Archive for air traffic control

Your Flight is Running Late? Not So Fast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuel and time: the buck stops here.

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

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

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Airline Seat Reclining and the Death of Civility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to NOT land at the wrong airport.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot blog, airliner with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2014 by Chris Manno

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As a pilot, you’ve landed at airports around the world at least a thousand times in many different aircraft, day and night. So, are you confident? Relaxed? Sure?

Hell no, and with good reason: there’s just too much at stake. Passenger safety, professionalism, your career.

So you’ve spent that career–over three decades, and counting–as a professional pilot, trying diligently to NOT land at the wrong airport.

Here’s how.

It starts a thousand miles prior to landing, and it’s a mundane yet essential procedure. In the chocks, preflight, do it: you read the navigation waypoints from the screen displaying the route of flight in the jet’s navigation systems (there are two, backing each other up) out loud, while the First Officer reads both the paper flight plan and the Air Traffic Control system printout (you read it silently as a triple back up). They must match.

The last waypoint entry MUST at least be a runway at your destination, preferably an approach, too, but at the very least, a landing runway. This will be essential later.

Everything must match (ATC clearance, nav system route of flight) and so must the enroute distance in order for the fuel calculations to be valid. So once again, you MUST have an accurate final fix, preferably a runway.

Even at this preflight step, there are mundane challenges: tired? Long day? We’ve done this a zillion times before, in fact just last night? We’ll put in the final waypoints later, because we’re not sure which runway they’ll be landing on?

Don’t give in. Do every nitnoid step, every time. Route, mileage, verified. Period.

The same human factors challenges recur at the top of descent: almost done, tired, end of the work day, we’ve done this often.

Fight it! Verify the landing runway, and be sure it’s correct, complete, and active in the nav system.

On approach, be wary of the siren song from Air Traffic Control, especially at night: “Do you have the airport in sight?”

If you say yes, you’d better be 100% sure, but even then–the best answer is no.

Why? Because if you acknowledge visual contact with the runway, the next clearance you’ll get is “Cleared visual,” meaning radar service terminated–fly to and land on the designated runway.

Why? I mean, why accept that clearance rather than maintain radar tracking of your position and altitude from the ground controllers monitoring you and, as importantly, the other air traffic around you?

Can you really identify and verify other aircraft and ensure separation–at night? Why would you?

Just last night, landing at DFW, something I’ve done a thousand times, we refused the visual clearance.

Why?

Because a thin and broken under cast obscured at least half of the ground references we’re dependent upon to confirm our position–and that’s at an airport I’ve flown into since the eighties, much less some small, out-of-the-way airport I seldom see. Regardless, there’s no point in speculating or trying to visually orient ourselves with half of the usual landmarks obscured, especially at night.

Plus, why not give our passengers the benefit of Air Traffic Control radar keeping us clear of other aircraft?

Finally, having done due diligence a thousand miles back, we know the distance remaining (there’s a mileage countdown displayed in six places in the cockpit, including in my heads up display–if we’ve put the landing runway into the system) so that if we only accept the clearance after we’re vectored onto a final approach segment, we’ll know exactly how many miles to go before touch down–if we constantly check it.

Using the three to one ratio of a landing glideslope, we know that at 1,000 feet, we’d better be no farther than 3.3 miles from touchdown.

If the “distance remaining” indicates significantly more–you’re at the wrong airport.

If you’re under radar control, that won’t happen. If you’re on a published and verified segment of the instrument approach, that won’t happen. If you’re monitoring the distance remaining to the valid touchdown point, that won’t happen.

Tired happens. Get-home-itis happens. Routine happens. But god forbid the perfect storm of those human factors, plus poor visibility, unfamiliar terrain, and a failed procedural navigation process (the mundane stuff cited above) all comes together.

As with so many things in aviation, it’s not necessarily the big, spectacular failures that bite you in the ass. Rather, it’s the simple, tiresome, mundane everyday stuff that must be attended to–or, the results can be headline news, and not in a good way.

Summer Weather, Flight Delays and YOU.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline delays, airline pilot blog, airport, fear of flying, flight crew, flight delays, passenger, travel, travel tips, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2013 by Chris Manno

fll sunsetYou can see the weather plain as day. But it’s miles away, right? How could that cause flight delays? Or worse, on a day that’s clear at the airport–yet your flight shows a one hour or longer departure day. Why?

Think big–or at least think far: miles translate into minutes in the air, and unlike your car on the freeway, we’re not creeping along under the storm–we have to get through it. At altitude, sure, we can go around weather or sometimes, even over a storm. But there’s the problem on take-off and landing: we are too low to do either.

First, let’s look at departure:

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Sure, the weather is nearly twenty miles away. But in flight time, we’re talking about maybe three minutes. Then what?

Normally, there are at least six eastbound routes available, but as you can see, due to the weather that extends from the north to the south, even twenty miles away, there are only two routes available to go east: straight north, or straight south. And guess what? They’re the same ones that will have to be used for the inbound aircraft–and they’re already in the air, many for over three hours inbound from the east coast, or up to nine hours from Europe. Guess who rightfully has priority on the clear routes?

Here’s more bad news for your outbound schedule:

lowgn4All of the departures–like the one pictured in above, and depicted on the navigation display with the radar image above–have very specific instructions for headings, altitudes and even speeds. But with the weather blanketing the area, no jet can comply with these very orderly instructions, so instead, air traffic controllers have to issue all headings and altitudes individually to each aircraft, checking to be sure that weather doesn’t interfere.

So the Air Traffic Control system must space jets by ten, sometimes ever twenty miles in trail to allow for the individual handling required, which means that instead of the usual interval of thirty seconds to a minute between launches, now takeoff will have to be 2-3 minutes in between.  You’re number ten for take-off? Count on at least 30 minutes, maybe more–especially if the weather arrives over the field while you wait.

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So, rather than have a traffic jam at the end of the runway waiting to take off, ATC issues all aircraft an “EDCT” (Expect Departure Clearance Time), or “edict,” as the acronym is typically mangled by crews, or even “wheels up time” in more common usage. This can usually mean an Air Traffic Control imposed delay on your pushback from the gate of forty-five minutes to an hour or more.

That presents another problem: while a delayed flight is held on the gate, the next aircraft scheduled for that gate will be delayed as well, either in the deplaning of passengers or the boarding of its next segment. At a major hub for any airline, there aren’t enough extra gates to make up for flights that must be held on their departure gates. If you arrive at the terminal and notice about double the normal amount of passengers milling about–that’s why: their outbound jet is waiting while a delayed flight sits on the gate, waiting for its EDCT time to roll around.

That’s what happens on the ground–here’s what happens in flight–which actually contributes to the confusion and delays on the ground.

wx radar arrivalSee the racetrack pattern near “CAPTI?” That’s where we’re going to be holding, hoping the weather clears within our allotted holding fuel, which is about 45 minutes. The airport is under the blob of storms at the convergence of all the lines.

The jet we’re flying is being ardently awaited at DFW by 160 passengers who plan to fly on it to LAX after we deplane our Dulles passengers at DFW. But, we’re now on our way–diverting–to New Orleans because DFW is still closed and won’t open for at least an hour.

Add to that the fact that my copilot and I started our flight day at 12:35pm. We leave New Orleans at 11pm, but have to fly all the way to Abilene before we can turn back to the east around the scythe of thunderstorms bisecting Texas. What’s normally a one hour and ten minute flight turns into two and a half hours, pushing my first officer to a 14 hour flight duty day, landing at 2:15am.

Not sure what happened to all the LAX-bound folks, whether they got a crew to fly the leg or not, or what happened to the connecting passengers on our flight arriving after 2am.

All I know is that this promises to once again be another season of crowded skies, summer storms, bone-achingly long flight days and above all, a challenge to everyone’s fortitude and patience. Now that you know the “what and why” of the weather story–maybe you could explain it to the guy seated next to you, wondering why everything is so messed up because of a little old storm?

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Jethead Live: Inside Los Angeles Air Traffic Control.

Posted in airline pilot blog, airline pilot podcast with tags , , , , , on August 9, 2012 by Chris Manno

The air traffic controllers working the airspace around Los Angeles have their hands full with an incredible volume of diverse air traffic. How do they sort it out?

Here’s Air Traffic Controller Pat Keane from Los Angeles Approach Control with an inside look:

To download, click here.

Captain Who? Captain YOU.

Posted in flight crew with tags , , , , , , , on October 5, 2011 by Chris Manno

You’re the captain: try it on like a pair of pants (Waist a little tight? Lay off the brownie sundaes the flight attendants sometimes offer) and walk around. Four big ol’ stripes, hat too with the scrambled eggs elaboration on the hat bill. You’ve arrived.

So, what’s the first thing you do when you get to the airport? Check the weather? The jet? Right?

Hell no. You sign in and get your per diem started, as cash flow is key. So, check the weather? Stupid. If you’re just now “checking the weather” you might as well be one of the passengers with the glazed doughnut look noticing with reasonable consternation that they will arrive into different weather many miles away.

Of course you checked it–departure, enroute and destination–as soon as you got up this morning, then probably an hour ago, so that now you can see the trend. You might have picked up a thing or two about the behavior of air masses after spending 30-some years working aloft, plus you’ve learned the peculiarities of particular destinations, how the topography casts an orographic effect on the winds and the weather. Where’s the weather data from: National Weather Service? NOAA? Nah–from “My Radar” on your iPhone where you get a complete depiction of the radar picture in realtime of the entire route of flight; back it up with the radar picture from FltPlan.com which also shows the full route and destination regional radar.

Okay, now the flight plan. What’s the most important thing there, the route, the altitude, the jet? Again, hell no.

The motion lotion: the fuel, the burn, the reserve, the loiter time. The rest of the junk? What evs–we’ll get airborne and see what’s what. You know from experience at every destination what kind of bingo fuel you’re going to be comfortable with. The route changes with traffic flow and Air traffic Control’s best guess at managing the crowd crisscrossing the national airspace. But unlike the old Air Force days, you can’t just fly up to a tanker, hold position, get plugged and tank a few thousand pounds. You sure miss that, don’t you?

Anyway, add your years of air sense to the weather trending you’ve determined is going on today, add in the time of day for traffic flow (how are the lines at the grocery store right around lunch time? get it?) and you get an idea of what’s the minimum fuel required.

So you make sure you have what you need and if not, a quick call to Flight Dispatch: “Could you add 2,000 pounds to the release, please?” Don’t know about other airlines, but never have had a dispatcher balk at my request. Once we agree, sign the flight plan electronically and print all ten yards worth of dead tree. Shame about the trees–all this information is being electronically uploaded to the flight management system on board via data link anyway.

Origami: fold that up in components–Take-Off Plan (speeds, weights, distances), Flight Plan (points, times, distances, winds, temps, ground speed, true airspeed, Mach, fuel burn) and the Other Ten Yards (temporary airspace notes, changes, aircraft systems notes, procedural changes, temporary restrictions) of stuff you might need to know and that a battery of attorneys after any incident will want to use as ammo to say, “You should have known this.” Now you do.

Next? The jet? Time for the jet? Yes and no.

You want to get there as the last passengers deplane so as to meet the pilots who flew it in for a quick, “Good jet” (you do the same when you pass a jet to another crew) or, an explanation of maintenance issues they may have noted in the logbook.

Fine. Once the other pilots and flight attendants leave, what? Stow your gear? Read the maintenance logbook? Start the preflight?

Not so fast. First, scrounge the outgoing catering for an unopened bottle–maybe two!–of water. Stash that (it’s just getting removed by the caterers anyway) in the cockpit first. Dehydration is a major physical stress of a career at altitude which affects a pilot’s ability to work as efficiently and smartly as possible. Can’t do much about jetlag or hotel sleep interruptions, but this is one issue you can influence directly.

Okay then, switch both inertial reference unit to “align” so that they can engage all three independent GPS systems on board to interrogate a dozen or two satellites and pinpoint our navigation starting point as accurately and as soon as possible. Stow your stuff–take your hat off first, because the Heads Up Display projector over your seat will knock it off your head for the thousandth time if you don’t, then lock the cockpit door behind you when you leave–don’t need any wayward caterers or cabin cleaners or passenger entertainment system techs milling about in the cockpit where they have no business.

Now what? Get lost. You’ve checked out the maintenance status of the jet on the computer, you’ve familiarized yourself with the Take Off Plan and the Flight Plan and are satisfied with both–so stay out of everyone’s hair. They all–cabin cleaners, flight attendants, copilot–have lots of stuff to do and they know what they’re doing, so let them.

Now’s your time to swing through Flight Ops to check your mailbox for any vital info stuffed there, but most of that you’re aware of from various electronic sources anyway. But always best to check.

By now we’re 30 minutes to pushback. Take your seat in the cockpit? Nah–first things first, or maybe better said, last things: coffee. Needs to be too hot to drink now, which means just right for taxi out, take-off and climb. There’s just something righteous about sipping a good cup during the early phases of flight that sets the upbeat tone, and even the upbeat heartbeat during a busy time.

Where do you get such a cup?

Mac D’s, honestly. The best–not the gourmet battery acid of Starbucks or “Whomever’s Best” (though you gotta love “Pike’s Perk” in Denver and “Brioche” in LAX) but good old, down to earth full taste McDonald’s coffee.

You sniff derisively at that? Fine, drink whatever you want in your cockpit on climbout. Okay, now you head for the cockpit. As the Big Cheese? El Hefe? Numero Uno?

Heck no–as invisible as possible. No eye contact, no glad handing. You have enough to do on the flight deck, so get it done. Just leave the marketing and PR for the departments getting paid to look after such things.

You wish.

Slide by the passengers on the jetbridge carefully, quietly. Introduce yourself to the #1 flight attendant–just your first name, they already know you’re the captain. Offer to help them in any way you can throughout the flight.

On the flight deck, thread your way into the fleece-covered left seat. Adjust the lumbar and thigh pads, the seat height, which needs to be just right to get all of the info on the HUD (“Heads Up Display”) projected on the glass before you. Comm cords and headset hooked up.

Set up your comm panel: flight interphone monitor and transmit, speaker on so the ground crew can contact you. All VHF radios off–no distraction between you and the ground crew during pushback.

Test the quickdon oxygen mask–clean it out with a Sani-Comm swab, set 100% oxygen flow, test the communications function. You want that thing working at altitude where your time of useful consciousness in a depressurization is limited to second without it.

Now your air sense check, start right above your head, yaw damper engaged (means it’s getting valid attitude info from the inertial reference units), switches normal on map display and nav functions; over to the pneumatics and pressurization, proper cruise and landing altitudes set;  the window heat on, probe heat off; turn on one electrically driven hydraulic pump to send 3,000 psi of pressure to the flight controls so a wind gust doesn’t yank the elevator column back into your gut. Switch to onboard electric power, assure airflow, decide which fuel boost pumps will go on before engine start based on the correct fuel loading–now’s the time to find a discrepancy there.

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Then the challenge and response litany of preflight. Then the all-important (it damn well is) route check of every waypoint in the navigation system.

Finally, the ticket agent manning the jetbridge will step into the cockpit and say, “All bags stowed, all bins are closed, we’re ready to pull the jetbridge when you give the okay.”

“Is everyone down,” you ask in mock seriousness; the agent knows all passengers must be seated before the jetbridge is pulled away.

“Yes, they’re all down.” He walked right into that one.

“Well try to cheer them up,” you say, because you are such a smart ass. In a moment, you hear the main cabin door whomp shut and the door warning light panel indicates that now your jet’s buttoned up.

Ground power and air are gone. We pressurize hydraulic and pneumatic systems. The number one flight attendant checks in, “we have 16 up front, 144 in back, five working crewmembers, we’re ready,” then seals the cockpit door shut. At last .

Your headset comes to life as the Crew Chief below, seated on the pushback tug, notes the jetbridge clear of the aircraft and calls, “Ground checks complete, cholks removed, steering  bypass pin installed, cleared to release brakes and call for push.”

The F/O is on it, calling ramp. As we ease back, the Crew Chief calls, “Clear to start engines.”

Love it. Hack the clock to time the start sequence, then hit the Engine Start Switch and say, “Turning number two.” High pressure air whooshes through ducting and into the big hi-bypass fanjet and engine instrument depictions on both large CRT’s come to life.

Once both engines are humming along at idle, the ground crew signs off and gives you a salute, meaning they’ve cleared out and you can now roll the 80 ton jet without squishing anyone or anything .

You salute back, then nudge the 54,000 pounds of thrust gathered in your right hand and she begins to inch forward. Another sip of coffee as we taxi out, an inward smile through the litany of pre-takeoff checklist.

This is going to be a blast.

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