Archive for the passenger Category

Flying a Jet in the Los Angeles Storms, December 12, 2014.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, airport, flight crew, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2014 by Chris Manno

 

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22.” –Captain Yossarian, Catch-22

Here’s the deal, captain: you’re flying a 65 ton jet into Orange County airport, the famously short 5,700 foot runway. The stopping distance required there is increased drastically if that runway is wet–and yesterday, “wet” was an understatement: Los Angeles was drenched in a ten-year storm dumping inches of rain in a matter of hours.

And here’s the catch: you want to have the least amount of fuel–which is weight–on board for landing to permit stopping on the short, rain-slicked runway, but at the same time, as much as possible for a divert if necessary to Los Angeles International Airport or to Ontario Airport, both of which have long runways.

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But it gets worse. The best bet for a diversion is Ontario, because the inbound air traffic is light compared to always busy LAX. But you’ve been watching on radar two thunderstorms sitting exactly on the top of Ontario, hardly moving. LAX is reporting heavy rain which means inbound delays and you know from experience that the inbound LAX air traffic flow includes many long-haul flights from Asia, Europe and points beyond. You don’t want to elbow into their already depleted fuel reserves.

Here’s your set of decisions: who will fly the approach at SNA? It must be done perfectly, given the conditions, which are reported as 1 1/2 mile visibility in fog and heavy rain, with 200 foot ceiling. The touchdown must be exactly on the right spot–neither too early nor too late–and exactly on speed, if we’re to stop on the remaining runway.

What is your plan: SNA, and then what? No holding fuel–on a missed approach, you can either try again, or divert to Ontario (thunderstorm overhead) or LAX.

You already know landing in a thunderstorm at Ontario is a poor choice. And you know, realistically, you don’t have the fuel to handle the air miles entry into the LAX landing sequence will require. A second try? Not even.

Okay, captain–DECIDE.

Here’s what I chose on each question. First, I had the F/O fly the approach. Why, when it had to be done exactly perfectly under bad conditions? The answer is, because he damn well knows how to fly an ILS, in any circumstances. If he flies the approach, fully investing in the stick-and-rudder attention demands which are large, I can focus on the big picture: what’s the Ontario storm doing? Watching LAX too on radar. Updating SNA winds, our fuel, our position.

Above ten thousand feet, we talk. I tell him what I’m thinking, then ask: what am I missing? Tell me your ideas? And as importantly, are you okay flying the approach? Because a bad night of sleep, a sore shoulder, anything–if you’re not up to this, I’ll do it.

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And we have one shot, I tell him, then I’m putting clearance on request (actually did that as soon as we were switched to tower frequency) to Ontario. If the storm looks impassable on radar, option 3 is declare an emergency for fuel and barge into the LAX landing sequence. Don’t like that idea, but if we’re down to option 3, there is no other choice.

I also plot the magic number for SNA winds: 110 degrees and 290 degrees. For the precision landing runway, any wind beyond those two cardinal points strays into the verboten tailwind area. Asked about landing the other direction and the answer was: long delay. Not possible, for us.

Already requested and had the data linked chart for our landing weight sent up to the aircraft: we require 5,671 feet on a wet runway, good braking, zero tailwind. Each knot of tailwind adds 150 to the distance required, so even one knot of tailwind exceeds the runway length.

I switch my nav display from a compass arc to a rose: the full 360 display. I’m getting wind checks all the way down final and watching my cardinal points, alert for an excedence.

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There’s a wind display on my HUD, too, but I realize that’s a calculation that is at least 15 seconds old. Eyeballs and experience tell the tale: he’s glued mostly to his instruments to fly a flawless ILS, but I’m mostly eyeballs-outside, monitoring speed, azimuth and glide path through the HUD, but paying attention to the realtime wind cues. He knows if I don’t like what I see, I’ll say, “Go-around” and we will be on to option 2 immediately. I know that if he doesn’t like the way the approach is going, he’ll announce and fly the go-around without any questions from me.

I tell him that if everything is stable on approach, let’s make a final wind analysis at 200 feet. If we’re both satisfied, silence means we’re both committed to landing.

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I review in my head the rejected landing procedure. That is, if we touch down but I judge we can’t stop, throttle max, speed brakes stowed, flaps fifteen, forward trim, back into the air.

Clear your mind, focus on the plan: hate math, but I can sure see the compass depiction that means a verboten tailwind. Poor viz in heavy rain, but once I spot the VASIs, I can tell what the wind is doing to us. He’s flying a hell of a good approach. One final wind check at 200 feet. “That’s within limits,” I say, just to let him know that component is fine. He’s flying–if it doesn’t feel right, I want him to feel free to go-around immediately.

I don’t want to see high or low on either glide path or speed. No worries–he’s nailed it, both are stable.

A firm touchdown, then my feelers are up for hydroplaning: none. Speedbrakes deploy, but we’re not committed until reverse thrust. The MAX brakes grab hold, good traction; we’re fine, reverse thrust, I take over at 100 knots.

Silence in the cockpit. “Excellent job,” I say as we clear the runway, glad we didn’t have to execute either backup plan. Relief, Boeing has built us a damn fine, stable jet for this weather, this day, this runway.

Now, put that all behind–we still have to fly out of here in less than an hour. And do it all again tomorrow.

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Air Travel Illustrated: The Holiday Flights.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, airport, airport security, cartoon, fear of flying, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2014 by Chris Manno

Some times words won’t do, or maybe illustrations can do better. Regardless, if you’re flying somewhere for the holiday, this is your life enroute. If you’re home already, here’s what you’re missing.

First, my best advice either way:

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With that in mind, make sensible reservations based upon experience, rather than an idealized hope:

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Flights are packed, so plan your inflight strategy:

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Getting a last minute seat can be nearly impossible due to holiday load factors, unless you’re willing to compromise:

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Keep in mind that you’ll have to handle your own baggage:

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Prepare mentally for the challenges of airport security:

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Please board only when your sedative is called:

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Ignore the pompous guys impressing each other in First Class:

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Or maybe share your admiration for them as you pass by:

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Realize that children are on-board, so you’ll need to deal with them:

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And parents, remember it’s your responsibility to discipline your kids on board:

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Pay attention to the flight attendants when they speak to you:

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And they may be talking to you even indirectly:

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So pay attention:

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And when I turn on the seatbelt sign, it does mean you:

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Realize that weather can complicate our flight:

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So be prepared.

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Anticipate the post-holiday letdown:

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Enjoy your leftovers properly:

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And congratulate yourself for traveling and thereby avoiding a worse fate. Bon voyage!

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Air Travel and the Ebola Circus.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, Ebola, flight crew, passenger, travel with tags , , , , , on October 14, 2014 by Chris Manno

 


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Air Travel and the Ebola Circus.

“If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.” –Jimmy Buffet

Government leaders are frantic to do something, anything, to assuage concern about the potential spread of Ebola. But air travel is neither the problem nor the solution.

Nonetheless, the government answer is, as in so many crises, that even doing a useless thing is better than doing nothing. So we now have “increased screening” at several airports, including JFK. But the problem is, the Ebola patient who died recently in Dallas arrived from Brussels, while the increased screening targets passengers arriving from Liberia, Sierra Leonne, and Guinea. One connection later, as in his case, the possibility of detection is beyond the “new” screening.

 

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Meanwhile, no mention is made of special screening of international arrivals in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, all of which have seaports and airports with regular international arrivals from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The Dallas Ebola carrier could just as easily have entered the US on the west coast–or through DFW, Chicago or Miami for that matter–with no additional “screening.” And the notion that  increasing screening at certain airports is the solution sidesteps the fact that a traveler could arrive in Mexico City or Toronto and simply drive or walk across the border; or, working a cargo, tanker or cruise ship, simply enter through any seaport.  Again, it’s not air travel, it’s global mobility that is the vulnerability.

In any case, the special new air travel screening is really little more than a drug store twenty dollar digital thermometer and a lot of self-reporting. That charade is more theater than medicine, as Ebola has proven time and again, lying dormant well past the initial examination. The “enhanced” screening ignores the majority of the arrivals, and has a limited accuracy due to the incubation period of the disease, for the small minority of international arrivals who are screened. And there’s no special screening for the enormous flow of rail, sea or motor transportation across our borders.

 

Seriously? This is "enhanced screening?"

Seriously? This is “enhanced screening?”

 

And even worse yet, the lynchpin of the “enhanced” screening procedure is truthful answers to posed questions. The Dallas Ebola carrier simply didn’t report his exposure in order to enable his travel and the new “temperature check” wouldn’t have–and didn’t, as he departed Africa–detect the latent disease anyway.

 

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Given the high profile of Ebola as news media rush to cover and broadcast a “scare,” it was inevitable that panic would attend an incident of vomiting on an airplane. But the reality is, passengers getting airsick is as old as air travel itself. I used to take it personally as a pilot, as if I’d somehow not flown smoothly enough. That was until I noted that even just taxiing out from Las Vegas or New Orleans was often attended by hangover puking in the cabin. Now, however, this typical, ugly occurrence warrants a Hazmat response, plus YouTube and Twitter coverage of the unfortunate event.

 

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The crossroads of Ebola and air travel is a cataclysm of the news media at its worst and social media at its best: the tail wags the dog as regular news sources struggle to keep up with the instantaneous digital grapevine of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.

In the end, cable and broadcast media abdicate their responsibilities to investigate and report facts and simply show random, unmediated Tweets and video clips and call it news. As a nation we’re all the worse for indulging in group hysteria, but it seems that nothing is more important for an individual with a cellphone than a shot at the Andy Warhol fifteen minutes of fame which the desperate-for-headlines news media recklessly offers. Culture, unfortunately, trumps common sense and journalistic ethics.

 

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Meanwhile, the government implements showy passenger screening changes for air travel only and calls that prevention, neglecting any meaningful intervention in a global threat by attacking the disease itself. That in a nutshell is the hopeless tragicomedy that is the “first world” public and government response to a deadly plague.

Because while the media microscope is trained on flights and “screening,” the root cause languishes in the background. In reality, controlling global mobility by all modes, and developing a vaccine is the right strategy. But that sensible call to action seldom heard above the media uproar about air travel. Which only confirms for me what a very wise woman I know is wont to say: “We are a nation of idiots.”

So as Jimmy Buffet suggested, we might as well laugh about it while we can, or at least until someone finally (if ever) looks beyond air travel and focuses on a real containment strategy, plus a vaccine. Because as I’ve said, air travel is neither the problem nor the solution.

Meaningful action won’t come from the fumbling “government,” and it sure won’t be the hapless news media. But the joke’s on us until then.

 

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Airliners, Ebola, Myths and Facts

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot blog, flight crew, jet, passenger with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Airliners, Ebola, Myths and Facts

The most recent communicable disease being linked with air travel as a possible factor in its spread is Ebola, which joins a long line of other contagions, such as SARS, H1N1, Hepatitis and even the basic flu, in the screaming air travel headlines.

There are two ways in which air travel could actually be a factor in the spread of such infections. First is the simple reality of transporting those infected to an uninfected area, and second is the propagation of infectious elements among people near the disease carrier.

This last consideration is medical and comes with contingencies well beyond my level of expertise. But what is absolutely common knowledge is that countermeasures in any public place–which an airliner is–are rudimentary. Your airline seat–like your theater seat, your seat at a dinner table, a taxi cab, a bus, a classroom, or any public area–is not sanitized before your use, no matter who sat there before you. That’s the public health standard in the modern world.

Yet the media rushes to the airport to show file footage of an airliner, then grab man on the street interviews with deplaned passengers, asking if they’re concerned about being exposed to [fill in contagion du jour] from other passengers who have visited [fill in global contagion hotspot] from possible proximity to an infected person.

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It’s a short leap from there to certain urban myths about air travel. First, and most persistent yet absurd, is “passengers are in a sealed tube, breathing the same air.”

The reality of an airliner is yes, the hull is pressurized, but no, it is not sealed. In fact, the fundamental link between pressurization and air conditioning on a passenger airliner at all altitudes is a constant outflow from the jet in flight, into the atmosphere. The controlled outflow is key to moving volumes of air through the cabin in a deliberately designed pattern for many vital functions beyond passenger comfort.

In a Boeing 737-800, that carefully crafted flow pattern drives air from two air conditioning systems through the cabin and cockpit, down through the forward electronic equipment bay below the cockpit where it picks up residual heat from electronic systems to keep that vital equipment at optimum operating temp, then the airflow proceeds back around the cargo compartment, keeping that compartment from getting too cold, then overboard through an automatically modulated outflow valve.

Key to that process is flow. The plane is not sealed, so constant airflow is mandatory–and here’s where another urban myth surfaces: airlines are limiting airflow to save money.

The fact is, airlines are increasing airflow to save money: in our Boeing, we have two large, powerful recirculating fans driving airflow which in basic Venturi logic, draws air from the air conditioning systems and eases the workload ultimately on the engines from which the bleed air is tapped and thereby increasing fuel mileage.

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The urban myth about decreased aircraft airflow to save money probably originated in the early seventies when the OPEC oil embargo drastically spiked fuel prices. Airline engine technology was simpler and less efficient before today’s high-bypass fan engines were developed. But even then, less bleed air really never improved airline fuel burn and regardless, an jetliner was never a sealed tube and always required metered outflow balanced with input to maintain pressurization.

“Raising the altitude in the cabin to save money” is the third urban myth with no basis in fact. First, in the Boeing, pilots have control of the rate of change only–the cabin altitude is set at a constant differential between inside and outside the hull based on maintaining the strength of the fuselage. Hollywood may have inspired the myth that pilot can “raise the cabin altitude,” but the only thing we can actually do is climb or descend and when we do, the pressurization systems maintain a constant differential and a constant airflow in order to maintain structural integrity of the fuselage.

So back to my original point: yes, airliners are the hardware of mobility that now mixes populations experiencing regional outbreaks with others a world way, but only in the modern sense of scale: all continents are now linked by air travel in hours rather than days or months of travel. But travel itself is the fundamental reality of the twenty-first century, period.

And that mode of travel, “air travel,” is neither conducive to propagation any more than any other public place, nor is any airline adding any infectious risk to “save money.” The most glaring stupidity in that persistent myth is the vital contingency the the flight crew must blindly increase their own health risks to do anything of the kind.

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In the passenger airline flight crew world, we often refer to an airliner as “the flying Petri dish,” because people with every communicable disease board, fly, sneeze, hack and cough just as they do in any public place. But that’s no different than the environment endured by the first grade teacher, the restaurant waiter, or pediatric nurse.

And the airline seats are about as “sanitized” as the movie seat you sat in, the tray table as “clean” as the restaurant tabletop the busboy just wiped with a wet rag dipped in tepid, hours-old water from a well-used bucket.

In other words, as far as infectious disease exposure risk, an airliner is just like any other public area–we just move faster and more frequently from place to place. It’s not a sealed tube, no one is reducing airflow or raising the cabin altitude to save money.

So use common sense about flying, recognize the airliner cabin as a public place and behave accordingly (thanks for mopping the lav floor with your socks, BTW), and breathe easy when you do, knowing the truth about these unfounded flying myths.

More insider info? Step into the cockpit:

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These 25 short essays in the best tradition of JetHead put YOU in the cockpit and at the controls of the jet.

Some you’ve read here, many have yet to appear and the last essay, unpublished and several years in the writing,  I consider to be my best writing effort yet.

Priced at the printing production cost, this collection is not for profit–it’s for YOU to keep.

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Inflight Diverts: Costs, Compassion & Common Sense

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, flight crew, passenger, pilot with tags , , , , , , , on May 20, 2014 by Chris Manno

Want to see an airline crewmember’s blood boil? Show them this report from the IATA convention in Madrid today:

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Well, okay. I realize that diverts are expensive. But there’s more.

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What’s so bad about that? Everything. First, in flight, nothing is “simple” about a restrained passenger (I’ll get to that below). But worse, besides the cost priority, this next consideration is one steaming plate of wrong for many reasons:

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Where to begin! Let’s sidestep the completely inappropriate “passengers would rather get to their destination” priority and look at the big picture.

First, perspective. The IATA is an industry group comprised of air travel-related businesses, including airlines, travel agencies, and related travel businesses who act as  an advocate to promote the airline industry.

As an airline captain, like most, I share the common goal of supporting a robust airline industry. It’s over priorities that we diverge: the IATA seems largely focused on costs, while crewmembers are focused on–and held accountable for–the safety of the flight and all aboard the aircraft first and foremost, THEN cost.

Here’s where those priorities clash.

Yes, diverts are expensive, among other things: they require quick, accurate and decisive action from the flight crew amidst a field of dynamic and ever changing variables and constraints. In that regard, cost is in the crew decision mix, but obviously it is an inappropriately high priority in the IATA mix.

Here’s where the blood boils in the flight crew veins. Consider the passenger first: what medical conditions are present? What allergies/reactions are in play? What vulnerabilities (meds required, in use, over/under-dosed), physical stress of “restraint” (psychological, cardiac, stroke), impaired breathing/circulation (what if the “restrained” vomits into his taped-shut mouth?), what intoxicants (legal or otherwise) are active, what mental impairment, or other behavior triggers are latent or evident? How secure and for how long is the restraint durable, feasible and reliable?

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The fact is, airliners are NOT designed with restraining seats. Will “duct tape” and belts or whatever is handy last for the duration of the flight–never mind will the person survive–or will they break free and the situation escalate:

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Now, the crew, and let’s be real: any experienced flight crew member will eventually (or has already) considered the historically accurate picture of personal consequence that consistently plays out in cases of passenger injury, illness and restraint. Walk through it with me firsthand:

Attorney, in court/deposition: So, [crew position], please for the record state your qualifications to restrain a passenger, your medical experience to monitor and assess the restrained, your law enforcement authority and experience in safe restraint, monitoring and supervision of restrained passengers, your skill at ongoing assessment and specific background of restrained, and your ability to determine how long such restraint is tolerable physically and medically appropriate?
You: [go ahead–answer …]

That’s got every red blooded crew person’s blood simmering, but here’s where the boiling point comes:

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That’s right: for the IATA, the above court scenario is secondary to the cost of a divert.

Walk with me on diverts for a moment, will you? Last night, on my flight approaching Boston’s Logan Airport.

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Weather closing in, winds presenting near-limiting crosswinds on wet, short runways, crowds waiting to land and take off. Heavy metal transatlantic birds on the tail end of their fuel curve, inbound. We are too–we have required loiter fuel, but that’s all. Like everyone else.

Two hundred miles out, I calculate fuel burn for divert to Providence, Albany and Hartford. I get the current weather for each. I assess the current weather pattern and how it will affect each. I calculate the fuel required to divert while enroute to Boston for each of the three divert options, plus the fuel required to divert from a missed approach at Boston, which is significantly higher for each.

This gives me the data I need to make a decision: when and where do I pull the trigger, based on fuel requirements, to divert, and where to? Make the best plan, fly it.

Notice my consideration of $6,000 to $8,000? It’s really not part of the picture at 40,000 feet and 500 knots–nor should it be.

Now return to the restrained passenger. Would you figure in your complex decision matrix the $8,000 against the unknowns of securing the situation, much less the life of the restrained and those around him, never mind the in-court answerability you WILL provide at zero miles per hour on land, a completely different, hindsight-based inquisition afterward?

I’m glad the industry lobby and support group focuses on costs in order to keep the very fragile, complex airline profitability mix viable. But I’m even more grateful for my airline’s 110% support of my many divert decisions made over 23+ years (and counting) as a captain.

Divert because a passenger was “restrained,” or rowdy? If only diversion were that simple. Despite the simplistic analysis of those with neither responsibility nor accountability, it definitely is not.

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Sex On The Plane: Felony and Filth.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, flight crew, passenger with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Sex on the plane is a disaster from a flightcrew standpoint, plain and simple. This isn’t a  question of morality, which is none of my business. Rather, it’s a question of the captain’s responsibility and accountability for everything that happens in flight. So forget the nudge-wink-“stays in Vegas” marketing and “mile high club” mythology promoted by aging pinky-ring lotharios like Virgin Airlines CEO Richard Branson. Contrary to the fantasy, reality includes both filth and felony.

Consider the situation objectively and the problem becomes clear. First, the aircraft is a sealed environment with little personal space and nearly zero privacy. The latter fact alone should discourage behaviors that would lead to arrest and indecency charges in any other public place, but it doesn’t. And there’s an even darker side.

An NBC News report cited a recent increase in sexual assaults in flight. FBI agents say these crimes are difficult to prosecute because upon landing, potential witnesses scatter and are difficult to locate for testimony.  Neither the FAA nor the NTSB keeps track of these crimes statistically, making organized prevention difficult. Adding to the challenge is the reality that a darkened aircraft, particularly on late night flights, is tough to monitor, especially with an average ratio of one flight attendant per 50 passengers on a full flight.

 

There’s little personal space between airline passengers, often strangers, and many times the victims are asleep at the time of assault. Frequently these cases involve unaccompanied minors with little ability to defend themselves and on a full flight, in the air, there’s literally nowhere to go to escape. According to FBI Supervisory Special Agent Drew Ptasienski, victims of inflight assaults have also pretended to sleep through the attacks and this coping strategy may make an assault appear consensual to nearby passengers when the situation is really anything but.

Flight attendants are prepared to handle assault reports from passengers in flight, and the cockpit crew is more than willing to have federal law enforcement officers meet the aircraft on landing to investigate every case. Nonetheless, many assaults go unreported due to the shocking effect they have on the victims. According to Ptasienski, “Victims are so shocked they’re being assaulted, it takes them awhile to process it.” By the time they do, witnesses are dispersed and evidence gone.

Clearly, there needs to be a viewpoint shift among passengers in particular, to see “intimate” behavior in flight as completely unacceptable, consensual or otherwise: in many cases, passengers assumed what they’d witnessed was consensual, but in reality was a predator assaulting a victim. Yet if all passengers immediately reported every instance to the crew, no matter how things “appeared,” (a simple chime of the call button will bring assistance) the risk would be reduced for all potential victims.

Although such a strict and uncompromising vigilance and action would likely deter sexual assault in flight, such customer awareness runs counter to some marketing strategies. For example, according to a recent Slate article, Virgin Atlantic promises “a more intimate flight” than other airlines, and Virgin CEO Richard Branson encourages passengers to flirt and hook up on board:

Seriously? Consider the fact that a Today Show scientific analysis  rated the aircraft lavatory as the “second germiest place” you’ll ever experience–virtually a flying outhouse, a mile high Petri dish–and rethink the “romantic” aspect.

Consider also the question of what behavior should be tolerated by nearby passengers, especially when faulty assumptions can mask criminal actions, as noted above. Definitely, at least on the part of the crew, zero tolerance is essential, because notwithstanding Virgin’s claim that their crews “are not the type to interrupt” an amorous romp on the plane, after-the-fact accusations, questions of legal age, STDs, and unfortunately, drugs or alcohol will have to be accounted for by those responsible (read: the crew) for the safety of all aboard.

Then the question would be, why didn’t the crew intervene? Why did the crew allow this?

 

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Ironically, despite the cheesy Virgin ad campaign, the reality for frisky Virgin passengers can be anything but romantic. Worse, the “more intimate flight” and such leering Branson “mile high club” marketing may backfire on an airline if a liability suit regarding an in-flight assault lands in court. Ultimately, airline crews have zero tolerance for any behavior on board that violates the law and victimizes any passengers. Flight attendants work hard to spot threats in the cabin, including human trafficking and illegal, threatening behavior.

But that’s not enough: two crucial changes are vital. First, passengers need to be both aware and intolerant of any such activity on board, never assuming that it is consensual. All incidents must be brought to the crew’s attention immediately.

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And second, airline marketing strategy needs to evolve (most have–but not all) from the sniggering throwback sexual innuendo to less risky, more proactive and twenty-first century intolerance for a potential felony masked as “intimacy.” If Richard Branson wants to encourage membership in “the mile high club,” he should advertise hotel rooms in Denver.

Sex on the plane? More than just indecency in a public seat or a filthy lav–although it is every bit of that–worse, it’s a real threat, with real victims: see it, report it, stop it. Anything less makes you part of the disaster.

 

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Flying the Fuel Mule to Seattle

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, airport, flight crew, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Pace yourself: a Seattle turn is 1,600 miles northwest, then 1,600 southeast. Seduced by the 12 day work month, you’re about to find out how 90 flight hours can be logged in so few days. And, for W2 purposes, you’ll pick up another day of voluntary flying, to top out near 100 hours–in only 13 days. Looks good on paper, fly it.

First, consider the illusion: 8.2 hours of flying turns into an 11 hour work day–if all goes as planned. Here’s how it unfolds: report at 11:40 for preflight duties, pushback at 12:40. If, that is, the inbound arrives at the gate on time. Arrival weather can slow that down considerably, and so can maintenance requirements on the $55-million dollar air machine. That could happen before it leaves wherever it started its flight day–Miami, in our case–which will put it on our gate late. Regardless, your day starts on schedule no matter when you eventually pushback.

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Until you get your hands on the jet, consider the route, the weather, and the winds. That last element is crucial, because wind variance from planned can easily add 10-15% to your fuel burn. DFW to Nashville? Barely 2 hours, so plus or minus 10% is nominal. But over 4.5 hours? You can’t ignore the extra fuel burn, which could easily be 1,000 pounds or more. on longer flights, you have to be mulishly stubborn about fuel. Here’s how.

The winds used by the flight planning computer program are fairly accurate, but not perfect. They are a blend of historical data, predictive calculations, and some real time pilot reports. But consider their “Best if Used By” label: they were fresh 3 or 4 hours ago when reported, but with the sun that many hours higher since, you know wind patterns and intensity will change.

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Which brings up another wild card: the front range of the Rockies. You have to cross that ridge northwest bound, probably just west of Pike’s Peak. The old rule of thumb says you’re vulnerable to mountain wave turbulence half again as high as the mountain range, so if you figure between 15,000 and 20,000 on top of a generous average for the range, you’d figure to be a smooth cruise in the upper 30-thousands, right? Seldom works that way and in fact, often the ride is worse higher and better lower. That’s due to many variable factors: the jetstream pattern, heating and temperature bands in layers, and the orographic effect of the uneven range peaks themselves. Plus, the higher sun angle throws adiabatic heating into the mix, adding convection to the orographic disruption. End results: riding a dump truck down a dirt road.

Add those concerns to your awareness of the slimmer margin between high and low speed buffet at the higher altitudes, particularly early in cruise when fuel quantity and thus aircraft weight is the highest. Sometimes, lower than optimum cruise altitude is a wiser choice if there’s a possibility of significant turbulence. Again, there will be a higher fuel burn for that segment of cruise.

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So there’s another possible fuel penalty, and it’s not as simple as the increased incremental fuel burn at a lower altitude for the front range transit time, although that is substantial. You also have to add the fuel burn for another climb back to optimum cruise altitude for the remainder of the flight.

Plus, if anywhere in the 1,600 mile route we discovery that a lower altitude is a better ride compared to a turbulent optimum cruise altitude, we’re going to descend and accept a higher fuel burn. Again, short flight like Nashville? No worries–just stay low. But not for 2-3 hours as in the Seattle flight.

So, in your head, you’re computing a comfortable arrival fuel, plus an extra 15% for wind and turbulence options. And “comfortable” depends on current and forecast Seattle weather. Yes, “current” weather in Seattle is important for a couple reasons. First, if their weather is causing flight delays there now, there’s a good chance for the imposition of arrival metering–unless it clears in the 5 hours before your planned landing time. That could mean an outbound (YOU) ground stop, or even enroute metering, vectoring or slowdown–all of which cost fuel.

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The ground stop eventuality saves jet fuel, but burns YOUR energy, adding an hour or more to what’s typically an 11-12 hour workday for a Seattle turn. That type of delay on top of any maintenance or inbound delay can make your day an endurance contest: just getting to Seattle in 5-ish hours is only half of the game–you still have to juggle all of those factors and the same mileage southbound.

There are a few windfalls that will likely come your way, too. Frequently, the cargo load will drop off, sometimes the passenger count too, but that’s very unlikely for Seattle. But the cargo weight dropping a thousand pounds or more will allow an early climb to a higher cruise altitude with a lower fuel flow and more favorable winds.

Today we’re actually flying longer route on a more northerly course, passing east of Denver, and I can see why: there the jetstream becomes more of a crosswind than the headwind we’d get on a more westerly route. The typical westerly route is shorter mileage on a map, but not in the sky where the flow of the air mass acts like a treadmill: it’s already moving against us, whereas on the more easterly course, it’s not. No treadmill effect, or at least significantly lower.

So, here’s the numbers game for today: SEATAC’s landing south (grumble: longer arrival and  approach) with variable winds (could switch to north, you hope) and neither poor weather nor delays. Ceiling 700 to 1,000 and, with the trend data, improving. Good. 6.0 arrival fuel will be fine, and it will likely balloon to 7 if all goes well but comprises a good pad if not. Worst case, we visit McChord AFB twenty-some miles south.

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Weather at DFW makes for outbound delays, not due to the heavy rain so much as the convective (read: spring thunderstorms) cells dotting the radar, disrupting the standard departure routing and forcing all jets into a 10 mile in-trail spacing to allow radar vectoring after takeoff. More grumbling: sure don’t want our southbound leg to be delayed or god forbid, ground-stopped in Seattle. But the steadily moving frontal line snarling DFW will be well clear by the time we return around 10 pm. We’ll worry about that later.

Somewhere over Wyoming at take-off plus two hours, you share a wry observation with the First Officer: “We’re not even halfway yet.” She laughs: “And even that’s only halfway to halfway.”

Hello, Idaho.

Hello, Idaho.

True enough. Because every single step of analysis, planning, preflight and execution repeats itself sure as Bill Murray’s Groundhog’s Day as soon as you set the brakes in Seattle.

Pace yourself: it’s going to be a long day. If you’re lucky, you’ll get home 12-13 hours after you left for the airport this morning, allowing you to get a good rest in order to do it all over again tomorrow.

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