I wrote a complete explanation for Mashable–just click here for the full article.
I wrote a complete explanation for Mashable–just click here for the full article.
About the aircraft PA: let’s talk.
When you’re an airline captain, you have to figure out how to talk meaningfully and concisely to a hundred or so passengers over the aircraft PA. That virtually one-on-one contact is an excellent opportunity reassure and inform the paying customers as they experience the marquee product: air travel.
Yet so many captains fall short, squandering this excellent marketing opportunity. Here’s what I mean.
Mostly, we’re pilots first and foremost, so we’ve had little training or experience addressing the public. You can almost hear the discomfort from the first PA on taxi-out. Typically, it’s a clumsy version of “Welcome aboard [insert airline] flight [insert number], service to [insert destination]. We are next for departure ….”
Really? Departure? We’re going to takeoff and fly; you’re the pilot, the aviator, not the “departure facilitator,” who will make this happen. “Departure,” “service” and “equipment” (pilots fly jets) are all lame parroting of the agents’ PAs in the terminal. The agents aren’t aviators–are you? Or are you an “equipment operator?”
Some of my four-stripe colleagues allege that the circumspect term “departure” is more calming for passengers, but I ask to what end, when the next thing that happens is the roar of fifty-thousand pounds of jet thrust and a headlong hurtle down the runway. Did you fool anybody, for a minute or two?
And the first part: passengers know their destination–or if they don’t, maybe you shouldn’t tell them. Do they care about the flight number? Worst of all, “service?” As in “check under the hood, the washer fluid’s low?” Scratch the whole thing and get back to fundamentals.
On taxi out, I say the required, “Flight attendants, prepare for takeoff.” By the book, it is what it is. On climbout, I say, “Good afternoon (or whatever it is; I don’t do early mornings without a court order) and welcome aboard, this is Captain Manno.”
Not ever, “This is your captain speaking.” Because I have a name, and it’s not “Your Captain.” Would it seem awkward if your dentist said, “This is your dentist speaking?” Your teacher? On TV, airline captains don’t have a name, because it’s fake. Real life, real name.
The other awkward introduction on the PA is the blurted, “From the cockpit,” usually preceded by “ah,” as in “Ahhhhh, from the cockpit, folks …” Maybe I could see, “from the cockpit crew,” but that’s as disjointed as “from your dentist” or even a sermon that started out, “Ah, from the pulpit, folks …”
Probably I’m a cynic, but the used car salesman-ish, “A very pleasant good day” rankles as a PA intro. Just give me the facts and I’ll decide what kind of day it is, okay?
Enroute, the pilot jargon is clumsy: “We’re at three-nine-oh, going to four-one-oh.” Just spit it out: “We’re climbing to forty-one thousand feet.” So it goes without saying that you needn’t use the slang of “wheels up time” (really? Hope we’re off the ground) or even “ground stop;” passengers start forming their own expectation of how long until take-off (not departure–we already left the gate) which may vary from the simple facts you could have cited: “We estimate that we’ll be airborne in approximately _____ minutes, although that may change. We’ll keep you informed.”
And then I set a timer for 15 minutes, then make an update PA even if I have no new info. Just the basic contact, “We’re estimating ____more minutes, thanks for your patience, we’ll keep you posted.”
But god forbid, neither humor or sarcasm is smart, although some try. The problem is, anything that’s “funny” to one person is guaranteed to anger or offend one of the other 170 on board, especially when they’re under travel stress and unhappy about the inevitable delays, the crowding, the discomfort. I know that when I deadhead or fly on my days off that delays screw me into the ceiling–“comedy,” or any attempt, is just one more annoyance on top of many. So just stick to the facts, in a calm voice, and be sure to make regular contact.
My standard PA goes like this: “We’re heading just about due [east, west, whatever] and we’ll pass over _____, _______, ________, and _______ where we’ll begin our descent into _______ airport, where the skies are partly cloudy [I always say that, covers everything] and the temperature is [I make up something, what it think it should be–who’s checking?]. We’re estimating our touchdown at _______ [correct time zone] and we’ll have you to the gate a few minutes after that. We’re glad to have you on board, for now we invite you to relax and enjoy the flight.”
That’s it–no ahhhs, my name instead of my job title (your captain), no cutesy (we had a goofball who blew a train whistle on the PA and said, “Allllll aboarrrd!”) stuff and no comedy attempts that will eventually boomerang.
The captive audience is listening and it’s a tough house: they’re crammed into their seats, often jetlagged, tired, hungry and impatient with delays and just the general hassle that is air travel today. You’re not playing a movie role, recasting your remembrance of Hollywood depictions. Make it clear, concise and soft spoken. With any luck, they won’t remember you or anything you said the next day.
When I was a Check Airman for my airline, supervising new captains on their first flights in the left seat, I always did one thing consistently over a three day trip: about twenty miles from landing, I’d cover the fuel gages with my hand and ask, “How much fuel do you have?”
What does that have to do with your flight running late? Everything.
And here’s where the passenger in a time crunch and the pilot-in-command part ways: time, speed and fuel.
They’re interrelated and while we both share the goal of getting there, the pilots need to “get there” with as much fuel as possible. That’s because more fuel means more flying time available, which means more options. So by day three of my trip with a new captain, he always knew how much fuel–and thus flight time–he had available, because he (or she) knew I’d ask. After over 24 years as captain at the world’s largest airline, that’s a habit pattern I personally maintain to this day: fuel is time, and my job is to wring as much time as possible out of every drop of fuel on board.
No, that doesn’t mean I want to fly as long as possible–I want to be able to fly as long as possible. Big difference, but the reality is, if I don’t have fuel in reserve, I don’t have time in reserve either, and both are crucial in case of delays due to weather, peak air traffic volume and even mechanical anomalies. And that’s just in the terminal area on arrival.
Enroute, there could be more weather we need to fly around safely (more miles–and fuel–burned) plus, the optimum altitude might not be available or, if it is, there may be a dissimilar aircraft ahead for whom we’ll be speed-restricted, causing us to burn more fuel. Throw in the frequent Air Traffic Control reroute or off-course spacing vector, and you have a significant potential for fuel over burn above the planned consumption.
On a flight of more than three hours, even a 10% fuel over burn can significantly limit a pilot’s options on arrival: can I hold for weather and traffic congestion, and for how long, before I have to divert?
Add more air miles–and thus more fuel burn–to stay safely upwind of storms.
So we have the potential for weather and traffic delays, altitude restrictions and even mandatory re-routing by Air Traffic Control, all of which can and typically do eat away at our fuel reserves. These limiting factors can pop up at any time after takeoff and the fact is, there’s no more fuel to be had at that point, leaving you one option--save as much as possible enroute. Which means the highest, optimum altitude at the most economical speed.
Ironically, Air Traffic Control may even need you to fly a faster than optimum speed for a long stretch of time in order to equalize traffic flow, and you’d better have enough fuel to comply but still maintain your fuel reserves for arrival regardless.
Juxtapose that reality with the option of flying “faster to make up time.” First, a jet is not like your car–if you push the speed up ten percent, depending on your altitude, your fuel consumption may go up during the higher speed cruise by 20-30%. But how much time would you make up? Over a three hour flight, maybe ten minutes at most. Is that worth blowing all of your options, especially knowing that destination areas delays could wipe that out anyway? Is it prudent to fly hellbent-for-leather to shave off a fraction of the delay at the cost of having zero options once you get there?
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.
Recently, a Boeing 787 and an Airbus 320 made headlines with dramatic photos of hail damage to the radomes and leading edges of the airfoils. That type of news story prompts the question from friends, family and passengers, “Can’t pilots see hail coming?”
My answer is threefold: yes, no, and it’s not that simple. Let’s take each part in order.
On a normal flight, the above outside view would be depicted like this on a cockpit nav display:
The magenta line is our filed flight path–where Air Traffic Control (ATC) expects us to be. To simplify for the sake of brevity, green areas are precipitation, red, convection, meaning uplifting air.
So yes, we can often see it coming because we know that convection can heave massive amounts of moisture upward with great force, into altitudes where the temperature could easily be -35C or less. This flash-freezes the moisture into ice pellets, with the size determined by variables of speed and temperature. I’ve felt and heard the sizzling sound of such particles impinging on my aircraft at over 40,000 feet–they’re fairly tiny and mostly innocuous at high altitude–not so in the lower, denser air.
Regardless, here’s where the “no” of my tripartite answer comes in. Like the ill-advised New Year’s Eve tradition some gun owners have of celebratory fire, what goes straight up comes back down–but the question is, where?
An enormous volume of hail spewed from the top of a thunderhead will get caught up in the winds aloft and they vary from near zero to over 100 mph. It’s not unusual for wind to blow a hail storm ten or more miles from the core of the thunderhead that lifted the moisture in the first place.
Can an you see that on radar? Maybe. Normally, you have the radar looking ahead, not up. What was a clear path, suddenly may be filled with hail, even miles away from the original source.
Which brings me to “it’s not that simple.” Both of the recent hail damage incidents occurred at low altitude, and by that I mean below 20,000 feet, which is a complicated area: jetliners don’t cruise that low, so the airspace is filled with a conflicting mix of climbing and descending aircraft. ATC does a fantastic job of sorting the mix crammed into often constrained airspace. But the problem is, that doesn’t leave much room for deviating around weather.
In fact, with so many aircraft being managed on a particular frequency, it’s extremely difficult to even get a course change request to ATC. Add to that a ground speed often between 200 and 300 miles per hour and you have a dilemma: yes, you can see some weather threats, no, you can’t see all of them and avoiding weather and other jets in crowded airspace is simply put, not easy. Things change rapidly, virtually by the minute, and we’ll cover many miles in that time.
I can’t stress enough how versatile and responsive ATC is in managing tight airspace filled with dissimilar aircraft on assorted routes and changing altitudes. But as the mix becomes more dense, this high-speed Rubik’s becomes an outlandishly devilish puzzle.
In the cockpit, know that we’re using every means at our disposal to detect and track weather. We gauge the wind effect out of the top of a storm, we plot a course upwind of effects, we pass along what we’ve found to ATC and other aircraft. Count on the reality that everyone on the ground and in the air is doing everything possible to avoid or, in the worst case, escape from bad weather.
Even the fact that only two aircraft out of the thousands in flight that day made the news with hail damage is good news in itself: pilots and ATC are pretty good at handling weather. Still, there’s only so much room and little leeway to detect and avoid hail.
That’s the real news, and the good news far outweighs the bad: flying to Philly yesterday, I can’t compliment both ATC and the dozens of other pilots in the air for sharing information about clear passages, turbulence and new routings. I don’t know how Center and Approach do it, but the responsiveness and quick reaction is amazing.
I’m especially grateful that my airline has made installation of cutting edge radar technology in my cockpit a priority: yes, it’s expensive, but they want me to have the best, most current weather picture as I approach a front with you on board.
Our newest radar–which I’m glad to have available–displays three dimensions, is linked to our nav system so it always knows exactly where it is and thus screens out ground clutter and geographic features, and displays a predictive movement of hazards. It’s always on, scanning for potential problems and will pop up on cockpit displays if it detects something even if we’ve selected another depiction.
So there you have it. Yes, no, and it’s complicated–those are my answers to the question, “Can’t you see hail from the cockpit?” The big-picture view is that we’re all working together to stay out of the headlines. I’ll be flying to LaGuardia and back tomorrow and the fact that you WON’T read about my flight underscores everything I’ve just said.
Much ado has been produced by the media about the hazards of drones flying in proximity to airliners, but I’m happy to report: it’s much ado about nothing.
The hazard presented by unwanted objects in an aircraft’s flight path is nothing new. In fact, each year hundreds of bird strikes are dutifully and without fanfare reported by airline pilots as is required by law.
What’s new is the opportunity for media and aviation “pundits” to claim more screaming headlines by overstating the drone hazard. First, consider the typical, average weight of the plentiful waterfowl populating the bird sanctuaries neighboring JFK, LGA, ORD, DFW, SEA, PDX, LAX, SAN, DCA, SFO, BOS and most Florida airports to name but a few. The weight varies from the 10-13 pound goose to the heavier seabirds like pelican which can weigh up to 30 pounds.
Although the the media and some wannabe aviation pundits claim there are “drones of 50-60 pounds,” the fact is, the new, popular hobbyist drones are marvels of lightweight miniaturization, weighing a fraction of that.
Now, consider the exposure: while the new hobbyist drones begin to enjoy an increasing level of retail sales, the bird hazard numbers literally in the millions. By sheer numbers alone, bird conflicts and even bird strikes dwarf the number of drone “sightings” by airliners, but they’re simply no longer news.
Plainly stated, the traveling public–and thus the media–understand the exposure, accept it, and like the National Highway Traffic Safety traffic death toll, ignore it.
Trundle out the “new menace” of drones and heads turn, headlines accrue, news ratings uptick, and those who know little about jetliners begin to smell fear.
So let’s even go beyond the hazard and foresee and actual impact with a drone. I once flew from Pittsburgh to DFW with duck guts splattered all over my cockpit windscreen after hitting what maintenance technicians estimated to be a ten pound duck. There were two primary consequences I had to deal with.
First, I had to look through duck guts for two and a half hours. They partially slid off, but most froze onto the window at altitude and stayed. Second, the crew meal enroute was less appetizing with the backdrop of frozen duck guts. That’s it.
None of the birds went into either engine. No aircraft systems were affected. Nobody (besides Pittsburgh tower) knew until after landing when we filed the required reports.
This is a pretty good predictor of what might happen if the rare, statistically minute chance of a drone-aircraft collision were to occur: likely, nada.
Yes, there always the potential for engine damage when a “bird,” man made or real, is ingested by an engine. Nonetheless, of all the birds–man made or real–populating the skies around every major airport, drones are a minuscule fraction of the whole group that air travelers sensibly overlook day to day.
So why not focus on that reality rather than the shrieking media and aviation “experts” offering unlikely and often, absurd “what ifs?”
The answer is, the latter sells news, while the former undercuts the self-appointed aviation experts in and out of the media.
So the choice is yours. You can embrace the misguided drone hysteria served up by the news and “experts,” or apply the same logic you do to every daily hazard–including the drive to the airport (over 32,000 traffic deaths in 2014)–which is: drive carefully, and don’t sweat the small stuff.
Anything else is much ado about nothing.
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.