Step into the cockpit with me and let’s fly from DFW International Airport to SeaTac in Seattle.
Just click here and we’ll be on our way.
Step into the cockpit with me and let’s fly from DFW International Airport to SeaTac in Seattle.
Just click here and we’ll be on our way.
Let me confess: though I fly at least 90 hours a month as an airline pilot, I personally hate air travel. The delays, bad weather, crowding, security, expense, cattle-herding through packed terminals, the security gauntlet, baggage claim–I hate all of it. Give me a road trip, a map, hotel reservations, a route and I love to travel, driving. Hang airline reservations over my head and I go as to the gallows. But this past holiday weekend, I did exactly that: I bought tickets for my family and me, and we faced the ordeal together. Sure, we can travel free–but not if we have a tight schedule and an event to attend, especially on a federal holiday weekend like Memorial Day. I thought to myself, as I went through the steps as an air traveler to find a decent fare, buy a ticket, and travel, let’s see what this is like from the passenger standpoint. Year round, I hear the griping about airline service, fees, late flights, rude passenger service. I decided I’d get the full experience from start to finish, then decide for myself if the urban legend of horrible air travel was true. Reservations? On line, complicated, tedious and annoying. There were too many ways to screw up, which I did: whoops–this particular flight goes to Baltimore, not Washington Reagan. All airlines consider Baltimore, Washington-Reagan and Dulles to be “Washington DC” for their flight purposes–but not mine. They dump them all together online, sorting by “value,” which is to say, “here’s what we usually can’t sell, so it’s a little cheaper.” From a consumer standpoint, the value of “cheaper” versus “where I need to go” is bass-ackwards, priority-wise. But online reservations are their ball game, so they make the rules. A long, frustrating sorting process–mostly wading through stuff they want me to buy–culminated in the painstaking process of names and addresses for all three of us. I’d had to change some details once it became apparent what we actually needed–the punishment for that is retyping all the data for the three of us each time. Fees? Yes, but there’s nothing sneaky about it: want to board ahead of others? Pay for it. Want more legroom? There’s a charge. Check bags? Pay. So? That seems fair to me–we’ll board with our group. We’ll use the seats I chose. We’ll check one bag, and pay for it. That’s business. I have no problem with that but then maybe I don’t perceive these extras as my birthright. At the airport, as a pilot I could have entered the terminal through a couple of different authorized access points. But, I was traveling with my family–we stay together. The security screening was adequately manned so traffic flowed smoothly, with an ironic twist: we were in a very short, fast-moving general screening line, while the TSA Pre-Check line was three times as long and moving slowly due to the need for more elaborate document checks. The TSA people did their job efficiently, with only a minimum of the cattle-call feel. But the annoyance wasn’t the TSA staff, but rather many other air travelers who were distracted, inefficient, and rude, shoving ahead of each other, not following basic instructions. I could imagine the complaints from many of those passengers who were actually the problem themselves, rather than the screening process. Another irony.
Once on the secure side, we prepared for the reality of air travel: we bought a bottle of water for each of us, plus a sandwich each. There’s really no food to be had on the flight, largely because over the years passengers have demonstrated loud and clear that they don’t want to pay for food. Fine–we paid at a concession stand for food instead, then brought it aboard. Those who didn’t went hungry (and thirsty) in flight. That will get chalked up to poor service in some customer feedback, but the situation is exactly as consumer demand dictates. Again, the line between the cause of the complaint and the complainers becomes blurred. Since I paid to check the one large bag we brought on the trip, we had only hand carried items: a garment bag, which I hung in the forward closet as we boarded, and a mini-sized roll-aboard. We were near the back of the plane, but still, storage space wasn’t a problem even though every seat on the flight was full. Again, either you pay to check a bag, or pay to board early to get overhead space–or you don’t. The airline product now is cafeteria style: pay for what you want only. Those who expect dessert included with their appetizer will be disappointed.
I could see as we boarded that the crew was tired. We were scheduled to land at midnight and they’d obviously already had a long day. I approached them this way: they’re at work, they’re tired–leave them alone and get seated. Those passengers who presume that their basic airfare has somehow bought them a piece of somebody’s workday are flat out wrong. My wife, a veteran flight attendant, always hated it when passengers boarded and ordered her, “smile,” as if she were a character at Disney. I roll my I eyes when I’m squeezing past passengers on the jet bridge, returning to the cockpit, when there’s the inevitable “We’ll let you by” as if we’re all just “funnin'” rather than me trying to accomplish a complex job to get us airborne. Ditto the cabin crew. Leave them alone. Most of the boarding hassles are, simply, passenger induced: the inevitable bashing of bags against people as passengers shove their way in. Backpacks are the worst, with passengers whirling around, smacking someone else with their wide load. Others dumbly push bags designed to be pulled, drag bags designed to be rolled, a struggle with too-wide, over-stuffed bags because by God, THEY’RE not paying to check anything.
Once airborne, we each had what we needed: water and food. So, when the service cart reached us, the beverage was a bonus. Yes, I could have shown my crew ID to get maybe a free drink, but it’s not worth: I’m not working, I’m glad I’m not working, and to keep the precious bubble of anonymity and “not at work” ambience, I paid $7 for a drink. Well worth the price. Arrival was on time and the last hurdle was deplaning, a simple reality made into an ordeal, once again, by some passengers: even though the forward door wasn’t open, there’s a mad rush to bolt out of coach seats and start slinging hand-carried bags like missiles. There’s a repeat of the boarding bashing of other passengers with backpacks and heavy bags. There are those in rows behind you that won’t wait, but feel they must push past you. Bags not designed to be pushed, pushed; bags designed to be rolled, dragged. Basically, most of the hassles of being a passenger are caused by, or certainly compounded by, other passengers. The tableau of air travel is the reverse of the classic “ascent of man” drawings, with travelers becoming stooped with fatigue, unmet needs (don’t pay for food/water on the plane–BRING IT), too heavy bags (CHECK IT–you have $500 for your headphones, audio equipment and iPad; invest $25 in your own convenience). Air travel is the descent of man–so many unthinking, illogical, uninformed (what’s your flight number? Boarding time?), helpless (“Where’s the bathroom?”) and rude (gotta shove ahead through security, during boarding, and deplaning) people spoiling things for everyone–including themselves. The return trip was much the same. I have to say, my usual reluctance to travel by air proved to be an overreaction: nothing turned out to be urban-legend awful, from security to boarding to baggage claim. People just like to gripe and I have the feeling that the loudest gripers are among those who, as noted above, cause and compound the very problems they complain about. Regardless, we got where we needed to be, on time, efficiently, as promised. That’s a positive experience, in my opinion. I’m back in cockpit again, storing that lesson away: air travel urban legend, along with those who rant the loudest, both have very little credibility. Take your seats, let the crew do their job, and we’ll be under way shortly. Given my choice, I prefer to drive, but flying is nonetheless an efficient, fairly-priced indulgence. If only that could be a more common realization.
The Half-Truth of Mary Schiavo
Mary Schiavo, former Department of Transportation Inspector General and a frequent critic of airline security, made headlines recently with remarks that flight crews nationwide consider inflammatory, untrue and ultimately, disingenuous.Ms. Schiavo alleged that Known Crew Member (KCM), an advanced security program that currently validates airline crew members’ identity from a national data base, then allows them airport access without further search, creates a security risk for air travelers. But the fact is, Ms Schiavo is aware that the KCM program is the best and most technologically advanced solution to a problem she faced–and never solved–during her tenure as head watchdog at the Department of Transportation.The KCM database matches crewmembers employment and security certification with a current photo that is kept updated by each airline and the TSA. This is a face-to-face scrutiny and validation even more advanced than the widely acclaimed Global Entry program designed to efficiently certify the identity and security of air travelers entering the United States.
Schiavo knows that airports in the United States are small cities in themselves, comprised not only of the wide-ranging flight support activities required to handle transport aircraft, but also to meet the needs thousands of passengers transiting these facilities daily.
There are food service, passenger service and retail facilities in each airport, mostly on the “secure side” beyond the security screening checkpoints. Thousands of employees performing duties at airport passenger service, retail and restaurant facilities must move in and out of the secure side of the airport and Schiavo is well aware of the access systems such as keyed or electronic access doors for that purpose in every airport.
Never has the 100% screening of all airport workers been considered practical or feasible and therefore alternative employee modes of access have of necessity been standard in order to allow passenger screening with reasonable wait times.
But that’s only the “front of the house” security theater that Schiavo knows co-exists hand-in-hand with a wide open back door access at every airport: vehicles ranging from semi tractors pulling forty-foot trailers to dump trucks and bulldozers are waved onto the airport ramps near fueled and taxiing aircraft daily with only a cursory glance at an identification badge. Thousands of those identification cards alone are deemed sufficient to allow flight line access to contract workers from construction, repair and most frequently, food and retail merchandise delivery, never mind the non-stop caravan of catering trucks wandering the flight line largely uninspected.
Meanwhile, KCM is the only security program assuring that crewmembers are who they say they are and have current and valid access credentials. Crewmembers are but a fraction of the multitudes granted airport access, yet they are the only group whose identity and legitimacy is positively verified. This, after background checks, random drug tests and no-notice personal items inspections by the TSA.
The irony is, Schiavo singles out those crewmembers and the most secure, updated, state-of-the-art security access program for unwarranted, alarmist sound-bite criticism. If anything, KCM should be the model for all airport access programs. The worst part of her criticism, however, is her allusion to the September 11th hijackings, implying that “Known Crew Member” is in any way risking another such a tragedy.
Certainly, the former Inspector General of the Department of Transportation knows all of the above. That she chooses to mislead the traveling public on such a crucial issue is both disingenuous and deplorable, and her September 11th allusion is unforgivable.
Here’s another perspective on Schiavo’s comments, from a veteran flight attendant. Just click on the photo.
The media response and the social media firestorm after the Germanwings tragedy has prompted ill-advised, reckless “solutions” that in many cases, only makes air travel less safe.
Click here for my commentary on Mashable that has ignited its own firestorm of reaction.
All the Wrong Answers to the GermanWings 9525 Crash Questions
As is always the case after an airline disaster, the media and shortly thereafter, regulators rush to propose a quick but ill-advised “fix.”
In this case, the proposed quick fix falls into one of two useless but unavoidable categories: technology and regulation.
In the first case, technology, the spectrum of bad ideas runs from remote control to cockpit access override. That reminds me of earlier, fun days flying a supersonic jet that began to accumulate pilot fatalities in low speed, low altitude ejections. The engineering fix was to install a drogue chute that deployed upon ejection to hasten the main parachute deployment. That worked fine until the first high speed, high altitude ejection when the drogue chute deployed at Mach 1 and the G forces cut the pilot in half.
Back to today, talk in this airline tragedy is of an even more bizarre solution: remote control “intervention:” taking over the aircraft flight controls from the ground. Beyond the fact that I as a thirty year airline pilot will not set foot in a cockpit that can be commandeered by remote control, consider the added layer of vulnerability: beyond two pilots who “could go rogue,” you’ve now introduced an entire spectrum of people, entities and hackers capable of taking over the jet. Better? Really?
Yes, some type of cockpit access intervention “might” have worked to restore this one pilot to his rightful place, while opening every cockpit henceforth to an outside “intervener” which defeats the necessary cockpit exclusion no one disputes is necessary: if one can, eventually all can. Better?
Then there’s the regulatory crowd, for whom the semi-annual FAA pilot physical, recurring spot checks, blood and urine alcohol and drug testing is not sufficient to validate a pilot’s fitness to fly. What’s next, a psych exam before brake release? A background check beyond the extensive background checks we all have already? A credit report before each instrument report?
Here’s the real problem: there are no quick solutions. Yet that’s what the public “demands”–for now, but only for now. The fact is, in Texas alone there have been 257 traffic deaths so far this year, yet no one’s calling for a twenty mile an hour speed limit or any other radical but certain solution. Yet the “1 in 11,000,000 chance” (Harvard 2006) of dying in a plane crash brings a public outcry for an immediate technological or regulatory intervention.
I watched Air Force One arrive once, the president bounding down the stairs and greeting the crowd as law enforcement snipers on rooftops looked on. No “remote control triggers,” no on-scene sharpshooter credit checks. Rather, the thinnest final line ever drawn: trust.
In the end, that’s what it comes down to anyway: trust in your flight crew. There’s no simple solution to the rare and tragic occurrence that just transpired over the French Alps. But there is real danger in half-baked solutions that just add more layers of vulnerability to what is already 11 million to 1 odds in an airline passenger’s favor.
Despite the media frenzy driving an out of scale public reaction, no “solution” is better than a hasty, ill-conceived technological or regulatory bandaid that increases the very danger that started the panic in the first place.
If you don’t trust me in the cockpit, fine: trust yourself on the road. Your odds there are astronomically worse, if that matters to you, but at least the flying public will remain safe.
Can YOU stop a jet on a winter runway?
Whenever an airliner slides off a taxiway or runway in winter conditions, the public and the media asks dozens of questions related to one overriding concern: how could this happen?
But for every other flight that lands on a winter-affected runway without incident, there were dozens of questions correctly answered by pilots related to THIS overriding concern: how can we assure that DOESN’T happen?
I’ve been flying in and out of LaGuardia and Washington Reagan all winter, accommodating ice, low visibility and contaminated surfaces in what has been an exceptionally vigorous winter storm season. The questions and correct answers required to assure a safe flight under such conditions are neither straightforward nor simple. Here’s the decision process–YOU decide what to do.
First, before we even depart for an airport affected by winter weather, we think about the factors that affect our landing: weight, wind, landing distance required, and runway surface conditions. And there are no easy answers any of these questions.
Weight comes first: considering stopping, you’d want weight to be the lowest possible, right? If only it were that simple: the primary, most variable weight in flight is fuel–if you reduce fuel weight to the bare minimum, you also reduce flying time to the bare minimum. The facts of life when flying into a major metropolitan airport include delays–demanding MORE flying time, thus more fuel and thus more weight. If you have only the minimum fuel aboard required to fly the distance, you are screwed: at the first delay (and airborne holding assignments of up to 30 minutes are typical) you must divert.
What you need to do is carry enough fuel to fly the miles AND accommodate typical, historically predictable enroute holding. We’ll have to be sure that we can still accommodate that weight on landing (checking landing distance charts) but that’s a separate question to be dealt with: for now, tank as much fuel as required to fly the distance and hold for a reasonable duration enroute.
We don’t leave the rest of the questions for arrival, but we do answer them late in the flight when the variables have been sorted out: once we’re in the terminal area, we finally can predict an accurate landing weight.
So we request the data-linked landing distance chart for our specific weight which is calculated by computers back at our tech center and sent to our on-board printer. Problem for you is this: the chart also has variables you must resolve: what is the runway condition, and what is the braking effectiveness?
Those two variables can not be definitely determined because the informational reports are both very subjective: the “runway condition” must be determined in reference to varying standards. Our airline calls a runway “contaminated” when 25% of the landing surfaces is contaminated by ice, standing water or snow.
Another airline may allow 30%, another 60%, so there’s never any “contaminated” determination available other than reports from previous company aircraft. But even those are subjective–how do you eyeball 75%–and in winter storms, conditions can worsen by the minute.
Braking effectiveness is another subjective report: what I consider “fair” braking for my jet (and I report this to the tower after landing based on what I just experienced) might be “good” for a lighter regional jet or “poor” for a heavier aircraft or and aircraft with less effective brakes. And, in heavy precip, that can change drastically in just minutes.
The landing distance charts reference “good” or “fair” in the conditional determination of braking effectiveness–but you now know that “report” is vague at best. Still, you must decide which calculation to use.
There’s also more than one chart for landing distance. The first one assumes that you touch down at the Visual Approach Slope Indicator (VASI) aimpoint which is about 1,500 feet from the runway threshold. There’s another chart that computes stopping distance from the visual touchdown markings on the runway some 500 feet prior to the VASI aimpoint. That chart, with the additional distance from the earlier touchdown point, may allow you to land based on stopping distance.
But can you accomplish that? The “you” is key–no one on the ground can answer that. Ultimately, the captain decides, and here’s what he’s thinking: what are the winds? A tailwind will make that very difficult, a headwind will help. But can you count on either wind report? Those reports, like “braking effectiveness,” have a very short shelf life–winds change minute by minute. Do you think your landing wind is reliably a headwind, or at least not a tailwind? Again, YOU have to answer that based on subjective reports.
As far as the visual touchdown aimpoint, are you going to be transitioning to this new, shorter target from an instrument approach, which has a more distant touchdown point more like the VASIs? If so, do you have adequate distance, time and visibility to do so? And the skill?
Finally, landing rollout must be done exactly right: spoilers deployed, reverse thrust promptly initiated at the proper level, and brakes applied promptly and correctly. That sounds easier than it is.
First, spoilers normally are automatically deployed–but that deployment needs certain prompts: main wheel spin-up is a primary trigger, and patchy ice may keep wheels from spinning, delaying auto deployment, even as you eat up critical landing distance. Or, like last month, I landed my 737-800 on a wintery DCA runway without the auto-spoiler system working. I agreed before dispatch on the flight that I could and would do so manually. My judgmental call, a fact of life in airline flight operations.
Regardless, the point is, the crew must assure spoiler deployment and effective reverse thrust AND full braking–all in a millisecond when landing distance is critical.
As crucial, you must put the jet down on the exact spot–neither before nor absolutely, not beyond–and put it down firmly to ensure wheel spin-up, essential for traction and auto-spoilers. If you’re the ignorant smartass getting off the plane after that trying to be witty by saying “You must be a Navy pilot, that was a carrier landing” or “I guess the brakes work,” I’ll ignore you–but the crew will write you off as an ignorant smartass just the same.
There’s no feeling worse in the cockpit than the anti-skid system releasing the brakes on rollout, even if you’ve done everything correctly, but that’s essential too: the system applies braking force to the very brink of a skid, beyond which there’s no braking, just sliding. If you’ve calculated your stopping distance based on “fair” reports, you can expect some releasing as the brakes do their job. All the more reason for a firm and accurate touchdown.
I expect and require every landing to be on the correct speed (faster makes stopping more difficult) and on the right spot, even at DFW Airport with miles of runway to spare, simply because it must be (for me) the rule rather than the exception when I fly to LaGauardia, Washington Reagan or Santa Ana-Orange County with shorter runways. “Pretty” landings are a Hollywood contrivance and have no place in the actual profession.
When we stop safely and exit the runway, that’s because we correctly solved the puzzle: weights, speed, touchdown point, winds, and braking distance. For passengers, that means a safe trip completed. For the cockpit crew, the work is only beginning: all of these variables must be dealt with successfully again in order to execute a safe take-off or abort on that same winter-affected runway.
The airline industry in the United States has an enviable safety record, which is why the very rare incident gets so many media headlines. The real news is, overall, airline pilots are doing their job very well.