Archive for aviation

Air Travel in the “Me” Millennium

Posted in air travel, air traveler, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline ticket prices, airlines, airport, fear of flying, flight attendant, flight crew, passenger, passenger compliance, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2018 by Chris Manno

Sure, flying today has diverged from the mythological “golden era of air travel”  so many passengers hold as a yardstick to their own recent airline experience. That can’t help being a disappointment, but there’s more to the story: it ain’t all one-sided.

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Passengers, too, in the contemporary age of the selfie, have also diverged from the model of decorum and self-restraint that went hand-in-hand with the Utopian but long past air travel legend. That new, self-focused, unrestrained millennial attitude dictates much of what happens in today’s air travel. Let me explain.

Hand-in-hand with the genteel, bygone airline images was a foundation of passenger behavioral restraint and courtesy that has also vanished like the sixties. And like it or not, here are some major changes wrought by the millennial evolution away from the self-restraint and personal responsibility that characterized the era they claim to miss.

  1. People today simply will not be told what to do. That runs the gamut from emergency instructions that could save their own lives to procedural norms that make boarding actually better for the group–but only if the individual cooperates. Today’s air traveler knows the rules, hears the requests, and the directives as applicable to the group, but optional for themselves.

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2. Self-restraint: the “self” now overshadows the restraint in two major ways. First, the “self” aspect of the traveling public fuels a sense of entitlement rather than restraint. That’s even in the subtlest nuance of boarding which creates a massive, obstructive knot of bag-dragging humanity ignoring the simple instruction to “please board only when your group is called,” to the life-threatening free-for-all luggage grab in an emergency evacuation. In the “self” era, there is no rule that must be followed, no directive that can’t be ignored, because that’s the way people are wired today.

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Second, the notion of self trumps the concept of fairness: a cell phone video with zero context and outrageous, often aggressive passenger behavior is not only tolerated–it’s embraced and celebrated on social media. Nothing is too outrageous for a passenger to say or do and whatever that atrocity is, someone else must provide compensation.

3. Personal responsibility: everything is someone else’s fault, so everyone is a victim, and every victim needs “compensation.” Whether it’s a mechanical delay to correct a glitch in a complex, $100 million dollar machine or a weather delay, today’s self goes from zero to outrage without passing through rational thought (weather is outside of a business’s control; complex machines break) and goes right to the worst aspect of self: one must proclaim their insult and outrage on the thoughtless, unmediated scrum that is social media.

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Anything goes in the self-centered rush to scream your bombastic victimization into cyberspace. Thanks, @HeimBBQ–did you recall that in your local marketplace about 50,000 employees you just maligned also make restaurant choices?

3. Helplessness has displaced personal responsibility: if anything, air travel has gotten even simpler in the digital era. The ubiquitous smart phone that conducts audio, video and photo outrage across the internet spectrum also has the capability–if used–to supply instant, accurate answers. But, the personal responsibility aspect (what’s your flight number?) falls by the wayside of many people who can remember a date, time and address–except at the airport. Google has the instantaneous and accurate answer–but only if you know how to ask the question.

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4. The marketplace: it’s easy, perhaps convenient, to overlook the driving force in the air travel industry, and that is price. But the fact is, when the Civil Aeronautics Board relinquished control of airfare and routes, the deliberate government “hands off” approach left the marketplace in the hands of consumers: you asked for dirt cheap airfares–you got it. Don’t say that your $600 transcon airfare is “too expensive” as you book your flight on your $1,000 smart phone so you can attend an hours-long entertainment (sports, music, whatever) event for another thousand dollars. The whining makes for effective social media click bait–but it just doesn’t fly, logically or literally.

So there you have it: the air travel reality is a narrative of change, of evolution, of price and self–and the results might be dismal, but the responsibility is shared equally between consumers and the marketplace they drive.

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In the final analysis, no, it’s really not “about you,” but in fact it is mostly because of you, despite how negative a connotation the idea of personal responsibility is in today’s world of “me.” Air travel is still the dumb beast slaved to your buying choices, and the airfare “steal” you foghorn on your social media feed fuels the very enroute outrage you tweet later. In a very real sense, you are both the cause and the effect.

So fasten your safety belt–it’s going to get bumpy, and the whining only louder and less justified.

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A Pilot’s Diversion Strategy

Posted in air travel, air travel humor, air traveler, airline, airline cartoon, airline delays, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airport, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2018 by Chris Manno

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“Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.”

–Iron Mike Tyson

The factors that shape a diversion strategy are both quantifiable and variable. Variables include weather, traffic density, airport crowding, holding pattern location, and what I call wild cards, which I’ll discuss later.

Quantifiable factors include altitude, speed, distance, time and fuel. Though there are many foundational points upon which to anchor a diversion strategy, I center mine on the one controlling factor common to every other facet of the decision: fuel.

That’s one very simple and unifying parameter that is reliably quantifiable and easily revised accurately. So, let’s start at the beginning with known fuel numbers. First, what is your required (you, the pilot, determine this) minimum on-deck fuel? Set that number in stone. For example, in a 737-800, I want 6.0 as a minimum in a divert situation. 5.0 is adequate, but in a divert situation, you really need to pad everything.

Next, the added fuel for holding. Dispatch adds holding fuel to a release when you and they agree on how much you’ll likely need based on destination variables like weather, construction, traffic density and more.

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The reserve fuel added for holding presumes you can hold for a specified time, fly an approach to a missed approach, then proceed to a landing at your alternate with your agreed upon (6.0, in my example) fuel.

But in the fuel planning phase, no one knows exactly where you’ll hold nor at what altitude. So, you have to work backwards from your approach to your holding fix: how much fuel will you need from holding to missed approach? Flight planning systems figure an estimate, because again, you can’t know for sure where you’ll be sent to hold.

And here’s where we encounter a few wild cards: we’re not sure where or at what altitude we’ll hold, so we really can’t confirm a fuel flow or total enroute burn. Also, we can’t rule out spacing and delay vectors enroute to the initial approach fix, nor non-optimum speed and altitude assignments along the way. Same thing with the missed approach: there could be multiple vectors, speed restrictions and worst of all, a much lower altitude for the cruise leg to your designated alternate.

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Throw in another factor: priority. If you’re planned to land at the same time as international flights that have been airborne for eight or more hours, you may find—contrary to what ATC might say—that you are vectored around or behind these flights. All of these factors can radically affect your fuel burn for the worse.

Step one: as you enter holding, you can and must determine the probable fuel burn from holding to your destination. Add that to your on-deck minimum. In my example:

Holding at an intermediate STAR fix:

6.0 + 2.5 = 8.5

Now we need to add the planned enroute burn from missed approach to your designated alternate. From DFW to TUL, a typical alternate, that would be an unadjusted 4.5. But we need to adjust that, adding a significant pad for the wild cards I cited above. I’ll add another 2.0. We have:

8.5 + 6.5 = 15.0

So, 15.0 is your bingo fuel: at 15.0 we’ve lost the ability to go missed approach and divert. What’s the next step? Figure the minimum fuel from your holding position to your alternate. Add a pad for the wild cards, and you have your bingo from holding.

If it takes me 2.5 to get from holding to TUL, I add a pad (1.0) and add that to my on-deck minimum:

3.0 + 6.5 = 9.5.

So, 9.5 is my bingo from holding direct to my alternate.

Why the difference? Simple: if you’re holding for a variable that may clear (weather, closed runway, traffic sequence, runway change, and more) you may have an option besides divert. As long as my enroute burn from holding to destination is equal to or less than the burn to my alternate, once the holding cause is eliminated (“DFW is now VFR”) we can proceed safely to our destination and land with 6.5 or more.

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And here’s another wild card you can play: ask for a different holding fix. Chances are, in major airport areas (ATL, JFK, MIA, ORD, LAX) the answer will be no. But in many other places, ATC may grant your request. You can even fudge it by adding “for weather” to your request, which sounds the same as what it really is: “For whether or not we can hold longer.”

A different fix offers one more good option: if you’re not in a stack, you won’t have your fuel burn incrementally increased as you’re assigned a lower altitude. Add to this asset an EFC synergy. Some pilots like to “Go Ugly Early” and divert if their EFC exceeds their planned holding time. But, if you’re sitting high at a comparable fix away from the descending stack, you can safely loiter till your EFC just to see if the EFC shortens, as it often does.

For example, if you’re given a 50 minute EFC and have planned for 35 minutes of holding, chances are decent that if you’re still holding at 20 minutes, that EFC might be cancelled or revised to within your holding fuel.

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A second wild card is to find a different suitable alternate, possibly close-in. For example, instead of OKC or AUS for DFW, if the weather movement allows, AFW, DAL and even SPS (daytime only) maximize your loiter fuel and when you’re refueled and outbound, you’ll be cleared from tower to approach, rather than tower to departure then center, which may get you slapped with a traffic flow wheels-up delay.

Other good reasons for choosing a different alternate include crowding (you don’t want to be the last jet in line for fuel or a gate) and even time of day for staffing requirements. Finally, if you’re going illegal as a crew as soon as you divert, do you really want to spend the night in Abilene, or would Austin be more “sensible?”

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Regardless, the bottom line is this: your minimum on-deck fuel. Add generously padded buffers for the wild cards, plus figure both from missed approach and direct divert. Monitor both figures. The 737-FMS will display both direct and missed approach fuel predictions—monitor both. We also often put in three or four different potential divert airports and monitor both figures for all of them.

As captain, I ask two things of the first officer. First, “What am I missing?” Not, what do you think of my plan—I really want to know what I’m not thinking of and what would be better. And second, I have the FO pick a divert alternate, and monitor both numbers. That keeps us both in the loop, keeps both sets of eyes on all the fuel numbers and finally, two heads are better than one. They both need to be fully in the game.

And that, fellow aviators, is one pilot’s strategy. Good luck and fly safe.

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Summer Air Travel 2018: We Have Met The Enemy, And He Is Us.

Posted in air travel humor, air traveler, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, airport, crewlife, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2018 by Chris Manno

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I stood in the cockpit doorway last night saying goodbye to the deplaning passengers, mostly to support my cabin crew: it doesn’t seem right that the captain should be halfway to the employee parking lot while the flight attendants are still working. So I stay, unless there’s a crew change and the next cockpit crew is waiting to get started on their preflight.

That’s a ridiculous air travel roadblock: you’re the oncoming crew, probably behind schedule, having to wait for the off-going crew to finish fumbling around and get out of the way. “Plane ride’s over,” or “shift change,” I yell loud enough for them to hear in the cockpit. In other words, get your ass in gear and get out of the way.  Some pilots are clueless, gabbing, or worse (sure, we’ll all wait while you use the airplane lav–you sure can’t poop in the terminal) while the oncoming crew cools their heels on a hot jet bridge, waiting for access their job site.

Meanwhile, we have passenger connections to cover down-line, plus more passengers there connecting on our return flight. Ridiculous waste of time changing crews, due to some pilots’ blissful unawareness of others.

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But a crew change was not the case last night–the aircraft was not flying on again that night. A guy walked up the aisle with the other deplaning passengers, but he took a seat in first class and started tapping on his phone. His wife plopped down next to him.

Fine. Except once everyone has deplaned, the crew is done. It’s been a long day and we all want to go home.

His wife looked stressed-out. Finally, she approached me. “He’s trying to get someone from customer service to help him retrieve my gate checked bag before our next flight.”

“Gate checked bags will be transferred to your connecting flight,” I answered automatically. “No worries. It’ll be at baggage claim at your destination.”

“I need my anti-seizure medication.”

Damn.

“Let me see if I can find it.” I hustled downstairs, but it was too late: all of the cargo holds were empty, the bags on their way to connecting flights or baggage claim.

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“They’re usually not that fast unloading a full jet,” I told her. “But there’s nothing left in the cargo holds or on the ramp. Still, I can get you medical help right now if you need it.”

That’s part of the problem: passengers miss the instructions in the sometimes hectic gate checking of a bag: “Take any medications or important documents out of the bag before you check it,” agents recite the litany.

But mistakes get made. More typically, stuff gets left on the aircraft inadvertently. So here’s the point: always keep valuables, important documents and medications in your on-board hand-carried bag. If you don’t carry one–DO.

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Don’t stash ANYTHING in the seatback pocket.

In the terminal, a woman stopped me and started talking to me in Spanish.  I can help in German or English. But I answered with the entirety of my Spanish lexicon, “No habla Espanol.” I do know “Cerveza, por favor” as well, but that didn’t apply.

She looked puzzled, then began to repeat herself in Spanish, only louder. Which still doesn’t work.

I played the odds: I glanced at her boarding pass, then pulled out my cellphone and Googled her flight number. I showed it to her: departure gate and boarding time.

She smiled. “Ah, si.”

Problem solved. Add the lesson “Google for key info in your native language,” to “get your shit together and get off the plane” (add the caveat, “but wait your turn,” see cartoon) and keep all valuables and medications with you as you travel.

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Don’t be “that guy.” Wait your turn.

Finally, traffic management. We have rush hour in the terminal between flights. There’s a bustling flow of people going gate to gate to concessions, services, restrooms, wherever. There’s always been the problem of passengers lurching around the concourse, stopping randomly and bottle-necking traffic.

Add two new impediments: the cellphone talker-texter-Facebooker-Snapchatter-Instagramer-surfer ass-clown willing to walk headlong into others or as bad, shuffle-creep along to manage their messages, posts, texts, porn; whatever.

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For the slow walkers, random stoppers and cellphone nitwits, two words: pull over. Get out of the way, let others get on with their lives as you fumble about your own.

The second pedestrian hazard I see more and more these days–maybe it’s a millennial thing–is those with or without cellphone suddenly putting it into reverse and walking backwards. I say at least twice an airport day–which, like dog years, an “airport day” is about 7 times the hassle of a human day–“this isn’t a good place to walk backwards.” Does that really need to be said?

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So there you have it. If you’re deplaning–passengers or crew–get your stuff together and move efficiently off the aircraft and into the terminal. Once there, have a destination in mind and actually attend only to smoothly navigating the traffic, always in forward gear. If you need information, Mr. Google speaks every language, though I do not. Finally, keep all valuables, like medications and documents with you at all times.

All of the above advice is for your successful air travel, your crew’s efficiency, and everyone’s sanity.

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What’s it like to be an airline captain?

Posted in air travel, air travel humor, air traveler, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline pilot podcast, airline safety, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, FoF, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , on June 24, 2018 by Chris Manno

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An university colleague asked me, “What’s it like to be an airline captain?”

I tried to deflect. “Well, it’s probably not what you’d think.”

Still, he deserved an answer, but probably not for the reason you’d think.  Academia and aviation couldn’t be more different, and I owed him an answer for exactly that reason: academia welcomed me, shared generously, helped me attain their highest degree and let me teach on their college campuses.

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By contrast, the pilot world is largely closed, both professionally and intellectually. When a pilot asks me about my doctoral dissertation, I usually lose them at my research hypothesis. So, I typically deflect that question with, “It’s hard to explain,” even though it’s really not.

Some pilots “are” captains, but that’s mostly fluff. They’re the ones who cling to social media names like “Captain [insert first name]” or worse, “Cap’n” anything. I suspect they’re the ones who used to go by nicknames like “Flyer Guy” and have vanity plates like “IFLY” or “AV8R.” I even know one guy whose wife refers to him in conversation as “Captain _____.” Big hat, no cattle, as far as I’m concerned.

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Because for me, “captain” was never so much something to “be” as to actually do. When I have the title, it’s only at work and it translates to “the buck stops here” or in more accurate terms, “I accept full responsibility for everything that happens from push-back to block in.” And I’m not solo, because there is a century of aviation history that put me where I am .

Commercial aviation is a communal effort and an aggregate learning curve. In the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Europe, much of Asia, Australia and New Zealand, there’s been a lifetime of hard lessons, trial and costly error, engineering breakthroughs and thorough oversight. That’s been a costly but profitable flight evolution that is responsible for the safe air travel we all enjoy today.

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When I’m the captain, I’m both the beneficiary and the trustee of that collective aviation experience, engineering, oversight and regulation. That’s what it’s like, if you really want to know: I’m the guy saying slow down when everyone else is saying “let’s hurry up;” I’m the one paid to look four hundred miles ahead when everyone else is looking around us now; I’m the one focused on now when everyone else if four states down the road.

I’m looking for “no” when everyone else says “yes;” I’m saying stop when everyone else says go. The easiest thing in the world is to just let things happen, but the more important responsibility is in making them go exactly as they should–or not at all.

That has little to do with vanity plates, forced “cap’n” nicknames, or even titles, which I leave at the airport when I go home, because I’m done “being” captain till it’s actually time to do it all again. And not until.

So maybe that’s not what you’d think being a captain was like, but now you can see that the real substance is in action, responsibility and accountability rather than in the title.

My workspace.

The buck stops here.

That’s why in over 26 years as a captain at the world’s largest airline, you’ve never heard me say on the PA, “This is your captain.” Besides the fact that I have a name, “captain” isn’t who I am, it’s what I do, a charge I readily accept. I’m a trustee of all that has gone before me in aviation, engineering, regulation and oversight. A good day as a captain is one where you’ve seen to every detail, taken care of every requirement, and, as we say, “haven’t bent any metal.”

That’s the reality of “what it’s like to be an airline captain,” and that won’t fit on a vanity plate. Nor does it need to.

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Summer Air Travel 2018: Fly Smarter.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airlines, airport, fear of flying, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, passenger, passenger bill of rights, pilot, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2018 by Chris Manno

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Let’s cut to the chase: air travel can be frustrating and confusing. Passenger service staffing is minimal and information scarce. Unexplained delays can prompt frustration, security hassles inevitably create time pressure and the whole situation can raise everyone’s blood pressure. Air travel is a struggle, that’s a given.

But rather than simply complaining–and posting exasperated social media rants–here are some key travel hacks that will let you take charge of your travel and surmount some of the hassles.

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First, information: don’t go looking for crucial data like departure or arrival gates, baggage claim, delays or boarding time. Rather, make that information come to you: every airline and many airports have an app that will fast-track critical information to your phone.  I recommend you use the airline app for your chosen airline, but the simplest, 9-1-1 info source is Google: know your airline and flight number, and tap this basic info into a search engine:

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Quick and easy, all of your questions can be answered without waiting in line for a passenger service agent or searching the terminal for a flight information board. If you’re using your airline’s app, you can even beat the rush to rebook in case of a delay or cancellation without waiting in any line.

You can get even more details for all airlines in a standardized format by downloading one of the many free flight tracking applications. For example:

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This app tells you key information regarding your flight, including departure and arrival gates, plus, it will tell you, if you’re interested, where your inbound aircraft is and its on-time or delay status. If you’re waiting for someone to arrive, this app shows you a real-time moving map so you’ll know–often before the gate agents–exactly what is going on, to include a realistic departure and downline arrive time. You won’t have to ask the thoughtless questions that make you look, well, thoughtless and helpless:

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Track your flight, including the inbound aircraft, yourself for your planning purposes: do I have time for food beforehand, either dine-in or to-go? And where is the nearest or best food option, given the realistic time estimate you’ve secured for yourself? Get the airport app(s) for every airport you’ll connect through or arrive and depart from. They’ll show the location of key services (law enforcement, medical, restrooms, water, baggage claim, restaurants/entertainment, lost and found, ground transportation, rental cars, hotel pickups, security and more).

More advanced airport apps allow you to access such key information instantly, and also, to arrange for services like parking and, in the case of DFW Airport, you can even order food.

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Finally, do security smarter: find out which security screening checkpoint at your departure airport has the shortest wait time, plus enroll yourself in the TSA’s PreCheck program to reduce the screening time and hassle. Get the TSA smartphone app:

TSA app

This app will let you assess the security lines and wait times instantly so you can choose the fastest checkpoint. Also, the app puts a world of information regarding security procedures, limitations, requirements, and frequently asked questions in your hands (literally), plus it will guide you to the application process for TSA PreCheck. All of this fingertip-accessible information will streamline and shorten your security screening, shorten your wait time and lower your blood pressure.

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Air travel this summer will include record passenger crowds in airports minimally staffed with customer service people at security checkpoints, ticket counters and gates, even at restaurants and retail stores. But you can optimize your trip planning and minimize your hassles by setting up a real-time, accurate information flow to your fingertips.

Don’t scour the airport and fight the crowds for crucial information and services. Empower yourself with apps and information that will quietly smooth your air travel experience. It only takes a few minutes to download the apps and to become familiar with their use. The payoff will be tenfold in reduced stress and frustrating delays.

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New Edition: Airline Crew Cartoon Anthology.

Posted in air travel, air travel humor, air traveler, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airlines, airport, cartoon, fear of flying, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, pilot, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2018 by Chris Manno

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This new 2018 edition has 90 pages of wicked new airline crew cartoons …

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And many from the perspective of air travelers …

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If you’re in the airline industry, or are even considering the air travel career field …

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This cartoon collection is a must-have!

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Air Travel Delays: “Mechanical Issues”

Posted in air travel, air traveler, aircraft maintenance, airline, airline cartoon, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, airliner, fear of flying, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, FoF, passenger with tags , , , , , , , on April 21, 2018 by Chris Manno

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“Mechanical issues” may sound like a catch-all for airline delays or, to anxious flyers, a mysterious, perhaps worrisome possibility. But it’s neither, and here’s why.

First, you have to understand two main concepts: airliners are complex mechanical wonders, and second, their maintenance and operation is very strictly and minutely regulated–and documented. This second point is essential to the aviation regulatory standard upheld by all major airlines, even though such detail must be correctly, diligently accomplished. That takes time. So, let’s walk through the possibilities.

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When you board an airliner, preflight checks are ongoing. This is especially true if the aircraft has just arrived from another station (airport). As soon as the flight completion checklists are accomplished, the preflight process begins anew by the crew. To waste no time, this preflight inspection goes on even as arriving passengers deplane and departing passengers board.

The checks ensure that all operating systems on the aircraft are up to the very specific standard set by the aviation regulatory agency that oversees commercial flight operations. In the United States, that’s the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Every system on that aircraft has an operational standard to determine if the aircraft is airworthy, and the jet does not move until those requirements are satisfied, right down to individual light bulbs.

Let’s look at that example: a light bulb.

If a pilot on an exterior preflight notices say, a landing light that is not working, this fact is immediately recorded in the aircraft logbook and the airline’s maintenance center is notified. The airline maintenance center will refer to the FAA specified “Minimum Equipment List” (MEL) for that particular aircraft.

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Without straying too deeply into the very complex decision tree of the MEL, there are three possible outcomes for the noted discrepancy (a landing light is inoperative). First, the landing light may be replaced, tested and certified by an FAA licensed and approved aircraft maintenance technician.

Second, the item may be specified by the FAA-approved MEL as non-essential for flight under specified conditions. For example, if the aircraft is about to depart for a destination to land in daylight, the MEL may allow the flight to depart, with proper logbook documentation of the exception.

Third, the MEL may allow for a redundant system to compensate for the component. If the inoperative bulb was a wingtip position light, the MEL may allow the flight to operate with the remaining position light–if the aircraft has two and only one is required (that’s why the aircraft designer put two bulbs there in the first place).

This is the same with all aircraft systems: if there are redundant systems approved by the FAA MEL, the flight may be approved for flight with that waiver to use the backup system, once the discrepancy and waiver are properly documented in the aircraft logbook.

Of course, some essential systems have no redundancy. In those cases, prescribed repairs must be made by FAA-certified mechanics (example: a tire at the prescribed wear limit must be replaced). The discrepancy, repair and results must be properly documented before the aircraft moves.

And there are “consumables.” For example, on my flight last night, when we were doing our “Before Landing Checklist,” we noted that the engine oil quantity was at the prescribed “refill” level. That, like all aircraft specifications, is a very conservative number. It’s as if you were driving your car down the highway and noted that you had just above a half a tank of gas.

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You’d turn to your passengers and say, “The MEL says we must always have more than a half a tank of gas, so we’re going to exit the freeway and refuel now.”

In flight, I sent a data-linked message to our technical operations center noting the requirement for oil service before the next flight, which I also wrote in the aircraft’s paper logbook.

Our tech folks coordinated with the mechanics at our destination to have the oil ready and a certified mechanic to perform the refill. That’s quick and easy at one of our hub airports, because we have mechanics on staff there.

At smaller stations, airlines rely of FAA-licensed mechanics approved for contract mechanical work on specified aircraft. Of course, most airlines have access to normal consumables like oil or tires, but no one has every part on every aircraft stocked at every station.

route map NWA

If the required item is not in stock, it must be brought in, either from nearby (example: an airline’s LAX station may have an item needed for a flight out of Ontario Airport; staff can simply drive the part from Los Angeles International to Ontario). Other parts may be flown in on the next aircraft from the hub to the smaller station.

But either way, before the aircraft flies again, the prescribed maintenance procedure must be accomplished in accordance with FAA regulations and everything must be documented.

Most major airlines have this process streamlined for efficiency, like when I sent the data-linked message to prepare the arrival station for the required oil service. This was accomplished between flights with no delay. The certified mechanic noted the refill quantity and manufacturer’s details in the aircraft logbook as well as in the computerized records maintained at our airline technical headquarters.

But sometimes a procedure may take longer just by the normal time the process requires (changing a tire will take longer than changing a light bulb). Finally, the availability of mechanics at a given hour may add more time to the required procedure.

In all cases, the aircraft records must be meticulously documented, which takes time as well: approvals must be granted, remedial actions certified, and everything recorded both in the aircraft on-board paper logbook as well as the aircraft records at the airline’s technical center.

That takes time.

If the delay is predicted to be too long, we might be assigned another aircraft for the flight, which also takes time: passengers, cargo, baggage, and catering must be transferred to the new aircraft. So, if you’re waiting on board during a maintenance delay, it’s probably because swapping aircraft would take longer, or there isn’t another aircraft available.

To summarize, airliners today are complex machines with multiple parts and systems, all of which have MEL specified operating minimums. Not all replacement items are available system-wide, and and even where mechanics are immediately available, remedial processes can take time.

The “mechanical delay” we experience is due to the airlines’ unwavering adherence to very specific FAA standards.

The good news is, that’s why air travel on major airlines is as reliably safe as it is.

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