Thursday, December 29, 2005

Menzies Strikes Again!

Those of you who've read this blog know that I'm not a big fan of contracting ramp service out to Menzies. Besides the incident that I wrote about, many of my airline's crews have experienced problems with Menzies in LA, and there have been a number of incidents on the Seattle ramp since our sister company fired all their SEA rampers to replace them with Menzies.

Thus far, Menzies' damage in Seattle has been confined to screwing up the operation, making the company lose important seafood cargo contracts, "tagging" the baggage holds with graffiti, getting into a gang fight on the ramp, and a few dented airplanes. But now they've finally managed to screw up bad enough to put passengers at risk.

You can read the whole story at this link, but here's what basically happened. A Menzies ramper backed a bag loader into an MD80 but didn't tell anyone. The MD80 took off for Burbank and lost pressurization while climbing through FL260, forcing a return to SEA. After landing, a 12" x 6" gash was found in the lower fuselage. Upon questioning, the ramper fessed up and claimed that he didn't even see a dent after he hit the airplane. The company got a damaged airplane, negative publicity, and unwanted attention from the FAA - but hey, Menzies is saving them money!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas to All...

...And to all a good flight!

Back from MN and back to the grindstone tomorrow. As I finish up the Flying Careers series, I'll get around to some updates on my flying over the past few months. Erm, what I remember anyways. I've been flying a lot so it all kinda blends together!

Flying Careers Part 8: Job Stability (heh)

If job stability is very high on your list of priorities, aviation is not the field for you. It's a cliché, but the one constant in this industry is change, and that goes for employment as a pilot too. It's pretty rare for a pilot to go through a whole career without at least one furlough, liquidated employer, firing, medical hangup, or FAA problem. The key is to realize it will happen to you, and be ready for it by being flexible in your plans.

Getting Furloughed

When airlines have too many pilots for the scheduled flying, they furlough the excess pilots. While many union contracts contain a "no-furlough" clause, most also contain an exception for "extraordinary circumstances" that essentially gives the company carte blanche. Currently, the following major carriers have thousands of pilots on furlough: American, ATA, Delta, Northwest, United, USAirways. Several regionals have also recently started furloughing in response to reduced flying from bankrupt parents; Mesaba and Comair are two of them.

At unionized companies, furloughing is done by seniority, starting at the bottom of the list and working its way up. Recall is done in the reverse order, with the most senior furloughees being recalled first. Companies may offer voluntary furloughs or leaves of absence so the furloughs don't go so deep. Unions sometimes ask their pilots to not pick up extra flying so that recalls come sooner, but it's a sad fact of life that many senior pilots will happily screw over their furloughed "brothers" for an extra couple bucks.

Furloughed pilots may retain some benefits, such as partial health care coverage or non-rev travel benefits.

Finding another flying job while on furlough can be tough. Nobody wants to invest money in your training if they know you'll likely return to your former carrier. Many companies require furloughed newhires to give up recall rights at their former employer. Of course, you'll start at the bottom of the seniority list at your new carrier. Many pilots leave flying altogether while on furlough, taking up jobs from real estate to bartending. A few find themselves making better money in the "real world" and pass up recall opportunities when they arise. For most, though, furlough is a major financial challenge that causes them and their families a lot of stress. Given the odds of a furlough at some point in your career, it behooves one to start planning for that eventuality early on.

Losing Your Job

Furloughs are mostly unique to airlines, particularly unionized operations. For other jobs, if your employer decides they don't need you, they'll simply let you go. Corporate flying for small companies is infamously unstable in this regard: when financial troubles hit, the company plane (and pilot!) is the first thing to go. Most instructing and freight flying is also "at-will employment." In some ways, though, losing your job is preferable to being furloughed, since you can collect unemployment and you don't carry the furloughee stigma when looking for a new job.

Of course, even unionized employees with furlough mechanisms in place will lose their jobs if their employer goes completely belly-up. It's happened a number of times in the past 20 years, with Braniff, PanAm, and Eastern. The release of thousands of experienced pilots into the job market made it very hard to get hired in the early 1990's. With numerous airlines floundering through the bankruptcy courts, there is a good chance that at least one will liquidate in the next five years with similar results.

Getting Fired

Losing your job due to a financially troubled employer carries no stigma when looking for another job. Getting fired, however, can be a major blow to one's career. You'll have to explain it in future interviews, and convince potential employers that they should take the risk of hiring someone that another company found unfit to work for them.

As an instructor, the following may get you fired: anti-social behavior towards students or coworkers; poor student pass rate; wrecking an airplane; your student wrecking an airplane; refusing to sign off a poor student for their checkride; refusing to fly unairworthy aircraft. Obviously, these firings are not created equal, and I'd wear the latter two as a badge of honor. The unairworthy aircraft issue has actually got quite a few pilots fired from entry-level jobs. Drop zone aircraft in particular are notoriously ratty. But even given an unjustified firing, finding the next job might be tough, and you'll need to explain what happened in all future interviews.

Once you move up in the aviation world, getting fired becomes increasingly serious. At the freight dog level, there are still operators that push their pilots on airworthiness or weather, so an unjustified firing is possible. But in general, at FAR 135 and 121 operators you have to do something pretty stupid to get yourself fired. The exception is during your probationary year at an airline. During that first year, the airline can fire you for any reason and the union won't make a peep.

Most probationary firings are due to unsatisfactory progress during initial training or IOE. If this happens, it's not the end of the world, especially if it's at your first regional. Get some more experience before applying to another airline and then during interviews be candid about why you weren't ready the first time and what you've done to make sure you're ready this time.

After probation, you have to mess up badly to get fired, particularly at unionized carriers. Gross incompetence resulting in a dinged airplane will do the trick; a long string of unsat training events will too. Occasionally some doorknob gets fired for sexual harrassment or brawling with coworkers. Any of these kinds of firings will guarantee an early retirement from the aviation field, other than perhaps Nigerian B707 freight dog jobs.

Losing Your Medical

As I mentioned in Part 7, a flying career can really take a toll on one's health. Even if you manage to get proper nutrition and exercise, flying on the backside of the clock can take years off a pilot's life. Few international pilots seem to consistently get the rest their bodies need.

Of course, perfectly fit and rested people get sick all the time. It's pretty common to have a cold or flu ground you for a few days. That's what sick time is for. More serious is chronic illness or disease that results in you losing your FAA medical.

A few things will ground you more or less permanently. Chronic heart disease, stroke, epilepsy, or diabetes are a few. If your vision deteriorates to the point that it cannot be corrected to 20/20, that's also disqualifying. Many problems, however, are temporary. A pilot will be grounded while undergoing treatment for cancer, for example, but will likely be able to obtain a medical once given a clean bill of health.

Other than doing your best to stay healthy, there are a few things you can do to prepare for potential medical problems. Pay attention to your company's short term and long term disability benefits, and ensure that your coverage is adequate. Use a FAA medical examiner that you trust to help you handle any problems that come up. AOPA offers an excellent medical consultation service to it's members. If you're an ALPA member, you'll find your dues to be money well spent if you ever have a medical problem, as they have been instrumental in working with the FAA to return grounded airmen to the skies as quickly as possible. They also offer loss-of-medical insurance.

Getting Busted

If you fly Part 91 out of uncontrolled airports, your visits to the medical examiner's office will probably be your sole contact with the FAA. Good for you. Unfortunately, most of us are in the fishbowl day in and day out, with a pleothera of potential screwups to bring the wrath of Big Brother down upon us. For starters, there's air traffic control. Although a pretty decent lot, they are employed by the FAA, and under obligation to report anything that appears to be a violation of regulations. Altitude busts and runway incursions will definately get you dinged. Every once in a while you'll find a fed riding your jumpseat or conducting a ramp check. Even though you can't see them, you can be sure the FAA is occasionally auditing your flight paperwork. Improperly done weight & balance forms have come back to haunt pilots months after the fact.

Sanctions can range from a letter of counsel placed in your FAA file for a few years to a temporary certificate suspension to a certificate revocation. Using a NASA ASRS form may spare you from having the punishment being carried out, but it will still be on your record. Getting a future job will be problematic if you have a revokation or serious suspension on record. Any incident that gets you fired and brings down the wrath of the FAA (wrecked airplane?) is career ending.

One solution is to fly every flight as though the FAA is watching over your shoulder. When they actually are, it'll be no problem. That said, even the most conscientious pilots mess up, occasionally while someone is looking. This is one time that working for a unionized carrier (particularly ALPA) can be a huge help. They have lengthy experience in representing airmen during brushups with the FAA. A fairly recent development is the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP). This program, implemented at individual operators, offers pilots significant protection from FAA action in return for voluntarily submitted aviation safety reports. I've talked to pilots at airlines that have ASAP, and the reaction is uniformly positive.

It's possible to obtain loss of license insurance (through ALPA, among others) although I personally don't feel it's neccessary.

*****

In closing, aviation is a dynamic industry that doesn't lend itself towards job stability. As you weigh an aviation career, keep that in mind. If you do choose to go into aviation, have a backup plan and remain flexible in your career goals. And when it does happen to you, take heart in knowing that it's happened to many before you, and they made it through - so can you.

Next Up: Getting Started, from First Flight to First Job

Friday, December 23, 2005

Dusty Cardboard Box

Dawn and I are back in Minnesota at my folks' place for Christmas. This morning, my mom asked me to sort through several boxes of stuff that she'd saved from my childhood, and had been languishing in the basement for years. She'd saved a lot of stuff (chalk it up to being the firstborn...) so it made for a long, dusty job. Most of it I ended up throwing away, but there were some pretty neat discoveries.

I came across a booklet that I made for a second-grade assignment. It was supposed to be about yourself, your family, etc. One of the questions was, what would you like to be when you grow up? My answer, in 7-year old's scrawl, was "I want to be an airplane pilot."

Until seeing that book, I didn't realize that my dream extended back that far. Early in life I was obsessed with trains, and there was a good half-box of crude train drawings to prove it. I'm not sure why my interest switched to planes, since in second grade I had never flown. I actually didn't fly until I was 11 years old, at which point interest became addiction. I've never lost my love of flight since, and I hope I never do.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

An Exercise in Futility



PDX to PDX with 30 mins holding over BOI
Departed 20DEC 0051 PST
Arrived 20DEC 0320 PST

Boise was below minimums as early as 10pm, but the powers that be didn't feel like taking our advice. So much for the fuel conservation program - we burned lots of fuel for nothing last night!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Gone Skiing

We've had excellent early season snow conditions here in the Pacific Northwest. Mount Hood Meadows, for example, already has a 115" base at mid-mountain. Mt. Hood Skibowl, with a much lower base elevation (3500') is already open - in fact, I went night-skiing there last weekend and they had about 3 feet of powder. Today I have a 2-for-1 voucher at Skibowl but couldn't find anyone to go with me, so I'll just head up there & scalp the extra ticket off. Such is the life of a cheapskate skibum...

In other news, I'm sure everyone has heard about the Southwest crash at MDW. Apparently the plane was landing on 31C while it was snowing fairly hard (1/2 mile vis) and ran off the end, through a fence, and onto Central Avenue. One young boy (not a passenger) was killed, making this the first fatal crash at a US major airline in over 4 years. I think my buddy Glenn would tell you that 6500' is a fairly tight runway for a 737 under normal conditions; with a contaminated runway, everything needs to be done just right. I'm not saying this to absolve the pilots of blame, just to preempt the inevitible comparisons to Southwest's Burbank accident.

Incidently, I once watched a 727 come within inches of taking out that fence on takeoff at MDW. Must've been pretty heavy!

Update: It was a gorgeous day here in the Pacific Northwest, and the snow was perfect. An excellent day to go skiing!







Thursday, December 08, 2005

Flying Careers Part 7: Lifestyle

Lifestyle is a pretty all-encompasing subject. I'm just going to hit some high points and write what you can expect in some of the more common jobs. Note that some of the less common jobs may offer more of what you're looking for; as an example, if you'd rather fly like crazy for 6 months and then have 6 months off, aerial firefighting is perfect for you. Other examples about; it's just to avoid the more typical aviation lifestyles I'm about to write about, you may have to think outside the box.

Work Schedule

As a new CFI, your work schedule is pretty dependent on your students' needs. If they can only fly on weekends, don't plan on having weekends off. If it's July and your student needs some night cross-country instruction, you'll be out flying until the wee hours of the morning. As a general rule, the more "institutional" the school is, the better chance you have at a semblance of a M-F/9-5 schedule. Full time students are less likely to need to fly on the weekends or after work. At a smaller FBO, you may well work six days a week and simply have a lot of downtime on weekdays.

Some of the alternative starter jobs provide a more consistent schedule. Traffic watch tends to be a M-F job with set hours (during rush hour!). Dropzones are busiest on weekends, and many shut down completely during the week. The same goes for banner towing operations.

Should you choose to fly Part 135 once you have enough time, the schedule really depends on the kind of operation you fly for. At smaller charter outfits, you'll be tied to a pager 24/7; at bigger operations you may bid a schedule based on seniority, airline-style. If you fly for a scheduled freight op that hauls cancelled checks, your schedule matches the banks': Monday through Friday with banking holidays off. For small package feeder service, schedules tend to me Mon-Fri or Tues-Sat.

Corporate pilots, like charter pilots, are infamous for being married to their pagers. You fly when the big-wigs are ready to fly. On the other hand, larger corporate flight departments as well as fractional carriers tend to have set schedules, often with airline-style bidding systems.

At regional, national, and major airlines, you bid every month for your schedule based on seniority. Some airlines have preferential bid systems, where you specify which days you would like to work and which you want off, and these are awarded in order of seniority. Others have "hard lines" build by crew planning and subsequently bid for by seniority. There will be both regular lines and reserve lines, and a variety of schedules (weekends off vs weekdays off). Of course, weekends off go senior, and reserve lines go junior. The weekends-off reserve lines can go either way; sometimes crappy regular lines will regularly go junior to better reserve lines.

Many airlines have multiple aircraft types, with larger types meriting higher pay; this adds to the schedule vs pay choices available. Bidding up to a larger aircraft while still junior may increase your pay, but you'll be stuck on reserve and working weekends when you could have a weekends-off regular line in a smaller aircraft. The same choice goes for captain upgrades. At regional airlines, it's usually a no-brainer: upgrade ASAP for the turbine PIC time. If you're at the airline you want to retire at, though, it's not such a rush. You may choose to sit in the right seat until you'd be able to hold a decent line as a Captain.

The lines do tend to vary in the number of days they have off. Because they're usually built to the same number of block hours, the more efficient lines have more days off. At Horizon, regular lines have between 13 and 17 days off per 35 day bid period (reserves have 12 off). Some regionals allow for as little as 8 days off per month. Most major and national airlines build their lines as efficiently as possible, and their schedules are built to less block hours than the regionals', so they get more days off - 14 to 18 days per month is typical.

Time Away from Home

"Airline flying would be a great job if it weren't for all the travel," goes the old joke. And flying, airline flying in particular, does involve a lot of time away from home. Just how much can vary quite a bit, though.

Lines can be built with daytrips, overnight trips, or three or four day trips. Many international trips are even longer, although lines containing these tend to have a lot of days off. How long the company tends to build it's trips largely depends on how much extra they have to pay the crew to do so. This is where trip rigs are very important, as I mentioned in my pilot pay posting. A 4:1 trip rig allows the company to keep you away from home for 24 hours for only 6 hours' pay; they'll probably get that much flying out of you anyways. A 3:1 trip rig, however, would pay 8 hours of credit for the same 24 hours, making it more likely that the company will minimize overnights. Lots of overnights also cost the company money for per diem and hotel expenses, so any pay rig under 4:1 will usually result in shorter trips, and more nights at home. For any airline you're considering flying for, check the pay rigs and ask line pilots what kind of time they spend away from base. I'd say that under 250 hours per month is good, 300 is average, and 350+ is bad. At Horizon, most of our lines are in the 350-430 hrs/month range.

Of course, if you are commuting to your base, you'll tend to favor longer trips since you'll get a free hotel room rather than paying for a crashpad or hotel bed in your own base. If you are a commuter, 4-day trips are your friend. Add in the time spent commuting, and you're probably looking at 500+ hours away from home per month. As I'll discuss later, commuting is a really bad idea if you value time at home.

Most non-airline jobs are quite a bit better. It's rare that a flight instructor spends a night away from home, and many freight dogs are home every night (or every day, for the nocturnal fliers). Fractional pilots fly similar trips to airline pilots; the corporate side varies a lot. On the other side of the coin, international contract pilots and aerial firefighters may spend several months away from home at a time.

Life on the Road

Like many other things in this career, road life is what you make of it. Lots of people really hate it, but others have a lot of fun with it. There are many crewmembers that, upon arriving at the hotel, go straight to their rooms and aren't seen until the next morning for the van ride to the airport. We call these "Slam-Click" crews, and they seem, to me at least, to be the ones that whine the most about being away from home. The truth is that if you make an effort, you can often find something fun or interesting to do on layovers - particularly if you have a good crew. Sometimes you'll make plans to go out to eat or for drinks, or just meet in the hotel bar for happy hour. Often there will be a mall or movie theater near the hotel, or public transportation to go explore the surrounding area. With a little planning, some layovers can be really memorable. Recently a friend of mine rented a sailboat in Eureka, CA, and took his crew sailing at sunset on the Pacific Ocean.

Of course, not every layover is fun and games. Often they are short overnights or they come at the end of long, exhausting days, and nobody is in the mood to do anything. The hotels do all start to look like each other. If you have a spouse and/or kids at home, that makes things tougher. Sometimes you can barely work up the motivation to go eat a stale sandwich at the hotel restaurant, much less do something fun or productive. I find that the best antidote is simply forcing myself to get out of the hotel, even if it's just a walk around the neighborhood. Many crewmembers cope by working out in the hotel's fitness room, which helps compensate for some of the health effects of this job.

One note about partying on layovers: there was once a day when this was the norm, and everyone would show up for work the next day hung over. Today random testing, increased FAA vigilence, and stricter company policies have put a damper on not only the excesses but more moderate drinking as well. A lot of people have been stung, even when they were abiding by FAA and company policies. So if you do drink on a layover, you'd be well advised to keep it in moderation and observe the following rules: do not pay by credit card, particularly in the hotel you're staying at; do not tell anyone you are an airline employee; do not leave alcohol containers in your room; if you're in a crewmember's room, keep the volume LOW! In other words, be discrete and use common sense.

Family Life

Airline life is notoriously hard on marriages and family life. Not only will you be gone for a lot of time, you'll be gone on important holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. There are some things you can do to help such as not upgrading or transitioning to larger aircraft until you can hold a good line, but this isn't a perfect solution - it may well put money stress on the family.

One solution is to forgo airline life altogether. There are many aviation jobs that are much better for keeping a pilot home. Or, if you must go the airline route, but family is important to you, choose carefully.

Commuting

One of the supposed benefits to flying for an airline is the ability to live somewhere other than where you are based. One would suppose that a Newark-based pilot would want to live anywhere but Newark. The thing is, commuting causes as many problems as it solves. Let's consider an easy commute, from Denver to Chicago. There are four airlines that fly between these city pairs (UA, AA, F9, ATA), with flights leaving nearly every hour. The flight itself takes only 2 hours. Give yourself an hour for check-in and security at Denver, and we're talking a 3-hour commute, right?

Well, both Denver and Chicago are pretty prone to weather delays in all seasons, so you'll want a flight that arrives a good two hours before your check-in time in Chicago. Plus, most airlines' commuter policies require a backup flight, so now we're looking at getting to Denver a good 6 hours before your checkin time in Chicago. Of course, if you have an early show time, you'll need to fly in the night before and get a hotel room or use a crashpad. If you get done with work late at night, you'll have to wait for the first flight out of the morning. If the weather is particularly bad or the loads are heavy, you may find your easy commute taking a whole 24 hours on each end. If you have two days off between trips, it might hardly be worth coming home for.

Long-time commuters are typically eager to give the newhire a word of advice: Don't commute. I won't go so far as to say don't, but the truth is that every aspect of airline life that sucks, commuting makes worse. Consider the cost before you take the job.

The best solution is to find a job that will base you somewhere that you'd like to live, or at least wouldn't mind. Of course, for someone working their way up to the majors, this will entail a number of major moves over the years.

Rest

For as much research that's been done into pilot fatigue, and all the accidents that happened because the pilots did sometime dumb while they were tired, the world of aviation has yet to take fatigue seriously. The FAA regulations for airline pilots are pretty lenient. You can be given as few as 8 hours of rest, including time spent in transportation to and from the hotel, and follow that up with 16 hours of duty and 8 hours of flying. That's about 5 hours of sleep to do 16 hours of work on. Some union contracts contain better rest rules or fatigue provisions, but few airlines have done anything on their own to reduce the problem. The general response tends to be that it is the crewmember's duty to ensure they are properly rested.

Outside of the airlines, rest rules are even more relaxed, but most jobs have working conditions that are more conducive to better rest. If you are someone who needs a lot of sleep to function properly, it behooves you to do some thorough research before accepting any flying job.

Health

There are a lot of overweight pilots flying around. It's not exactly an active job - you're basically doing nothing but sitting for hours on end. The most exercise you'll get while working is the aircraft walkaround between flights. Heck, sometimes I offer to do the walkaround for the captain just so I can stretch my legs. Back when I was a freight dog it wasn't so bad, because I'd be loading and unloading the airplane between legs.

Another problem is the poor eating habits of many pilots. As a CFI, I tended to grab lunch and/or dinner out of vending machines and scarf it down between students. Many airline pilots eat the same sort of stuff, either in the form of crew meals or onboard snacks. At Horizon, we don't have crew meals cooked on board the planes - we have dispensers in the crew rooms, along with microwaves. Typical is the Sausage Breakfast Burrito, which contains over 1000 calories and over 400% the daily recommended saturated fat! Marginally better food can often be purchased in the terminal, but there's usually not enough time on 30 minute turns.

Many crewmembers pack their own lunches, at least for the first several days of a trip. Several captains I fly with make their own healthy trail mix to snack on during flights. I try to keep the inflight snacks to a minimum unless it's something relatively healthy like dried plums.

On the exercise end of things, there's not much you can do about being inactive at work, but you can attempt to be active at the layover. Most crew hotels have fitness centers with treadmills, stationary bikes, and weight machines. Many have pools that one can attempt to swim laps in while avoiding cannonballing children. A good run or long walk is a good alternative depending on the weather. This summer when I spend a lot of time in Helena, I did quite a bit of hiking and exploring the mountains outside of town.

Besides poor nutrition and lack of exercise, the above-mentioned lack of rest has a way of catching up to you, with it's own detrimental health effects. Also, for pilots flying at high altitude, UV ray exposure is a legitimate health concern. Studies are somewhat inconclusive, but tend to point towards a higher rate of skin cancer in airline pilots than other professions.

*****

Next post: Job Stability, or lack thereof.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

My Week

Weds: Portland-Sacramento
Thurs: Sacramento - Portland - Boise - Los Angeles - Boise
Fri: Boise - Los Angeles - Reno - Los Angeles - Reno
Sat: Reno - Los Angeles - Boise - Portland
Sun: Portland-Spokane-Boise-Sacramento-Portland
Mon: Portland-Seattle-Billings-Portland

Yeah, I'm spent. Sorry I didn't get around to the Flying Careers - Lifestyle post yet. But I guess this is a good prelude to it, no?

Off today then two more days of reserve.