here that Phil decided that the airplane was "broken". OK, fair enough. Being in the Air Force Reserve means that most of us have airline jobs and fly for the Reserves a few times a month on days off. Phil, on the other hand, had no airline job and hence his only source of income was working part time for the Reserves. So by parking the airplane in Hawaii, Phil got to play golf in Honolulu on the government's dime until the jet is "fixed".

Now a few words about Phil. Think of a guy who is about maybe 55 but looks 75, single, smokes, drives a 1978 powder blue F-150 pickup and spends his spare time at the Moose lodge. I had nothing against him as he'd never been a wanker to me. He just personified old and broken down. And flying Freddy around for the reserves was as far as I could tell about all he had going on.

I honestly didn't have a problem with this situation. We would routinely piss away hundreds of thousands of dollars just filling the C-5 up with gas, so I couldn't begrudge the guy the few hundreds of dollars in per diem he might make playing golf. The general and the colonel, both very Busy and Important people with Important things to do, caught the next flight home and so it was just me and Phil left with our broken airplane. Our enlisted engineers and load masters were also happy to hang.

Stranded in Paradise

As was I. We managed to get assigned quarters off base which meant the Outrigger Reef on Waikiki beach. If you ever go, be sure not to miss the wet T-shirt contest held Sunday afternoons but also be aware that the pros always show up to win the pot. It's rigged.

So there we are, hanging in Waikiki, babysitting a broken jet with nothing to do. Phil hit the golf course and was not to be seen again. I, surveying the desolation of Hawaii in summer, spent a little time on the beach, a little time shopping, saw a movie and then spied a bike rental store. What a great idea. Rent a bike and tour the island.

They had a great selection which made it difficult to choose, but I soon picked out a cherry little Fatboy, put on a helmet and I was off. Oahu on a Harley. It was awesome. I rode the entire circumference of the island to include the not so pretty parts on the leeward side of the island where the workers live.

After a few days of entertaining myself, I began thinking about how I was going to get home. I knew that the jet wouldn't be fixed anytime soon. The particular defect that Phil had written up was the fuel gauge. This meant that a fuel cell team would be needed. None were at Hickam, so they'd have to be flown out from Travis. That took time.

Once the fuel cell team arrived, they'd have to drain the tank (and they are big), repair the fuel sending unit while wearing oxygen because of fumes, re-seal the unit, and then wait several days while the sealant cured. All guaranteed to take a week or more. We'd been in Hawaii for two or three days and I knew all this and assumed that Phil knew it too. I also had to get home to go to work. Real work. My job at the airline.

Really Stranded in Paradise

Being a reservist airline pilot means going to work at the base on days off from the airline. A traditional reservist might just work one weekend a month but when you are in a flying squadron, all the requirements that a full time active duty pilot has to maintain are also fulfilled by reserve pilots. This generally means about 8 to 15 days a month depending on the type aircraft flown. Most of this time can be fit into days off but on occasion, such as a 7 day Australia trip, airline flying has to be given up.

Public law mandates that civilian employers have to give reservists time off for military duty but of course don't have to pay them. I had dropped one airline trip to go on this Australia trip and while I do get paid by the military, it is less than airline pay so it does cost money. This is fine as flying the C-5 was a reward in and of itself and for a nominally good cause.

So I had already lost about 25% of my monthly pay and if I stayed any further in Hawaii, dropping another trip would be another quarter of my paycheck gone or half for the month. Look, I'm as patriotic as the next guy but contributing half my check to subsidize Phil's golf vacation was pushing my limit. So not being able to reach Phil (I had no cell phone in 1998) I simply left a message on his hotel phone and headed for Hickam to catch a ride home on another passing airplane.

Once at Hickam base operations, I located the crew of the jet I was jumping on, introduced myself to the aircraft commander and prepared to get home. Then an urgent message was relayed to me from the command post. Under no circumstances was Major Graves to get on any airplane leaving Hawaii. It was from Phil who would soon earn his moniker the "thrill". 

Frank Punts

Phil was annoyed that I had attempted to leave without contacting him. I refrained from reminding him that had he not broken the jet to play golf in Hawaii that we'd be home and besides, I did attempt to contact him. Nonetheless, I was not to leave until the jet was fixed which I knew would be a week or more. Arguing was futile so I got a room on base and called my commander, Frank, the wunderkind mentioned above.

Frank's a good guy but he's also a company guy. And by company guy, I mean in the tank for the Reserves. That's fine, but as a well known biblical figure once said, you cannot serve two masters. My thinking is that my livelihood and paycheck come from the airline. Being in the Air Force Reserve is a part time gig knowing that if called, it becomes a full time gig. That's the deal. I tried not to confuse the two, taking the time off when necessary, but also careful not to bite the hand that paid my mortgage.

I've never understood the sycophants, yes-men, empire builders, fast-burners, and climbers who resign from the active duty, join the Reserves, and then treat their Reserve job as their primary career while forcing their civilian employer under force of law to keep them around while they take massive amounts of time off. It doesn't make sense. Why didn't such people just stay on active duty?

So I call Frank and he tells me that if he lets me come home, he'll lose credibility with the enlisted when they want to come home but are needed. Never mind that they were all happily ensconced on the beach getting paid more than their civilian jobs. Well, other enlisted then. I said it'd be our little secret. No joy. I mentioned that I had to be at work Monday (this was Friday) but to no avail. He then made me a deal to let me come home Monday if the jet wasn't fixed. I knew it wouldn't be but decided to cut my losses, called the airline and gave up another quarter of my pay. For God and Country. Tool.

Fred Finally Makes It Home

All the following week, I called the command post at Travis to inquire whether our jet had made it home. It didn't get home until the following week. A gin-soaked Phil was probably camped at the 9th hole for most of that week but I sincerely hope he improved his handicap.

As for me, I was pretty hot about it all but decided that I wasn't going to let Phil nor Frank determine the trajectory of my Reserve career. I retired from the Reserves in 2002 after 21 years in the Air Force, Frank as I mentioned went on to impress his bosses in Iraq and get a couple of stars for his effort, while for all I know Phil can still be found driving his powder blue F-150 to the Moose lodge for the Saturday night pasta special.



Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Homeward Bound

The New Pilot Rest Regulations Are Making Me Tired

One thing that can be counted on as surely as death and taxes is the unintended consequences of good intentions. I firmly believe in the maxim that no good deed goes unpunished, and an excellent example of this is now on glorious display in the new FAA rest rules for pilots.

As I've mentioned in posts here and here, the decades old rules for determining the rest and duty requirements for airline pilots were recently updated. For years on the most wanted list for aviation safety improvements, the new Part 117 rules, as they're known (named for their subsection in the Code of Federal Regulations), replaced a much simpler set of rules known as the "30 in 7" rule. I say much simpler because 30 in 7 meant just that: 30 flight hours in 7 calendar days. It also included two other easily remembered rules, 100 hours in a month and 1000 hours in a year. Easy to remember, easy to apply.

The new rules as befitting any product of bureaucratic sausage making multiple stakeholder input, now involve complicated charts and tables instead of easy to remember time limits. Also included are rolling windows of 168 hours and 672 hours needed to calculate both flight hour limits and "FDP" or flight duty period limits. This as opposed to just using a week or month as in the old rules. The charts and tables reference your report time translated from where you actually are into your home or "domicile" time, your projected and past duty time, your projected and past flight time and your projected number of flight segments. In short, it's a minefield.

Calculating whether or not you are legally tired per the new rules is guaranteed to put you to sleep as you need to fill out a complicated spreadsheet to figure it all out. This is of course impossible to do as you're pre-flighting your aircraft and checking the weather. The company, realizing this, has installed a convenient software tool you can use right after you wrestle the gate agent away from their computer used to scan boarding passes. Good luck.

The other big change in the rules is that if your schedule was legal when you started your day, you were legal to finish your day regardless of delays (up to a point). The new rules don't allow for such rare occurrences as airport delays, and should a pilot be projected to exceed a time limit due to a departure delay,  he must taxi back to the gate and shut down regardless of how actually tired he may feel.

Remember that any time a pilot really feels fatigued for any reason, all airlines have a no fault fatigue policy whereby the pilot gets replaced and pay protected.

But the last and best unintended consequence of the new rules is that because they give the airline less flexibility to cover the schedule, more pilots have had to have been hired and the schedules that are being written work longer days than I've seen in 24 years. One compromise made in crafting the new rules was to allow an increase in flight time from 8 to 9 hours.

I had one of those days yesterday. Starting out in LAX, we were to fly to Atlanta,  New Orleans and then Chicago. The day was planned for 8:35 of flight time to be done in a duty day of 10:50. When we got to Atlanta, the airport was briefly closed due to a storm which required holding and several runway changes before landing.

Like a freeway jam that persists after an accident is cleared, we were delayed getting airborne again as we waited in the conga line for takeoff for about 45 minutes. These two delays put us within striking distance of our 9 hour flight time limitation.

Upon powering up my cell phone in New Orleans, I got a message from scheduling requesting a call to discuss our time limits. We had flown 6:50 up to that point which left 2:10 hrs left while our flight to Chicago was planned at 2:05. This left us with only 5 minutes of slop before we'd be mandated to strand 143 passengers in New Orleans because the government said we were tired. We both felt fine.

So we blast off and immediately get a reroute due to thunderstorms along the Mississippi valley. No big problem as it only added about 5 minutes additional flying time. I was properly incentivized to be on time as my commute flight home left only an hour after our scheduled arrival and we were late.

In another small favor from the aviation gods, the airport was turned around to allow for a straight-in approach shaving a few precious minutes. Then as per usual when running for a commute flight, our gate was occupied.

This is the cosmic pimp. You might run on time for the whole trip but have to hold out for a gate when it's your own commute home. It's even better if you have to hold out for your own commuter flight, especially if it's the last one of the night.

Then a miracle happened.

We were assigned another nearby open gate. This almost never happens. Moving hundreds of people to a new gate to board usually results in mass chaos and so is rarely done. But I didn't ask twice and drove the beast to the new parking spot having to wait for surprised ramp workers not expecting a jet to appear.

Were phone calls made by our dispatch? There's no way to know but it's certainly plausible.

Then after shutdown, it took several minutes to get an agent to bring the jetway up. In the meantime, the door is still closed meaning our automatic time reporting system is still logging time.

Finally the door gets popped, the ACARS system logs us "in" and what does our accumulated block time read? 2:10 which made our total time for the day right at 9:00. It was the longest amount of flight time I've ever logged in one day in commercial aviation. Another minute would have meant a report to the FAA.

So all's well but you, dear reader, are probably wondering if pilots are now less tired as a result of the new rules. I wouldn't bet on it. During certain irregular operations the 10 hour minimum rest rule (an increase over the previous 8) will help but overall I didn't see a problem that needed fixing.

One change that is for certain is that your flight is now more likely to be cancelled during delays due to your pilot becoming illegal under the new rules regardless of his desire to fly you.

As for me, I never sleep well in hotel rooms so little has changed.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Pilot's Perspective

The other day the wife and I decided we'd like to host a 4th of July party in our back yard. We have a nice yard and pool and thought many of the neighbors, especially those without pools would like to come by for some cool malted beverage and smoked beast.

I made up some invites and sent them out to folks on our block via email. Nearly all came back with regrets. Everyone was going to be at the beach, an 8 hour drive from here. It seems the thing to do in Tennessee on July 4th is to get out of Tennessee. I guess this is understandable considering how hot it gets but here's where I part company with my "civilian" neighbors.

I honestly think I'd rather have my teeth drilled than to go somewhere like the beach on a holiday weekend. Trying to get on an airplane on such a weekend just gives me the tin foil on your fillings willies. Thank God for people who want to do it, but I'll pass on the crowds, TSA cavity searches, middle seats, lines, and over priced everything.

If going anywhere these days, I'd much prefer a road trip but 16 hours of road for a weekend trip is pushing my diminishing returns limits.

Look, travel is fun, but weekend travel when the rest of the world is trying to do the same thing seems to be defeating the whole point.

This is the perspective of someone who travels for a living. No thanks.

Friday, May 30, 2014

When Vikings Fly

A row over plans that a discount European airline, Norwegian Air, has to start flying to the US has recently broken out here in the colonies. Norwegian Air, the third largest discount airline in Europe has recently announced an expansion across the pond to several new US cities.

Incorporating as Norwegian Air International in Ireland, the company has drawn the ire of US airlines and trade unions on both sides of the Atlantic for what they perceive as unfair business and labor practices.

While Norwegian already flies from several US destinations to Europe, by incorporating the new unit in Ireland, Norwegian will be able to take advantage of a liberal open skies agreement between the EU and the US. In addition, Norwegian will also be able to circumvent some more restrictive Norwegian labor laws which has US pilot unions upset. From an ALPA whitepaper on the issue:

While the EU has created a common aviation area, it remains unclear which regulatory, tax, and labor laws apply to aircrews who may work aboard the aircraft of an airline headquartered in one country, be employed by an entity in a second country, be based in a third nation, and fly routes primarily out of a fourth.

I have to say that given the crushing thicket of rules, regulations, restrictions, and taxes that any airline must negotiate to make a profit, this arrangement (if true) seems rather clever. Personally, I think that the US union's time and effort would be better spent on reducing barriers to commerce here and abroad rather than working to impose those barriers on a smart competitor.

Now I'm no expert on bi-lateral agreements between the US and the EU, but it appears that Norwegian Air could avoid all this trouble by simply changing the name of their Irish unit to Irish Air and then getting on down the road. They would, though, still have to compete for passengers, recruit and train crews, and still operate their aircraft in accordance with both US and EU safety standards.

And speaking of crews, there still is apparently a worldwide pilot shortage which we've noted before. The commercial aviation markets in both India and China are exploding and there is a continuing huge demand for experienced transport category pilots.

Unions continue to be the bane of airlines worldwide, and one mechanism that many overseas airlines utilize to avoid the establishment of pilot unions is to not actually hire any pilots. Consulting firms are created which hire pilots on a contract basis, usually for periods of three to five years to staff the airline. If after the contract period is up and the airline likes you, you'll be offered another. If not, sayanora.

While Norwegian does maintain a website listing pilot requirements for new hire pilots, their jobs opening website has no pilot positions offered. Most curious until a quick search reveals the site of aviation consultants Rishworth Aviation who are "eagerly seeking" Boeing qualified pilots for placement at Norwegian flying brand new Boeing 787s.

In this way airlines can avoid the "ratchet effect" of ever increasing but never decreasing wage rates of unionized carriers. Asian airlines have used this practice for years using consultants such as Air Charter Service and Iasco to provide American pilots to airlines like JAL and All Nippon.

But getting the pilots is the trick, isn't it? How many type rated and current Boeing pilots do you suppose are just sitting around the house waiting for a call to go to work flying for Norwegian? My guess is that there aren't many (who aren't already working somewhere). How does one go about becoming a qualified Boeing pilot anyway?

I happen to know. Many years ago, to apply for my current job, I actually had to purchase my own type rating (which is an FAA designation to fly a certain type aircraft) for a 737. Boeing 737s can actually be rented for about $50...a minute. Cheap, right? So the whole deal was only about $10 grand. The 737 is Boeing's smallest airliner and a type on say a 777 would be unobtainable to most private citizens except wealthy dilettantes like John Travolta. Plus, this gets you the basic rating but no experience.

The point is, most pilots walking around with those types of ratings had them paid for by the airline they worked for. This means that Norwegian is hoping to raid the cadre of other airlines, and that means they have to offer a better deal.

There are many US pilots working overseas in hell holes such as the UAE and India who do so because they've been either laid off from a bankrupt US carrier, or perhaps got a late career start and don't wish to join the bottom of a union seniority list. They go overseas to fly in a lousy place for the pay. It will be these pilots that Norwegian will be trying to attract. And they'll have to compete on pay.

Will they be successful? It depends on how you define success. Part of Norwegian's business model is based on reduced labor costs. Implicit in this assumption is that "cheap" labor including pilots are available in sufficient numbers. The other part of the equation is the other big elephant in the room which is fuel and other costs which are unavoidable in long haul flying. From the WSJ:

It isn't uniformly accepted that low-fare competition is inevitable on intercontinental routes, though. "You cannot pack people like a sardine can," Qatar Airways Chief Executive Akbar Al Baker told reporters in October. "I don't think it will work." 
Among the challenges to the discount model on long routes: Many cost-saving techniques used by short-haul operators can't be replicated. Discount carriers like Southwest Airlines Co. LUV +0.08%  and Ryanair Holdings RYA.LN -1.89%  PLC, the U.S. and European leaders, try to get planes unloaded and back in the air quickly. That is harder to do on intercontinental flights, which face more departure restrictions. 
Southwest, America's putative low cost leader is having it's own problems, as the short haul market is collapsing and the long haul market is mature and populated by newly merged mega-carriers with freshly reduced labor rates due to post 9/11 bankruptcies.

If Norwegian manages to build a better mouse trap, then bully for them. They might find though that when flying the same airplanes in the same skies as their competitors, any competitive advantage is fleeting.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The End of the Southwest Effect?

A recent article in the nation's favorite fish wrapper, USA Today, suggested that the vaunted "Southwest Effect" may no longer be in effect. For the uninitiated, the term Southwest Effect was coined by the bureaucrats in the Department of Transportation back in 1993 to describe the effect that the entrance of Southwest Airlines into a new market would have on passenger count. In short, it would explode.

It can be forgiven for those industrious analysts beavering away in the bowels of some leaden government agency to not be familiar with the underlying phenomenon causing the Southwest Effect. That would be the concept of supply and demand, otherwise known as basic economics. Lowering the price of any product usually increases the demand for that product. Back in those days Southwest had a cost advantage for many reasons. Today, not so much:

In 1993 the U.S. Department of Transportation studied how the entry of a low-cost carrier into a market can lower overall fares and spur demand for air travel, dubbing this the "Southwest effect." But for years now, aviation analysts have questioned if the airline that enplaned 115 million passengers in 2013 is still the low-fare leader.

It would make an interesting study to determine who is more ignorant of basic economics, journalists or government bureaucrats, but it would no doubt be a close race. The article then goes on to speculate as to the causes of Southwest's increasing costs:

The reasons include the end of Southwest's fuel hedging strategy, an increasingly complex merger with AirTran and the rapid consolidation of the domestic airline industry. This seems to be yet another reason why the spate of recent mergers has harmed consumers.

What I love about journalists pretending to know what they are talking about is that they tend to contradict themselves, sometimes even in the same article.  So here, the end of Southwest's fuel hedging strategy is one of the two listed causes for increased costs. And of course just a paragraph later author McGee exclaims that it can't be fuel prices:

Now before critics start yelling "fuel prices!" and "inflation!" let's compare these fares in an apples-to-apples fashion. The average domestic fare for the exact same periods rose from $362 in 2008 to $390 in 2013, so the percentage of increase on both these routes on Southwest is more than four times higher: 
Fare increase:
Domestic average: +8%
Dallas-Houston/Southwest: +38%
Dallas-San Antonio/Southwest: +35%

It looks like our intrepid reporter could use a primer on commodities price hedging. It's not difficult. Southwest made a wise bet back in the mid 2000s that fuel prices would rise rapidly and spent money on contracts to lock in a lower price. It saved the airline billions. But a necessary condition to make or save money in any hedging operation is a move in the underlying commodity price itself. If prices are stable, hedging is worse than useless as purchasing contracts is costly.

In fact author McGee probably could have learned that from an article in his own newspaper from 2008. But never mind. Reading the article one gets the impression that fuel hedging is something they just arbitrarily decided to stop doing. No, hedging helped because fuel prices skyrocketed. Oh.

I also love the way his "apples to apples" comparison uses two markets from Love Field where there is little competition against the many thousands of markets contained in the line item of "Domestic average".

But had this reporter really wished to get to the bottom of the issue a little homework is all that is necessary. Costs are in fact rising at Southwest as the business matures. Employees become older and more expensive while growth opportunities domestically become less available. There are other factors such as the collapse of domestic short-haul flying due to a combination of reasons that I've detailed before.

But the easiest way to figure this all out is to simply listen to the statements of the airline's CEO himself:

So the answer to that question is, really, how important is it for us in the future to be low-cost?  I'm arguing to you all that it is ultra-important, and so did Herb Kelleher on our video.  It is something that we can only continue to achieve if we really work together because the Company is kind of like your home.  It is very difficult to keep costs down in a world where there's inflation and especially with energy costs. 
So here is a really significant challenge for us because this shows you, I think very vividly, how our costs break down.  It's roughly one-third, one-third, one-third.  So what does this mean?  If you look at the gray area—I'm sorry, the blue area—our fuel costs today are fully one-third of our cost.  Believe it or not, one-third of our costs go to pay just for jet fuel.  When I started back in the 1980s, it was ten percent. (Emphasis added)  So if you think about it, every carrier pays the same amount for gas, so you've just wiped out 35 percent of our potential cost advantage versus Delta.  Delta and Southwest pay about the same amount for gas.  So that leaves us with 65 percent of our cost structure to work with to beat Delta and American and U.S. Airways—well, not U.S. Airways anymore, but Spirit.  So the challenge then becomes, how do you do that? 
If you look at the other category, which is the black, the 34 percent, we beat everybody.  We are more efficient for a variety of reasons—that I bet everybody here could describe—than any other airline when it comes to that other category.  But what's changed now in 13 years with all the bankruptcies is where we used to be lower than our competitors with that 31 percent slice, we are not.  How can we be the low-cost producer and the low-fare airline if our competitors, even legacy competitors, have lower unit labor costs than we do?  It's just—it's a question.  It's nobody's fault here, but it has happened, and so that is the question that we've really got to answer.

There, that was easy.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Laying Over Well

From the Times Union Arena, Albany, NY

The airline layover is more of an art form than a science. The definitive guide to laying over well was written by (now retired) Delta captain Kevin Garrison in his book The CEO of the Cockpit which I highly recommend as a humorous inside look at the piloting profession:

A great layover is made up of having an adventurous attitude, a good group of people and enough common sense to stay out of jail and appear for pick-up sober in the morning.

Most airline layovers consist of a short van ride to the hotel, signing in, taking a moment to unpack, unwind and decompress followed by a brief turn in the usually lame hotel gym followed by a chicken caesar salad and a beer for dinner with your flying partner. A candy bar makes a good dessert before the setting of two or more alarms and falling asleep reading the Kindle. That's generally about as good as it gets. Most of the time.

On occasion, though, the layover gods may smile and drop a good time into your lap. This happened last Tuesday in Albany, NY. 

After the usual sign in at the Albany Hilton, I ventured down to the bar to wait for my first officer to arrive. A commute day sleep deficit cancelled any gym plans. The bar was packed and a fellow next to me seeming to be in an expansive mood asked if I was in town for the concert. What concert? Oh, you don't know? It's the Boss. Yes, that Boss. Bruce Springsteen was playing at the Times Union arena that night starting at 7:30. The current time was 5:30. 

The gears started turning. I've never counted myself as a huge fan of Springsteen but I certainly didn't dislike his music. Growing up near Philly, Springsteen was on the radio dating back to the his debut Asbury Park album and has been more or less part of the American soundtrack for nearly forty years.

I never cared much for a lot of his political stuff, but his rockers were second to none and who knows how much longer he'll keep it up? Since I'd probably never consider going out of my way for a Springsteen concert, this was it. Now or never. So it was now. I figured I could scalp a ticket for less than a C note outside the arena.

Just after finishing some wings and my second IPA, a bartender who apparently overheard my conversation approached with several tickets for sale. After minimal haggling, I had in my possession a ticket to see Bruce Springsteen and the East Street Band, face value $118 for a reasonable $50. My first officer declined to join me even with the offer of a comped second ticket so I was off by myself.

The ticket turned out to be legit as the laser scanner gave an approving beep entering the arena. My seat was on the second level about halfway back. Not a bad seat at all. And I had an empty seat next to me. Perhaps the bartender had broken up with her boyfriend or something similar. Didn't matter at that point.

After about a half hour delay the house lights went down and the show was under way. Bruce looks pretty good for his mid-sixties and has no shortage of energy even if his voice has grown steadily raspier over the years. As I mentioned, not being a true fan, many of his more esoteric selections were foreign to me but he did several covers and many of his biggest hits.

I had to admire though the professionalism of his band which consisted of perhaps a dozen veteran performers to include two keyboard players, a fiddle player, three backup singers, a full horn section and Nils Lofgren and Tom Morello joining the Boss on guitar.

Springsteen is nothing if not a good showman and entertainer. He was good at working the crowd and brought several members of the audience up on the stage for a once in a lifetime dance with a rock god. I especially appreciated how the transition from the main set to the encore set only took a few seconds sparing both the band and the audience the obligatory five minutes of shouting and stomping to demand an encore.

The encore set included many of his largest hits resulting in the entire arena coming to their feet for the remainder of the evening. The encore setlist included Born in the USA, Tenth Avenue Freeze-out, Born to Run of course, and Thunder Road to close out. A very enjoyable three hours.

After making my way back to the Hilton, I spent a few moments setting my three alarms so as not to miss lobby time. My phone which conveniently shows the amount of time to pass before the alarm sounds reported a stout 6:18 hours and minutes available for blissful snoozing before go time. 

Considering I'd only gotten about four hours the night before due to a late commute flight into base, this would be like sleeping in. So of course I popped awake several hours early due to a too cold setting on the air conditioner only not to be able to get back to sleep. Well, sleep is overrated and I have a blog entry to write.

PS I do have a story to tell about the time my parents had dinner with Bruce Springsteen and his mother. As it turns out, my father graduated from Freehold Borough High School which he attended while my grandfather was employed at the NJ State Hospital in Marlboro, NJ.

Bruce Springsteen's mother also graduated from the same school (as did Bruce) and was attending a reunion along with her son. My parents had the good fortune to be seated next to the Boss and his mother and enjoyed an evening together. He was reported by my mother as delightful.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Oh Say Can You See

One of the benefits to being paid to fly around the country is the office view. Not only is it visually spectacular, it offers an insight on our world that not many people get to see. And we get to see it in every different kind of lighting and weather. Even the weather itself makes for some spectacular scenery. Anyone who has lived near a large body of water can appreciate how the same vista can look completely different day after day. The view from the cockpit is a little like that.

Looking down at the ground reveals features both natural and man-made which are mostly hidden from the view of those who live their lives in offices or homes. Even those who drive the nations' highways get only a limited view of a mile perhaps on either side of the road. No, I wouldn't trade my corner office view with just about anyone.

As we fly along, many features are instantly recognizable but quite a few more are not. Some may be familiar but present themselves quite differently when seen from above. And there are some objects, patterns or buildings that are just inexplicable.

For example, a few dozen miles east of El Paso there are grids of lines carved into the desert for no apparent reason. One can speculate that they might at one time have been a planned community which was never built but its only a guess. Numerous other features which sit in the middle of nowhere or seem improbable can be seen from the air. Some things seen are military in nature and some are related to agriculture.

After a while you begin to recognize how things look from altitude such as the peanut shape of golf greens or crop circles. Here are a number of photos taken around the country of various things that I've found interesting. (And for the inevitable smart alek who will ask "who's flying the plane?" none of these photos were taken while I was flying the airplane). Go ahead and click on the images for a larger view. (All photo credits - Rob)


Different styles of agriculture are easily visible from the air. On flat land, there will be straight crop lines or crop circles. On hilly land such as this, terracing is apparent. The snow sets off the terrace lines nicely. This photo was taken just east of Omaha.

Here are some fields near Salinas, California. Different crops appear as different colors though I have no idea what is being grown. Plastic covered fields for strawberries to keep weeds down appear light in color.


Power plants are always interesting features. In America today, very little old line "smoke stack" industries are left such as ore smelters, so when smoke stacks or cooling towers are seen, they are most likely power plants. Some have ponds instead of stacks as well.

Here is a shot of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station just west of Phoenix. There are three units here each apparently in operation as evidenced by the steam plumes emanating from the cooling towers. Also visible are some gas fired peaker plants used to supplement the grid at high demand times and a number of cooling ponds.

Visible here on the left is a coal powered plant made obvious by the large pile of coal. On the right is a refinery. These are both on the Chicago River just southwest of downtown.

Here is another industrial area on Lake Michigan. What they might do here I have no idea but the dark water flowing into the lake is more likely silt than anything else.

This plant located near Tampa looks to be fuel oil powered. Notice the lack of smoke stacks or cooling towers.
Cleverly hidden in this photo is California's Diablo Canyon Nuclear Generating Station. The last of California's operational nuclear fleet, this station is behind the bluff in the center of the photo nestled between Pismo Beach and Morrow Rock on the ocean. Unfortunately visitors are not allowed at the plant but there is a very informative visitors' center in nearby San Luis Obispo.

This is a train yard in Columbus, Ohio. From the air, train tracks can be difficult to tell apart from highways. One must look for clues such as intersections, bridges and ramps to be sure.

This windmill farm is located in the Montezuma Hills in the Sacramento River Delta. A favorite spot with windsurfers, the wind is quite strong here as the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers cut through California's coastal range providing a pressure relief valve between moist cool air coming off the Pacific and the warmer dry air in the central valley. One of the sites of California's original wind farms built in the '70s, the current windmills dwarf the original models and were only recently installed.


Large cities are always impressive from the air. Trying to imagine all the people in one place can be overwhelming.

These two shots are of the Big Apple from over Brooklyn looking to the northwest. The new World Trade Center is clearly visible as is the Brooklyn Bridge, East River and New Jersey in the distance. It doesn't look so big from the air but try getting across town at rush hour.

On the right is a night picture of Manhattan looking due south. The Harlem river is visible in the foreground. Picking things out at night takes a bit of practice as many things look completely different in daylight. By the way, this is about where Sully was when Canadian geese took out his engines forcing a landing in the Hudson seen on the right of the photo.

This a picture of Bean Town (Boston) from perhaps 40,000 ft looking to the southeast.

Chicago (my kind of town) is quite striking on a clear day. The ice only left the area several weeks and most Chicagoans are probably hoping that Spring falls on a weekend this year. Chicago has GOT to be one rockin' town because no one is moving here for the weather. Soldier Field is visible in the lower left hand part of the shot.

Here's a shot of the greater New York City area from the north. The Hudson River, Central Park, George Washington Bridge (Chris Christie call your office, please), Staten Island, and even Sandy Hook, NJ in the distance are visible.


We occasionally get to fly over the places that we're supposed to land. This might be because we're coming from the west and landing to the east which means flying past the airport and turning around. Above is Chicago's Midway with O'Hare below to the right. 

This is a shot of Tampa International from the south looking north. The folks living under this approach have managed to get the western runway designated as primary to keep the noise down. It was closed today.

La Guardia airport, named after Mayor Fiorello La Guardia opened in 1939 and hasn't been improved since. With short runways, restricted airspace, and limited ramp space, this airport is a challenge to fly into and suffers congestion and delays. It's also where Sully's ill fated flight originated.

 To the left is Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport. One of the busiest in the world, there are more than the usual amount of "local" rules in effect. It's important to keep up with complex taxi instructions in this maze.
Cool Vistas

Some views from the airplane are just cool. Here are a few of my faves: This is a view of the Hudson river looking south from just north of West Point. The school is on the right side of the river at the bend. You can see a fair amount of ice on the river posing navigation problems for river traffic.

This is a view of Treasure Island which is just to the west of St Petersburg, Fla. It also happens to be the site of where we spent Spring break at the Bilmar hotel. The beach was delightful!

Just to the south of Treasure Island are some more barrier style islands. Often you can see details in the surface of the water from many miles up.

This is a view of Philadelphia from South Jersey looking north across the Delaware river. Philly Intl Airport is off the left side with the sports complex in South Philly clearly visible. The SS United States is still berthed on the Delaware awaiting refurbishment into a museum. It's docked on the Pa side north of the Walt Whitman Bridge.

Here's a very popular site to point out to the peeps in back: Crater Lake. The remnants of a tremendous volcanic explosion, the lake is one of the deepest in North America.

Drought ravaged California can't seem to catch a break, not that they deserve one. Here's a reservoir south of San Jose which looks more than half empty. And this is at the end of the rainy season so it will be a long summer. Cali has two colors from the air: green during the rainy winter, and brown in summer. With so little rain, Cali was still very brown when I flew over in January. It normally goes green in November. It's green in this shot but the grasses will soon turn their summertime brown.

Historically, California was covered in perennial grasses but non-native annual grasses brought by Spanish settlers in the 1700s quickly displaced the more drought tolerant native species. Today, California is 99% covered with annual grasses from the Mediterranean.

On the other side of the continental divide, the Finger lakes in upstate New York seem to be doing well, water-wise. The Finger lakes were carved by glaciers in the Pleistocene era and yes, I looked that up on Wikipedia.

 Here in the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho we can see where wild fires stripped the trees. Here the snow is clearly seen instead of the usual conifers. Forest fires are a routine site when flying out west. Aircrews help authorities by reporting smoke when flying over.
Except for storms, pilots normally don't fear clouds. They might roughen up the ride a little bit or throw a bit of ice on the wind screen but otherwise are no problem. Except for one especially deadly type of cloud even more deadly than the Cumulo-nimbus (storm cloud). That would be the Cumulo-granite. Yes, the one with a mountain hiding inside. Here's a good example. That's Mt Adams in Washington state.

This is what a ski resort looks like from altitude in late Spring. The only snow left is that on the trails which are groomed with man-made snow. This one is in New Hampshire west of Concord. The lake on the left still appears to be frozen while the one in the foreground is not. It can seem unusual to appear like this until you realize that the frozen one may be at a much higher altitude than the thawed one.

There are just some very cool looking mountain features out west, especially when the snow brings out the contrast. Here's a view from somewhere in southern Montana.

Strange Beautiful Stuff

Some things seen from the airplane just don't seem to make much sense. It might be a building, pattern on the ground or some other unknown item. Perhaps some of these things are remnants of long abandoned construction or military projects. Rumor has it that some markings out in the California desert are those left from Patton's 7th Army training to do battle with Rommel in North Africa.

Here is a shot of some swamp marsh bordering Tampa Bay. In it can be seen some sort of grid but what it is and how it got there is anyone's guess.

Sunrises and sunsets can be particularly beautiful when seen from altitude. It's even possible to see the "shadow" of the Earth when the sun comes up behind you. Here's a sunset on descent into Vegas.

While airliners are capable of navigation independent of ground based aids, some "highways" in the sky still appear to exist. Here's a number of contrails headed from the Northeast towards Florida during Spring Break.

These ugly looking red areas are more benign than they might appear. They are salt evaporation ponds formerly owned by Cargill near San Fran. The ponds were flooded and then allowed to dry leaving the salt. The color comes from algae which likes the salinity. The intensity of the color varies with salinity. The ponds were acquired by conservation groups in 2003 and are being restored to wetlands.

This winter has seen an abnormal amount of ice due to global warming climate change. This shot is over Lake Erie looking west. Cleveland is on the left bank of the lake.

Places I've Been

Flying over places where you've spent time is always cool. You get to look for places you've spent years living only to discover they look nothing like you imagined from altitude.

This is a picture of Brentwood, Tennessee where I currently reside. The lighter looking peanut shaped areas in the lower left of the photo are the dormant greens of the Governor's Club. Dolly Parton's house is in the picture. Tracks that look like highways across the lower part of the picture are actually powerline and gas pipeline right of ways.

This is a shot of Lewisburg, Pa, home of Bucknell University. In spite of my best efforts, I did leave here with an engineering degree. Joining the military did however spare me from having to remember anything I might have learned there (in class).

This is where I grew up outside of Philadelphia. The Springton reservoir in the photo is just south of my hometown of Newtown Square.

Here's a neat shot of the Sangre de Christo mountains south of Colorado Springs. Above them is a long cloud called a lenticular cloud formed by wind currents forced up over the mountains. Seeing this type of cloud at high altitude alerts pilots to a phenomenon known as mountain wave. Sort of like surfing a wave, caution must be used as mountain wave can cause the airplane to exceed its maximum mach.

 Here's another shot of clouds being held up by mountains. As the moist air traverses the mountains it gives up its moisture and leaves only dry air downwind.

These next few shots are of various sun rises and sunsets I've been fortunate enough to capture.

This is through the heads up display or HUD.

When asked what its like to be a pilot...I always answer: beats working for a living.

I hope you've enjoyed this little photo montage of a few weeks in my office. They were all taken with my android phone camera though I did take the liberty to add some contrast to a few of them.