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.
There’s an ego thing between airline pilots; that’s just a fact of life among those who spend their lives flying jets. Within the pilot community, we virtually “are” the jets we fly and even more so, the position we fly: from the mega-hour first officer to the new guy; the newly minted captain to the veteran with more than twenty years wearing four stripes.
It doesn’t end there either: there’s the heavy metal, the widebody 777 and 787 flying longhaul, continent to continent–Europe, Asia, South America, 14 to 18 hours aloft. That’s the career apex in airline world–at least for some pilots.
And sure, I’d always seen it that way, coming up. But after three decades in an airline cockpit–most of that as captain (I think 24 of 30 years qualifies as “most”), I see it differently. Beyond the ego surfing of widebody captain flying, there’s the common sense of pay, plus the fleeting reality of family. It’s not what you think.
First, pay. With widebody seniority but bidding narrow trips, I’m two things: first, an underachiever in pilot world. That is, pilots say to me, “With your seniority, why aren’t you bidding 777 trips?” Second, there’s the reality of pay, allowing me to make more on the smaller jet than on the widebody.
Why? Because I can hold the most efficient, high-time narrowbody turn-arounds, meaning two important things: I can fly more hours in less days, and I’m home every night. The first factor is key: yes, the hourly captain rate on the 737 is less than the 777, but I can fly more hours (usually over 90) in less days (10-12) than the typical 777 schedule, which hovers around 75 monthly hours over 14-16 days. The end result is that my narrowbody captain W-2 is better than I could achieve on the larger jets.
But more important to me: home and family. Bidding and flying the 737, I’m home every night. I get to be dad, husband, father–all of which means more to me than being a captain or pilot. That’s because flying is what I do, but dad and husband signifies who I am. And what endures.
A trusted friend and longtime aviation industry observer and pundit, Giulia De Rosa, characterized it this way: Little Boeing, Big Life. I agree: what endures in life is not the arcs I carve in the sky, nor the tonnage of metal I fly. We all walk away from the jets eventually. But we never leave the family we belong to, raise, marry and care for.
Not very much like typical jet jock rhetoric, is it? I guess that’s a matter of priorities, plus perspective: I’ve never flown a better jet than the 737 Neo series. I embrace the challenges of LGA, DCA, SFO, SEA, ORD and the many complicated airports we fly into and out of. That Boeing jet is my best, most trusted friend in the air.
BUt I’m glad to be home every night, as opposed to flying the transcontinental odysseys some of my peers endure: “You don’t use power tools the day after a trip,” one 777 pilot told me. That’s because they may fly a double all-nighter Deep South to Buenos Aires, followed by a circadian rhythm-buster trip to Asia. As one of my peers on the 777 said, you just about get rested, then it’s time to turn your body clock upside down again. Before I upgraded to captain, I did that flying with the airline and even before that, as an Air Force pilot all over Asia and the South Pacific. In two words: over it.
Plus, for me, there’s a world beyond Mach number, high altitude cruise and low-viz approaches. As I flew flew my monthly trips over the years, I invested the time in a longterm academic endeavor far removed from flying: academia, grad school, a doctorate and that’s part of my life now: literature, writing, and academia; since 2003, university students letting me share that world of discovery with them. That’s something that endures beyond flight, at least for me.
So there you have it: a lifetime airline pilot sidesteps the heavy metal in favor of family, home, and academia. As Giulia said: little Boeing, big life. The latter part, life, family, literature, that’s what I’m betting on, what I believe matters and endures.
Thank the pilots flying your longhaul flights, because they deserve it. But don’t feel sorry for those flying the smaller jets, because many are exactly where they belong.
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.