Archive for travel tips

Holiday Air Travel: Let the Games Begin.

Posted in air travel, air traveler, airline cartoon, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, flight attendant, flight crew with tags , , , , , on November 18, 2016 by Chris Manno

It’s that time of year again: let’s spend a gazillion bucks on air travel to spend an awkward holiday with people who make you crazy.

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That’s the American way, squandering the mileage awards one  might want to blow on an exotic vacation for tickets to share regret with others who’ve also abandoned fun stuff for family stuff. That’s what holiday travel is all about, and even though you won’t feel better about the commitment later (sorry), the voyage itself will be memorable if only for the diminished expectations and unexpected turmoil. Ready to fly yet?

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Granted, I’m just the guy in the cockpit. I don’t have to smile and make nice at your family gathering (trust me, I have my own challenge waiting) and once we land, I’m turning around and flying back home to my crew base. Meanwhile, for your sake, let me point out the obvious.

First, expect things at the airport to run slower than you planned. So, plan an extra 1.75 in your time factor for scheduling. Meaning, whatever time you allotted for say, security, multiply that by 1.75 and determine how much time you’ll really need. Allowing two hours for check-in and security? Allow three and a half. Worst case, you’re through early but even so, your blood pressure will be lower. Trust me, “those people” travel on the holidays, only on the holidays, and tend to slow the process down in ways you never dreamed.

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Second, know your shiitake (I don’t want to write “shit,” but you need to know your shit) to include flight number and date. Then, just Google your flight to find out the latest gate and time info. You won’t need to line up at a service desk or call a toll free number–just move quickly to your next gate or to the proper baggage claim at your destination. You’ll be way ahead of the crowd.

Third, take care of yourself. Cough up the cash once you’re on the secure side of the airport for calories and water. Yes, they have some of the former and much of the latter, but neither on your schedule. If there’s a delay or, in flight, turbulence (not uncommon), there will be no food for sale or water poured–because I’ll have my crew seated until when and if ever the turbulence allows them to be up and about the cabin safely. So buy some type of carry-aboard food and beverage and forget the sticker shock: as Dear Abby said, “There’s what you spend, then there’s what you spend when you travel.” Do it. Take care of yourself and those in your travel party.

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Finally, bring your patience and remember, this isn’t the dentist’s office–you’re not at the airport and flying here to there for a cocktail party horror story: you knew up front that the airports and airplanes would be crammed full, that winter weather would delay flights, and that flight crews are human and have limits, too.

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Hey, shut up.

Stay cool, be patient; know your shiitake and be calorized and hydrated. The rest is just a matter of time: you’ll get to that crazy family holiday deal and if you take my advice, the trip will be both tolerable and memorable–for the right reasons.

See you at the airport.

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Air Travel: What You SHOULD Worry About.

Posted in air travel, air traveler, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, airliner, airlines, airport, blog, cartoon, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, passenger, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2016 by Chris Manno

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There’s seldom a day that passes without some type of media headline regarding an air “scare.” But the news stories are mostly about minor hassles such as a divert or a passenger disturbance, maybe even turbulence injuries for the unwary passengers who won’t keep their seatbelts fastened.

Whatever. Most of what’s reported as a “scare” isn’t worth a second thought. That said, there are things you should worry about. Here’s my Top 5 list:

  1. Fatigue: Your crew has been browbeaten into the longest flight duty period allowed with the shortest rest period possible. That’s due to effective lobbying by the airline industry hellbent on reducing crew costs–at all costs. Rest periods have been shaved to the bare minimum for pilots, and there’s no rest minimum stipulated by the FAA for the cabin crews responsible for your safety in an emergency. The airline industry has  relentlessly and successfully lobbied the FAA and congress to resist any rest requirements for flight attendants. So, they have none, often working a 12 hour day with only 8-9 hours off for sleep, food, and getting to and from work. That’s a bad idea, cost-driven, that makes little sense.
  2. Unrealistic Flight Schedules: Airlines have stretched the planning of flights to use the minimum number of aircraft on multiple, interlocking segments, often planning a single jet for 5 or more flights in a single day. The unspoken prerequisite for such an operation is an unavoidable fact that airline planners know–but ignore. That is, system variables such as aircraft maintenance, weather, Air Traffic Control and airport delays are the rule, not the exception. So, if your flight is three segments into that jet’s day, the chances of your arriving on time is reduced significantly. There’s not a certain probability that one of those delay factors will occur in an aircraft’s day–it’s guaranteed.
  3. Pay Restrictions: Overtime pay is taboo among airline planners, despite the havoc wrought by such a restriction. For example, if your aircraft has a maintenance problem requiring a mechanic to repair a system or component within an hour of maintenance shift change time, that repair will wait at least that final hour has expired just to be started. Why? Because no licensed mechanic can do half of the work, then have the work finished by an oncoming mechanic who must put his license on the line for work he didn’t do. The answer is, overtime for the mechanic required to work beyond a scheduled shift to complete work that will let you depart on time. That choice has been made: the answer is, no overtime.
  4. Oversales: That’s a direct result of restricted capacity, meaning, airlines have trimmed schedules and thus seats available to the bare minimum required–but they’ve sold more seats than they have in stock. Rain check? That works in a retail operation selling “things,” but not for a business selling transportation. How does that work for the time-constrained passenger with a business meeting scheduled or a resort already paid for?
  5. Manning: Every student taking Business-101 will tell you that personnel management dictates some overlapping duties if personnel costs are to be contained: you must answer your coworker’s phone if they’re out sick. That doesn’t work in the cockpit, or the cabin. And yet, crew manning has been pared to the bone, requiring a “perfect operation” (see #2 above) which airline planners all know never happens.  So, pilots with mandatory maximum duty hours run up against FAA mandated limits and very often there are no spare pilots–because hiring and paying pilots is a cost item airline planners minimize regardless of the price to be paid in delayed or cancelled flights. That price is paid by passengers and as often, by crews.

Those are my Big Five, the only “scary” things that you are likely to see in air travel. They don’t make the news, probably because they aren’t “news,” but rather, just the sad result of spreadsheet dollar-driven choices already made before you even get to the airport.

Have a good flight.

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Air Travel, De-Icing and Delays: The Real Deal.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, airliner, airliner take off with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2015 by Chris Manno

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Network news media love a screaming headline, even if they have to fudge the facts to suit the rhetoric. But here is the reality behind the wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding recent ice-related delays at major airports: the airlines did a damn good job given the challenges heaped on them in this storm.

As a captain, I flew a 737 trip in the middle of the week in the slush and snow out of DFW. Here is your chance to bypass the media frenzy (NBC News carefully crafted “9 hour delay for passengers”–quietly admitting later that it wasn’t on-board) and watch the flight evolve despite the weather interference.

At 06:10, a phone call from crew schedule woke me up. I had volunteered to fly a trip that day and they offered one, a turn to John Wayne Orange County (SNA) scheduled to depart at 10:10. I agreed to fly the trip.

Normally, it takes me 35 minutes to drive to DFW. I left my house at 6:45 to allow extra time for the slush and snow snarling the highways.

I arrived at DFW an hour later, an hour and twenty minutes early. The jet was parked at the gate, had been all night in the freezing precip, so I went aboard and started powering up systems. A quick check of the wings and fuselage confirmed what I assumed driving in: we’ll need a good de-icing on the wings, control surfaces and fuselage.

Let’s get more specific about aircraft icing. First, we need to remove the accumulated ice. Second, we need to prevent more ice from re-forming on aircraft surfaces. De-icing can be accomplished by a number of different fluids under pressure. “Anti-icing” is provided by a different, specifically designed fluid that chemically inhibits the adherence of ice on aircraft surfaces.

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In our case, the ceiling was low and visibility limited by ice fog, confirming the critical temperature-dew point spread that leads to condensation which of course would freeze on any cold surface. That means both de-ice and anti-ice will be required.

Anti-ice fluid effectiveness varies with temperature, and rate and type of precipitation. The duration of anti-ice protection declines as various forms of moisture increase. So, gauging the time–called “holdover time”–is a call that must be made by the flight crew based on observation of conditions actually occurring.

You can tell when anti-ice fluid has been applied to a jet because it will be colored either brick red-ish or lime green. The intensity of the color cues the cockpit crew as to the fluids declining effectiveness–it fades as the fluid loses the ability to inhibit icing. We actually check visually that from inside the aircraft prior to takeoff.

A side note about the fluid color. Most airlines now use the green fluid because the red was difficult to distinguish from hydraulic fluid as it dripped from crevices and bays on the aircraft, sometimes several flights downline from the original de-icing treatment. I learned long ago how to differentiate the two: propylene glycol, the main ingredient in anti-icing fluid, smells and tastes sweet. Skydrol hydraulic fluid is bitter. Yes, I’ve tasted both in the thirty years (and counting) I’ve been flying jets and laugh if you want, but it saves all aboard a needless and probably lengthy maintenance delay.

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Another unseen complication that adds to the icing mix is jet fuel. The worst case is with fuel remaining in wing tanks after a flight at high altitude. The fuel in the tanks become super cold due to the temperature at altitude (often -50C or less) and as a result, the wing surfaces both upper and lower are super-chilled, causing any moisture in the air to freeze on contact. Explain that to the guy sitting next to you griping as we de-ice on a sunny, clear day: humidity plus ice-cold metal surfaces can add up to wing icing that must be removed: we can tolerate no more than 1/8″ of mere frost on the underside of the wing only. Any other airfoil contamination must be removed before flight.

Clear ice on wings is not easy to see from the cabin, particularly the area near the wing root, which is critical on aircraft with tail mounted engines like the MD-80 and -717, because upon wing flex as rotation and liftoff occur, any wing root ice that breaks loose into the slipstream could easily fly back along the fuselage to be ingested by either or both engines, with potentially disastrous results.

So why don’t aircraft have heated wing surfaces? Actually, most MD-80 upper wing surfaces do have an electrically heated thermal blanket on top of the inboard-most portion of the wing surface. But, not the curved wing root joint which is not visible from the cabin. So, you’ll notice a lot of MD-80 aircraft having to de-ice in even the slightest icing conditions.

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In our case, I knew the fuel pumped aboard for our flight would have the opposite effect. At DFW, the fuel is stored underground and pumped aboard from a hydrant, not a truck. The effect would be to warm, not freeze the wing surfaces. That would help with de-icing, but we’d still require a thorough dose of Type-2 de-icing fluid to clean ice off the jet.

By 9:10, the official crew check-in time, there was no sign of a first officer. I started the process of printing a flight release and agreeing on a fuel burn, as well as the complex process of determining takeoff speeds, made more complicated due to the presence of slush and snow on the runway. Any type of contamination, from pooled water to slush to ice can impede both acceleration and deceleration. Both maximums (takeoff and stopping) must be accurately calculated and while there is a published “runway condition,” the actual calculations are very much a realtime, eyeballs-verified assessment: I’ve broken through an undercast during an ice storm as we approached DFW only to find that just the first two-thirds of the runway had been cleared–a fact not noted on the official field report. That lopped off about four thousand feet of useable braking surface.

At 9:30, forty minutes prior to pushback, still no sign of a first officer. The roads are awful, as is the traffic, so I’m not surprised and I’m glad I left home as early as I did. I called Crew Tracking, catching them by surprise as well: in this winter storm, there were plenty of stuck, stranded or missing crewmembers. They hadn’t noticed.

I resigned myself to going out into the sleet to do the exterior inspection myself, planning to have all preflight duties complete in case the first officer should show up at the last minute. Here’s an up close look at the leading edge icing:

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and the ice on the wing trailing edge:

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Engine covers were installed, a very smart preventative measure to prevent icing, but which would require maintenance removal and documentation. I radioed maintenance to get in the cue for this required maintenance and fortunately, American Airlines had well-staffed maintenance for this shift. But again, they too had technicians who, like my F/O, were stuck in the ice storm snarled traffic, slowing things down.

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With the exterior preflight complete, I requested the upload of navigation and performance data as well as our clearances. And I took a minute to call the Crew Scheduling Manager on Duty to suggest that they grab the deadheading 737 first officer sitting in row 20 and reassign him to fly the trip. He said if the duty legality limits worked, that’s what he’d do.

By 10:00, the conscripted first officer was in the right seat, having agreed to the reassignment: he’d fly the leg to the west coast, his home base, and rather than going home, he’d also fly the leg back to DFW and only then deadhead home, if possible. Just one more crewmember going the extra mile to make the flight operation work.

We pushed back nearly on time (10:21 vs. 10:10) , but the ramp was congested with ice and slush, slowing everyone down even further. The precip had stopped, the ceiling had lifted to a thousand feet and the temperature-dew point spread had widened, all of which meant less chance of ice formation. Our holdover time would expand, allowing us to de-ice on the ramp rather than at the end of the runway. Essentially, that made for a shorter wait for all aircraft: if there is freezing precip, or any precip in freezing temps, all de-icing would have to be done at the end of the runway, meaning long takeoff delays.

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Taxiing a seventy-five ton tricycle on ice and slush is tricky, requiring slower speeds and a critical energy management: too slow and you’ll have to add excessive power to restart movement, slinging ice and slush at other aircraft. But you also need almost zero forward inertia to maintain nose gear traction in any turn, aided by asymmetric braking on the main gear into the turn. It’s a dicey operation that takes extra time.

We kept the flaps retracted on taxi-out so as to not accumulate any slush or freezing water on the underside of the flaps, a potential problem during flap retraction. Our miles-long taxi from the east side terminal to the west side runway gave us plenty of time to assess the surface conditions and fine-tune our power and speed plans.

We finally lifted off nearly fifty minutes after taxi-out. Through route shortcuts and favorable winds, we made up some of the lost time, arriving twenty-eight minutes behind schedule.

I believe my flight was more typical of all flights during an unrelenting ice storm, but mine isn’t the one craftily worded into a horror story by the media. Regardless, the fact is that icing makes flight operations complex, difficult and challenging. Yet more flight operated in the same way mine did–slow, careful, successful–than the media version of a few unfortunate cases. I take it as a compliment that the reality of these winter flights was a success story leaving the media very few flights to turn into their typically overblown horror stories.

By the time I got home nearly fourteen hours after voluntarily accepting the challenging flight assignment, the network news was already sensationalizing the “impossible” travel situation created by SnoMIGOD 2015 which dumped an unprecedented amount of snow and ice on DFW and Dallas Love Field. At least I knew the facts were not as they’d have us believe–and now you do too.

Cover Airline Book 1Travel smarter, with this insider air travel field manual and survival guide. Check it out on Amazon.com, or just click this link to order from Amazon.

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.

Airline Amazon screenshot

Airline Seat Reclining and the Death of Civility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Plane Smart: How to Invade Your Airport.

Posted in airline, airline cartoon, airline pilot blog, passenger with tags , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2012 by Chris Manno

Let’s have a moment of silence for a friend we all fondly remember and will dearly miss: leisure air travel.That’s right, the “leisure” part is dead and gone–but the “air travel” soldiers on, orphaned by the Airline Deregulation Act and held hostage by the price of oil, the largest cost item in the airline business.

So let’s move on, because that’s what life does even as we mourn the dearly departed which, in this case, seems irreplaceable. Nonetheless, we’ll all have a better trip if we leave the old guy dead and buried and consider what we have left to rely on.

So turn over a new leaf and begin with a new vision: travel is no longer a leisurely activity but rather–it’s war. Like any war, you need a strategy, valid reconnaissance of the battlefield, weapons, and the resolve to use all of these assets.

Here’s the turning point for any air traveler: you can be passive and let the air travel system decide for you what happens, or you can declare war on the air travel system and fight your way from point A to point B to your own advantage every step of the way.

Staffing cuts at airports and airlines and even hotels and car rental companies have reduced the level of live assistance available when you travel, and the system of check-in, security, interline connections, customs clearance have only become more complex and arcane. In reality you really have no choice but to proactively manage your own travel.

In short, it’s a war–and you should approach it that way. Here’s how:

Your Battle Plan

1. Intelligence: Know your enemy, find out where the opposing forces are and how many. You must get through their lines to even have a chance at air travel and the opposition forces are intent on keeping you out. Unless you’re driving a fifty-foot semi hauling beverages or merchandise, in which case you’ll be waved through the security perimeter:

Not a beer truck driver or any type of merchandise hauler? Too bad: you’ll have to cross the lines the hard way. But no matter, because this is where “Intelligence”–both literal and figurative–comes into play. You must find the easiest spot to penetrate in order to get to your aircraft. Do the required reconnaissance ahead of time.

Every single major airport has a website now that just begs you to visit–and you should, from the intelligence sense, so you know the unfamiliar territory you’re trying to invade. Look at the wealth of information you need to know ahead of time:

Click on the graphic above to see the actual DFW Airport site.

You’ll find parking information, gate and airline locations, entrances and exits, security checkpoints, rental cars lots and more. Now, you can really use your literal intelligence.

Leaving on American Airlines? Here’s a diagram from the DFW Airport website displaying Terminal D, the largest of the three American Airlines terminals at DFW:

If you were to view all 3 of the American terminals, you’d see how much larger and more spacious this one is. Does it matter whether or not your flight or even your airline leaves from this terminal?

NO! You simply want to make it through security as quickly as possible–and this terminal has the largest security check points of all terminals in the airport. Plus–if you’ve done your recon thoroughly, you’ll note the train connections from this terminal to all of the others in a matter of minutes.

Compare this to terminal C:

You can compare the relative sizes of these terminals better on the DFW website than I can reproduce the diagrams here, but the point is this: for the least amount of waiting, check-in at the largest, less-crammed terminal. If you were to consider auto traffic flow curbside (right to left in both diagrams), you’d observe another useful tidbit: people driving to the airport naturally stop at the first available check-in point for both curbside and counter check-in, so plan to proceed further down the terminal where due to human nature–less passengers accumulate for check-in or security.

Nowhere is this more significant than at Denver International Airport which, like Dulles, Pittsburgh, Portland and many others, has one main terminal that accomplishes security screening for all satellite terminals:

Again, auto traffic dropping off passengers approaches from the right, so passengers naturally stop at the first available space–and go to the closest security checkpoint. But there’s an identical security checkpoint on the other end of the terminal which is normally less crowded–use it!

This is an actual picture of the Denver International Airport security checkpoint that’s on the right in the diagram, the one passengers come to first, so it’s normally jammed. But if you look at the airport diagram, you’ll find an identical security checkpoint farther from the initial checkpoint and it’s half empty because most people have rushed to the first available.

Lessons learned: there’s really no practical correlation between where your intended gate is and where you must either park or clear security, because there’s inter-terminal transportation that will get you to your gate faster than it would take for you to wait in a huge line–and with less frustration on your part. Also, the airport information for your departure, connecting and destination airports can be found on-line and can answer just about all of the questions you might have regarding locations, gates, services and facilities. Do your reconnaissance ahead of time and out-think the obstacles to your entry!

2. Battle Plan: This really goes back to intelligence in both senses. That is, you need to have all of your vital information at your fingertips, and here is the worst item for discerning that vital information:

That’s right: your boarding pass is an awful way to keep track of the important data. That’s because formats vary, times may vary despite what’s printed on the boarding pass and depending on how long ago they were printed, flight numbers may have changed as well. Plus, times listed on the boarding pass are normally boarding time, not departure time, making it even more confusing to cross-check the monitors in the terminal. And normally, you’ll have more than one such card and sorting them out with your hands full of carry-on  luggage and whatever else you’re juggling is a losing proposition.

The only information on your boarding pass not subject to change is your name and destination–which you already know, right? Fly smarter–use a smart phone:

I use this system as an airline pilot because it is active: I don’t have to search out the information regarding gates and times because that info is constantly pushed to my phone. This is but one airline’s automatic text notification system and every major airline now has such a service. This will immediately update you on gate location and departure time changes, plus, most (like this one) allows you to customize the information: want a notification an hour prior? And two hours prior? No problem, the latest info will find you and if it’s bad news like a delay or cancellation, you’re the first to know and thus first to rebook–also on your phone. Make sure you have your airline’s smart phone application installed and working on your phone and you can begin the re-booking process without standing in line for hours.

3. Once through the enemy lines: I can’t tell you how many people in the terminal will walk up to the gate counter and ask, “Am I in the right place?”

Sigh. Do we really have to play 20 questions? Where are you going? What is your flight number? What is the departure time?

This is what you can expect if you ask me if “you’re in the right place:” if you are very old or very young or don’t speak English, I will help you in any way possible. But if you’re an average traveler, I’m going to teach you to help yourself: “There are the flight monitors; look for your destination and flight number and you’ll find the departure information you need.”

Why don’t I just look it up? First, because the time and gate can and very well might change–and passengers need to be aware of where that vital information is. And if the flight isn’t listed yet, any planned info I dig up is too likely to change for it to be of any use.

All of the pertinent information related to your flight is at your fingertips if you install the smart phone app for the airline(s) you’re traveling on.

Often times this information that the airline’s application pushes to your phone will be even more current than any information an agent or crewmember can provide because it is updated instantaneously.

Plus, if you’re shrewd enough to bookmark the airport sites for your departure, arrival and connecting airports, you’re ready to find answers quickly and easily without having to search for scarce customer service reps at any point in your travel.

After Action Report

You now know where to find, bookmark and save the vital information pertaining to your travel. Even five years ago, the push technology that today can keep you fully informed didn’t exist or if it did, it was too large to store on a handheld device.

That’s no longer true. Now, you can bookmark airport websites, download and save airport diagrams, and keep all of your itinerary at your fingertips. Once you have this information plus real-time data pushes from the airline to your mobile device, you won’t find yourself chasing the important details any longer. Instead, you’ll have instant access to current information, plus reference charts and service information coming to you, not you chasing bits and pieces of vital information around the airport.

That’s not just smart, but plane smart. Why would you travel any other way?

Summer air travelers, beware: he’s out there!

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, jet flight, passenger, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2011 by Chris Manno

Summer air travelers, beware: he’s out there.

I mean that guy. The one who will make your travel a little less pleasant, probably unknowingly, but still.

For example, cruising at 40,000 feet northwest bound, the cabin interphone chimes. The First Officer and I exchange glances that ask hot, cold, or stupid? It’s too soon for crew meals—that’s where we’re stupid for eating them, but it’s something to do—and only minutes ago someone called to say it’s too hot in back.

Traditionally, within minutes, one of the other four Flight Attendants who don’t seem to be able to talk to each other will call and say it’s too cold.

But I answer the phone and this time, it’s stupid: “We just found a passport in seatback 30-A.” No, it’s not the flight attendant that’s stupid—it’s the passenger who on some previous flight for some odd reason decided to stash his passport in the seatback pocket.

Before our flight, the jet had come in from JFK. Maybe an international arrival, and now someone is enroute somewhere without a passport.

That’s where you come in: you’re in line at Mexican Customs in Los Cabos, and you’re sweating like a fat lady in a vinyl chair, waiting, waiting, waiting—because the guy ahead of you in line talking to the taciturn Customs agent is suddenly aware that he doesn’t have a passport. Your vacation is on hold just a little longer because like me in the super market, you got in the wrong line (“Price check on lane seven!”) while passengers to your right and left are breezing through and claiming their luggage (and maybe yours), heading for the beach.

Sure, it’s going to be worse for him—without a passport he’s not getting back into the United States without a major hassle and, you hope as payback for your delay, a strip search. But the lingering question is, why would anyone put anything of value in a seatback pocket on a plane?

But you’d be amazed at what you’d find back there after a flight. Well, what someone else would find back there: I’d sooner stick my hands into a trash can in a crack den than risk the snot rags and barf bags or kids’ diapers or half eaten ham sandwich that will be stuffed in there.

 

Still, people for some odd reason nonetheless sit down, empty their pockets, stash wallet, iPod, keys, camera, travel documents, passport—you name it, into the seatback pocket as if it were their glove compartment on their family car (okay, there may be a ham sandwich in mine, I admit).

Never mind the hassles going forward to recover a lost item, a headache made all the more difficult because the jet will crisscross several thousand of miles before the discovery of a missing item is made (call the lost and found in Seattle, Chicago and New York). The important thing is that the Stupid One is delaying your vacation.

And unbeknownst to you—he may already have delayed you. Remember sitting at the gate well past departure time? I can’t tell you how many times five or ten minutes from pushback to a resort destination in Mexico or the Caribbean when the agent steps into the cockpit and says “we have a problem.”

Let me guess: someone confirmed on the flight is in a bar somewhere starting on the umbrella drinks and about to miss their flight to the actual resort. Why? Because they can’t read a ticket? Don’t know their own itinerary? Can’t do the math on a time zone change? Are intellectually low functioning and were finished off by the TGI Friday’s Bloody Marys in the airport bar?

Doesn’t really matter. The point is, if they’re not on board we get to sit at the gate while the ground crew sorts through the cargo compartments crammed with the luggage of 160 passengers to pull their bags off. That takes a while. You get to wait, I get to wait, both of our days becomes a little longer.

Yes, it’s the lowest common denominator that dictates when we leave and when you arrive in paradise.

But there is justice in the situation, as I witnessed once at a departure gate as I waited for my inbound jet. Airport police officers had pulled a couple off to the side as passengers boarded a jet for Cancun.

Apparently the man and woman had been to the airport bar, and the man had clearly had a few too many. Federal law prohibits the boarding of any passenger who even appears to be intoxicated, and the airline agents had done the right thing: when in doubt, call law enforcement to sort out the situation in accordance with the law.

Sorry ma’am,” I heard an officer say as the man was being detained, “he’s going to be placed under arrest for public intoxication.”

I couldn’t hear the exact back and forth between the steamed woman and the officers, but in the end, it seemed the officers weren’t the cause of her anger: she grabbed her boarding pass, shot a pointed glance back at her handcuffed partner—then boarded the flight.

Just as well: he’d probably realize in the Customs line in Mexico that his passport was missing anyway.

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