Archive for the passenger bill of rights Category

All in a Pilot’s Day: Thunderstorm Zen and the Captain’s Firewall.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline delays, airline pilot blog, airliner, airliner take off, flight crew, passenger bill of rights, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2012 by Chris Manno

Head pounding. Look down at your right calf: a liter bottle of water, mostly full.

Stupid.

Just flew 3 hours from DFW to DCA–should have paid attention to hydration. Now, sitting near the end of runway 1 at Reagan national, it’s too late: the damage is done.

Been sitting here for over two hours now. In a thunderstorm. Which has hit the tower with a lightning bolt that fried their primary radios–so now they’re using a weak backup radio that sounds like the controller is using a tin can on a wire.

More delay while the radio situation gets fixed, plus the hand-offs from tower to departure ain’t working. Wait.

Call the tower: “Tower, American 445.” Wait.

“American 445, go.” Sounds like her head is in a bucket.

“We’re wondering about a take-off time, as we’re bumping up against some Passenger Bill of Rights time constraints.”

Like three hours–an hour from now–then we need to go back to the gate and probably, cancel the flight. Passengers have a right to not go anywhere, rather than sit on a plane waiting to go somewhere.

“We don’t have any information,” comes the tinny reply. Thanks for your help.

Ignored several phone calls from the cabin crew already, saying passengers are antsy, wondering what the latest is. When I ignore the interphone chime, the F/O has to field the questions to which there are no answers anyway. I prefer to isolate myself to focus on weather, fuel, timing, the departure procedure to the north (the FAA will violate you for even a tiny stray from the radial) and a clear path on radar. Which I can’t see because our nose–and our radar dish–is facing south. I make a PA every thirty minutes or so, telling passengers what I know: westbound departures are on hold due to weather on the departure routing. The lady in the tower sounds like her head is in a bucket. I don’t tell them that, but still.

Already tried to negotiate a departure to the south or even east in order to air file a route west–craftily uploaded an extra 3,000 pounds of fuel before pushback, after seeing the storm front marching on Washington as we landed.

No dice.

More calls from the back: passengers want to use their cell phones; they’re getting up . . .

Tell them no–if they use phones, the cabin crew has to make another aisle pass to ensure they’re off for take-off (FAA regulation) and if we’re cleared, we need to take the runway, check the weather–then go.

Sure, they have connections and people waiting. But that can wait till we get there. What I want to attend to is a new and higher power setting that creates less time on the runway; an optimum flap setting that gives a better climb gradient, and a wind correction to stay on the safe side of the departure radial.

That’s where the “firewall” comes in: if I let connections, cell phones, Passenger Bill of Rights or even my own next flight tomorrow (not going to be legal if we keep delaying) mix with the important considerations like fuel, weather, radar, performance and power settings, something’s getting messed up.

It’s not that I don’t care–I really do. But if I don’t attend to the latter set of considerations, the former won’t matter, will they? Drink some water, rehydrate. Relax. Run through your list of priorities for right now. Pay attention to right here, right now. Be ready to do “now” right; worry about later, well, later.  That’s the thunderstorm zen, the captain’s firewall.

It happens fast: “445, start ‘em up–you’re next to go.”

Fine. I reconfirm with the F/O the heading plan (310 is good–but 305 is better. If we have to correct back right to the radial, fine–but we do not stray east . . . a full radar picture before we roll, static.”

Raining cats and dogs, hard to see, swing out onto the runway and grab every inch. Stand on the brakes, full radar sweep–decide.

“You good?” I ask the F/O as a formality–because I’m looking at him and I can tell from his face whether he is or isn’t from his look no matter what he says. And if he isn’t okay or doesn’t look okay, if maybe his firewall or zen are under seige, I’ll know and we won’t go until everything adds up.

We roll; relief when we’re past abort speed; mental chant “engines only, engines only” reminding myself of which of the hundreds of warnings I’ll abort for on that rain-slicked postage stamp of a runway; throttles speedbrakes THEN reverse, amen. The jet rockets into the whipping rain undaunted; love the big fans at a high power setting. We climb, buck, dodge, weave and finally . . . cruise at 40,000 feet above all the turmoil as the lights of the nation wink out.

Landing after midnight, home finally at 1:30am. Crew Schedule calls: “Sleep fast, we’ve slipped the departure of your Seattle turn just long enough to keep you legal. You’re still on it.”

Eight hours in the cockpit today; another eight tomorrow. Plus a few hours to sleep in between.

Erase today–it’s over, safely and smartly done. Rest, and save a little zen for tomorrow. No doubt, you’re going to need it.

Ryanair: An Empty Head, Two Heads, and a Pay Head.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airliner, airlines, airport, baggage fees, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, jet, passenger, passenger bill of rights, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2010 by Chris Manno

Single-pilot airliners make financial sense, according to Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, and that point I can’t argue.

Ryanair CEO Michael O'Lerary

But what I can and do argue is that any airline run by a CEO who makes operational decisions based primarily on cash value–and O’Leary is the airline guy who introduced the concept of the pay toilet to the airline world–is an airline I’d never fly on, much less let my family travel on.

It would be like consigning yourself to an operating room whose surgical procedures were based on cash value to the hospital. Under anesthesia, hope for the best and by the way, did you pre-pay the resuscitation and de-fibrillation fees?

More important though is how fundamentally ignorant O’Leary is regarding the very product he sells. Let’s start at the beginning.

There have been many high-tech single pilot aircraft flying successfully for years. But the difference is, there was only one life at stake and a guaranteed escape plan if the airplane became un-flyable:

That escape option doesn’t exist on an passenger jet. But that’s not the only reason why two pilots are necessary for safe airline flight.

The basic philosophy of the airline operation is that layers of redundancy safeguard the thousands of passengers who take flight each day. It’s not simply a case that two or three pilots can divide the workload, which is true.

What’s more important is that it takes more than one pilot to divide the task of safe flight into the components that require simultaneous undivided attention in the critical phases of flight during which the aircraft and everyone on board are most vulnerable.

And that’s just in normal operation. The division becomes even more critical during an abnormal or emergency situation. Here are two prime examples.

We routinely take off from airports with tiny runways designed for the smaller propeller aircraft of the fifties and sixties. Jets, particularly when they’re heavy, require miles of runway to accelerate to take-off speed. Even more critical than that is the additional runway required to achieve flying speed if an engine fails.

Which adds another constraint: stopping in case there’s not enough runway to continue to take-off speed after an engine failure. That, on a short runway like in LaGuardia, Washington National, Burbank, Chicago-Midway and San Diego to name but a few, makes an instantaneous decision to abort a life and death question: do you have enough speed and runway to continue into the air? Do you have enough runway and not too much speed to stop?

Add to the stopping situation the wild card: is whatever failure for which you’re aborting going to affect your ability to stop? That is, with an electrical, hydraulic, landing gear or a few other potential failures–you can’t and won’t stop on the runway.

How does one person sort all of the variables of speed, runway length remaining, malfunctions and stopping capability and make the correct split second decision to stop or go?

The answer is, one pilot doesn’t.

Despite O’Leary’s theory that one pilot does most of the flying–and maybe it’s true–two pilots are needed for the big decisions like the above and many other split second decisions that have to be made in the critical landing  phase, here’s the secret: divide.

The take-off situation I just described is what we call a balanced field. That is, there’s exactly enough runway to allow for an engine failure, then a continued take-off on one engine or a safe stop on the runway. This is not just a short runway contingency either–the miles long runways at both Denver and Mexico City are often barely long enough in the summer heat due to their mile-high altitude.

Either way, the safe stop depends upon all of the stopping systems–spoilers, brakes, hydraulics, electrics–all working. You have a split second to decide. And in all of the above locations, there is no overrun. You’re going off the airport at high speed, loaded with fuel.

When I take-off from a balanced field, I divide the focus and tasking this way: the first officer will make the take-off. He is the “go” guy, meaning if I don’t take over and abort, we’re flying. He has but one task, no matter what, one engine or two, malfunctions or not: fly.

I, on the other hand, am the “stop” guy. I’m only looking for the Big Four as we call them: engine failure, engine fire, windshear, structural failure. I’m looking for those and only those–not both malfunctions and take-off performance. Because my righthand man is zeroed in on that.

We both then have individual, singular focus on the critical items in two opposing but now separate dynamic realms. It’s simple. It’s smooth, it’s reliable.

And it’s not possible with a single pilot.

Same theory of separation is vital on low visibility, bad weather landings, only this time the roles are reversed: I’m flying and looking outside for critical landing references, the First Officer’s entire focus is inside on the instruments, looking for any anomaly that would require a discontinued approach.

The O’Leary method, apparently, is to simply roll it all into one and save a few bucks per plane on pilot salaries. Never mind split second decisions, separation of critical duties and focus and ultimately, your safety.

Which might result in a few bucks of savings on your Ryanair ticket. But be prepared to give it back to them in flight eventually anyway.

That is, if you can muster the courage to fly on an airline whose CEO sees everything in terms of dollars and cents–but has little common sense himself.

Just throw your airfare under the car.

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, passenger bill of rights, pilot, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2010 by Chris Manno

This is me looking down on my old high school–literally, not figuratively–where as a freshman, I had a neighborhood paper route.

It’s significant for me now to look down on my old paper route there–the Sacramento Bee, daily and Sunday, over a hundred customers–because in those days I looked up from my bike as I tossed newspapers, wistfully watching the airliners climbing toward the Sierras. I have the better of the two views now.

But I also relate to a “customer service” lesson I learned on the paper route that’s just as valid from my present perspective a few miles above my old paper route and and two hundred times faster than bike speed.

The biggest pain every month had to be collecting from customers. And the worst of that was at the house of a junior high school principal who lived on the route.

Ring the bell. Wait. He comes to the door and points to his driveway.

“Your money’s under the car–where I normally find my paper.” Crawl under the car; at least he usually had exact change. Every month.

Which didn’t seem fair, because his paper wasn’t under his car every day. Just now and then, because I had about 137 papers to throw from my moving bike, often with a dog or two chasing me, and a lot of days in the rain.

I think of that percentage as we top the Sierras (that’s Lake Tahoe in the middle)  because we’re running about forty minutes late.

Of the one hundred and forty people on board, I’m sure that one or two are steaming like my old customer, wanting to see me crawl under the car because this is what “always happens.” No dogs chasing me this time, but yes, weather slowing things down and a traffic-jammed Air Traffic Control system.

For that guy, and those of his ilk, there’s no explaining what goes on and why–they’re really not listening anyway and just want to tell their neighbors about how the paperboy has to crawl under the car to get his measly $3.50 a month.

But for the majority of reasonable folks on board, here’s a behind the scenes explanation for the common frustration experienced by all but seemingly insurmountable for the “under the car” minority.

Why doesn’t the pilot tell us what’s going on? Well, because  . . . it is going on: two nights ago, we were taxiing in the aluminum conga line to the runway, watching on radar as a ring of storms converged on the airport.

There’s no time to spare. I’m recalculating fuel burn for a new route, listening to and answering ground control giving instructions on one radio, monitoring the other radio that my first officer is on negotiating a new route from Clearance Delivery and steering the jet with my feet on the rudder pedals. And that’s not all that’s “going on;” it’s taking shape as the minutes tick by and the ring of towering cumulus closes in on the airport. I don’t have time to step out of the task mix and say “here’s what’s happening” because it’s changing by the minute.

Seriously?

It’s difficult enough when one of the Flight Attendants call up and ask “What’s the delay?” The answer would be, “I’m doing five things at once; don’t call me back unless we’re on fire.” Most Flight Attendants realize that and don’t call. If they do, I realize they’re taking heat from the hundreds of eyeballs boring into theirs as they sit on their emergency exit jumpseats. Any wonder why some of them may be a little defensive?

So–I know this is not what you want to hear, but–if I’m not saying anything on the P.A., it’s because there’s nothing for me to say and no time to say it anyway. And even what information there is changes by the minute. Even if you wanted to be part of the chaos, I don’t have the time to narrate what’s going on and still keep up with it and stay on top of our flight priority in the mix. Can you just get started on your crossword puzzle and trust that we’re doing our jobs as efficiently and safely as we can?

Once we do get into the air, we have another 4 hours of flight.  So make it the New York Times crossword: it’s in the “Entertainment” section, on the driveway. Under your car.

Meanwhile, lighten up on the paperboy, okay? He’s doing the best he can.

The Big 5 Conspire To Ruin Your Air Travel

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline delays, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, airport security, elderly traveller, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, food, jet, passenger, passenger bill of rights, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2010 by Chris Manno

Want to know who to blame for your airline hassles? Here are “The Big 5″ conspiring to ruin your air travel:

1. Congress. In an ill-conceived attempt to legislate a “one-size-fits-all” solution to largely anomalous and often anecdotal reports of airline tarmac delays, Congress enacted a law effective April 29th mandating multi-million dollar fines for airlines with aircraft delayed longer than a specified time, hoping to lessen passenger delays. But the law will have the opposite effect: instead of freeing passengers from tedious hours-long delays, this bill will create indefinite delays and cancellations of flights, stranding passengers enroute and at origination airports (for an in-depth analysis of the downside of this disastrous bill, click here).

Continental Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek said his airline will be forced to cancel flights rather than risk fines in the millions for an extended tarmac delay. The ultimate impact of this unavoidable cancellation for the traveler?

You will find yourself along with hundreds of other on the stand-by list for the handful of open seats going to your destination. And there can be only a handful of seats–and they’re not going to be cheap as a walk-up fare–because of number 2 below.

2. Alfred E. Kahn.

Known as “The Father of Airline De-Regulation,” economist Alfred E. Kahn was Jimmy Carter’s Chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board. His blueprint for airline de-regulation was based on a flawed economic model, and was as misguided as economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s assurance to Lyndon Johnson that the Viet Nam war would be short and wouldn’t affect inflation. Kahn proposed complete de-regulation of airline routes and fares, positing that the marketplace forces would drive down ticket prices and provide the American public with cheap and plentiful airline seats.

What he failed to consider in his economic model is the fact that not only is the product–an airline seat–not inexpensive to produce, it is also linked to energy costs which are both volatile and unpredictable. “Cheap airfares” for the public are incredibly expensive to produce, forcing in the progressive “unbundling” of the airline product: now passengers must pay for each component of the flight–a checked bag, food, beverage, amenities like a pillow or a hard-copy ticket–and the revenue still only marginally covers the price of the product, with the airline industry losing billions nonetheless. Consumers insisted on paying less for an airline ticket, so now

You wanted your ticket for $10 less, now you hand that over to McD's instead.

they can cough up for food and drink at airport prices between flights. Everything must yield revenue or there is no airline, and nothing with revenue potential on board can be simply given away.

Further, Kahn didn’t foresee that many airlines would use bankruptcy as an operating shield for years (thank #1 above for not amending bankruptcy laws) to gain an unfair advantage over the few airlines that didn’t. This abuse of bankruptcy law dealt a financial beating to carriers that paid their bills but still had to compete head-to-head with many who simply walked away from their debt.

3. Airline Capacity. Every airline that intends to survive the high production cost and low revenue stream has cut capacity to the bone. This is common sense: empty seats are an unrecoverable loss and waste, and airline planners have analyzed traffic and passengers in order to minimize such waste and loss. For the traveler, this means less empty seats–seats which are vital when a flight is cancelled due to #1 above, or for the more common cancellations due to weather or equipment. Used to be that the percentage of empty seats was higher, allowing the system to absorb passengers from a cancellation or delay. Such margins are a luxury of the past with airlines having to deal with out-of-control fuel prices with an ever-shrinking revenue stream.

True, Kahn’s brainchild did spawn new entrant airlines–but they don’t have a seat surplus either, or they simply go out of business.

4. Airway Infrastructure. There are only so many take-offs that are physically possible at 5pm at LaGuardia. Although Alfred Kahn’s model says the marketplace will regulate itself, if everyone wants to sell a competitive 5pm departure, it is clearly predictable that there will be massive delays, which are the rule at airports like LaGuardia and many in the northeast, as well as from airports inbound to those airports. Kahn’s leverage, unfortunately, is you, the passenger, and the delays and misconnects you will suffer as a result. But in a free market, what business can afford to not compete in the market that customers demand? And when they do, how do they deal with number 1 above? As Continental CEO Jeff Smisek promised, there will be rampant cancellations and stranded travelers as a result.

LaGuardia’s delays are emblematic of the entire national air route system: despite Kahn’s academic model, the airways are saturated at all of the commercially viable times when passenger demand dictates the competitive environment. Which leads to more delays–and in the face of congress’s newly enacted financial penalties, cancellations and misconnects for you, the passenger.

5. The Big Box Store.

The heyday of the discount “big box store” gave rise to a consumer expectation of all products and services for steep discounts. Everything from home electronics to auto parts to furniture is now sold in bulk at drastically reduced prices by wholesalers with only minimal investment in buildings and equipment.

A new aircraft, by contrast, costs upwards of $50-$100 million per aircraft, and hundreds of such aircraft are required to produce a fleet with a competitive route structure. Further, each aircraft has to earn revenue daily despite upturns and downturns in the travel market, as well as drastic fluctuations in fuel costs which follow oil prices. Face it: the cost of an airline round trip is not the same as a set of tires or a Cowboy’s football game–but the public paradoxically expects to pay less anyway (more details–click here).

Still not convinced that cheap airline travel is an absurd expectation? Ask yourself why “cheap surgical hospitals” aren’t also a consumer demand.

Does anyone really think flight at 7 miles up and the speed of a 22 caliber bullet is any less risky than surgery? Does anyone demand the cheapest bare bones surgical “product?” Is airline pricing too high? Read this and decide.

Regardless, there remains an unrealistic expectation among consumers that somehow ticket prices should fit their budget rather than the actual cost of the product. Part of that stems from the low-overhead “big box” pricing that is the norm on other big ticket items, part from Alfred Kahn’s unrealistic promise to consumers of cheap pricing on an expensive product, and part due to congressional unwillingness to address the disparity between the two.

You tell me. These “Big 5″ items have changed air travel from a Nieman-Marcus experience to a K-Mart Death March. Further, the airport and airway infrastructure are badly in need of technological upgrade.

The traveling public can make changes in #1 and #5; it’s time to junk #2, and it’s time to force #1 to make the needed upgrades to #4. The airlines themselves will take care of #3 when that happens.

Until the public and congress fix this, at least now you know whom to blame for your airline woes this travel season.

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Passenger Bill of Rights: Be careful what you wish for.

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight crew, flight delays, food, jet, lavatory, passenger bill of rights with tags on February 4, 2010 by Chris Manno

It’s time to let the sun go down on this very bad idea.

Barbara Boxer in the Senate and Mike Thomspon in the House introduced separate bills intended to require air carriers to provide where “the departure of a flight is delayed or disembarkation of passengers on an arriving flight that has landed is substantially delayed,” the provision of (i) “adequate food and potable water,” (ii) “adequate restroom facilities,” (iii) “cabin ventilation and comfortable cabin temperatures,” and (iv) “access to necessary medical treatment.”

Congress to the rescue!

That doesn’t seem unreasonable, does it? It’s basically The Geneva Convention for prisoners, which you might feel like when your plane is number 45 for take-off at Laguardia, a not-so-rare occurrence.

But here’s the part that as a  passenger, will ruin your life:

The airlines would also be required to “provide passengers with the option of deplaning and returning to the terminal, or deplaning at the terminal” if “3 hours have elapsed after passengers have boarded the aircraft, the aircraft doors are closed, and the aircraft has not departed,” or “3 hours have elapsed after the aircraft has landed and the passengers on the aircraft have been unable to deplane.”

That means your fate as well as your travel plans and those of a couple hundred others rest in this man’s hands:

Why? Because back in seat 27-F, he looked at his watch and demanded, after three hours of waiting, his “right to deplane.” But what about your right, and everyone else’s, to make it to their destination, albeit three hours and one minute late? And if you have bought a downline connection on a restricted, non-refundable ticket

you’re really out of luck: no refund, no further travel–and no redress from the airline you’re vegging on the tarmac with for the past three hours. You’d better have trip insurance, because whatever you’ve spent on tickets and accommodations is now swirling around here:

And if you’re in the terminal, ready to board your flight, don’t act smug–he’s also in charge of your fate, too. Because if his plane is required to return to the terminal, guess whose gate it’s going to take? And guess whose outbound flight will be cancelled as a result, flushing hundreds more people’s travel plans? You will get to thank him when you’re both standing in the long, snaky line at the ticket counter waiting to get rebooked and ultimately, travel stand-by, competing with a couple hundred others for the dozen seats available that day.

That’s right, you are screwed too, and you haven’t even had a chance to sit on the tarmac for your three hours. But each airport and each airline has scheduled their gates as tight as possible to minimize costs. There likely is no gate for you to return to–unless some other aircraft is booted off to make room. Meanwhile, your downline connection is leaving for your destination without you.

Bub-BYE, downline connection!

That’s a shame. Being as completely self-centered as I am, I wonder what this means for me, the captain on your flight? What am I supposed to do, take a vote of passengers, asking who wants to join Mr. Snappy Dresser and return to the gate? Who, like this guy,

might have different priorities and travel standards than you? And who’s taking the vote–my over worked and underpaid cabin crew? Who counts the vote? Or can you even take a vote–the bill says “passengers” have the right to deplane. Not a majority, not any specific number, really. Nice.

What's a captain to do?

Actually, my part’s the easy part. Forget about a “vote,” because democracy ends at the jetbridge. I’ll do what I always do: apply common sense to the situation. Congress gave me an out anyway, proposing that passengers would not have the option to deplane if the pilot “reasonably determines that the aircraft will depart or be unloaded at the terminal not later than 30 minutes after the 3 hour delay” or “that permitting a passenger to deplane would jeopardize passenger safety or security.”

Typical: they give you a firm policy, then offer you a way out. Because the bottom line is, well, the bottom line: the airlines don’t want to spend a dime more than is absolutely required, and congress is reluctant to force any well-funded and lobbied businesses to spend anything. Besides, most airlines are bleeding red ink: there is no money for extra gates.

More gates and more staffing both on the ramp and in the terminal costs dollars the airlines won’t spend or simply don’t have, and congress isn’t willing to fund it through appropriations.

Doesn’t really matter, though, because there really is no silver-bullet, one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of delays or deplaning during delays. If you support the congressional efforts to impose a simplistic solution to a complex problem such as this, you better be ready for the consequences.

The anecdotal stories of eight hours on the tarmac with overflowing toilets and women giving birth standing up and claustrophobic insanity are appalling. But if you realistically consider side effects of  the “Passenger Bill of Rights” as a one size-fits-all solution, you may find your travel situation to be even more tenuous than it was before congress “fixed” the problem.

Passenger Bill of Rights? Be careful what you wish for.

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Dept. of Shameless Self Promotion:

(well, it would be if anyone read this blog)

Free track from my solo CD. It’s called Firefly

Raggedy 1970s-style rock, released on iTunes, Amazon.com and in China, distributed by

Crank it up and enjoy.

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