Archive for food

Vuelo Loco: Tennyson, Dead Fish and Mexico City.

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, airport, faith, fart, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, food, jet, lavatory, layover, life, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2011 by Chris Manno

Listen, I’m a fan of Mexico. Really, I am.

What’s not to like about Mexico City? Always looked forward to those downtown layovers–it was part of my job–but they’re scary dangerous. Probably not for the reason you think though.

I mean, sure, there’s plenty of drug violence. And yes, I did have to dodge through four lanes of traffic to evade a scroungy-looking cop trying to shake me down once, but he was either too lazy or too smart to chase me through the insane downtown traffic.

And yes, plenty of people with questionable intent in a city of 20 million, where you could simply disappear, kind of like the city itself  is doing, slowly sinking into its own aquifer. And okay, maybe I did roll the dice in a sense, as an instructor-evaluator taking pilots down to Mexico City every month, showing them the safe way to fly in and out of the mountain bowl.

Well, it’s not even really this “thread-the-needle-through-mountains” approach and usually, through thunderstorm alley that was like playing craps weekly. And it’s not really that I minded the always slick (memo to Mexico City Airport: the rest of the world cleans the reverted rubber off of their runways every year or two, so get a clue) runway with the puddle in the middle that you hit doing about 150 and exit two thousand feet later at about 149.

More, actually, was requiring the qualifying pilot have a beverage and a Cuban at an outdoor cafe on the traffic circle outside the Presidente Hotel. The bar–Karishma–is where a whole crew got mugged one night. They noticed that suddenly the place was empty save the two airline crews enjoying tapas and the generously poured (“Tell me when to stop pouring, Senor”) refreshments there. Then suddenly, watches, rings, wallets–buh-BYE, as we like to say.

So to be on the “safe” side, we sat outside on the traffic circle–maybe more witnesses?–and since it was my idea, I made sure my back was to the building, so the new guy got to sit with his back to the insane traffic, puffing a Cuban (relaxing–but mandatory) and enjoying a refreshment, maybe getting a shoeshine from the roving vendors who’d magically appear, ignoring the demolition derby mere feet away.

Hey, might as well get the full flavor: massive city (did I mention 20 MILLION people?), exotic neighborhoods of jumbled steel and glass elbowing in between with castellated stone architecture, snarled in the clogged highways like the arteries of a fat man. You watch the traffic and muse over your beverage, how the hell do they do this five way intersection without a traffic light?

And then on the side streets of The Polanco, maybe a quieter sidewalk cafe where I actually did much of my doctoral exam study: outside, books piled, good coffee, usually a thunderstorm in the afternoon that made me glad I wasn’t trying to fly a jet in or out at that moment. Out of nowhere, it seemed, in the afternoon towering big-shouldered thunderheads would roll through the mountain pass with raggedy sheets of torrential rain and thunder that echoed through canyons of concrete and steel, the reverberations so fitting to Tennyson’s “Ulysses” marching across the page before me toward the inexorable doom awaiting us all.

Harder to relax at dinner, though, when you were concentrating on the guard dog staring at your plate and whatever you were having for dinner. The armed guard restraining the dog had his eye on you and the plate alternately, and you had to wonder if either or both of them might figure that the dinner and your wallet might tip the scale in favor of mutiny. It was a stand-off in Mexico: the guard and dog making sure banditos didn’t mug you while you ate–but then the silently menacing pair themselves having to resist the hunger and temptation to rebid the transaction in more favorable terms.

And it’s not even the “one-eye-open” sleep in the airport high rise hotel with the un-level floors from the tipped buildings patiently waiting to tremble and topple in the next big quake they know is coming soon.

You wake up the next morning with the feeling of relief: ahh, The Big One they’ve been expecting didn’t happen while you slept, crushing you in tons of rubble that will take about ten years–if ever–to remove.

No, I’m talking about this:

That’ll eat you alive. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I was heading down to Mexico City for the umpteenth time and my favorite cousin was there with her husband who worked for the U.S. Department of State. “Hey, want to meet for dinner?”

Okay, I already know why not–I’ve been in the airline crew biz a looooong time: relatives don’t get it, you’re not on vacation; time does matter, sleep too.

“Sure, why not?” Because I’m an idiot–and here’s why. We’re going out for Mexican, traditional, right? I mean, we’re in Mexico-friggin-City, right? Enchiladas? Queso? Fajitas?


We’re doing Mexican-Asian fusion, which means I’m eating raw fish in Mexico: salmon carpaccio, pictured above. Delicious. Amazing! Immodium, amen. That didn’t take long.

The fever lasted about a week. The shower nozzle effect (any chance of scheduling a colonoscopy? I’m prepped, just for the hell of it) lasted a couple weeks. Thanks cuz.

Forget banditos. Who cares about high altitude aircraft performance, up-sloping mountainous terrain and treacherous rolling thunderstorms. The real danger’s on the plate.

Yes, I love Mexico City. Just don’t go there unarmed, okay?

The Flight of The Fatass.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airliner, airlines, airport, cartoon, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, food, jet, jet flight, passenger with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2011 by Chris Manno

Couldn’t come at a worse time, when each cent spent on fuel strains the budget of every major airline. The fact is, a direct operating cost airlines cannot avoid is fuel usage, which is directly linked to the aircraft’s gross weight. Suddenly, there’s this:

That’s right: double-fudge brownie sundaes–in flight. Which brings us back to the jet’s take-off and climb gross weight. Seriously gross, in some cases.

Back in my Diesel-10 days, I flew with a giant of a captain who shall remain nameless but his initials are Big John. He must have tipped the scales close to three hundred pounds, and I admit, as a First Officer doing the flight control check, I’d purposely pull the yoke back far enough to jiggle his big gut (he’d say, “Whatcha tryin’ to do, boy, loop it?”) hanging over his lap belt.

The big mystery early in the month we flew together was why did Big John excuse himself from the cockpit at the top of descent point, for at least fifteen minutes? That’s right before we get really busy with descent and approach.

Mystery solved on our first layover: the “galley wench” (that’s the flight attendant who served below decks in the DC-10 lower lobe galley) said he was downstairs with her, hoovering any uneaten food from passenger meals that were left over.

Maybe that comes from the grand tradition of fat sea captains who had to keep themselves well-marbled to survive months bobbing around on a hostile ocean. You never know when you’re going to have to spend two seasons and an eternity of reruns on an uncharted desert isle.

You never know just how long a three hour tour is going to be, right? We were doing a lot of trans-oceanic stuff in the ten, so maybe John was planning to be the only guy surviving in a life raft.

Regardless, Big John was just one of a growing number–literally growing–pilots who over the span of a career, drove up the fuel burn of the airline as his career dragged on.

Why? Go back to the top of the page and face the brownie sundae–my weakness. Okay, I’ll come clean: I’m six feet tall and weight 182 pounds (today anyway), have finished nine of the 26.2 mile marathons, blah, blah, blah.  Point is, I do take part in the aerial hog call pretty regularly. A tour, you say? You’d like a tour? Prepare yourself.

First, there’s the big guns that announce themselves with a “ding” on the flight interphone: “Hey, we’ve got [insert uber-caloric dessert here] in back if you all want some.” Or, it just comes already on your crew meal. Either way, there’s this:

A dense chocolate cake-like pie. Sure, just eat a bite or two, right? You’ll run it off on the layover, right (in Toronto in January? YOU’RE LYING)? You missed lunch too, see, and this is okay therefore, mangia, right?.

Then there’s this:

Coming out of several Florida airline catering kitchens–it’s really decent Key Lime pie. Somebody actually recognized that Key Lime’s are just like any other limes–added for the citrus flavor for the pie, not the color–and it looks and tastes authentic. Probably about 800 calories, too.

I really like this meringue-ish type lemon pie too:

It’s kind of densely creamy with just the right amount of tartness. And another 900 calories, probably. Sometimes the dessert just looks so innocent sitting there on your tray, small and innocuous, looking up, suggesting hey–eat me.

But word gets out when the inflight menu changes: hey–the cheese cake’s back. Burp. And sure, the salad’s always a sensible choice . . .

. . . as long as you don’t chase down it with another fat bomb:

I’m less vulnerable to the cake, which often is dry enough to suck all of the moisture out of your already parched (from the 2% cabin humidity) body.

That and the hermetically sealed bread item could absorb a fuel spill of considerable magnitude. So I find those non-confectionary things easy to avoid. But then there’s the catering out of Mexico:

Always some type of pastry dessert that face it–you’re going to try some of it. And when you do, you’re stuffing all 900 calories into your pie hole.

So, you might well ask, why not just bring your own food? Right? Yeah, like that’s any better, like anyone could be trusted to manage that. Here’s just a couple of bad choices in that regard.

This is The World’s Most Dangerous Pastrami, slapped together lovingly (“Ey–we don’t got all day here, whaddya want?“) in the employee deli in La Garbage Airport, Flushing (is it just me or are these terms all appropriately suggestive?) New York.

Or The Long Haul Meathead Sandwich, good for at least two thousand miles:

But tofu’s healthy, right? Shut up:

Here’s the Blow Your Head Off spicy tofu, an O’Hare exclusive I can’t resist. The heartburn alone will keep you awake for at least a thousand miles, which is kind of the point.

Regardless of whether you bring your own food, the galley ovens are just on the other side of the cockpit door. When the aroma of freshly baked cookies finds it’s way forward, who are you kidding?

You’re eating them. yes, you can defend yourself from any smells . . .

But you’re not gonna avoid cookies, are you? And never mind in flight, what about the junk you bump into hanging out before the flight? Like the old faves stationed around the nation, waiting:

It’s the best breakfast burrito in the nation, waiting for you at a little shop in the Albuquerque airport. Perfect salsa, will light your hair on fire. And in the Portland Airport, “Good Dog Bad Dog,” with sausages you are going to eat no matter what.

Need a closer look? There’s a video look at “Good Dog-Bad Dog” on the bottom of this page. Go there, try one–you’ll be hooked, too. And speaking of dogs, back to basics in the Oklahoma City Airport–Sonic, headquartered in OKC, offers you the essential foot-long chili-cheese-onion dog right across from the gate for your convenience:

This is all leading to a very scary conclusion, fellow fliers: we are destroying the ozone needlessly because of the bulk–literally, the bulk–of those who must be hefted off the ground and into the stratosphere with the fossil fuel burn increase required to haul their fat asses airborne.

Don’t get too smug, either, if you’re not a big butt pilot–we’re only two of 165 butts on my airplane. Yeah, we notice–

The suitcase will fit under the seat–but what about fitting in the seat? Anyway, that’s what’s driving up fuel costs, along with the constant mayhem in the middle east, hurricane rumors near the Gulf, a flu outbreak at a refinery in Jersey–whatever. Those are things Al Gore says we can’t control. Eating in flight is quite another thing.

But actually, it doesn’t look like Big Al’s skipping any meals either. So let’s just forget it–this is The Land of Plenty, to fly across it is going to take plenty of fuel because of all of the plentious butts on board.

Flying is a tough business, in my experience. You deserve a trip to “Good Dog–Bad Dog” in order for fortify yourself for the journey. So click on the video below and enjoy an up close and personal visit to the place.

Me, I’m heading out for yet another long run. I’m personally too cowardly to follow in Big John’s gigantic footsteps–his heart exploded on a layover and he keeled over dead, face down in his angel hair Carabonara.

Bon appetit!


Silver Wings Then Other Things: Part 3

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, airport, flight attendant, flight crew, jet, passenger, pilot, travel, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2011 by Chris Manno

This is Part 3 of the series putting you in the captain’s seat.

Want to start at the beginning? Click here.



I love the smell of jet fuel in the morning.

Okay, maybe right before noon–I don’t bid early flights and since I’ve been here over 25 years, I don’t have to do the buttcrack of dawn flights anymore. But it all leads to the same place: ready for take-off.

And whether that’s your first solo or your most recent take-off line-up, it’s the best part of the world ever: nose pointed down the line, strapped in tight, slight bend at the knees so as to have easy rudder throw in either direction, holding brake pressure on top of the rudder pedals, waiting for release.

Calm. All the engine instruments are flat-lined like a comatose patient, breathing; heartbeat but not much else. Idle RPM on both the giant fan and the turbine.

These new jet engines are mechanical and technological marvels, gi-normous Swiss watch-like machines: tolerances to the thousandth of an inch, spinning at 30-50,000 RPM for hours, tirelessly, core temps averaging blast furnace heat all the while. Each engine weighs over two tons, but puts out 27,000 pounds of thrust, so with both at full power, you have 26 tons of thrust at your fingertips for take-off or whenever you need it.

The pair of CFM-56 engines will gulp down nearly a thousand gallons of jet fuel between take-off and level off, but the marvel is, even heavy-weight we’ll climb to 38,000 feet in about fifteen minutes.  That’s also attributable to the Boeing wing: they were wise enough to increase the size of the wing as they stretched the airframe. Not so with Douglas jets like the DC-9–they just added length to the fuselage and kept the original wing.

I like the feel of the fat, swept and cambered-up Boeing wing, which as a result of the lengthening has a lighter wing-loading than the stretched Douglas.

It just feels more stable and reliable both in the low-speed regime and almost more importantly, at altitude. So on take-off, there’s just a confidence you can bank on with the Boeing: it has power and lift to spare.

“Cleared for take-off” are the words you’re waiting for. Once you gang-bar the exterior lights, the First officer will call, “Before take-off checklist complete.”

You stand the throttles up and immediately, the CRT displaying engine instruments springs to life. The computers below the flight deck measure the throttle position and project where the RPM of both the giant fan and the subsequent rotors will be in a matter of seconds. They stabilize at 40%, then the actual rotor speed catches up as the engines snarl to life. Satisfied at 40%, I punch the take-off power button on the throttles and they move to the position that the engine computers say matches the temperature and the other parameters we programmed and will produce the thrust we’re expecting. I double check that they are within 2% of what I expect, then turn my eyes to the runway stretched out ahead.

It’s best to cast your eyes way down the runway so as to have a good peripheral awareness: engine failures will be most obvious from the initial yaw, plus, directional control at over a hundred miles per hour is best judged with a long view.

Now I’m steering with the rudder pedals, trying to just nudge the nosewheel–stay off the centerline lights with their annoying thumping–until between forty and seventy knots when the forty-foot tall rudder takes a good enough bite of the air to become effective at aerodynamic control.

“Eighty knots,” is the first callout, and it comes fast at take-off power. That’s the abort dividing line: up till eighty, I can consider aborting for various systems problems. After eighty, the abort response is different and because of the kinetic energy built up in our 70-ton freight train, stopping is much more critical a maneuver with serious consequences in terms of brake energy.

Plus, it’s not wise to try to arbitrate at over a hundred miles per hour whether a system indication stems from a failure that would affect our ability to stop: brakes, anti-skid, hydraulics, electrics.

That’s why I’m relieved when the aircraft announces “V1.” That means we’re beyond abort speed–and I’m thinking only of flying, even on just one engine if need be.

Almost immediately, the First Officer calls,”Rotate” and I ease the yoke back gently. Have to let the 737 fly off  and get some tail clearance from the pavement before smoothly rotating the nose up to take-off pitch, which is shown in my heads-up display (HUD). Off we go.

When I see vertical velocity climbing in the HUD, plus increasing radio altitude numbers, I simultaneously give the hand signal  (flat open right palm moving up) and say, “Positive rate–gear up.” The hand signal is in case my voice is blocked by radio chatter or other extraneous noise.

The HUD’s also showing me the energy building on the wing, plus the speed trend. Call for the flaps up before the limit speed, engage vertical navigation (“V-Nav”) at 2500 feet. Track the departure outbound, centering up the radial. I sneak peaks down from the HUD to the Nav display so as to anticipate the turns ahead. Roll into the turns easy–the 737 flies really tight and responsive–and carve out a smooth arc.

First milestone: ten thousand feet. Roll in some nose-down trim so as to accelerate beyond the 10,000′ limit of 250 knots. A quick check to be sure that the cabin is climbing and that fuel is flowing properly: above 10,000′ we can burn center tank fuel if we didn’t on take-off or if there was less than 5,000 pounds at take-off; less than 3,000 pounds now and you reach up and open the fuel crossfeed manifold and turn off the aft fuel boost pump.

Eyes back on the road. Trim. Smoothness. Coffee.

Before you know it, the chronometer says around 18 minutes elapsed time and the altimeter reads 40,000 feet. Trim it up, level and smooth, trim out any yaw, engage the number 1 autopilot. Check the fuel burn, the fuel flow and the quantity. Cabin pressure stable at the correct differential value. Nav tracking properly. Cool: we’re cruising.

So now, here’s you:

No, not just punching the time clock–counting fuel flow, measuring miles remaining against fuel and miles per minute. Print the uplink of the destination weather. Was your forecast correct? No, you didn’t do the weather forecast–you predicted what fuel you’d need on arrival for the approach in use. Kind of glad to have a little extra in the hip pocket, right? Conservative fuel planning.

Note the climb point and more importantly, the gross weight where that can occur. Pay attention; note when it arrives early and use it: tailwinds or headwinds shift the point, but track the weight.

Now it’s time for the P.A. Nobody cares or pays attention–especially the flight attendants who will ask “what’s our ETA” even though you just announced it. Whatever. It’s always partly cloudy, make up a temperature, read off the latest ETA, “glad to have you flying with us today; for now, sit back, relax” blah-blah blah, get ready for the approach.

Uplinked destination weather.

You know the arrival winds. You got the uplinked current weather and terminal information. Set up the approach in the course windows and frequency selectors. Yes, it can change while you’re enroute, but now is the time to set up the approach and get it straight in your head.

There’s the art in what you do: translate this schematic into three dimensional movement in pitch, bank and roll. Each approach has its own peculiarities–so start thinking it through now.

Meanwhile, however, just a constant flow of navigation, fuel flow and performance considerations. Keeping a fuel and navigation log, constant contact with Air Traffic Control:

That and maybe some of the catering from First Class provisioned as “Crew meals.”

The best catering of breads and desserts is out of Mexico and Canada, I think. But at any rate, it’s probably good to stay “calorized”  as a survival tool: time changes, sleep disruptions, long hours, extremes of climate and especially the prolonged hours in a low-humidity cabin–it all takes a toll, physically. And flight crews work in that realm week after week. At least you can buttress your health with the caloric energy you need. It’s not always available between flights.

Manage the fuel. Weather radar and traffic watch. Ride and wind reports, both from other aircraft and uplinked from our Ops center. navigation–course modifications, shortcuts, direct clearances, higher altitudes when we’ve burned off enough fuel.

So it goes for hours on end.

The nav systems are plotting a descent already. They have drawn an imaginary line from altitude to our destination and I can see constantly the angle and the rate of descent changing as we draw nearer. I’m going to induce the descent–with ATC clearance, of course–a little early, maybe fifteen miles or so depending on winds, to make the descent a little flatter and more comfortable in the cabin. Besides, the automation doesn’t account for ATC restrictions added to those already published. Let’s get ahead of the game.

HEFOE Check: Hydraulics, electrics, fuel, oxygen, engines; periodic checks, the mantra from the Air Force days–nostalgic, but appropriate still in an airliner at the top of descent. Which, I’ve decided in my mental picture of the descent angles, distances, speeds and times, is now.

“Tell them we’d like lower,” I say to the First Officer. He nods, instinctively aware that it’s about time to start our descent. This is where passengers in the cabin notice the slight decrease in engine noise and a bit of a nose-down tilt.

The shoulder harness come back on in the cockpit; headsets replace overhead speakers and boom mikes take over from the hand mikes. Approach plates are reviewed on more time; crossing altitudes and speeds, intercepts and radials. This is the fun part: translate the myriad of plotted out instructions into a graceful series of maneuvers culminating with a safe touchdown, then dissipating the kinetic energy of sixty tons thundering down the runway at about one hundred and sixty miles an hour, bringing the whole remarkable aircraft to walking speed, then to a gentle stop at the gate. Piece of cake.

Next week, Part 4: the approach and landing.

Silver Wings, Then Other Things: Part 1.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airliner, airlines, airport, cartoon, flight attendant, flight crew, jet, passenger, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2011 by Chris Manno

It always starts with the wings.

They go on the shirt first–don’t ask me why, tradition, superstition. Maybe it’s just transition: the next thing that goes into the left breast pocket is the laminated pix of the family. It’s the “leaving behind”–the part I hate about flying–but then not really, because they’re there all the time, both figuratively and literally next to my heart. Hate the leaving behind, but also embrace it: you leave concerns on the ground, not as a palliative, but rather because you have other things that need to be 100% in the forefront of your mind.

Picked that handy habit up from skydiving in college: you acknowledge what might be a little unsettling–you will deliberately step into nothingness 2,000 feet up, tumble like a rag doll (be patient) till you regain control, plunging straight down–because you need to be completely focused on what matters in the air. Acknowledge it, then leave it on the ground where it belongs.

Same deal now. Clear your mind because you can’t have a lot of drag on your attention when you’re hurtling through the sky. Epaulets next–need to throw those in the wash, they’re getting dirty from the shoulder straps resting on them in the cockpit–then we’re good to go.

Leaving is always such a downer for me. I like my life, home, family–“the road” as a crewmember is solitude, anonymous hotel rooms; airports, waiting, then periods of intense concentration on details you’ve done a million times, but they have to be done perfectly each time.

A recent ATSA study showed that over one third of all airline accidents occur in the take-off phase of flight, even though that phase accounts for less than 10% of an aircraft’s flight time. What that means is beyond the aircraft being at the lowest end of its performance regime in speed and maneuverability, mistakes in calculations and automation input errors of those performance numbers becomes an immediately dangerous situation as you try to lift off. So the painstaking crosschecks before take-off must be thoroughly painstaking each and every time, no matter what the hour or how tired you are.

Driving to the airport, you can and should actually pay attention to the sky: south wind, they’re landing south; that’ll be a different clearance and since we’re going north today, an extra few minutes. Those are fair weather clouds, must be high pressure; hope it holds through tomorrow. See? Your head’s in the game, you’ve left home–because you have to.

I stay in a bubble from then on, a little withdrawn by choice. Not engaged in anything social, although yeah, I can be glad to see an old friend or say hello. But I like the bubble of isolation so I can save the peace as a backdrop for the work that is to come.

Now comes the first of a bunch of decisions. The route today–why this one? Seems kind of north-ish for our destination. Look further: winds aloft, rides, turbulence. But how old is this wind data? I have a hunch it’s out of date at this late hour–there’s seniority, I don’t do the early morning stuff–and there’s a good chance that the higher altitudes have settled down. Still, I’ll take the additional fuel and if we can cruise higher, we’ll be fat at the destination. Because in my little pilot brain, the only time you can have too much fuel is when you’re on fire.

Flight Operations, below the DFW terminal.

Happy with the route? The fuel load? If not, a simple call to Flight Dispatch and it’s done. Check out the weather radar, first in Ops, but then right before stepping onto the plane on the iPhone app, “My Radar:” you can see the entire route of flight and the radar image of whatever’s going to be in your way.

Pushback’s in an hour–let’s not be too hasty here. No need to get on board and sit. The First Officer’s already there, doing the exterior preflight, then he’ll be doing the cockpit set-up. Better to stay out of the way, and to preserve the bubble as long as possible: just flight-related stuff now.

Lot’s of folks have been busy while you’re doing your preflight ritual. The cabin is usually a wreck from the inbound passengers, plus all of the catering has to be removed, then the new flight catering put into both galleys.

And there’s the periodic maintenance of the jet that needs to be done: required systems checks, some top off of oil and hydraulic fluid if noted by the inbound crew.

Time for a last call home to Darling Bride. She knows the drill, having been a flight attendant for 12 years: yes, you get to ‘travel,” woo-hoo, but it’s not like vacation travel. It’s more like being restricted: you don’t have your stuff, can’t do just what you want, and road slop–whatever you can forage at restaurants and the like–is the diet for three days.

Get that McDonald’s coffee now. That’s right, I like McD’s java, and now it’s a ritual. Sure, the number one flight attendant will make coffee if I ask when I board. But why board asking for stuff? Eighteen First Class passengers will be asking for stuff soon enough. Speaking of the number one, remember the first name. The number one takes care of the flight deck; the least you can do is say “please” and “thank you, [first name].” And maybe a cartoon on the flight info sheet.

Show your ID to the gate agents; “Yes, I’m the captain, let me know if I can help you with anything,” then board, squeezing past the passengers, one of whom will say something inane like “We’ll let you by, we need you” (gee thanks) or the like, but preserve the bubble, say nothing–except maybe “excuse me.”

Set up the “nest:” comm cords and headset plugged in, audio channels (flight interphone and PA only till taxi out), adjust the rudder pedals, then the seat height.

Your "cubicle."

Now the painstaking part: glass to paper. That is, the copilot will read off of “the glass” (the display unit for the nav system) all of the route points for the departure, enroute and arrival. They’ve been data-linked to the aircraft, now he’ll read off what the aircraft has and I’ll compare it to the paper flight plan, plus the ATC clearance which has also been sent to us via data link. Verify that it all matches up.

Ditto the performance numbers in the flight management computers: correct gross weight, center of gravity, temperatures, power selection, bleed configuration, cargo, passenger and  fuel weights. Did you read the ATSB article I linked above? It tells of a 747 crew in the middle east recently who input the gross weight as 300-and-some thousand when the “3” was supposed to have been a “5,” meaning the aircraft actually weighed 200,000 more than it was set up for–and no one in the cockpit noticed the typo. They all died.

Painstaking, tedious–every time, exactly correct. Do you “get” the bubble now? In the Air Force, most folks gave up trying to “chat” with me during pre-flight, for the same reason.

Then as now, as before jumping out of an airplane–leave all the chit-chat behind. There’s other stuff to think about and no clutter is better. As a buddy of mine said when we were brand new captains, “This ain’t a popularity contest.”

Preflight complete, catering off the aircraft, passengers seated, bags stowed, flight attendants ready and finally, the agent pokes her head in the flight deck doorway. “All set, Captain? Okay to close the door?” Me; “Yes ma’am, and thanks.” Ker-THUNK–that’s the entry door closing. Then “cabin ready,one-sixty, four flight attendants” from the number one. They want to be sure in an emergency evacuation you know how many of your crew to account for. That’s your job–accounting for everyone at all times: 160 passengers, 6 crew. Whump–that’s the armor-plated cockpit door sealed shut. “Souls on board,” which is the standard emergency info: 166.

Ah, now we’re on our own–just the way I like it. Full jet, full fuel load, ready to fly. My favorite time in the work day: the good part’s dead ahead: let’s go fly.

Coming next: Part 2, the take-off and more.

The jetbridge is gone, and we're on our own--at last.

Air Travel: How to Fly with Children

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, food, jet, lavatory, parenthood, passenger, pilot, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2010 by Chris Manno

Travel season’s here and it’s time to round up the kids and head for the airport. There are many things you need to know to make your trip with your kids smoother. Here are some important tips based on my 25 years as an airline pilot:

1. Educate beforehand: kids need to visualize what’s going to happen at security before they experience it firsthand. Like their first trip to the dentist, they need to be prepared for an unfamiliar, sometimes uncomfortable environment with a different set of rules from their normal life.

The fact that they can be separated from you by the TSA is scary enough unless they understand the process. Plus, whatever stuffed animal or toy they may carry for personal reassurance is going to have to be scanned separately. Talk it up ahead of time! Make it a game–“you’re going to walk through the arch between mommy and daddy.” There may be a magic wand involved (see above). Teddy’s going to ride the conveyor belt inside a duffle bag (please do–I’ve seen stuffed animals caught in the rollers and shredded to the horror of a little one).

Let your child know that you might be singled out for screening, which can be scary for a child.

If possible, tag team: one parent goes through and waits for the child or children on the secure side. Never send a child through first to wait–if you’re detained for further screening, you will be separated from your unsupervised child.

Hand carried items: this is a problem. You’ll have enough to carry just to support a child’s travel, so try to minimize loose items by making sure all hand-carried bags have some type of closing device to keep items inside. Open containers or bags will inevitably spill their toys, crayons, books and food when jostling through the security screening machine. Backpacks for elementary school aged kids make sense: they can carry them and still have hands free, and backpacks can be closed with drawstrings and zippers.

Make a total count of bags ahead of time–“we have three bags and a stroller”–and make it a game: “Mommy said 4 items.” Count and gather items on the secure side.  Tag everything and tie a colored ribbon or string on each item–kids will help find the color or label you choose, so make it distinctive. If you leave anything behind at the security checkpoint by mistake, chances are slim that you’ll ever see it again. In the chaos of gathering clothing, shoes, bags and kids, it’s important to inventory all for items before leaving the area for your gate.

2. At the gate: get a tag from the agent for your stroller. But before leaving home, get a protective bag for the stroller or car seat. Both Target and Baby’s-R-Us have them for around $20, and you do need one to keep the stroller or car seat clean.

Protect your stroller or car seat.

Also, the bag will keep loose or losable parts together, or at least in one bag–we find loose pieces of stroller trays and accesories all over the ramp and in the cargo compartment of the plane.  Cargo handling is an ungentle, dirty business–the cargo hold is not clean, nor are those other bags smashed in with yours or actually, the hands that handle the gazillion bags a day. Cover your stroller or car seat and keep the dirt and grime out of your infant or toddler’s food chain. Plus, on your return trip, you can stuff a world of used laundry into the bag as well as the seat or stroller.

Should your infant be gnawing on any of this?

Find yourself a spot at the gate that allows your little one(s) some space to expend a little energy. Consult the airport guide to find any kids’ playgrounds, a great idea that’s making its way into more and more airports. Usually, they are corralled off from the main traffic areas, allowing kids to run and play–something that presents a tripping hazard for kids and adults in the regular gate area.

Kid's Zone in the Detroit Airport

Check on-line to see if your airport has one, or just ask an agent or passenger service person. Just keep track of time, and be sure to listen carefully for gate change announcements while you’re there.

3. Food and water: here’s a more in-depth discussion of food while flying, but here are a few hints tailored to parents and kids. First, the MacDonald’s Kid’s meal in the airport?

Maybe–but only in the airport food court. Dragging this messy meal in flimsy containers on board–especially given everything else you have to carry–is a bad idea. There’s really no elbow room on board, which kid’s require to eat like kids do, plus there’s no way to contain the mess or clean it up afterward.

In the above-linked discussion, I make this important point: it’s not about eating on the plane–it’s about not being hungry. If you can’t feed your child right before the flight, be sure to have non-perishable, non-crushable or non-spillable snacks stashed in your hand-carried bag. Don’t count on any in-flight snacks which may not be kid-friendly (Does your toddler like beef jerky? Potted meat?) and are subject to the on-board service schedule and availability: once they’re sold out, that’s it.

Bring snacks and water for everyone. Again, don’t count on the inflight service which may be delayed or in case of turbulence, canceled altogether. Bring what you and your child will need!

4. Sanitation: the aircraft is known to many flight attendants as “The Flying Petrie Dish.” This is another good reason not to bring a meal on board: the aircraft isn’t really clean. Bring hand-sanitizer, plus wipes for your seat’s armrests, tray table and anywhere a small child is likely to touch.

$2.99 at Costco

Save yourself a cold or worse down the road: wipe down the common areas within your child’s reach.

5. Ears and pressurization: although modern jetliners have automatic cabin pressure controllers with very gradual rates of change during ascent and descent, little ears can be sensitive to the changes anyway. Be sure that your child is not congested due to a cold or such and if so, consider an over the counter children’s decongestant to ensure they can clear their ears. Some parents have had good luck with having their kids drink during descent, which requires swallowing, which helps equalize pressure between the inner and outer ear.

You’ll need to be prepared: bring something to drink in a container. Flight attendants are required to collect all service items in preparation for landing and so will not be offering or serving any beverages.

6. Deplaning: Inventory time! How many bags? Contents–particularly stuffed animals–returned to the bag (check the floor around your seat) and bags closed! Do this on descent–don’t wait till everyone behind you on the plane is trying to deplane! Be ready.

With my youngest on a trip, we once discovered the tragedy of a missing teddy bear after we got home. So now we actually have roll call of all traveling stuffed animals at the hotel and on the plane.

Much easier than having to call the hotel and prepay the shipping for a somewhat threadbare but much needed bear. Trust me. Check seatback pockets thoroughly too for things you or your children might have stashed and forgotten about.

7. Department of “Duh:” Shouldn’t have to say this, but some people don’t seem to even think about this nastiness, so here goes.

Don’t change a diaper at your seat. The aircraft lavs all have pull-down changing tables for that purpose.

And that’s the correct place to handle that matter. Literally, speaking of that “matter” or material, would you want my Uncle Fred to change his diaper on your row?

The only difference in the “matter” is in quantity, not content (well, Uncle Fred likes anchovies, but still). Yes, it’s your cute little one, but it still is what it is and everyone on the plane wants to not share the experience and scent.

Thanks, Uncle Fred.

And seriously: DON’T hand the used diaper to a flight attendant! Or DO NOT plan to have them dispose of it in the meal cart (I know, it’s incredible, but people do). Put the diaper in a barf bag and dispose of it in the lavatory waste bin. Again, no one on the plane–particularly the crew–wants to get involved with anyone else’s bodily waste. Would you?

You want me to take WHAT?

Actually, there are more helpful travel hints for parents traveling with children, but this will do for now. If you only master these items alone, your trip will be smoother and more enjoyable.

Have a great trip–and if you have any other helpful travel tips, send them to me and I’ll add them!

Inflight Survival: Foodishness at 30,000′

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, food, jet, lavatory, passenger, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2010 by Chris Manno

First off, let’s get one thing straight: inflight survival’s not about eating in flight–it’s about not being hungry.

If you’ve been off the planet since the mid 1980s, you may not know this, but unless you have been on another planet, you realize that no domestic airline serves food in Coach.

They’ll sell you something that is somewhat “foodish,” but remember what I said: the mission is to not be hungry in flight. If you are, you’ve failed the mission already: you didn’t eat before the flight, and/or you don’t have an efficient stash of caloric emergency input.

My stash emergency stash in my flight bag.

This is all pocket-sized, crush-proof, non-liquid stuff that will go through security without any problems. No, it’s not really “eating;” it’s doing what I remind you is the mission: not being hungry. Forget the idea of “eating” in flight. Well, unless you’re in the cockpit.

But even then, there’s still the same problem passengers have in back: you’re not getting anything to eat until a certain time in the schedule of the flight–not necessarily when you need it. Hence my stash.

And further, at least in the cabin, you’re going to wait also for the remains to be collected of whatever “foodish” thing you’ve paid for.

Here's a $7 United Airlines "buy on board" snack. How's the potted meat dinner working out?

Given that you’re already crammed into about 2.5 cubic feet, do you really want to sit with your trash and wait for the pick-up cart which is waaaaay after the “serving” cart selling the buy on board junk?

So plan to calorize before you board. Yes, this means you’ll have to spend some money in the airport. Reality check: you indicated through your demand for WalMart pricing on an expensive product (your airline seat is not cheap to produce) that you would not pay for the lunch on board that you know have to buy in the terminal–deal with it.

Even that, though, as I said is a hassle to drag on board along with your hand-carried stuff. The containers are flimsy, the food messy, especially when you’re crammed into you middle seat between one who’s coughing and sneezing all over your food, the other drooling over and eying it longingly.

Forget the messy on-board sky picnic in the filthy passenger seat (no, they seldom get more than a quick wipe off, if that, hence the flight attendant nickname for the passenger cabin, “The Flying Petri dish.)

Now, let’s think of the second survival need: water.

Buy it, bring it, drink it. Do we have to go over the serving cart lecture again? How you don’t want to wait while that trundling inchworm creeps up and down the aisle? In survival school, they teach you to drink your water and ration your sweat. That is–stay hydrated. Don’t wait. The aircraft atmosphere is at about 2% humidity which will dry you like a raisin insidiously: when you notice that you’re parched, it’s too late.

Buy the water in the terminal, schlep it on board, drink it pre-emptively. Yes, you may get to spend some quality time in the filthy on-board out house. But you’ll feel better in flight and at your destination.

Let’s recap:

1. Forget about eating on board. If you must, eat the high cal, uncrushable, minimum mess, compact snacks you were either efficient enough to buy ahead of time, or if not, at least you were smart enough to buy at any airport news stand. Don’t bother with the elaborate carryout.

It’ll be a huge mess, which will irritate those passengers crammed in next to you, breathing all over your food. Plus, you’ll have to sit with a pile of garbage till the inchworm cart creeps past your row.

Bring efficient caloric items that will stave off hunger until you get off the plane.

2. Bring water. And drink it pre-emptively. Sure they’ll eventually get to you with the serving cart so you can have your whopping 4 ounces of liquid. But you need more.

Drink it before and during the flight to stay ahead of dyhdration which causes fatigue and headaches, two things you don’t need when you’re traveling, right?

It’s a jungle up there, trust me. But you can make it survivevable if you think ahead, and think rationally: never mind eating in flight. Calorize, hydrate, and survive the trip so that you can enjoy your destination and maybe, find some real food.

Flight Deck: Zoom With A View.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline delays, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, airport security, cartoon, elderly traveller, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2010 by Chris Manno

Wanted: the lucky few with vision.

Job title: Zoom With A View.

“Applicant must be willing to sit for long hours looking out window at ever-changing sky. Hours vary, as does the sky, and applicants must have the ability to stay alert regardless of the hour.

Must have the ability to play nicely with others, particularly in crowded airspace . . .

. . . where “bumping into a stranger” is never a good thing.

Job often requires eating on the fly.

Working with fun people in very close quarters.

Must keep an eye on details inside, while appreciating what’s going on outside as well.

Applicants must demonstrate innovative vision in traffic jams . . .

and an ability to capture a moment visually doesn’t hurt.

And on the ground . . .

Old meets new in Louisville

. . . it’s helpful to have an eye for the sublime,

. . . and a tolerance for the absurd.

Workplace security is provided by a specialized force of hand-picked officials

trained and employed by a government agency.

How can you NOT rest easy when they are responsible for your security? Well, never mind that.

Paperwork is kept to a minimum,

. . . and stunning views are at the maximum

. . . if you just look.

Nonetheless, must see that people are what really matter anyway

especially when it’s “us against the world” of delays and weather and maintenance problems . . .

. . .  you realize who your friends are,

sometimes, if you’re lucky, for life.

So vision is key, maintaining perspective crucial. Applicants must be able to perceive magnificence in the minute

in order to realize what really matters, and be able to recognize your own minuteness next to the magnificient

in order to see with humility

and perceive humanity with the the appropriate respect.

Applicants simply need several thousand pilot hours of jet time to apply; approximately one in two hundred will be selected.

Views provided free.



Inflight Insanity: My Top 5 List

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline cartoon, airline delays, airliner, airlines, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, food, jet, lavatory, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2010 by Chris Manno

Twenty-four years and counting as an airline pilot–the past 19 as captain–have taught me to never say or think “now I’ve seen it all.” Because just when you think you have, something like #1 below happens.

I still expect to have many more years of flying ahead. But I can say that over these flying years so far I’ve seen a lot of almost unbelievably bizarre things that I wouldn’t have thought could ever happen in the airline world had I not seen them myself–even though often, I wished I hadn’t. Here, then, is my list of the top five weirdness, at least so far, and the valuable lessons in each.

5. A short, stocky taciturn man connecting onto our flight south after clearing Customs from Shang Hai boarded our plane early. He headed to the last row, sat down, dropped his tray table and pulled a strange device from his carry-on bag. This calculator-sized gizmo had blinking lights, a few loose wires, and an LCD display that flashed an ever-changing series of numbers. He then draped his jacket over his head and most of the tray table, tenting himself in seemingly intense concentration on the strange device’s number display.

Of course, that freaked out the flight attendants supervising boarding. They called me on the flight deck and reported the whole oddball situation. Sigh. Why couldn’t he be on someone else’s flight? I called operations and requested a Passenger Service agent to investigate what certainly was abnormal passenger behavior.

The guy spoke only Chinese and tried to ignore any requests to deplane. Eventually, law enforcement officers were summoned to ask him a few questions. As he was led off the plane by Passenger Service agents, glaring at everyone and muttering in some Mandarin dialect, I made sure to stand behind the waiting police officers just in case he went Ninja-crazy with some obscure martial arts move from deepest China, ripping out your heart with one hand and showing it to you as you collapse.

Found out at our next stop that investigators–and translators–determined that the man’s strange device was a “random number generator”that he liked to stare at because it “calmed him down” since he was afraid of flying. Lesson here: don’t act like a weirdo-zombie with a strange device during boarding. It freaks out the crew.

4. In flight, I kept hearing a male voice outside the cockpit door. We had an all-female cabin crew on that flight, so I knew it wasn’t one of their voices I heard. I had made the standard P.A. reminding passengers that congregating near the galleys was not allowed. I also heard a muffled female voice sounding urgent in between words from the male voice. The seatbelt sign was on, so no passengers should have been up anyway.

Sigh. Can’t everyone just stay seated when the seatbelt sign is on? Of course not. I called back to the forward flight attendant, asking what was going on. “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you,” she answered, then asked me to make another seatbelt P.A.. That worked–the male voice vanished.

Later, the #1 flight attendant came up to explain why the man was standing outside of the cockpit door and mostly in her galley. “He had just come out of the forward lav and was doing calisthenics of some sort. I asked him what he was doing and he said he’d been feeling gassy, went into the lav to pass gas but couldn’t, so he was trying to work out a big fart.”

Lesson #4: share your gas with your fellow passengers near your seat–not up front. We’re busy flying the plane and breathing is key.

3. During boarding in Puerto Vallarta, a woman with a grating New Jersey accent poked her head into the flight deck and demanded “can you guarantee that there are no peanuts on this plane?”  I thought about it and realized I really can’t guarantee that. We don’t have any peanuts in the catering, but who knows if other passengers may have some with them as a snack? Peanuts are not a prohibited item. “No,” I answered slowly, pretty sure I was correct, “I really can’t guarantee that.”

“Well,” she snapped back, “my son has a severe peanut allergy and if there’s so much as one peanut on this plane, he’ll go into convulsions. So you’d better be sure.” Then she huffed off to the back of the plane where her husband and son were seated.

My first officer looked at me with a raised eyebrow and a sly grin that said what are you going to do, captain?


Sigh. I called Operations on one of the VHF radios and requested a phone patch with the 24-Hour Physician On Duty at Headquarters. After hearing the woman’s story, he made the corporate recommendation: deplane the family. That would be my choice as pilot-in-command as well, because I don’t really want to do an emergency descent and landing on some crude runway in a foreign country with questionable medical help anyway.

I called to the back of the plane and asked the flight attendants to pass along the directive to deplane to the peanut-sensitive family. Within the twenty seconds it would take to stride the 130 feet from the back to of the jet to the front, we suddenly had an irate man with a grating New Jersey accent standing between the First Officer and me.

“We’re not getting off,” he announced, “so you just go about your business.”

I put on my game face. “Well sir, the decision has been made at corporate headquarters. It’s out of my hands–you’ll need to gather your belongings and deplane. We can’t risk your son going into convulsions in flight as your wife warned us.”

“Ignore her,” he said with a wave of his hand. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. And we’re not deplaning.” He stomped off.

Sigh. I called Puerto Vallarta Operations and explained that we would need law enforcement to escort some passengers from the flight. “Si, senor,” came the cheery reply,” we will send you some help.”

Good enough. I went back to gazing at the palm-studded landscape, the sunny breeze, the ocean in the distance . . . the dumptruck full of soldiers with semi-automatic rifles pulling up in front of of the aircraft.

Huh? “Looks like the cavalry is here,” my First Officer remarked idly.

I called the Flight Attendants in the back of the plane. “Could you send Mr. Congeniality up front one more time?”

Shortly, the Jersey guy reappeared, looking annoyed. “You can’t make us get off. I know my rights.”

“Well, if you look out there,” I pointed to the twenty-some soldiers fidgeting in the hot sun, now line abreast with their weapons unslung in front of the camouflaged dumptruck. “Those folks there are going to help you off the plane if you don’t go on your own.”

He stomped off with mild cursing; shortly the whole family deplaned with Mr. Congeniality muttering threats about “rights” and “lawsuits.” The soldiers looked disappointed as they climbed back into the truck. No guerilla assault today.

Lesson #3: get your story straight before you board. And try to avoid phraseology like, “you can’t make me.”

2. Flying with my favorite flight attendant of all time as #1 flight attendant. We’re inbound to DFW from somewhere up north, and about an hour from landing, The Gorgeous One calls me on the flight deck.

“Just so you know,” she tells me, “we have a guy in First Class saying he needs oxygen, he’s having trouble breathing, and he’s already had three heart attacks.”

Sigh. So close to home, and yet so far away; imagine the paperwork in this. But no one ever dies in flight, I tell myself–they’re just incapacitated. Much less paperwork that way.

The Most Beautiful Flight Attendant of All Time finds a nurse on board who takes the guy’s vital signs while I query the navigation data base for the closest airport with at least a 5,000 foot runway: Tulsa.

The First Officer starts the divert procedures without me having to say anything. The nurse reports that the guy is having chest pains, too. The corporate Doctor-on-Call concurs: land the plane, get the guy some help. I tell Darling Bride we’ll be on the deck in fifteen minutes. Sorry hon–your day just got longer, but I know you want to get him on the ground before he needs the jumper cables.

Like clockwork, we secure the necessary clearances and point the nose towards Tulsa. Medical help on the ground is standing by, ready to whisk Mr. Cardio off the plane and to a medical center. Good deal? Nope.

The passenger doesn’t want to land in Tulsa. Maybe the thought of dying in Oklahoma–living there would be awful enough–is too much for him to contemplate. Whatever–he’s now livid. That’s not helping his heart rate any.

We land safely and taxi right to a gate were an ambulance waits.

Medics strap him to a gurney and wheel him off the plane, protesting all the way, yelling about the pilot’s (that’s me) incompetence. Well, there’s certainly that, plus the thousands of dollars the divert cost, never mind the inconvenience to the hundred or so other passengers with normally operating central circulatory pumps who would likely miss their connections in DFW as a result of the immediate action to save his life. And to save me the paperwork, but regardless: buh-BYE.

Lesson #4: no good deed goes unpunished. Nonetheless, if you’re going to have cardiac problems, we’re going to try to save your life. So have your heart attack quietly if your downline connection is that important.

And the Number One bizarro experience, at least most recently:

1. We’d pre-boarded a thirty-something individual who had mobility issues. A travel aide whose sole purpose was to attend to this passenger’s needs also boarded. Once they were comfortably settled and we were about to start general boarding, a mechanic announced that a necessary system check would cause a delay. So we stopped boarding, figuring the passengers would prefer the more spacious terminal for their delay. But the pre-boarded folks remained in the cabin.

After about twenty minutes, the passenger sent the travel aide into the terminal to fetch some junk food.

I saw the travel aide leave the jet bridge because I was at the gate counter on the phone with dispatch, coordinating a new flight release.

Then I noticed on the computer screen I was viewing that the crew list had changed: the number one flight attendant position was vacant.

Huh? I’d only been off the plane for a matter of minutes.

My First Officer filled me in when I returned to the cockpit: as soon as the travel aide left, the individual decided a trip to the lav was an urgent necessity. Which couldn’t happen without the travel aide.

So the number one flight attendant, being somewhat of a saint with perhaps a touch of insanity, agreed to help, holding a styrofoam coffee cup for the still seated passenger.

THREE TIMES. And apparently, on the last “cupful,” through some anomaly of aim, trajectory or hydraulics, our flight attendant ended up hosed down.

And so we ended up with a replacement flight attendant.  There’s no “sigh” with this one–just “ewwwwww,” plus see also lesson #4: “no good deed goes unpunished.”

And here’s lesson #5: just when you think you’ve seen it all–watch out. I just don’t say those words any more, and now you know why.


The Big 5 Conspire To Ruin Your Air Travel

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline delays, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, airport security, elderly traveller, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, food, jet, passenger, passenger bill of rights, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2010 by Chris Manno

Want to know who to blame for your airline hassles? Here are “The Big 5” conspiring to ruin your air travel:

1. Congress. In an ill-conceived attempt to legislate a “one-size-fits-all” solution to largely anomalous and often anecdotal reports of airline tarmac delays, Congress enacted a law effective April 29th mandating multi-million dollar fines for airlines with aircraft delayed longer than a specified time, hoping to lessen passenger delays. But the law will have the opposite effect: instead of freeing passengers from tedious hours-long delays, this bill will create indefinite delays and cancellations of flights, stranding passengers enroute and at origination airports (for an in-depth analysis of the downside of this disastrous bill, click here).

Continental Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek said his airline will be forced to cancel flights rather than risk fines in the millions for an extended tarmac delay. The ultimate impact of this unavoidable cancellation for the traveler?

You will find yourself along with hundreds of other on the stand-by list for the handful of open seats going to your destination. And there can be only a handful of seats–and they’re not going to be cheap as a walk-up fare–because of number 2 below.

2. Alfred E. Kahn.

Known as “The Father of Airline De-Regulation,” economist Alfred E. Kahn was Jimmy Carter’s Chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board. His blueprint for airline de-regulation was based on a flawed economic model, and was as misguided as economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s assurance to Lyndon Johnson that the Viet Nam war would be short and wouldn’t affect inflation. Kahn proposed complete de-regulation of airline routes and fares, positing that the marketplace forces would drive down ticket prices and provide the American public with cheap and plentiful airline seats.

What he failed to consider in his economic model is the fact that not only is the product–an airline seat–not inexpensive to produce, it is also linked to energy costs which are both volatile and unpredictable. “Cheap airfares” for the public are incredibly expensive to produce, forcing in the progressive “unbundling” of the airline product: now passengers must pay for each component of the flight–a checked bag, food, beverage, amenities like a pillow or a hard-copy ticket–and the revenue still only marginally covers the price of the product, with the airline industry losing billions nonetheless. Consumers insisted on paying less for an airline ticket, so now

You wanted your ticket for $10 less, now you hand that over to McD's instead.

they can cough up for food and drink at airport prices between flights. Everything must yield revenue or there is no airline, and nothing with revenue potential on board can be simply given away.

Further, Kahn didn’t foresee that many airlines would use bankruptcy as an operating shield for years (thank #1 above for not amending bankruptcy laws) to gain an unfair advantage over the few airlines that didn’t. This abuse of bankruptcy law dealt a financial beating to carriers that paid their bills but still had to compete head-to-head with many who simply walked away from their debt.

3. Airline Capacity. Every airline that intends to survive the high production cost and low revenue stream has cut capacity to the bone. This is common sense: empty seats are an unrecoverable loss and waste, and airline planners have analyzed traffic and passengers in order to minimize such waste and loss. For the traveler, this means less empty seats–seats which are vital when a flight is cancelled due to #1 above, or for the more common cancellations due to weather or equipment. Used to be that the percentage of empty seats was higher, allowing the system to absorb passengers from a cancellation or delay. Such margins are a luxury of the past with airlines having to deal with out-of-control fuel prices with an ever-shrinking revenue stream.

True, Kahn’s brainchild did spawn new entrant airlines–but they don’t have a seat surplus either, or they simply go out of business.

4. Airway Infrastructure. There are only so many take-offs that are physically possible at 5pm at LaGuardia. Although Alfred Kahn’s model says the marketplace will regulate itself, if everyone wants to sell a competitive 5pm departure, it is clearly predictable that there will be massive delays, which are the rule at airports like LaGuardia and many in the northeast, as well as from airports inbound to those airports. Kahn’s leverage, unfortunately, is you, the passenger, and the delays and misconnects you will suffer as a result. But in a free market, what business can afford to not compete in the market that customers demand? And when they do, how do they deal with number 1 above? As Continental CEO Jeff Smisek promised, there will be rampant cancellations and stranded travelers as a result.

LaGuardia’s delays are emblematic of the entire national air route system: despite Kahn’s academic model, the airways are saturated at all of the commercially viable times when passenger demand dictates the competitive environment. Which leads to more delays–and in the face of congress’s newly enacted financial penalties, cancellations and misconnects for you, the passenger.

5. The Big Box Store.

The heyday of the discount “big box store” gave rise to a consumer expectation of all products and services for steep discounts. Everything from home electronics to auto parts to furniture is now sold in bulk at drastically reduced prices by wholesalers with only minimal investment in buildings and equipment.

A new aircraft, by contrast, costs upwards of $50-$100 million per aircraft, and hundreds of such aircraft are required to produce a fleet with a competitive route structure. Further, each aircraft has to earn revenue daily despite upturns and downturns in the travel market, as well as drastic fluctuations in fuel costs which follow oil prices. Face it: the cost of an airline round trip is not the same as a set of tires or a Cowboy’s football game–but the public paradoxically expects to pay less anyway (more details–click here).

Still not convinced that cheap airline travel is an absurd expectation? Ask yourself why “cheap surgical hospitals” aren’t also a consumer demand.

Does anyone really think flight at 7 miles up and the speed of a 22 caliber bullet is any less risky than surgery? Does anyone demand the cheapest bare bones surgical “product?” Is airline pricing too high? Read this and decide.

Regardless, there remains an unrealistic expectation among consumers that somehow ticket prices should fit their budget rather than the actual cost of the product. Part of that stems from the low-overhead “big box” pricing that is the norm on other big ticket items, part from Alfred Kahn’s unrealistic promise to consumers of cheap pricing on an expensive product, and part due to congressional unwillingness to address the disparity between the two.

You tell me. These “Big 5” items have changed air travel from a Nieman-Marcus experience to a K-Mart Death March. Further, the airport and airway infrastructure are badly in need of technological upgrade.

The traveling public can make changes in #1 and #5; it’s time to junk #2, and it’s time to force #1 to make the needed upgrades to #4. The airlines themselves will take care of #3 when that happens.

Until the public and congress fix this, at least now you know whom to blame for your airline woes this travel season.



Airline Pilot: Day 2 In The Life.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, airport security, cartoon, elderly traveller, flight attendant, flight crew, food, hotels, jet, layover, passenger, pilot, security, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2010 by Chris Manno

[Did you miss Day One of this saga? If so, here it is if you’d like to catch up.]

The phone blasts you awake at an ungodly hour. “Huh? What?”

“Crew Tracking. Your inbound aircraft is late, so your pick-up at the hotel will be an hour later.”

Damn–you realize you’re in a hotel. Not at home. “Uh, okay. You gonna call the first officer?” No sense letting him get any more sleep than you, right? Besides, he’d be down for crew van pick-up an hour early.

“Sure, Captain.” Click. Hate wake up calls–that’s why you never request one. Two alarms, plus the cell phone. And slowly, it dawns on you what’s just happened: Crew Tracking woke you up early to tell you to sleep later.

Of course, you can’t go back to sleep. Wrong time zone, too awake. Coffee? Foraging for coffee. Darn, it’s the one-cup jobber: won’t stay warm, but take it or leave it.

Strike One: now you’re going to have to risk the coffee bath in the crew van bumping to the airport. It can’t be helped–you need your morning medication. Meanwhile, time for your bloodbath: shave.

You know a widebody captain who just retired (initials Dan H.) but swore he always took not only the hotel free stuff like soap and shampoo, but also the extra roll of toilet paper and when he was running low at home, a couple light bulbs, too. Of course, you took a beer glass from the LaGarbage hotel bar every trip because they were charging $9 per draft. Ought to get something for that price, right? And you are probably the reason why now they allow carry-outs only in a plastic cup. Shrug . . . you have a complete set of their glasses anyway.

Stick your head in the shower, wash away the cobwebs. What the . . . okay, that’s Strike Two:

It’s like you’re in a submarine that’s been hit and is going down.

Anyway, blot that drain clog out of your mind’s eye–the submarine image is better. Grab your stuff, take the key, too, in case you need to come back up for something you’ve forgotten.

Get downstairs for pick up, if your time zone math is correct. If not, and you’re an hour or two early (don’t laugh–you’ve done it), then you’ll need your key to go back upstairs, acting nonchalant (yeah, I just came down to look around . . . uh, with my bags).

It’s quiet in the van because half of the crews are from the opposite coast and so are not yet quite awake; some from the early coast are already on their phones. You and your bunch are on Central time, midway between time zones and everyone, regardless, is heading to the four points of the compass.

It’s a funny career field, isn’t it? First thing everyone does after coming to work is scatter across the country. Maybe that’s why there’s a feeling of comraderie among crews, even from other airlines. We’re all in this nomadic drifting life together, passing each other along the way.

You hate the single point security, at least for the passengers. You’re at work, and you’ve done this so many times it’s pretty well a mindless annoyance. And there are crew lines. You hate the monolithic hassle of giant security operations like DEN and PIT for the families and the elderly who are almost overwhelmed. The special crew line? Well, should we get to the gate and preflight, then wait for the passengers, or vice versa?

There’s no time for anything after the security lines, just go to work. Not making eye contact with passengers, which will normally lead to questions you can’t answer anyway ( more details? click here). There’s an exception, though–there’s always time to help the very young, and the very old.

And of course, the families shepherding both through the airport. Their travel is most important, being their first or maybe even their last flight, and they need and deserve your help just as you would hope your family would get help in a similar situation. Find your way to the gate and  here’s the payoff for you.

The jet, fueled, waiting. That goes back to the core, to the Air Force days: pointy rockets lined up on a quiet ramp, waiting to split the morning sky with the sound of  jet engines. Let’s get to work.

Preflight done, boarding, pushback; take-off.

Do that again two more times. Food? No time–cram in a quick meal eaten out of your lap.

... and keep the cracker crumbs off the radar, okay?

Same sequence, step by methodical and disciplined step, two more times through three more time zones. By the last leg, you’re pretty well worn out. But there’s no slack, no easing up: the third leg has to be just as precise as the first.

Enjoy the desert moonrise, watch the fuel flow, and a constant eye on the route and the weather. The finish line’s only a couple hours away. Never mind the time changes and hotel sleep and missed meals, bring everyone home safely. Park the jet; captain’s the last one off. Now you can relax, the rest is just a sleepwalk to the hotel. And here’s why it’s all worthwhile.

Walk around them. Head for yet another hotel, try to get some rest. The whole thing starts over again tomorrow morning.


Stay tuned for Part 3: Going Home.

Coming soon . . .

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