Archive for the airline ticket prices Category

The United Fiasco From A Cockpit Viewpoint

Posted in air travel, air traveler, airline cartoon, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, flight attendant, flight crew with tags , , , , , on April 11, 2017 by Chris Manno

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I’ve been a captain at a major airline for over 25 years now, which is why this involuntary deplaning of a United Express passenger is both sad business and not at all surprising. Here’s why.

air oversold

First, at most airlines passenger service has become, for management, an irrational but deliberate choke point in the airline flight operations. And here’s the resulting death blow to passenger service: at the gate, in the heat of the departure time battle, the airlines field their lowest paid, least experienced workers and impose the highest, most rigid constraints–close the aircraft door, dispatch the revenue unit.

They arm these hapless, stressed-out workers with little or no authority–just do what you’re told.  Typically, the worst circumstances exist “after hours,” meaning after 5pm when airport and airline managers are gone for the day.

Then the hourly-paid, often contract workers are left with little authority, no flexibility (SOMEONE would deplane at the right price point–but there’s a typically standing cap) and have little recourse other than to call for law enforcement. Often, once force is used, the “customer service” results are not favorable.

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Looking for blame? Look to the top airline pooh-bahs, the passenger service managers, airport operations budget directors, regional managers, and passenger service supervisors who slash passenger service budgets to the bone, then rigidly dictate time constraints that MUST be adhered to by the lowest-rung hourly folks who work the non-office hours and deal with the very real passenger stand-offs that occur at the airport–not on any airline management spreadsheet.

This fragile, marginally adequate cost/service structure works adequately when everything is running perfectly at the airport, which it seldom does. Throw in delays, overbooking, last minute crew deadhead requirements and ultimately, involuntary deplaning plays out in flesh-and-blood realtime.

Then passengers lose, the passenger service agents lose and ultimately, the flight crew loses too: we’re all just trying to safely move the metal–once the jet is boarded. I’m ready  to sort out the cabin battles, once we’re off the ground.  As a captain, I’m not here to undo the budget-based inadequacies of passenger service planners at airline headquarters, nor am I allowed to: airline managers have consistently tried to limit crew authority to only once the jet is underway.

Great. Marketing, sales, promotions, reward levels, unit pricing? They all derive and survive from cost-driven spreadsheet logic at airline headquarters. And why does that work?

air boycott

After all the howling about the United Airlines fiasco becomes passe on social media–give it about 5 mores days–passengers will be all about the cheapest airfare once again.

That’s just how it works. Please take your seats and prepare for a bumpy ride.

 

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Pilot Incognito: The Trouble With Air Travel.

Posted in air travel, air travel humor, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, baggage fees, flight attendant, flight crew, passenger with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2015 by Chris Manno

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. safe word0001 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. image 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. image 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. image 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.

image 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. image 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. image 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. AIPTEK

Help for Fearful Flyers

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline delays, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline ticket prices, airlines, airport, airport security, fear of flying, flight crew, jet, mile high club, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2015 by Chris Manno

Cover Airline Book 1Here’s a chapter from my brand new book, “Air Travel and The Death of Civility: A Field Manual & Survival Guide,”  crammed full of shortcuts, insider info and little-known techniques to make your air travel as stress-free and smooth as possible.

Available now from Amazon.com Just click on the title link above, or search on Amazon.

Help for Fearful Flyers

Please don’t feel alone because you’re not: many passengers have some level of nervousness about flying. It’s just another version of the anxiety many feel at the dentist, the emergency room; virtually anywhere new, unfamiliar, and potentially uncomfortable. In fact, people and businesses actually cultivate and market exactly this type of anxiety at theme parks with roller coasters, haunted houses, and terrifying thrill rides. Some people actually crave the feeling.

What a nervous flyer feels is perfectly normal and need not eliminate the option of flying. That fact alone is reassuring, especially in the case of groups or couples who limit their travel options due to the reluctance of one individual to fly. Often, a large part of a passenger’s unease is an understandable fear of the unknown, which is essentially just unfamiliarity with a strange new environment. So let’s fill in some of those blanks in your flying knowledge and then, we’ll discuss techniques to manage your unease.

Land in crud

First, let’s consider the aircraft and its durable, ingenious engineering. The designers of our jet have refined their process of building and manufacturing our airliner through decades of progressively better models with ever-improving materials and techniques.

The aircraft was built to rigorous standards of strength and durability far beyond what we will ever encounter in flight. To be specific, the FAA certification standard required the aircraft to demonstrate that it could withstand forces in turbulence well beyond that which has ever been recorded, plus an additional margin, with complete airframe integrity. That means that regardless of turbulence, there will be no airframe damage or structural deformity, we’ll be still flying just fine. Basically, this aircraft is not coming apart in any conditions we encounter in flight. You don’t worry about your car running over a bump at high speed, over railroad tracks, or even a curb–but it’s not built to anywhere near the strength standard of our jet.

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You’ll actually notice less turbulence in flight these days, due to a couple of assets we use. First, radar technology has advanced not only in display resolution, but also in a predictive capability: now, our digital radar and on-board computers are sifting through thousands of bits of digital data gathered by radar and other systems, giving us an accurate prediction of where turbulence may occur. Our radar is integrated with the Global Positioning Satellite system and knows where it is at all times, allowing it to separate terrain features like mountains from weather echoes. The radar aims itself correctly and has an accurate, interactive display of over 300 miles ahead of the aircraft. The radar has a “pop-up” feature that allows it to show on our displays even if it’s not selected, when it finds a weather problem many miles away that we need to know about.

Add to that the ground-based computer analyses that are charting patterns of turbulence, which are then automatically up-linked to us in flight, plus the exchange of real-time information between pilots and air traffic controllers and the end result is less turbulence encounters, and lighter turbulence when encountered. There are days when rides just aren’t completely smooth and we’ll encounter some bumps. But rest assured, we’re working our way through the sky in the smoothest flight path possible.

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Visualize the air we fly in for the fluid that it is, with currents, eddies, flows, and even the wakes of other aircraft also aloft. Crossing a jet’s wake is much like crossing that of a boat: rumbles, some bumping, then we’re past the wake. Atmospheric eddies and currents can cause similar short periods of bumpiness, or even just a mostly choppy sea of blue. If that persists, we’ll search for a smoother altitude–just give us a few minutes to coordinate a clearance from air traffic control.

Mountains cause the atmospheric equivalent of river rapids in the airflow, even at altitude, because orographic features like ranges and peaks act like rocks in a stream, causing a rougher ride. That’s typical of a flight path across the Rockies: some bumpiness is not unusual. But you can rest assured that at our flight speed, we’ll pass through the area without delay.

In US airspace, airlines and Air Traffic Control pool weather information to share among all flights, and one designated FAA facility manages traffic and routes around areas of severe weather. With all of these assets working for us every flight, we don’t get taken by surprise by weather.

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That type of coordination that shares weather and route information is emblematic of the entire US aviation system, which has had a seventy-year learning curve of development, testing, and refining that has resulted in a strong, reliable oversight and infrastructure for commercial aviation, including

the Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Transportation, and the National Transportation Safety Board. All three in combination provide experienced and comprehensive oversight that makes flying the safest mode of transportation you could choose.

Another highly-developed airline support system monitors our jet in flight. Our technical operations center monitors hundreds of bits of data sent in a non-stop, automated stream from our jet in flight. In flight, I’ve had a message from our round-the-clock tech center print out that said, “Can you verify the vibration on the left engine? It’s reading a little high down here.” The engines alone transmit a huge stream of telemetry to our tech center, and that data allows long-range trend diagnosis that has all but eliminated in-flight engine failure on the Boeing jets I fly. Trend data and years of diagnostic experience have allowed Boeing, our

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tech staff, and our maintenance center to keep aircraft systems in peak operating forms.

From years of firsthand experience, I can say Boeing jets in particular are finely engineered, rugged and reliable American-made jets, and that’s the main reason I fly them. Thousands of hours in Boeing cockpits have given me every confidence in the strength, power, and versatility of these jets which are capable of handling anything we could encounter in flight.

I’m fairly typical of the pilots you’ll find in command of your flight, in my thirtieth year with my airline, my twenty-fourth as captain. I was an Air Force pilot before that, and like my colleagues on the flight deck, I have the singular goal of flying safely, procedurally perfectly, and always conservatively. I have three back up plans for every eventuality and firmly believe there is nothing I could face in flight that is beyond my capability. That’s not only due to experience, but mostly because of years of relentless, ongoing advanced training not only in full-motion simulators, but through hours of classroom instruction, systems training, and recurrent exams. I have every confidence in the copilots I fly with who share the exact same goals, procedures, and training. In the cockpit, we’re unanimous about one thing: the safe, efficient, and smooth operation of our flight.

Pasta entree

So, knowing all this, what else can you do to ease the stress of a flight? First, keep the above facts in mind, reviewing as needed leading up to your flight and even on board. Second, keep track of the elapsed time. Your airline app will tell you how much flight time to expect, as will the captain in his PA and also, the flight attendants will normally tell you the planned flight time in their PA. Whatever the total flight time is, divide it in half. Now, keep track of the first half, which will elapse much faster for you than the total time. Just that half, count it down. Upon reaching halftime, relax and rejoice: from there you will count down an ever-shrinking time period much shorter (and growing ever shorter) than you have already endured quite successfully.

Concentrate on your breathing, keeping it steady and calm. Reading matter, a video, music: dive in, focus on that. Claim a little “me” time and catch up on reading or viewing that you never seem to have time for otherwise.

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Keep an eye on your halftime benchmark, noting your steady progress. Bear in mind the fluid aspect of air and anticipate some waves in this most vast sea we’re sailing through. Be confident that your extensive flight team, including the crew on board as well as our airline technical, operational, and dispatch staff constantly monitoring and interacting with us in flight, plus the air traffic control network of pros handling our route passage. We’ve all been doing this for a long time and as our record shows, we’re darn good at it.

I’ve used the countdown technique at the dentist office (my “nervous flyer” experience) as well as when running several 26.2 marathons. It works!

There may never be a time when a nervous flyer actually enjoys a flight, but there’s no reason a flight can’t be tolerated with minimal stress with a little forethought and perhaps, an equal amount of distraction with entertainment or conversation. Here’s a summary for you to review as needed:

Summary:

• Unfamiliarity is often at the core of preflight anxiety. Review the contents of this book and this section, and give yourself credit for your successful progress through the various steps required for a plane flight.

• Your aircraft is a tough, versatile, well-designed engineering marvel that has been refined over years of improvements.

• Constant monitoring of the aircraft’s vital systems in flight allows reliability and safety that makes air travel the safest travel option.

• Weather systems are a reality of life, but we have advanced technology on-board as well as on the ground keeping us well ahead of weather challenges and well clear of danger.

• The atmosphere is a fluid and behaves much like a large body of water, with the same, normal characteristics such as currents, flow, eddies, wakes, and the occasional bump.

• Your pilots are highly experienced and dedicated solely to the safe, professional operation of your flight.

• Use the countdown system of flight time to your advantage, watching your time aloft grow ever shorter.

Cover Airline Book 1Other chapters include buying a ticket, getting the best deal and the right seat, check-in and security shortcuts, on-board perspective, aircrew insider perspective, damage control and much, much more. Read this book, then travel like a pro!

The perfect gift for someone about to travel, for those reluctant to fly–and for those eager to fly and wanting to have a stress-free, excellent air travel experience.

Order your copy from Amazon.com

Just click this link.

Airline Amazon screenshot

Songs In The Key of Flight

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline delays, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, cartoon, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, night, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2010 by Chris Manno

It’s definitely the Giddy-Up Chorus howling out there on the wings as soon as you press that Takeoff Power button on the throttles. Last eastbound flight out of Las Vegas, so we’re pretty light–everyone’s either already beat it out of town or is still in a casino somewhere trying to break even. Although they don’t realize it, in Vegas that’s winning.

Funny thing to pop in and out of that world so briefly. For me, it’s all about getting in between the other air traffic and the mountains, then getting out as quickly as practical, around those mountains, then climb as high as possible to ride that jetstream tailwind home.

During preflight, the cockpit sounds like an orchestra pit before the show, with hydraulic pumps whining like a string section warming up, the kettle drum thud of cargo loading, then huge doors locking shut. The forward galley door whomps open with a blast of fresh air and the clatter of catering carts trundling on and off the plane. Two flight attendants try to squeeze into the cockpit and huddle against the swirl of cold night air, mixing their chatter with the drone of air traffic control on two radios on speakers overhead.

We’re all in matching polyester costumes, waiting for the curtain as the audience troops in: the edge of night travelers, worn out from whatever they did in Las Vegas, resigned to arrive on the east coast at dawn–I’ll take them halfway there, then hope to dodge the wrong way drunk drivers on Airport Freeway to get home myself after midnight. It’s an easy crowd leaving Las Vegas–out of money, out of vacation, often hung over. The exact opposite of the inbound crowd.

Had lunch myself hours ago and a thousand miles away. My fortune read “you will travel with the person of your dreams.” Is that what they’re doing in the back? It’s hard to remember when you’re work is travel that in back, it’s a passage to somewhere or from somewhere and some one. And the person of my dreams is two time zones away, getting ready for sleep, but never too far from my mind.

Huh? My First Officer? Guess I won't use the lotto numbers.

We’re going through our lines carefully, checking that everything’s in order, all systems performing as they’ll need to for the next thousand miles. He reads, I check, I answer, he confirms. It’s all too complex to just have at it. We’re careful now so as not to have to be “resourceful” later.

The agent announces curtain time: “Everyone’s on board–okay to close up, Captain?”

I thanks the agent for the good job boarding the flight–whether it’s good or not, I just know they’re hassled and need a pat on the back. Then it’s show time: places, everyone, places! Lap belts, shoulder harnesses, crank the rudder pedals forward to get full throw. Don the headset, adjust the boom mike and wait for the cue from the ground crew. “Chocks are pulled, everything’s buttoned up, we’re ready for brake release when you are, Captain.”

Glance to the right at the warning lights on the overhead panel–trust but verify–to ensure all the cargo doors are closed. “Brakes are released, stand by.”

Glance to the right again. “He says they’re ready downstairs.” That’s the First Officer’s cue to call ground control for pushback clearance.

And now it’s time to strike up the band. “Turning number Two,” I say, hacking a clock to time the start sequence.

Gonna take a big bite out of the night sky, aren't we?

Valves respond to the switch I just twisted, channeling high-pressure air into the huge turbine section. It begins to moan, vibrate, whirl; one of my favorite sounds in the whole world: a jet engine starting. Never ever tire of that sound.

The left engine joins the symphony. Numbers tell me they’re both in tune: 20% N1, 40% N2, 600 degrees Centigrade at idle, 800 pounds of fuel per hour. Oil pressure. Hydraulic pressure. Electrical power from the generators. Amen.

They’re a perfectly tuned duet, and they’ll spin at 30,000 rpm for as long as we have jet fuel and oil, the latter as much for cooling as for lubrication. From behind, a virtual blast furnace: I’ve seen it, taxiing behind another 737; a devilish smelter glow–you can actually see the ring of fire if you’re close enough.

We join the parade of floats with winking lights rolling toward the runway. More numbers along the way in a litany of challenge and response: planned weight, actual weight, power settings, speeds, distances, maximums, engine failure routes and safe altitudes, minimum climb gradients, hold downs, departure speeds, obstacle clearance altitudes, initial level off. Crosschecked, crammed into my head.

The cockpit’s dark save the instrument glow. I transition to ghost vision, as I call it: the Heads Up Display–or HUD. Everything on my primary flight display is projected on the glass in front of my face so I never have to look down in flight.

But instead of the multiple colors that help separate function, everything’s a ghostly glowing greenish aqua. And it swims: the airspeed tape runs upward like the dollar signs on the gas pump. Then when we lift off the right side begins to jump with altitude and vertical velocity.

Can’t get lost in it, mesmerized–there’s a jet to be flown. Take it in subconsciously, they tell you, just fly and hold that in your peripheral vision.

It’s all in your head as you roll down the runway chanting to yourself fire, failure, fear or shear. After 80 knots, that’s all you’re stopping for, so it’s all you’re looking for: engine fire, engine failure, a “fear” in my judgment that some structural failure has left the jet unflyable (good luck determining that at 150 mph) or windshear.

Luke, I'm your FATHER . . .

I’d rather handle everything else in the air. Since we’re lightweight tonight, when I shove the throttles up and hit the “TOGA” (Takeoff-Go-Around”) power button, we leap forward. The wing slices the air and rises. A half dozen computers sing to themselves and each other, figuring fuel flow, engine temperature and pressure, wind speed and direction, ground speed–the engines snarl and buck.

We lift off.

Ghost vision tells me the lift vector, the flight path, the course, the wind, our speed, our climb performance, compass heading, on-course tracking and deviation and a hundred bits of changing information. Hands and feet on ailerons and rudder, I trace a line in the sky invisible to everyone except for me, and anyone on the ground watching the arc we inscribe in the sky, strobes flashing, running lights and exterior spots like an arc weld in the sky.

I can see it; I live and breathe it, day after day after day. And if you listen, you can hear it too: riding the righteous fire, we sail off in a buzzing roar of high by-pass fanjets hurling us up to the forty-thousand foot level, the final act you can see from the ground: a tiny speck of light that arcs up and away, taking the show far and away at five hundred miles per hour.  A contrail in the moonlight, the song plays on, the chorus that carries us home.

“Say What?”–The Passenger Chronicles.

Posted in air travel, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2010 by Chris Manno

It’s really not that hard to go unnoticed in flight. In fact, it’s probably more the rule than the exception: most of the time, the flight crew won’t remember you at all. Often, that’s a good thing.

But if we DO remember a passenger, often it’s because either alcohol or inexperience–or both–are involved. Here’s an example.

About halfway to Calgary, the interphone rings in the cockpit. Seems we have a slightly intoxicated passenger in the back. Never a good thing, something that we wish had been left at the gate but it’s not always possible to detect before flight.

Is he a problem, I ask? No, the flight attendant tells me. It’s not his behavior, it’s what he’s saying.

Huh? Is he being obnoxious? Abusive?

No. He’s kind of bragging.

Okay, I’m confused. What’s the problem? “Well,” she continues, “he’s bragging to the guy next to him–who happens to be an airline employee–that he managed to get through Customs in DFW with a load of cocaine from Amsterdam. And U.S. Customs didn’t find it.”

Hmmm; to think he almost made it to Calgary undetected. Almost.

It’s actually fun to have something to do on a long flight like that. I typed in the basic info on the data link control head. Our dispatcher called ahead to Calgary to coordinate the appropriate reception committee for our clever yet too chatty passenger.

Customs officials and the local police force were happy to pick up where U.S. Customs left off with Mr. Chatty. And while it’s always nice to have someone meet you after a long flight, I’m not sure this was the kind of attention he anticipated. But I guess passengers figure we’re really just ignorant and unconnected once we get in the air. In reality, we’re in constant communication with a full range of folks on the ground eager to help in any situation that might arise. Ah, well, live and learn.

People also distinguish themselves with some interesting ideas about aviation, too. After a long flight to the west coast, an elderly gentleman poked his head into the cockpit during deplaning and gave me his wise counsel.

“You know,” he said seriously, “you shouldn’t keep that beautiful sunset all to yourselves up here.”

Yes, going west, it was a beautiful sunset. Right in our face for about four hours, actually.

“And the full moon rising in the east,” he continued, “people should get to see that, too.”

Great idea. Right? Wait for it.

“Why don’t you make a series of turns in the air so passengers on both sides can see the sunset and the moon?”

Why didn’t I think of that? Besides the fact that we aren’t a sightseeing tour, I don’t want to waste an ounce of scarce fuel zig-zagging across the country and besides, the constant stream of jets smoking up on our tail won’t like the idea much either.

“Yeah, great idea,” I say, then add everyone behind you would like to get off the plane and in addition, you’re an idiot. Well, that last part was in my head.  “Maybe next time.” My first officer rolls her eyes.

Finally, my favorite, except for the smell but that’s not an issue in a blog.

In flight, I shouldn’t be hearing male voices near the cockpit door under two circumstances. One is when I know I have an all-female cabin crew. That’s because in the Post-911 world, we don’t allow congregating in front of the cockpit door, except for our flight attendants going about their duties. Some are male.

But on this day, I had an all female crew. And we had the second condition that would prevent any male voices from being up near the cockpit:

The seatbelt sign was on. So no one other than crew should be anywhere but buckled into their seats. But I heard the male voice near the door. And a female voice, too. I called to the back.

“Everything all right back there?”

“It is now.” Hmmmm. “I’ll be up in a minute to explain and maybe vent a little.”

Okay, I’m good with that. And the male voice had vanished.

Later, we talked. She told me a “large,” hairy man had spent a lot of time in the lavatory, then ended up standing in her galley–doing some odd calisthenics. That made it difficult for her to do her job.

I had to ask. “What exactly was he doing?”

She nodded. “I asked him that.” She seemed a little annoyed. “He said he’d tried to fart in the lav but nothing came out and there wasn’t enough room to work it out.”

So he stood in the galley, hoping to coax out his gas. “Venting,” I guess. Nice.

Sigh. Maybe it’s just the decline of public civility, or the prevalence of affordable air travel. Either way, it seems like much of what you hear in the air paints a grim picture of both air travel and an ever-growing segment of the traveling public.

Ultimately, I’m just glad the flight deck door is locked from the inside.

Air Travel Triage: Save Your Flight–And Your Sanity.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline delays, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, elderly traveller, flight, flight attendant, flight delays, jet, passenger, pilot, travel, travel tips, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2010 by Chris Manno

Just did a “pleasure” (for a guy who flies 170 days a year, that’s a stretch) trip to a major west coast city. Returning home, I was all set to board my flight when the earlier flight–still at its gate–was declared “out of service for maintenance.”

Oh no: passenger stampede.

That’s right, now everyone wanted to get on my flight–the next available–probably to protect their downline connection or to keep a tight schedule at their destination. Being standby myself, or even as a confirmed passenger, this is a major problem. So, now what?

Here’s where you can and must do travel triage if only to save your sanity, never mind your trip. Think.

You must plan ahead, and use your head:

Be aware of what’s going on. Sounds simple, but you’d be amazed at how many airline passengers, when faced with a major snafu such as a cancelled flight or weather divert, simply draw a blank: what next?

Here’s where awareness is crucial: I saw another aircraft being towed to the gate of the maintenance-cancelled flight. Then I heard the agents at that gate make a brief announcement, “We have located a new aircraft for this flight.”

Still, the stampede was on to the gate of the next flight.

Again, be aware of what’s going on: the next flight’s aircraft was at the gate, but you could clearly see that there were still bags coming out of the cargo hold. They were still unloading cargo from the inbound flight.

By contrast, the replacement aircraft being towed to the previous gate was completely empty, having been parked on the ramp or in a hangar. Which aircraft would be ready to depart sooner?

If you have a downline connection, that fact is key and you need to know this, you will know this, if you’re thinking and observing.

Still, if you must get on the next flight, you must change your boarding pass. Want to stand in the slowly creeping line to rebook? Or worse, as happens with some airports, be sent back outside of security to the ticket counter to rebook?

What’s the alternative?

Do you have the airline rebooking number? Not the airline’s toll-free number, the rebooking number. There’s a difference and you’ll need to find that number before you travel. It’s likely on the airline’s website, but if you can’t find it–call their regular toll-free number. Of course, this will be a frustrating exercise in phone tree navigation at exactly the wrong time if you’re trying to rebook, wasting precious minutes as others grab the few available standby seats ahead of you. So do it ahead of time and pre-program the number into your cell phone.

Then forget about the line–just call, and when you do, here’s another piece of crucial information: what are the departure times and flight numbers of follow-on flights? Tell them what you want–and decide on that before they answer.

A monitor gives you the best realtime information–and there are a dozen on-line services that will display the schedule on you phone or PDA for free.

Don’t hunt for a monitor, which will not likely be near whatever line you need to stand in for a new boarding pass–either write down the list of flights for the day ahead of time (so last century, really), or pre-program a flight monitor into your handheld device (welcome to the new millenium!).

Then you can call the rebooking number and specify exactly what you need without playing twenty questions with the reservations agent.

That way, you can accomplish whatever data changes must be made in order to receive a new boarding pass if you must change flights without waiting in line. Okay, you might do this while waiting in line just to be sure you’re not overlooked, but when you do reach that harried and overworked agent handling the long snaky line of irate passengers, all he or she has to do is print your new boarding pass and hand it to you. “Next in line please . . .”

No matter what, be aware of what’s going on. I quietly moved over to the gate of the maintenance-delayed flight, requested a seat on it and was given a boarding pass. Several other passengers did the same and discovered that thanks to the stampede on the initial announcement that “this aircraft is out of service,” this replacement plane would now be way less than full, with more room for the rest of us to spread out.

By contrast, at the next flight, the only seats to be had were middle seats and every seat on the plane would be full. Plus, whether those refugees from our flight knew it or not, their luggage would NOT be on their flight–it would still be on the original. Meaning their checked baggage would be arriving when we did–not when they did. Care to wait for your bags? Or, do you trust that they’ll be waiting for you at baggage claim when you get there?

Of course, unlike in this case, there may not be a replacement aircraft available. Which makes it all the more crucial that you have the re-booking number and flight schedule info: there are few standby seats on any flight these days. What you accomplish on the phone will grab you a seat even before those in line ahead of you could get one from the agent.

When we pushed back, I glanced at the refugee flight next door: still loading cargo. In essence, the passengers who fled to the new gate really would have been better off sticking with the original plan, plus they wouldn’t have been sitting in a crammed-full jet waiting to push back. And if they were really astute, they’d be dismayed to watch us push back ahead of them, with their checked bags on board, to arrive ahead of them.

So much for connections, and for expediting their travel. All because they weren’t aware and didn’t pre-plan their trip with all of the assets available at their fingertips:

1. Observe and listen at the gate and out the window of the terminal.

2. Have access to current schedules and flight numbers on a PDA or even a hard copy list.

3. Have the re-booking phone number available and use it to avoid lines and to speed whatever reservations changes you might need as quickly as possible.

That’s travel triage, but also, that’s common sense, something that sadly, seems to be in short supply at the airport. If you have the information you need and the assets to employ that information, you will be literally miles ahead of the crowd.

Unfriendly Skies and the Avoidable MidAir Collision

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2010 by Chris Manno

Apparently, the skies above our nation have become less friendly recently.

The Washington Post recently reported on a dangerous trend in aviation:

The NTSB is investigating almost a dozen midair near-collisions that have occurred nationally since it began to mandate that they be reported in March. They include an incident 24,000 feet over Maryland on March 25, when a Continental Airlines 737 came within about a mile of colliding with a Gulfstream jet. The traffic was under the direction of a controller who had been on the job for almost three years after graduating from a college program. She was still in training.

Not only are there frequent and harrowing near-misses between aircraft all over the country, there also seems to be an increase in the number and frequency of such potentially deadly conflicts.

Some critics point fingers at the FAA, saying that there is a higher than historically normal number of inexperienced air traffic controllers replacing older, retirement-age controllers. But that’s only part of the story behind the worrisome statistics.

As one retired Air Traffic Controller told me:

“I agree with the basic premise that the skies are NOT getting more safe. I worked over the years in the DFW area, ABQ, SoCal and BWI. Positive radar control is more work for the controller and a few more miles for the pilot but is infinitely more safe than utilizing visual separation (italics mine).

The problem is that the FAA is tasked not only with the safe operation of our skies and airports, but also with the expeditious movement of aircraft. Oftimes these two goals are at odds with each other.

Controllers are under constant pressure to move the tin quickly — crews and aircraft costs, schedules, weather, physical space on the tarmac — all these and other issues require the controller to get planes on their way as quickly as possible. It’s like the old card game of War — deal those planes off to someone else as fast as you can!”

This firsthand look behind the Air Traffic Control curtain is unsettling at best, but the crux of the problem–or likely the optimum solution–is in this key statement:

. . . the FAA is tasked . . .  with the expeditious movement of aircraft . . . controllers are under constant pressure to move the tin quickly . .

Add to that the pressure commercial airlines put on both Air Traffic Control and airline pilots to minimize flight time and thus costs, plus throw in the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the private pilots’ lobby group, and their constant and unthinking opposition any flight restrictions and the result is an ever more crowded airspace with resistance to control techniques that increase costs and restrict aircraft movement–but provide the highest safety margin.

From a public interest standpoint, the issue of  “expeditious movement of air traffic,” recreational flyers’ access to airspace, and airlines’ operating costs are secondary to one overriding priority: flight safety.

Key to flight safety in a crowded sky is aircraft separation–which is clearly safest when verified by radar identification.

And therein lies the rub.

In order to move more traffic faster, the concept of “visual separation of aircraft” is used by controllers under certain circumstances. That is, if an aircraft reports visual contact with another aircraft, that pilot can accept the responsibility to maintain separation from the conflicting aircraft.

This frees up the controller: no longer are the aircraft and their separation the controllers’ responsibility–no longer are they separated and kept apart by radar monitoring and the controller can move on to other tasks. From the viewpoint of the FAA management, this is “moving the tin” expeditiously and at a higher volume. But for controllers?Essentially, they’re doing the same thing I’m doing: carefully guiding an airplane through crowded terminal airspace. Whether that means 50 aircraft landing and taking off per hour or 60 per hour makes little difference to both of us–the key is that it’s done safely. The pressure on controllers to issue–and pilots to accept–visual clearances serves only to increase the rate of traffic flow, but introduces a measure of risk to achieve that goal.

What’s the problem? You tell me:

This is an actual on-board display of air traffic. There are multiple aircraft converging with yours–some from above descending, some from below climbing, and many approaching from different angles. Plus, the Air Traffic Controller is looking at a regional, compass-oriented one-dimensional picture; you’re looking at three dimensions with you at the center, looking forward in your direction of flight–and you’re moving, usually in more than one axis.

Think there may be some ambiguity in traffic location for you, the controller, and the other aircraft? If you are warned about an aircraft at “one o’clock,” can you be sure which one is the conflict?

I can’t. Not with any certainty, and knowing that simply not accepting clearance and thus the responsibility will mean ATC will continue to ensure radar separation is the safest bet–for me, and for my 140 passengers. Visual flight clearance in a crowded airport terminal area is a bad, unsafe idea.

Radar separation essential. Takes a bit longer. Doesn’t provide expeditious flow. Restricts the recreational pilots’ freedom.

Ensures your safety. Fair trade?

Notice too that I said “I can’t be sure.” The “I” here is a professional pilot with 32 years of experience, former Air Force pilot, 25-year airline pilot and 19-year captain and over 17,000 flight hours. If I can’t be sure, what are the chances he can be:

With the minimum of age, experience, currency and proficiency, he can take responsibility for the lives of hundreds of passengers by saying, “Yes, I have the traffic and will maintain separation.” If he’s actually looking in the right spot for the right traffic traveling at over 200 miles per hour above or below or even behind him.

What’s safest for him, and me, and you is this: positive radar separation. Not “visual” or “pilot separation;” rather, a qualified radar controller monitoring traffic and issuing instructions to both aircraft to ensure positive separation.

The answer is all about dollars, as usual: the FAA budget strains to provide controllers, airlines constantly seek to lower operating costs, recreational flyers watch their costs go up and demand freedom and access to all airspace.

It’ll cost more all around–in ticket prices, the FAA budget, and recreational flying costs.

Realize what’s at stake here and stop the widespread use of visual clearances in crowded airport traffic areas. Our Air Traffic Controllers are the best in the world–give them the staffing levels and training and pay required to do their job. Ignore the howling voices demanding less restrictions; budget for it, pay for it and ensure the safety of our ever-more crowded airspace.

I think we’re all worth it.

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