Archive for transportation

Airsickness: Here’s Help.

Posted in air sickness, air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline passenger, airline pilot blog, weather with tags , , , , , , , on July 20, 2017 by Chris Manno

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If you are susceptible to air sickness, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger: I’ve been flying jets as a pilot for nearly 40 years and I can honestly say I’ve been there. Add to that, there’s really nothing worse than being trapped in a jet, needing to heave.

But here’s the thing. There are steps you can take to minimize your vulnerability to air sickness in flight.

First, preflight:

  1. Be physically ready: Your physical condition matters, including nutrition, rest and hydration leading up to your flight. A late night of recreation–especially one that engenders a hangover–before a morning flight will leave you sleep deprived and feeling poorly to start with. Lack of sleep will lower your resistance to the physical stresses of flying like dehydration (the humidity in the average airline cabin in flight is 1-2%), vibration, and vestibular effects like roll, yaw and pitch. So: be rested, hydrated and have nutrition taken care of BEFORE you board.
  2. Choose your seat wisely: Pilots know that the aircraft pivots around its aerodynamic center of gravity. So, just as the hub of a bicycle tire moves less drastically than the outer edge of the spokes, points on the aircraft nearest the center of gravity move the least.
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The aircraft pivots in pitch and roll around the center of gravity: sit over the wing for the smoothest ride with the least motion.

That means a seat over the wing will be the most stable, the least affected by the motions of yaw, pitch and roll. By contrast, what feels like a little motion over the wings is felt in the nose and tail much more strongly. Reserve a seat near the wings: ask a reservations agent (might cost you) or check the aircraft diagram on line.

Inflight:

3. Medication: Check with your your primary care physician for any medication that would meet your needs: OTC Dramamine, for example, if recommended by your doctor. Be sure to take all recommended medication BEFORE the flight.

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4. Stay hydrated: bring your own water on board. Buy a bottle, or refill a refillable bottle in the terminal once you’re past security screening. DO NOT count on an in-flight water service because of factors such as delays or turbulence that can prevent access to hydration–be responsible for yourself and bring water.

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Turbulence from weather far away may affect your flight even when well clear of storms.

5. Booze: Refrain from alcohol in flight: the effects of some alcohol include dehydration and some side effects on your sense of balance.  Avoid heavy meals before and during flight–they only add to the volume of stomach contents that can be disturbed by turbulence, pitch, yaw and roll.

6. Entertainment: some flyers who are subject to motion sickness have told me that reading a book makes things worse because their eyes pick up the motions of flight (including choppy air) and add to the vestibular upset caused by the sensations of flight. Others suggest headphones to listen to soothing music, others suggest the distraction of a movie either on a personal device or via an aircraft system. What works for you? Experiment, bring music, a digital movie or TV show.

7. Fly early: not only is the air smoother before daylight begins to heat the air and cause disturbances, traffic is lighter and delays less frequent. Beat rush hour–fly before 10am if you can.

Air sickness is no fun and for some people, a vulnerability they can not avoid. But if you pay attention to the suggestions above, you can minimize the effects of of flight motion and maximize the tolerability of your flight.

Bon Voyage–

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Air Travel Delays: My Top 3 Cause Factors

Posted in air traveler, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, passenger, passenger bill of rights, pilot, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , on July 3, 2017 by Chris Manno

Look, I get it: I sit in both ends of the jet for some very long delays. My last two turnarounds were planned for 7 hours but turned into 8.5 and 9.1 respectively. That made my pilot duty day, with preflight and ground turnaround time, over 12 hours.

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Me deadheading in the very last row of coach, carefully not man-spreading and conceding the armrest to the middle seat passenger (basic air travel etiquette, BTW)

We waited over an hour for takeoff, then had additional holding in the air before landing at Philadelphia International Airport.

I’d deadheaded up to Philly to fly the jet back to DFW Airport but the result of the Air Traffic Control delays getting the jet off the ground in DFW and enroute to Philadelphia made our Philly-DFW flight well over an hour late into DFW.

That caused many passenger misconnects once we arrived at DFW after yet another round of airborne holding for nearly an hour. My flight plan from Philadelphia to DFW called for a flight time of 3:27 but with holding, the actual flight time became 4:30.

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That’s due to storms moving through the north Texas area faster and more southerly than predicted, constricting air traffic routes into DFW. So, we were delayed by ATC for an hour holding over a fix southeast of the airport after an enroute course refile to avoid weather.

I ain’t complaining, but I got home at 2am instead of 11pm. That’s my job and I did it correctly and safely for all 167 folks on board.

But that’s not the big picture. What’s driving ever-increasing air travel delays? Here’s my Top 3 Factors.

  1. Increased traffic volume. According to the DOT Bureau of Aircraft Statistics, airline departures have increased 5-7% annually since 2010. That means more aircraft crammed into exactly the same airspace, which means traffic flow abatement is ever-more necessary and unfortunately, more present: ground stops abound; inflight holding is often unavoidable even after enduring a ground stop.
  2. Weather predictive delays: the National Weather Service provides more and better predictive weather products that the FAA Air Traffic Control Center (ARTC) attempts to integrate into their traffic management constraints. In theory, this is a good thing but in practice, I question the effectiveness: air traffic is often preemptively ground-stopped or re-routed based on weather predictions, which aren’t always accurate (see above), meanwhile, air traffic then must be re-routed from the ARTC re-routes.
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The storms often do not conform to the FAA predicted movement, causing yet another layer of reroutes and delays.

3. Airline “banking” (the grouping of inbound-outbound flight exchanges at hub airports) cannot handle the disruption of hours-long delays: when one complex or “bank” of flights is delayed outbound, there’s nowhere to park and deplane the next complex. This leads to individual airline-imposed ground stops: your flight will not be pushed off from your origin airport gate until there’s a reasonable expectation of gate availability at your arrival hub. This is to avoid the old “sitting on a tarmac with toilets overflowing waiting for a gate” urban legends that engendered the Passenger Bill of Rights.

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Given the ubiquitous eye of cellphone video and social media, passengers can count on more origin airport outbound delays: major carriers will always defer to the Passenger Bill of Rights, allowing you to deplane at will at the departure station rather than sit on board at your destination, trapped for hours waiting for a gate at a weather-affected hub while ranting on social media.

There are other factors creating and lengthening delays, like an industry-wide shortage of qualified airline pilots and airline planners who over-optimistically schedule aircraft, crews and connections.

But from a pilot viewpoint, the big three above seem to be what I most frequently encounter. So, in addition to packing your own food and water in your carry-ons, be sure to arrive at your departure airport with a plentiful supply of patience. This summer, you’ll need it it more than ever.

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When Dogs Fly.

Posted in airline pilot, airline pilot blog, dog kennel, dogs, dogs in flight, dogs on airliners with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2017 by Chris Manno

I confess: I’m a dog person. I believe they’re the most wonderful, faithful, generous companions a person could have, which presents an enormous obligation: dogs ask for little, but depend on us to provide what little they need.

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I need to reassure our four-legged friends that they’re not alone or forgotten and that we’ll take care of them in flight.

Flight is not something a dog needs. So let’s get that straight first: if a dog is on board an airliner, shipped as cargo, that’s nothing the dog needs or wants–that’s for the owner.

“Cargo” is the key word here, too. Because dogs are NOT cargo, they’re living, breathing, feeling creatures who don’t deserve to be “shipped” for the same reasons YOU don’t: the ramp is noisy, scary, dangerous, too hot, too cold, exposed to wind, rain, lightning and jet blast. They’re going to spend a significant amount of time exposed to all of those stresses before we even get off the ground.

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Water spills so easily–I try to refill when possible as dogs are put aboard.

Our cargo crews on the ramp are superstars and care about animals. But when your dog is “shipped,” he’s treated like cargo, which means spending time on the ramp for both loading aboard and unloading from the aircraft.

That’s harsh for an unknowing pet with sensitive hearing subjected to the extreme noise of jet engines in close proximity and harsh temperature extremes. It’s scary and confusing for a dog to sit in a kennel in unfamiliar circumstances surrounded by strangers.

Worse, the mechanics of shipment almost guarantee the dog will go without water, because the belt loader that puts your kennel into the cargo compartment is of necessity slanted.

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That slope alone will spill half the water in a dish in a kennel. The rest will be sloshed out by turbulence and even inflight manuevering, including climb and descent pitch attitudes of plus or minus fifteen degrees, and bank angles up to thirty degrees.

I make it my business to visit all canines put aboard my flights. I need to know they have water for the flight, and I bring my own downstairs to the ramp to refill their dishes in their kennels. I like to reassure them that they’re not abandoned, that they’re among people who care.

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Glad to share my crew-provisioned water with our Very Important Pets.

I check on them once they’re aboard and if I can, I make sure they get a water refill before we close the cargo door because I know some has spilled during even the most careful cargo handling, which our crews do.

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And I think of dogs aboard in flight, realizing they have highly-tuned vestibular senses that probably are upset by excessive manuevering or bumpiness. They’re downstairs, alone, among the cargo boxes and bags. Trust me, the temperature is just fine in the cargo compartment, but it’s still, for a dog, much as you would feel if you were suddenly, inexplicably thrown into the trunk of a car and driven around for hours.

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“Hang in there, my friend–we’ll get you home safely.”

So, sure, sometimes you may have reason to ship your dog by air, although my own best friend will never be subjected to the trials and tribulations of “cargo flight.” In fact, I’d only recommend shipping your dog by air as a last resort. And I’d add that there are caring airline people who will do all they can for your precious pooch along the way.

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One of our ramp superstars in the cargo hold with my water, topping off a pooch’s water dish right before closing the cargo door.

Just be sure it’s a last resort, a short flight, and that caring people look after your dog along the way. If that happens to be on one of my flights, consider it done.

Air Travel and Anarchy

Posted in air travel, air traveler, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, flight attendant, flight crew, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , on October 27, 2016 by Chris Manno

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“I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.” –Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Nothing brings out the worst in people like air travel. Sadly, flying has become the crossroads of selfishness and self-righteousness, a road-rage hybrid unmasked, more akin to mob action as a result of being seated together rather than in isolated vehicles, but angry, loose-tempered and looking for a reason to go off just the same. Throw in a fashionable side order of latent outrage at anything individually determined to be offensive and you have the airborne tinderbox that regularly explodes into passenger non-compliance, misconduct, diversion and ultimately, yet another ruined travel experience.

Maybe in days past there was less opportunity to exact compensation for perceived slights. Maybe there’s righteous consumer outrage over the corpcomm buzzword “inconvenience” overlaid on any type of service disaster. Mix the two well, sprinkle with a litigious seasoning and pour into a social media crust, then bake on the internet for less than thirty minutes. We’re serving up outrage–and selfies–get it while it’s hot.

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That tired, sad urban legend-gone-digitally viral cry for attention would be little more than a Spam-ish nuisance except for one elephantine reality: it’s dangerous as hell in flight.

In a world that prizes personal choice, self-importance, sacrosanct self-image, and the all-important digital self-reflection (“That’s us in ____!”), compliance is a dirty word. Problem is, flying is a difficult, at times risky endeavor that relies on discipline and its ugly stepchild, compliance, from the cockpit all way back to the aft lav.

Unfortunately, the all-important “me” is societally- and media-sanctioned, so individual choices are thereby easily disconnected from consequences in the aircraft emergency crew commands as well as in the midair violence wall-papered over in corp-speak as “passenger non-compliance.” That often starts with choices easily blamed these days on those offering the choice rather than those making the choice itself.

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Crewmembers are attacked, other passengers are physically (or worse) assaulted, but the individual acting, “non-complying,” is seldom held responsible for the consequences of an individual choice.  Sadly, it gets so much worse, so much more dangerous.

But I can hear it already: yeah, but I’m me. That’s a two-headed monster–first, the perception that others are the problem and second, that you aren’t one of the “others,” but you are. The command “take nothing with you” in an emergency evacuation is based on the life-and-death certification of the aircraft: 90 seconds, timed with a full load of passengers from evacuation command to everyone safely clear of an aircraft that had no luggage aboard.

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In real life, enough of the “I’m me” others refuse to comply with the command to take nothing with you (“I’m not leaving without my [fill in self-absorbed priority]!”) at the expense of those seated at the far end of the tested, proven, but now destroyed time to escape a burning aircraft. That can and will be fatal, yet the death of some is lower on the hierarchy of self in an “everybody gets a trophy” legacy of some “others.”

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Airline regulatory agencies like the FAA and NTSB do little to actually enforce compliance. Even beyond the glaring headlines attending an aircraft emergency evacuation sabotaged by passenger non-compliance, there’s little that regulators can and will do to eliminate flight risk factors other than to urge passenger “compliance.”

There again, we careen headlong into the absolution of “I’m me.”  The FAA recently recognized the disastrous inflight potential for a lithium ion battery fire in a very commonplace piece of technology. The remedy? Screening? Enforcement? Legal consequences?

Nope. Just, “we told you not to.”

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Granted,  you’re not one of the “others” who’d readily drag their bags along on an emergency evacuation at the risk of other passengers’ lives. You don’t over consume alcohol and disrupt a flight. And you don’t ignore the toothless “prohibition” and bring your very expensive but hazardous phone on board.

But they’re out there, self-justified, media-enriched, societally excused, and dangerous as hell.

Better hope “they” aren’t on “your” flight.

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Help for Fearful Flyers

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline delays, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline ticket prices, airlines, airport, airport security, fear of flying, flight crew, jet, mile high club, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2015 by Chris Manno

Cover Airline Book 1Here’s a chapter from my brand new book, “Air Travel and The Death of Civility: A Field Manual & Survival Guide,”  crammed full of shortcuts, insider info and little-known techniques to make your air travel as stress-free and smooth as possible.

Available now from Amazon.com Just click on the title link above, or search on Amazon.

Help for Fearful Flyers

Please don’t feel alone because you’re not: many passengers have some level of nervousness about flying. It’s just another version of the anxiety many feel at the dentist, the emergency room; virtually anywhere new, unfamiliar, and potentially uncomfortable. In fact, people and businesses actually cultivate and market exactly this type of anxiety at theme parks with roller coasters, haunted houses, and terrifying thrill rides. Some people actually crave the feeling.

What a nervous flyer feels is perfectly normal and need not eliminate the option of flying. That fact alone is reassuring, especially in the case of groups or couples who limit their travel options due to the reluctance of one individual to fly. Often, a large part of a passenger’s unease is an understandable fear of the unknown, which is essentially just unfamiliarity with a strange new environment. So let’s fill in some of those blanks in your flying knowledge and then, we’ll discuss techniques to manage your unease.

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First, let’s consider the aircraft and its durable, ingenious engineering. The designers of our jet have refined their process of building and manufacturing our airliner through decades of progressively better models with ever-improving materials and techniques.

The aircraft was built to rigorous standards of strength and durability far beyond what we will ever encounter in flight. To be specific, the FAA certification standard required the aircraft to demonstrate that it could withstand forces in turbulence well beyond that which has ever been recorded, plus an additional margin, with complete airframe integrity. That means that regardless of turbulence, there will be no airframe damage or structural deformity, we’ll be still flying just fine. Basically, this aircraft is not coming apart in any conditions we encounter in flight. You don’t worry about your car running over a bump at high speed, over railroad tracks, or even a curb–but it’s not built to anywhere near the strength standard of our jet.

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You’ll actually notice less turbulence in flight these days, due to a couple of assets we use. First, radar technology has advanced not only in display resolution, but also in a predictive capability: now, our digital radar and on-board computers are sifting through thousands of bits of digital data gathered by radar and other systems, giving us an accurate prediction of where turbulence may occur. Our radar is integrated with the Global Positioning Satellite system and knows where it is at all times, allowing it to separate terrain features like mountains from weather echoes. The radar aims itself correctly and has an accurate, interactive display of over 300 miles ahead of the aircraft. The radar has a “pop-up” feature that allows it to show on our displays even if it’s not selected, when it finds a weather problem many miles away that we need to know about.

Add to that the ground-based computer analyses that are charting patterns of turbulence, which are then automatically up-linked to us in flight, plus the exchange of real-time information between pilots and air traffic controllers and the end result is less turbulence encounters, and lighter turbulence when encountered. There are days when rides just aren’t completely smooth and we’ll encounter some bumps. But rest assured, we’re working our way through the sky in the smoothest flight path possible.

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Visualize the air we fly in for the fluid that it is, with currents, eddies, flows, and even the wakes of other aircraft also aloft. Crossing a jet’s wake is much like crossing that of a boat: rumbles, some bumping, then we’re past the wake. Atmospheric eddies and currents can cause similar short periods of bumpiness, or even just a mostly choppy sea of blue. If that persists, we’ll search for a smoother altitude–just give us a few minutes to coordinate a clearance from air traffic control.

Mountains cause the atmospheric equivalent of river rapids in the airflow, even at altitude, because orographic features like ranges and peaks act like rocks in a stream, causing a rougher ride. That’s typical of a flight path across the Rockies: some bumpiness is not unusual. But you can rest assured that at our flight speed, we’ll pass through the area without delay.

In US airspace, airlines and Air Traffic Control pool weather information to share among all flights, and one designated FAA facility manages traffic and routes around areas of severe weather. With all of these assets working for us every flight, we don’t get taken by surprise by weather.

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That type of coordination that shares weather and route information is emblematic of the entire US aviation system, which has had a seventy-year learning curve of development, testing, and refining that has resulted in a strong, reliable oversight and infrastructure for commercial aviation, including

the Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Transportation, and the National Transportation Safety Board. All three in combination provide experienced and comprehensive oversight that makes flying the safest mode of transportation you could choose.

Another highly-developed airline support system monitors our jet in flight. Our technical operations center monitors hundreds of bits of data sent in a non-stop, automated stream from our jet in flight. In flight, I’ve had a message from our round-the-clock tech center print out that said, “Can you verify the vibration on the left engine? It’s reading a little high down here.” The engines alone transmit a huge stream of telemetry to our tech center, and that data allows long-range trend diagnosis that has all but eliminated in-flight engine failure on the Boeing jets I fly. Trend data and years of diagnostic experience have allowed Boeing, our

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tech staff, and our maintenance center to keep aircraft systems in peak operating forms.

From years of firsthand experience, I can say Boeing jets in particular are finely engineered, rugged and reliable American-made jets, and that’s the main reason I fly them. Thousands of hours in Boeing cockpits have given me every confidence in the strength, power, and versatility of these jets which are capable of handling anything we could encounter in flight.

I’m fairly typical of the pilots you’ll find in command of your flight, in my thirtieth year with my airline, my twenty-fourth as captain. I was an Air Force pilot before that, and like my colleagues on the flight deck, I have the singular goal of flying safely, procedurally perfectly, and always conservatively. I have three back up plans for every eventuality and firmly believe there is nothing I could face in flight that is beyond my capability. That’s not only due to experience, but mostly because of years of relentless, ongoing advanced training not only in full-motion simulators, but through hours of classroom instruction, systems training, and recurrent exams. I have every confidence in the copilots I fly with who share the exact same goals, procedures, and training. In the cockpit, we’re unanimous about one thing: the safe, efficient, and smooth operation of our flight.

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So, knowing all this, what else can you do to ease the stress of a flight? First, keep the above facts in mind, reviewing as needed leading up to your flight and even on board. Second, keep track of the elapsed time. Your airline app will tell you how much flight time to expect, as will the captain in his PA and also, the flight attendants will normally tell you the planned flight time in their PA. Whatever the total flight time is, divide it in half. Now, keep track of the first half, which will elapse much faster for you than the total time. Just that half, count it down. Upon reaching halftime, relax and rejoice: from there you will count down an ever-shrinking time period much shorter (and growing ever shorter) than you have already endured quite successfully.

Concentrate on your breathing, keeping it steady and calm. Reading matter, a video, music: dive in, focus on that. Claim a little “me” time and catch up on reading or viewing that you never seem to have time for otherwise.

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Keep an eye on your halftime benchmark, noting your steady progress. Bear in mind the fluid aspect of air and anticipate some waves in this most vast sea we’re sailing through. Be confident that your extensive flight team, including the crew on board as well as our airline technical, operational, and dispatch staff constantly monitoring and interacting with us in flight, plus the air traffic control network of pros handling our route passage. We’ve all been doing this for a long time and as our record shows, we’re darn good at it.

I’ve used the countdown technique at the dentist office (my “nervous flyer” experience) as well as when running several 26.2 marathons. It works!

There may never be a time when a nervous flyer actually enjoys a flight, but there’s no reason a flight can’t be tolerated with minimal stress with a little forethought and perhaps, an equal amount of distraction with entertainment or conversation. Here’s a summary for you to review as needed:

Summary:

• Unfamiliarity is often at the core of preflight anxiety. Review the contents of this book and this section, and give yourself credit for your successful progress through the various steps required for a plane flight.

• Your aircraft is a tough, versatile, well-designed engineering marvel that has been refined over years of improvements.

• Constant monitoring of the aircraft’s vital systems in flight allows reliability and safety that makes air travel the safest travel option.

• Weather systems are a reality of life, but we have advanced technology on-board as well as on the ground keeping us well ahead of weather challenges and well clear of danger.

• The atmosphere is a fluid and behaves much like a large body of water, with the same, normal characteristics such as currents, flow, eddies, wakes, and the occasional bump.

• Your pilots are highly experienced and dedicated solely to the safe, professional operation of your flight.

• Use the countdown system of flight time to your advantage, watching your time aloft grow ever shorter.

Cover Airline Book 1Other chapters include buying a ticket, getting the best deal and the right seat, check-in and security shortcuts, on-board perspective, aircrew insider perspective, damage control and much, much more. Read this book, then travel like a pro!

The perfect gift for someone about to travel, for those reluctant to fly–and for those eager to fly and wanting to have a stress-free, excellent air travel experience.

Order your copy from Amazon.com

Just click this link.

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Air Asia Crash Raises Questions For Pilots.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, flight crew, pilot, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2015 by Chris Manno

The search continues for the Digital Flight Data Recorder (DFDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) from the lost Air Asia flight 8501 and as that process drags on, speculation about the cause of the crash abounds.

Multiple news media sources advance abstract theories based more on the wide-open field of “what could happen” rather than what’s likely, serving only to blur the line between fact and fiction.

I won’t speculate on what happened to QZ 8501 because until the DFDR and CVR are recovered, transcribed and the recovered data analyzed, any theory advanced is just more noise in the media clamor aimed mostly at ratings rather than facts.

But, I can speak to what concerns me as the pilot of a modern, 160 seat airliner flying often in the same circumstances encountered by the lost flight. My goal in learning what the flight’s recorders report is simple: I want to know how to avoid a similar outcome.

With that in mind, here are my concerns. First, the slim margin between high speed and low speed limits at high altitude and the liabilities of each. Second, the problems presented by convective activity in crowded airspace. Finally, recovery from any inflight upset at altitude that may be encountered as a result of any or all of the above factors.

Early in any flight, the aircraft’s weight is the highest, limiting the ability of the aircraft to climb into the thinner air at higher altitude. As the flight progresses and fuel is consumed, the aircraft grows lighter and climb capability increases. Generally speaking, later in flight there are more habitable altitudes available due to weight constraints easing.

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But don’t think that climbing is the only option for weather avoidance. Often enough, a descent is needed to avoid the top part of a storm, the anvil-shaped blow-off containing ice, high winds and turbulence. Equally as often, lower altitudes may turn out to have a smoother ride.

The other major climb restriction along frequently used jet routes is converging traffic. Aircraft flying opposing directions must be separated by a thousand feet vertically, so if I  want to climb to avoid weather, I have to nonetheless stay clear of oncoming traffic. The New York Post reported the incorrect statement that the air traffic controllers handling the Air Asia flight “made the fatal mistake” of denying the Air Asia’s pilot request for a higher altitude. The first job of air traffic control is to separate traffic, particularly converging nose to nose. Climbing through conflicted airspace–or granting clearance to do so–would more likely be a fatal mistake.

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But there’s even more to the story: air traffic controllers respond to such requests in a more fluid fashion than the static “no” being implied by many media reports. In actual practice, for a climb or descent request, the denial would be more typically, “Unable climb, you have traffic on your nose,” or, “It’ll be 5 to 7 minutes before we can clear you higher,” or, “We can vector you off course so you can clear the airway and traffic and then climb,” or, “Unable in this sector, check with the next controller.” Regardless, there are other options to avoid weather.

If changing altitude is not an immediate option, lateral deviation is the next choice. But the same obstacles–weather and traffic–may limit that option as well.

So now, if vertical and lateral deviation isn’t immediately available, you must do your best to pick your way through the weather with radar, if possible, until one of those options comes available (again, at ATC denial isn’t final or permanent) or you’re clear of the weather.

Which brings us back to the margin between high and low speed limit. This is even more critical in convective weather, because turbulence can instantaneously bump your airspeed past either limit if there’s not enough leeway to either side of your cruise Mach.

The picture below shows a normal airspeed spread in cruise. Notice the speed tape on the left with the red and white stripe above and the yellow line below the airspeed number box. The hash marks represent 10 knots of airspeed. The red and black marker above the speed readout is called the chain, and it depicts the maximum speed limit for weight and altitude. The yellow line below the numbers is called the hook, and it marks the minimum speed required to keep flying.

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Turbulence, or more accurately, high altitude windshear, can bump you past either limit, or both, if there’s less than say, ten knots of slack, because moderate turbulence can cause swings closer to twenty knots; severe turbulence even more. Essentially, turbulence can instantly bump an aircraft out of its flight envelope.

In that case, the aircraft can depart controlled flight in a couple of different ways. The one that concerns me most is on the high end: if turbulence or any other factor pitched the nose down and the airspeed then climbed above the chain, the worst case is a phenomenon rarely discussed outside of the jet pilot community called “Mach tuck” that affects swept wing aircraft. Essentially, if you don’t immediately apply the proper corrective input, in a matter of seconds, recovery is beyond all means from the cockpit.

On the low speed side, if the wing stalls due to an airspeed below the hook, recovery is possible once the airspeed is regained. That takes altitude to regain, but normally can be done if a stall occurs at cruise altitude. But even that requires recognition and then the proper corrective control inputs, and Air France Flight 477 with three pilots in the cockpit entered a stall at cruise altitude but never identified the problem or applied the proper recovery inputs, resulting in a crash into the Atlantic that killed all aboard.

Bottom line: you need a wider spread between high and low speed limits in case of turbulence. If you can’t avoid turbulence and need to change altitude, you must assure a wide airspeed margin between limits to avoid being pushed by turbulence beyond either speed constraint. Here’s what the airspeed range looks like at high altitude:

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There’s very little tolerance for turbulence and any associated airspeed fluctuation.

In the worst case scenario, if the aircraft is pushed beyond its flight envelope to the extent that controlled flight is departed, a pilot must quickly and accurately recognize which situation is at hand, high or low speed buffet, then immediately apply the correct control input.

Problem is, they may initially look the same, and the correct remedy for one applied to the other severely worsens the situation. Specifically, if the aircraft begins a descent at a speed beyond the chain, the corrective action would be to deploy speed brakes, pull throttles to idle, apply back pressure to raise the nose, and I’d be ready to even lower the gear to add drag, even knowing that would likely result in gear doors being ripped off the aircraft.

If this recovery is not done early in the pitchdown, the result will be a dive with no chance of recovery.

If a low speed stall is encountered, the proper corrective action would be to add power and lower the nose until flying speed was recovered. But, if the high speed departure–also a pitch down and descent–was mistakenly interpreted to be a slow speed stall, applying the slow speed recovery to a high speed departure would be fatal.

The other way? If you mistakenly added drag and pulled back power in a slow speed stall? That would prolong the stall, but if the correct control input was eventually applied, the aircraft could recover, altitude permitting.

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Adding the factors that make this vital task of discrimination difficult would be any associated systems failure and the physical effects of turbulence that can make instruments nearly impossible to read.

In any pitch down, if rapid and deep enough, can cause electrical failure due to generators failing at negative G-loads associated with the pitch down. Yes, back up controls and instruments exist, but recognizing the situation, taking corrective action and reading backup instruments also takes time and attention.

Pitot-static failure, one of the contributing causes in the Air France slow speed stall, can also be difficult to recognize in turbulence or in an electrical failure.

Regardless, the high speed situation must be correctly identified and recovery initiated in a matter of seconds. Both situations would be difficult to diagnose and both recoveries would be very challenging to perform in turbulence and with any other systems failure or complication. Both recoveries are time-sensitive and if not managed correctly, one recovery could induce the other stall. That is, too much drag and power reduction carried beyond the return from the high speed exceedence can induce a low speed stall, and too much nose down pitch and excess power from a slow speed recovery could push you through the high speed limit.

So here are my questions, which are those that will be asked by The QZ8501 accident investigation board. First what did the aircraft weigh and what was the speed margin at their cruise altitude and at the altitude they had requested? What type turbulence did they encounter and what speed and altitude excursions, if any, resulted? What collateral malfunctions, if any did they encounter? And finally, what departure from controlled flight, if any, occurred, and what remedial action, if any, was attempted?

These questions can only be answered by the DFDR and CVR and my interest–and that of every airline pilot–is mostly this: I want to know what exactly happened so as to be prepared in case I encounter the situation myself, and I want to know what they did in order to know what exactly I should or shouldn’t do.

Like pilots at all major US airlines, I get annual simulator training in exactly these scenarios, hands-on practice recovering from stalls and uncontrolled flight. Is that enough? Can we do that better?

Once the facts contained in the flight’s recorder are extracted and analyzed, we’ll have the answers to all of these questions, which will help us prevent a repeat of this disaster. Beyond that, speculation is just a sad, pointless part of unfortunate ratings-hungry media circus.

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Summer Weather, Flight Delays and YOU.

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

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

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

First, let’s look at departure:

wx radar departure

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

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

Here’s more bad news for your outbound schedule:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ramp DFW

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