Flight Crew Reality: Travel Privileges are a Cruel Hoax

Posted in air travel, air traveler, airline, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2015 by Chris Manno

BA 747

Flight Crew Reality: Travel Privileges are a Cruel Hoax

There–I said it: travel privileges are a cruel hoax. If anyone is choosing an airline career based on the expectation of free air travel, you might as well start looking for a different job. Because the reality of crew life is this: airplanes are booked so full nowadays that non-rev travel is a frustrating, time-wasting ordeal that sucks the life out of days off.

It gets worse, too. In the past decade, every major airline has gone through dire financial restructuring. For flight crews, the end result is more work days per month, longer days per trip, with less off-duty rest between flights.

Bankruptcy at most major carriers resulted in the gutting of flight crew contracts, creating grueling work rules for diminished pay rates. So, we all fly more days per month at lower pay rates than ever before just to keep up.


Most crewmembers who have been flying at least ten years accept this diminished reality, the longer days, lower pay and fewer days off. It’s the unfortunate evolution of the airline biz as it plays out in 2015 and sad as it is to see, we realize the “good old days” of easy non-rev travel, more days off, and longer rest breaks are a thing of the past.

Yes, you can still squeeze on for a few quick trips. But if you have an event to attend, a cruise or a resort prepaid, or several  people traveling with you, you’ll have to buy a ticket.

Many actually see an upside to full jets in terms of financial security for the airline issuing our pay checks. When customers drop off, and flight become less crowded, the trickle-down effect for airline employees is furloughs and pay cuts.

Heavy loads and the reduced ability to fly non-rev impacts crewmembers who commute the most, because if a flight is required for them to get from their home to their crew base, the small number of available unsold seats require them to spend even more time away from home.

There are two types of commuters–voluntary and involuntary. I feel sorry for the latter: they’re the very junior who have been displaced out of their home base due to manning cutbacks. For many, a family situation dictates that they must commute. This is a harsh, disheartening burden for them to bear, one that’s completely out of their control.


The other type is the voluntary commuters. That is, though they may live within driving distance of a crew base, some voluntarily transfer to a base requiring a flight to get to work. They’re motivated by some perceived advantage, whether financial or other personal priority. Fine, and good luck: if I chose to commute to a more junior base like NYC or Miami, I could hold the 777 captain schedule of my choice. But I don’t, because I know the drawbacks, the wasted time, the reduced family time as a parent and spouse if I did.

Add about three times the stress, waiting and lost time with family that goes with the unprecedented high flight bookings that show no sign of relenting and the voluntary commute is less attractive than ever. Some still choose to do so, and more power to them.

Regardless, the “good old days” of easy nonrev travel and lots of free days off to pursue it are long gone. For the majority of the flight crew world, home and family responsibilities become the priority rather than leisure travel anyway after ten or fifteen years of flying. For the twenty-somethings new to the job and hoping to fly free, the full jets that make nonrev travel next to impossible are a measure of financial security they desperately need, because they’re the ones most vulnerable to furloughs if air travel demand drops off. Many would prefer the side effect of profitability–full seats–to the hazards of an airline downturn.


Some crewmembers actually portray full aircraft and a nearly impossible pass travel situation as a plot against employees, but anyone who has been here more than ten years recalls two things that override such nonsense. First, we all remember the pay cuts, lost retirements and career stagnation of “the good old days” when air traffic was light And non-rev travel easy. And second, perhaps most important, we realize that the good old days of great layovers, long crew rest and days off are a thing of the past, permanently.

There are those who must commute and I feel sorry for them. There are those who choose to commute and I feel sorry for them, too. And there are those–including me–who wish pass travel was easier.

But those of us in the aircrew biz realize the reality of life today. If you’re tempted to take a flight crew job for the “free travel,” you’re going to be disappointed. And if you’re flying today but looking backwards to the good old days, complaining about the loss–get real: the good old days, like your nostalgic, time-aggrandized young aircrew days are gone for good. Like it or not, we’re moving on.




What if your airline pilot falls ill in flight?

Posted in air travel, air traveler, airline, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2015 by Chris Manno

I wrote a complete explanation for Mashable–just click here for the full article.



Airline “Scare in the Air:” Laser Mythology

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2015 by Chris Manno


Airline “Scare in the Air:” Laser Mythology

Took a laser in the side of my face last night as I was hand-flying a Boeing 737-800 with 170 people on board through about 500 feet on approach. My reaction?

Shrug. No big deal.

But that’s not the way that story would appear on social media, which brings up an important question: when did Americans become so trembly-fearful of everything? Typical headlines include “horror, terror, scare” for any incident, large or small, when it comes to air travel. After turbulence, mechanical problems, or any anomaly, social media burns like a Presto Log as passengers leap to fulfill the “scare” pronouncement with their own hero story, selfie, and video.


But it’s really much ado about nothing–especially lasers. That’s why none of the other 168 people on board last night even knew about the laser hit, denying them the opportunity to gather “likes” and “follows” with a firsthand omigod we were hit by a laser on approach “scare” story. Unaware, they simply deplaned and went home. But here’s the “laser non-scare” reality.

First, we fly near much brighter flashes, sometimes right in our face, as we pass thunderheads at night. That’s just routine. A laser, by contrast, has a fraction of the candle power and unless it’s being pointed at us head on, it’s always a sidelong, oblique flash.

Back Camera

The only way possible to get the light square into my eyes would be to somehow determine my exact landing aimpoint on the runway (not possible) and stand precisely there, aiming the light perfectly into my face, but that’s even less likely: from the front, we’re a tiny target that’s changing position constantly. And the laser “aimer” would have to be standing on the exact spot where seventy tons of metal was about to plop down doing about a hundred and fifty miles per hour. That’s a Wile E. Coyote, Darwin-esque scenario and NOT a “scare in the air.”

The side shot does nothing except maybe distract the pilot for a second, but no more so than the vista out my side window when I rolled us into a left bank turning onto final approach over the Texas Rangers ballpark which was lit up like a nuclear Christmas tree 3,000 feet below. Took a glance–go Rangers!–at that as I we sliced by at 220 knots in the turn, then back to business.

The laser flash? Of course I didn’t turn to look at it and unless you do–and why would anyone besides Wile E. Coyote do that–it’s simply a non-event. Typically, the illumination lasts a second or two at most because urban legend notwithstanding, it not easy to hit a two foot square window moving at between 150 and 200 miles per hour from a half mile below.

Sorry: no scare in the air. Thanks for flying with us. But like the recent hype about “drone danger,” social media will have to look elsewhere for the next “there I was” panic scenario. Laser illumination of the cockpit in flight not worth mentioning.

Airline PAs: Can we talk?

Posted in air travel, air traveler, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, flight crew with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2015 by Chris Manno

About the aircraft PA: let’s talk.


When you’re an airline captain, you have to figure out how to talk meaningfully and concisely to a hundred or so passengers over the aircraft PA. That virtually one-on-one contact is an excellent opportunity reassure and inform the paying customers as they experience the marquee product: air travel.

Yet so many captains fall short, squandering this excellent marketing opportunity. Here’s what I mean.

Mostly, we’re pilots first and foremost, so we’ve had little training or experience addressing the public. You can almost hear the discomfort from the first PA on taxi-out. Typically, it’s a clumsy version of “Welcome aboard [insert airline] flight [insert number], service to [insert destination]. We are next for departure ….”

Really? Departure? We’re going to takeoff and fly; you’re the pilot, the aviator, not the “departure facilitator,” who will make this happen. “Departure,” “service” and “equipment” (pilots fly jets) are all lame parroting of the agents’ PAs in the terminal. The agents aren’t aviators–are you? Or are you an “equipment operator?”

Some of my four-stripe colleagues allege that the circumspect term “departure” is more calming for passengers, but I ask to what end, when the next thing that happens is the roar of fifty-thousand pounds of jet thrust and a headlong hurtle down the runway. Did you fool anybody, for a minute or two?

And the first part: passengers know their destination–or if they don’t, maybe you shouldn’t tell them. Do they care about the flight number? Worst of all, “service?” As in “check under the hood, the washer fluid’s low?” Scratch the whole thing and get back to fundamentals.
On taxi out, I say the required, “Flight attendants, prepare for takeoff.” By the book, it is what it is. On climbout, I say, “Good afternoon (or whatever it is; I don’t do early mornings without a court order) and welcome aboard, this is Captain Manno.”

Not ever, “This is your captain speaking.” Because I have a name, and it’s not “Your Captain.” Would it seem awkward if your dentist said, “This is your dentist speaking?” Your teacher? On TV, airline captains don’t have a name, because it’s fake. Real life, real name.


The other awkward introduction on the PA is the blurted, “From the cockpit,” usually preceded by “ah,” as in “Ahhhhh, from the cockpit, folks …” Maybe I could see, “from the cockpit crew,” but that’s as disjointed as “from your dentist” or even a sermon that started out, “Ah, from the pulpit, folks …”

Probably I’m a cynic, but the used car salesman-ish, “A very pleasant good day” rankles as a PA intro. Just give me the facts and I’ll decide what kind of day it is, okay?

Enroute, the pilot jargon is clumsy: “We’re at three-nine-oh, going to four-one-oh.” Just spit it out: “We’re climbing to forty-one thousand feet.” So it goes without saying that you needn’t use the slang of “wheels up time” (really? Hope we’re off the ground) or even “ground stop;” passengers start forming their own expectation of how long until take-off (not departure–we already left the gate) which may vary from the simple facts you could have cited: “We estimate that we’ll be airborne in approximately _____ minutes, although that may change. We’ll keep you informed.”


And then I set a timer for 15 minutes, then make an update PA even if I have no new info. Just the basic contact, “We’re estimating ____more minutes, thanks for your patience, we’ll keep you posted.”

But god forbid, neither humor or sarcasm is smart, although some try. The problem is, anything that’s “funny” to one person is guaranteed to anger or offend one of the other 170 on board, especially when they’re under travel stress and unhappy about the inevitable delays, the crowding, the discomfort. I know that when I deadhead or fly on my days off that delays screw me into the ceiling–“comedy,” or any attempt, is just one more annoyance on top of many. So just stick to the facts, in a calm voice, and be sure to make regular contact.

When I’m in the passenger cabin listening to a PA, I’m the “Wizard of Ahhhs,” counting: after the third “ah,” passengers might wonder if you’re all there–and you’re probably not. If you are trying to listen to the air traffic control frequency and the emergency radio frequency as you make a PA, you’ll sound like the harried mom with a toddler squawking, the TV on, while trying to talk on the phone.
Give the route of flight in layman’s terms: “Pocket City” is aviation speak for Evansville, Indiana, where billiards are made, but will that mean anything to passengers? And please don’t end with the withering “and on into the ______ airport;” the double preposition will cause an aneurysm in anyone over fifty, plus it makes you sound like Gomer Pyle. Toggle down all the other audio channels and just give the facts, concisely, consistently and without ahhhhs.

My standard PA goes like this: “We’re heading just about due [east, west, whatever] and we’ll pass over _____, _______, ________, and _______ where we’ll begin our descent into _______ airport, where the skies are partly cloudy [I always say that, covers everything] and the temperature is [I make up something, what it think it should be–who’s checking?]. We’re estimating our touchdown at _______ [correct time zone] and we’ll have you to the gate a few minutes after that. We’re glad to have you on board, for now we invite you to relax and enjoy the flight.”

That’s it–no ahhhs, my name instead of my job title (your captain), no cutesy (we had a goofball who blew a train whistle on the PA and said, “Allllll aboarrrd!”) stuff and no comedy attempts that will eventually boomerang.
The captive audience is listening and it’s a tough house: they’re crammed into their seats, often jetlagged, tired, hungry and impatient with delays and just the general hassle that is air travel today. You’re not playing a movie role, recasting your remembrance of Hollywood depictions. Make it clear, concise and soft spoken. With any luck, they won’t remember you or anything you said the next day.

Your Flight is Running Late? Not So Fast.

Posted in air travel, air traveler, airline, airline cartoon book, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot blog, airlines with tags , , , , , , , on August 28, 2015 by Chris Manno


When I was a Check Airman for my airline, supervising new captains on their first flights in the left seat, I always did one thing consistently over a three day trip: about twenty miles from landing, I’d cover the fuel gages with my hand and ask, “How much fuel do you have?”

What does that have to do with your flight running late? Everything.

And here’s where the passenger in a time crunch and the pilot-in-command part ways: time, speed and fuel.

They’re interrelated and while we both share the goal of getting there, the pilots need to “get there” with as much fuel as possible. That’s because more fuel means more flying time available, which means more options. So by day three of my trip with a new captain, he always knew how much fuel–and thus flight time–he had available, because he (or she) knew I’d ask. After over 24 years as captain at the world’s largest airline, that’s a habit pattern I personally maintain to this day: fuel is time, and my job is to wring as much time as possible out of every drop of fuel on board.


No, that doesn’t mean I want to fly as long as possible–I want to be able to fly as long as possible. Big difference, but the reality is, if I don’t have fuel in reserve, I don’t have time in reserve either, and both are crucial in case of delays due to weather, peak air traffic volume and even mechanical anomalies. And that’s just in the terminal area on arrival.

Enroute, there could be more weather we need to fly around safely (more miles–and fuel–burned) plus, the optimum altitude might not be available or, if it is, there may be a dissimilar aircraft ahead for whom we’ll be speed-restricted, causing us to burn more fuel. Throw in the frequent Air Traffic Control reroute or off-course spacing vector, and you have a significant potential for fuel over burn above the planned consumption.

On a flight of more than three hours, even a 10% fuel over burn can significantly limit a pilot’s options on arrival: can I hold for weather and traffic congestion, and for how long, before I have to divert?


Add more air miles–and thus more fuel burn–to stay safely upwind of storms.

So we have the potential for weather and traffic delays, altitude restrictions and even mandatory re-routing by Air Traffic Control, all of which can and typically do eat away at our fuel reserves. These limiting factors can pop up at any time after takeoff and the fact is, there’s no more fuel to be had at that point, leaving you one option--save as much as possible enroute. Which means the highest, optimum altitude at the most economical speed.

Ironically, Air Traffic Control may even need you to fly a faster than optimum speed for a long stretch of time in order to equalize traffic flow, and you’d better have enough fuel to comply but still maintain your fuel reserves for arrival regardless.

Juxtapose that reality with the option of flying “faster to make up time.” First, a jet is not like your car–if you push the speed up ten percent, depending on your altitude, your fuel consumption may go up during the higher speed cruise by 20-30%. But how much time would you make up? Over a three hour flight, maybe ten minutes at most. Is that worth blowing all of your options, especially knowing that destination areas delays could wipe that out anyway? Is it prudent to fly hellbent-for-leather to shave off a fraction of the delay at the cost of having zero options once you get there?image

Fuel and time: the buck stops here.

The answer, of course, is no, it doesn’t make sense to “speed up to make up time.” Believe me, no one wants to finish the flight any sooner than the working crew, but never at the expense of what we know lies ahead, and therefore, what makes sense.

Certainly, you can ask the pilots to “fly fast,” but the result will be predictable no matter what you may hear.


Airliners in Weather: What the Hail?

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, aviation weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2015 by Chris Manno


Recently, a Boeing 787 and an Airbus 320 made headlines with dramatic photos of hail damage to the radomes and leading edges of the airfoils. That type of news story prompts the question from friends, family and passengers, “Can’t pilots see hail coming?”

My answer is threefold: yes, no, and it’s not that simple. Let’s take each part in order.


On a normal flight, the above outside view would be depicted like this on a cockpit nav display:


The magenta line is our filed flight path–where Air Traffic Control (ATC) expects us to be. To simplify for the sake of brevity, green areas are precipitation, red, convection, meaning uplifting air.

So yes, we can often see it coming because we know that convection can heave massive amounts of moisture upward with great force, into altitudes where the temperature could easily be -35C or less. This flash-freezes the moisture into ice pellets, with the size determined by variables of speed and temperature. I’ve felt and heard the sizzling sound of such particles impinging on my aircraft at over 40,000 feet–they’re fairly tiny and mostly innocuous at high altitude–not so in the lower, denser air.

Regardless, here’s where the “no” of my tripartite answer comes in. Like the ill-advised New Year’s Eve tradition some gun owners have of celebratory fire, what goes straight up comes back down–but the question is, where?

An enormous volume of hail spewed from the top of a thunderhead will get caught up in the winds aloft and they vary from near zero to over 100 mph. It’s not unusual for wind to blow a hail storm ten or more miles from the core of the thunderhead that lifted the moisture in the first place.

At night, the lightning may be obvious, but storm contours are not.

At night, the lightning may be obvious, but storm contours are not.

Can an you see that on radar? Maybe. Normally, you have the radar looking ahead, not up. What was a clear path, suddenly may be filled with hail, even miles away from the original source.

Which brings me to “it’s not that simple.” Both of the recent hail damage incidents occurred at low altitude, and by that I mean below 20,000 feet, which is a complicated area: jetliners don’t cruise that low, so the airspace is filled with a conflicting mix of climbing and descending aircraft. ATC does a fantastic job of sorting the mix crammed into often constrained airspace. But the problem is, that doesn’t leave much room for deviating around weather.


In fact, with so many aircraft being managed on a particular frequency, it’s extremely difficult to even get a course change request to ATC. Add to that a ground speed often between 200 and 300 miles per hour and you have a dilemma: yes, you can see some weather threats, no, you can’t see all of them and avoiding weather and other jets in crowded airspace is simply put, not easy. Things change rapidly, virtually by the minute, and we’ll cover many miles in that time.

I can’t stress enough how versatile and responsive ATC is in managing tight airspace filled with dissimilar aircraft on assorted routes and changing altitudes. But as the mix becomes more dense, this high-speed Rubik’s becomes an outlandishly devilish puzzle.

In the cockpit, know that we’re using every means at our disposal to detect and track weather. We gauge the wind effect out of the top of a storm, we plot a course upwind of effects, we pass along what we’ve found to ATC and other aircraft.  Count on the reality that everyone on the ground and in the air is doing everything possible to avoid or, in the worst case, escape from bad weather.

Even the fact that only two aircraft out of the thousands in flight that day made the news with hail damage is good news in itself: pilots and ATC are pretty good at handling weather. Still, there’s only so much room and little leeway to detect and avoid hail.


That’s the real news, and the good news far outweighs the bad: flying to Philly yesterday, I can’t compliment both ATC and the dozens of other pilots in the air for sharing information about clear passages, turbulence and new routings. I don’t know how Center and Approach do it, but the responsiveness and quick reaction is amazing.

I’m especially grateful that my airline has made installation of cutting edge radar technology in my cockpit a priority: yes, it’s expensive, but they want me to have the best, most current weather picture as I approach a front with you on board.

Our newest radar–which I’m glad to have available–displays three dimensions, is linked to our nav system so it always knows exactly where it is and thus screens out ground clutter and geographic features, and displays a predictive movement of hazards. It’s always on, scanning for potential problems and will pop up on cockpit displays if it detects something even if we’ve selected another depiction.

So there you have it. Yes, no, and it’s complicated–those are my answers to the question, “Can’t you see hail from the cockpit?” The big-picture view is that we’re all working together to stay out of the headlines. I’ll be flying to LaGuardia and back tomorrow and the fact that you WON’T read about my flight underscores everything I’ve just said.



Airliners vs. Drones: Calm Down.

Posted in air travel, air travel humor, aircraft maintenance, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, airliner with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 8, 2015 by Chris Manno


Much ado has been produced by the media about the hazards of drones flying in proximity to airliners, but I’m happy to report: it’s much ado about nothing.

The hazard presented by unwanted objects in an aircraft’s flight path is nothing new. In fact, each year hundreds of bird strikes are dutifully and without fanfare reported by airline pilots as is required by law.


What’s new is the opportunity for media and aviation “pundits” to claim more screaming headlines by overstating the drone hazard. First, consider the typical, average weight of the plentiful waterfowl populating the bird sanctuaries neighboring JFK, LGA, ORD, DFW, SEA, PDX, LAX, SAN, DCA, SFO, BOS and most Florida airports to name but a few. The weight varies from the 10-13 pound goose to the heavier seabirds like pelican which can weigh up to 30 pounds.

Although the the media and some wannabe aviation pundits claim there are “drones of 50-60 pounds,” the fact is, the new, popular hobbyist drones are marvels of lightweight miniaturization, weighing a fraction of that.


Now, consider the exposure: while the new hobbyist drones begin to enjoy an increasing level of retail sales, the bird hazard numbers literally in the millions. By sheer numbers alone, bird conflicts and even bird strikes dwarf the number of drone “sightings” by airliners, but they’re simply no longer news.

Plainly stated, the traveling public–and thus the media–understand the exposure, accept it, and like the National Highway Traffic Safety traffic death toll, ignore it.

Trundle out the “new menace” of drones and heads turn, headlines accrue, news ratings uptick, and those who know little about jetliners begin to smell fear.

So let’s even go beyond the hazard and foresee and actual impact with a drone. I once flew from Pittsburgh to DFW with duck guts splattered all over my cockpit windscreen after hitting what maintenance technicians estimated to be a ten pound duck. There were two primary consequences I had to deal with.

What are the chances of encountering a drone? A duck?

What are the chances of encountering a drone? A duck?

First, I had to look through duck guts for two and a half hours. They partially slid off, but most froze onto the window at altitude and stayed. Second, the crew meal enroute was less appetizing with the backdrop of frozen duck guts. That’s it.

None of the birds went into either engine. No aircraft systems were affected. Nobody (besides Pittsburgh tower) knew until after landing when we filed the required reports.

This is a pretty good predictor of what might happen if the rare, statistically minute chance of a drone-aircraft collision were to occur: likely, nada.


Yes, there always the potential for engine damage when a “bird,” man made or real, is ingested by an engine. Nonetheless, of all the birds–man made or real–populating the skies around every major airport, drones are a minuscule fraction of the whole group that air travelers sensibly overlook day to day.

So why not focus on that reality rather than the shrieking media and aviation “experts” offering unlikely and often, absurd “what ifs?”


The answer is, the latter sells news, while the former undercuts the self-appointed aviation experts in and out of the media.

So the choice is yours. You can embrace the misguided drone hysteria served up by the news and “experts,” or apply the same logic you do to every daily hazard–including the drive to the airport (over 32,000 traffic deaths in 2014)–which is: drive carefully, and don’t sweat the small stuff.

Anything else is much ado about nothing.






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