9/11: An Airline Pilot’s Perspective

Posted in 9/11, air travel, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, flight attendant, flight crew with tags , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2014 by Chris Manno

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This is the most awful day of remembrance and I hate it–but I will always keep faith with those we lost.

From an airline pilot perspective, we’ve lost a lot, never to be be reclaimed. On that day, I had been a captain at the world’s largest airline for over ten years. Then, I used to think of air travel as a modern miracle shared between passengers and crew. That meant freedom for all to range at will across the skies over our far flung nation, coast to coast and beyond.  Sure, we took security precautions against crackpots and even political hijackings. But it wasn’t then as it is now: we live with the realization that we are in the crosshairs, targeted by uncivilized, radical and suicidal zealots seeking to use our “miracle” as a weapon which will kill everyone on board in the process.

Now I look at everyone boarding or even approaching my jet to service it with a suspicious eye, watching for signs of malicious intent. Now I seldom if ever leave the cockpit in flight. And now many pilots fly armed with a 9mm handgun.

The shine is off the miracle of flight, replaced with a healthy dose of vigilance and defensiveness. That’s the new reality of air travel post- 9/11. I still grieve–and always will–for those we lost that day. But I go forward, flying in my thirtieth year as an airline pilot, just as I did the week the airlines returned to the air after the atrocious, cowardly terrorist act.

Today I join thousands of my fellow crewmembers, remembering that awful day but flying nonetheless. That’s what we do, that’s what we refuse to surrender to those who wish us ill. In that way we honor those we lost, and commit to overcome the darkness that brought about the tragedy of 9-11. Never forget and, most of all, never give in to those who would steal and destroy our miracle of flight.

Never, ever forget.

 

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Airline Seat Reclining and the Death of Civility.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline passenger, airline pilot blog, airline seat recline with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2014 by Chris Manno

It’s not about seat reclining. Really, the controversy isn’t the cause–rather, it’s an effect.

Considering the abysmal totality of the airline experience these days, with long lines, limited customer service staffing, “unbundled” product (read: a spectrum of additional fees), security hassles, historically unprecedented high load factors, diminished on-board amenities, airport delays, weather effects, and air traffic control induced flight delays, reclining seats are just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s not really about reclining a seat–it’s about control, maybe one shred of personal authority over an already downsized and minimized bit of enroute space rented at a substantial price.

Because you can’t do a thing about security hassles, or overcrowded airports and air traffic control, about fuel surcharges and overbooking, or add-on pricing. When you get right down to it, in the huge, intransigent, inscrutable and unanswerable juggernaut that is air travel, the only person who has no choice but to listen to you is the passenger within arm’s reach of your seat, upright or reclined.

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But the sad irony of the seat recline squabble is this: the very victims of all of the above factors are turning on each other. And “each other” is simply one victim victimizing another.

The Knee Defender is the catalyst, but not the root cause. Rather, it’s the final straw in a backbreaking load of unpleasantry that has become air travel. We put up with even worse travel hassles in other modes of transport without a protest: filthy cabs, rude drivers, subways packed, buses too, and often unclean and from a crime standpoint, dangerous crowds of travelers.

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But that’s because we don’t spend a week’s wages on the trip, nor do we travel for hours on end with unreliable arrival times and in some cases, changed destinations.

The Knee Defender actually did us all a favor. Rather than having the current “We’re madder than hell and we’re not going to take it any more!” moment erupt over wanting a full can of soda or a seat armrest (or, anyone notice the lavs never get sanitized?), endangering a blameless crewmember (remember, we have zero say in any of the above), the seat recline issue blew up into a national debate about limits.

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That is, the limit of one passenger’s authority over another (the answer: zero, and you’ll deplane in cuffs if you push it) but more importantly, how much shrinkage in the “airline product” can the traveling public withstand?

That, for any airline exec actually looking at this all-important breaking point in both civility and tolerance from the consumer standpoint, is wholly separate from the spreadsheet analysis of revenue and profit margin.

Plain and simple, it ain’t just about the seats and knees, despite the headlines. It’s hearts and minds and human tolerance for complete lack of any power over the last frontier–personal space. We’ve lost all the other fights about price, service, seating, crowding and “security.”

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The airline that finds a way to fill the seats while reversing the trend of shrinking space and diminished personal authority will be the miracle worker that restores both personal dignity and travel value to the skies–and the marketplace.

Until then, industry regulators, law enforcement, crews and passengers can expect more tumult in the already unpleasant skies.

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Airliners & Missile Defense: A Pilot’s View.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner missile defense with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2014 by Chris Manno

US Army “Spyder” missile launch.

 

After an apparent missile strike brought down Malaysia Air flight 17 over the Ukraine with senseless, tragic loss of life, public focus has included possible defensive systems for airliners. From my perspective as an airline captain, I believe the discussion is good, but in my opinion, fruitless.

First, my disclaimer up front: I’ve never flown any aircraft with defensive systems, and I haven’t flown a military aircraft since my last flight as an Air Force pilot in 1985. Even then, our strategy was simple: avoidance of threat areas.

So what I know about aircraft missile defensive systems is from three sources: discussion with engineers who design such defensive systems at Raytheon and Lockheed-Martin, former military pilots who did evade missiles in flight, and industry publications such as Jane’s Aircraft and Weapons and Aviation Week & Space Technology.

That background, plus my 29 years (and counting) of uninterrupted flying as an airline pilot lead me to the following questions, for which I find no good answers:

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1. Who? As in, who would operate such defensive systems, not only in cruise flight, but as importantly, in the low altitude structure on approach and departure when both the crew workload and vulnerability to even shoulder-launched missiles is highest? A passive system might (heavy on the “might”) do an adequate job detecting an impending missile threat (launched, launch-ready, or targeted) but then who–especially on a two-man crew, will analyze the threat and devise the defensive tactics to defeat the weapon or tracking system?

Some analysts point to the industry-standard TCAS (Traffic Conflict Avoidance System) as an example of an already operational avoidance system, but that overlooks one major flaw: TCAS is designed to detect potential flight path intersections of two flying bodies, then to compute and issue avoidance instructions to each. Besides the fact that one party in the impending collision–the missile–will not respond to avoidance instructions, the fact is, for the other aircraft, the instructions would be insufficient to avoid a missile. That’s because TCAS conforms to the design limitations of the airliner, stopping short of any maneuvering loads that would damage or destroy the aircraft.

So, who on board the airliner will be operating any defensive systems that would monitor threats, analyze incoming missiles or antiaircraft fire and devise evasive tactics? In a word, it can’t/shouldn’t/won’t be the two whose full attention better be on the approach or departure.

 

2. What? As in, what defensive systems? There are some systems designed for large aircraft that mask the infrared signature of the engines to foil heat seeking missiles. But, as in the case of MH17, the missiles weren’t heat seekers anyway. They were radar guided, against which heat-masking is largely ineffective. The simplest countermeasure against radar guided missiles might be chaff, which is essentially shredded foil that is ejected when a missile launch is imminent or in progress to disrupt targeting radar returns, but step two after dispensing chaff is to aggressively vacate the airspace the missiles were targeting. That brings us back to the limits encoded in TCAS: design limitations to prevent damage or structural failure preclude anything other than lumbering maneuvers in the air, hardly sufficient to avoid a missile traveling near the speed of sound.

3. Where? As in, in flight (see above) or on the ground? Regarding the latter, consider the recent destruction of 9 passenger jets on the airfield by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan. Even if there were aircraft-based defensive systems, the fully-fueled, barely maneuverable or even parked jets are sitting ducks for explosive destruction–with hundreds of innocent lives at stake.

Which brings us the recent FAA ban on flight into Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. In my opinion as just one individual airline pilot, that FAA restriction was a mistake, for a couple of good reasons. First, I believe it was an over-reaction by the FAA that contravened the airlines’ own internal safety and security analysis and strategy. Worse, the one-size-fits-all restriction was hasty and clumsy, creating economic and political liabilities for our most staunch ally in an already volatile region.

 

I don’t advocate unthinking flights into a dangerous area, I just believe that the individual airlines are fully capable (and unceasingly, painfully aware of liability) when it comes to determining whether or not to continue airline service.

I’m fully informed on the risk of what is typically an unguided rocket (vs. missile, with a guidance system that could be defeated) being lobbed by dumb luck onto the airport. But the risk assessment should be left to the individual airlines to evaluate and resolve with sensible policy.

Passengers, of course, can decide for themselves whether to fly or not–but crewmembers are assigned to flights. I believe they should be given a choice whether or not to fly into a hostile area, but that’s a completely different decision level way below the FAA blanket ban and its attendant political and economic liability to the host nation.

4. Why? This is a “big picture” issue: why even discuss defensive systems for airliners, beyond the “warm fuzzy” (recall the short-lived “office parachutes” that appeared briefly after 9-11) even if unfounded, when we realize–as with my last Air Force squadron–that avoidance is the only way to make a large aircraft safe when any offensive weapons are in use.

Again, while the FAA is prudent to issue air route restrictions (route were modified/restricted–not prohibited) over war zones like the Ukraine, blanket bans such as the Tel Aviv landing prohibition are senseless and politically, reckless.

Let airlines, passengers and (this should be ensured) crew decide what risk makes individual sense. And leave the missile defense to the pros, which in the case of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, certainly the Israelis are the best in the world. It would be my personal choice to fly there myself for that reason, and I’d rather both pilots were focused on civilian flight duties when we do.

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Air Travel: 3 Simple Ways to Make Your Summer Flights Easy

Posted in airline, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, jet flight with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Summer time air travel can be stressful, but there are practical and simple things you can do to make your trip easier. Here are my top 3 simple ways to make your summer air travel as efficient and low stress as possible.

1. Information: install the smart phone apps for the travel services that apply to your trip (airline, hotel, rental car) and take a few minutes before your trip to set them up with “push” notifications so you will automatically be notified of gate changes, delays and even rebooking. If you’re notified of a delay by the airline, having a hotel, rental car or resort app installed will put you in touch with those important services quickly and easily. Your pharmacy’s smart phone prescription app can speed you through the refill process in a distant city, or transfer prescriptions in many cases.

 

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Many airline apps let you rebook instantly, avoiding long waits in a customer service line, and can outline your options quickly without you having to navigate a website. Best of all, you can beat the rush when re-booking is necessary. On some airlines–American Airlines is one–you can use the airline’s app and website in flight through the on-board WIFI for free.

On taxi in, when you’re cleared to use your cell phone, you will be notified–if you authorized “push” notifications–of your next gate accurately if you’re connecting, or your baggage claim if your travel is complete. The gate agents pull that info 10-15 minutes before your gate arrival, and we print it out in flight 30-40 minutes prior to landing. But your “push” notifications will be more timely and accurate than the other two sources.

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You can delete any travel apps you don’t need later, but while you’re on the move, there’s no quicker or more accurate way to get the answers you need to your immediate travel needs. Install the apps, know how they work, and use them to stay ahead of the crowd–especially in case of cancellations, delays or gate changes.

2. Survival gear. First, count on none of your basic needs being met: food, water, shelter. Provide all three yourself. First, food: if you can’t buy something in the terminal to take along–and often you can’t–better have whatever compact, long shelf life calories source you can pack: power bars, granola bars–whatever you prefer that will stave off hunger.

Ditto for water: you “can” get water on board, but the question is when, and sometimes, how–are you in the back and they’re starting the beverage service from the front? Or vice versa? Or is it too turbulent to safely move about the cabin for passengers or crew? Just have a liter of bottled water handy per person, then don’t worry about it.

Finally, “shelter:” dress for the trip, not the destination. That resort-wear will not keep you warm in a chilly cabin, particularly on long flights. And here’s a crew secret: your flight attendants are active, working, and blanketed in layers of polyester. Who do you think calls us to ask for changes in the cabin temp? If they’re melting under the uniform layers, you’re going to wish you weren’t in shorts and a tank top, because we’re more likely to hear “cool it down” than “warm it up” from our working crew in back.

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3. Consolidate: all vitals and valuables in one hand-carried, locked bag. Medication, documents and here’s the big one–valuables, like your watch, wallet and any jewelry MUST go into this one locked bag BEFORE security. Why would you ever–and I see this all the time–put your wallet, watch, cell phone and other valuables into an open container on an unmonitored conveyer belt? Why not consolidate them all and then after you’ve successfully passed through security screening, retrieve your items from your locked bag?

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And locked is the key: if you’re pulled aside for additional screening, do you want all of your valuables laying out in the open, outside your reach and often, out of your sight? Even if that one locked bag requires extra screening, the lock ensures it will only be searched in your presence.

The final part of “consolidate” applies to your personal belongings: do NOT disperse your items all over your seat area. It’s a sure way to leave an item on a plane, a fact that is borne out by the number of passports, wallets, personal entertainment devices, tablets, keys and phones that turn up on overnight cleaning of aircraft. If you leave valuables, much less valuable documents like a passport, in the seat back pocket or anywhere else, you’ll likely never see them again. And speaking of “seeing” them, the normal climbs, descents, banking and on landing, braking will cause whatever loose items you may leave or drop on the floor to end up rows away. Even if you check your immediate area before deplaning, some items might have vanished. So don’t scatter your belongings about! Return items to your hand carried bag immediately after use or when not in use.

Face it–air travel is stressful as it is, but a lot of stress can be alleviated by these three steps. Information is king when you’re departing, trying to connect, or are changing plans on the fly due to delays or cancellations. Get the apps, set them up, and use them. Stay hydrated, fed, and warm to ease the physical stress. And finally, move smart: consolidate your valuables and do not let your personal items become strewn about your seating or waiting areas on board or in the terminal. Inflight forces will help them slide away, or if you leave them inadvertently, chances are slim that you’ll ever recover those items.

Follow these simple steps–and have a good flight and a great vacation.

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Flight Crew Like You: The Airline Cartoon Book Now Available

Posted in air travel, air travel humor, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, flight crew with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2014 by Chris Manno

Finally, collected and published, the JetHead firsthand cartoon view of air travel, airlines and flight crews:

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Here’s the insider, behind-the-scenes look at the world of airlines, air travel and flight crews!

This all-original cartoon collection takes you inside the flight crew world on the flightline, flying trips, facing the ups and downs of flight crew life from an insider’s perspective. The 74 pages of cartoons in this collection are must-haves for anyone who is an air traveler, a frequent flyer, or a crewmember–or hoping to be!

Available now on Amazon–just click the link below.

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 Here’s a sneak preview of just a few of the cartoons in this book:

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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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