Thursday, September 28, 2006

Growth...Kinda!

One of the unique things about my airline is that unlike most regionals, its core business is not contract flying. Although we are affiliated with a major airline which is owned by the same parent company, most of our flying is generally done under our own brand, we do our own marketing, have our own reservations, and only around half of our passengers connect to other airlines.

The exception, for the last three years, has been our Denver operation. In 2003 we began contract flying on behalf of a certain Denver-based low cost carrier with nine of our CRJ aircraft. It was a fairly small portion of our total fleet but was significant in that it represented our first venture into the world of contract flying. By all accounts, it went very well. We established a new hub and crew/maintenance base in less than 90 days, and right off the bat our reliability numbers were excellent. Maybe a little too excellent: the airline we contracted with had to pay us every reliability bonus. Our success was made more apparent by the horrible performance of the previous contract carrier, Mesa.

Three years later, it's over. We're shutting down Denver and bringing the planes and crews home. What went wrong? Well, the airline in question decided they weren't willing to pay a premium for reliability after all. They opted out of our contract and put out an RFP for our flying. They did invite us to bid on the new RFP, but we weren't interested because we'd have to foot the bill for up to twenty new airplanes. So our management made the decision to redeploy the nine airplanes in Denver to our native network.

In one sense, I think this is a good thing. Our native network has been more profitable than the Denver operation was, even though those were guaranteed profits. We are in dire need of more airplanes for the native network, both to add capacity to certain existing routes and also to open new routes in lucrative markets (ie, California). So bringing back nine airframes from Denver will allow for native network growth that might've otherwise never happened, and get us into some potentially very profitable markets before someone else does.

The downside, of course, is that there is no growth so far as the pilots are concerned. The same number of airframes are remaining on property, requiring the same number of pilots. It's now unlikely that the company will exercise many of their additional MegaWhacker options. Upgrades will probably remain in the 6-7 year range. That said, I'm personally glad we're out of the contract business because that business has become a downward spiral of cutthroat competition, cancelled contracts, pay concessions, and life disruptions for many pilots. The only regionals that've thrived are the ones that pay their pilots poorly, and that's a price our pilots aren't willing to pay for growth.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Angelenos: Please Don't Be Such Slobs!

Californians, and people from LA in particular, have a bit of a bum rap in the Pacific Northwest. A lot of native Oregonians are bitter about them selling off their overpriced Californian property and coming up here to pay cash for big estates, inflating our housing prices and pushing many natives out of the market at the same time that previously sleepy towns like Bend explode in population and lose a lot of their charm in the process. While proudly announcing that you're a LA transplant probably won't provoke any verbal insult, many a Northwesterner is thinking: "Big house. BMW Z4 owner. Trophy wife. Spoiled kids. Loopy. Self-absorbed. Bad driver. Go home!"

I have nothing against Angelenos myself. I lived there for a few years and generally enjoyed it. Everybody I met there was pretty laid back and friendly, even if they needed the occasional reminder that there is life outside LA. In the aviation blogosphere, we have several Angelenos including Ron and GC, both of whom have written about some of the factors that have prompted the northward migration. But I do have one bone to pick with the fine citizens of Los Angeles. Ya'll are a bunch of freaking slobs.

After each flight, I usually help the flight attendants pick up and cross seatbelts. On most flights, there will be a few pieces of uncollected trash and newspapers to pick up, and maybe a little Bisseling to do. On any flight that originates or arrives in LA, though, you can pretty much count on heavy duty cleanup. We're talking plastic cups and food wrappers in seatback pockets, snotty kleenixes on the seats, newspapers everywhere, three unfolded blankets per occupant, scattered food trampled into the floor. We're talking utter destruction. To get the cabin really clean again would require every minute of our 40 minute turn.

We're not talking LA-Guadalajara flights here. These routes are LA-Sun Valley, LA-Arcata, LA-Bend; the seats are filled with well groomed people wearing stylish clothes and expensive sunglasses. I suspect many of these people are well off - many have second homes in Sun Valley or Bend - and probably have the education to match their salaries. Yet, these people have apparently never in their lives been taught to freaking pick up after themselves! That, or they've become too used to having a maid to pick up after them.

It's really quite simple, folks. Every flight we operate into LA is over an hour long. Our flight attendents finish their snack and beverage service early, and then make numerous passes with the trash bag. Rather than wedge that snotty napkin into the seatback pocket for me to pick up (or the next passenger to find!), it's very easy to reach over to the aisle and deposit it in the flight attendent's trash bag. Ditto for the Big Mac wrapper. And we'll be more than happy to recycle that newspaper for you. Also, please use caution when shoveling that snack mix into your mouth to ensure that half of it doesn't end up on the floor to be ground into the carpet.

Come on, people. Would you trash somebody's house this way after they invited you over? I realize you paid good money to fly on us - and I'm grateful, I really am - but that doesn't mean that the rules of etiquette suddenly no longer apply. I've held my tongue for a long time but the destruction you visited upon the cabin of aircraft 401 last night put me over the edge. I'm not asking for much. It's really no more than a Kindergarten teacher expects of her five year old students. Just extend us the common courtesy of picking up after yourselves.

Thank you!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

War Stories from ADP...

In my last post I promised that I'd share some of my more interesting ADP anecdotes. I think I've written about a few of these in the past, although I'm not finding them in my archives. Actually, I just found one, about my first multi-engine student attempting to kill me twice in one flight; that story is here. If I'm repeating myself on other stories, sorry...

*****

In my first post I alluded to an eventful first hour of dual instruction on the same day I passed my CFII/MEI. It was actually supposed to be a mock checkride for an Egyptian student, Said, who was scheduled to take his Private Pilot checkride the next day. His instructor suggested that we go to Cable Airport - 5 miles east of Brackett - to get Said familiarized with the airport. I gave Said a short briefing about what we'd be doing, he said he understood, and after his preflight we took off for Cable Airport to practice some short and soft field landings.

I quickly realized that, for someone about to take a PPL checkride, Said did not know how to land. Every time he would flare out way too high (fifty feet!), get slow, get a big sink rate going, arrest it with a mighty blast of power, and float halfway down the rather short runway. I had him do full-stop landings so we could talk about it on the taxi-back, and I would explain that he needed to start the flare lower, and Said would agree, but then on the next time around he'd do the exact same thing.

This went on for a good four or five trips around the pattern, and I finally told Said that I would fly with him to help him find a proper flare height. Turning final I put my hands on the control wheel and told him to not flare out until I told him to and pulled gently on the wheel. Sure enough, he attempted to flare at 50 feet; my hands were there and pushed the wheel gently forward. To my amazement, Said then flared out at the perfect height. "Okay, now land the airplane," I said as I removed my hands from the yoke.

The instant my hands were clear, Said hauled visciously back on the yoke, ballooning back up to around 50' above the runway. The airspeed tanked, the stall horn went off. "My airplane!" I barked as I firewalled the throttle and attempted to push the yoke forward. I couldn't understand why I was having trouble doing so until I glanced over at Said; he had a death grip on the yoke and a frightened expression on his face. "Let go!" I barked (actually, it was more of a yelp). No response from Said. With my left hand, I reached over and hit him in the upper arm several times. Surprised, he let go of the yoke; I got the nose down and played altitude for airspeed, sinking to just above the runway before gaining enough speed to climb out over the bushes at the end. "Okay, that's enough for today. I'm going to fly home if you don't mind." Said was speechless during the short flight back to Brackett.

I told Said's flight instructor what happened over at Cable; he was fairly non-plussed. "Must be a case of the checkride jitters." I told him it seemed like more than jitters to me, but the instructor signed Said off for the checkride nonetheless. The next day, Said took off for his checkride and returned triumphantly a few hours later with a new Private Pilot's License. I started to understand why the Egyptian students always insisted upon this particular examiner. Later I heard rumors that they'd bring baksheesh of good cognac to the checkrides.

*****

Anas' attempt to kill me twice in five minutes wasn't the only eventful flight I had with him. A few days later, we had a multi-engine lesson introducing low speed engine cuts. With a low speed engine cut, the instructor uses the mixture to fail an engine early in the takeoff roll, without letting the student see which engine it is. The student is expected to maintain directional control while quickly retarding both throttles and braking to a stop. By now, I'd had enough problems with Anas that I was quite cautious in introducting this maneuver. I briefed it at length before the lesson, and again while we were holding short of the runway. "What are you gonna do as soon as you feel the plane yaw, Anas?"; "I'm going to cut both throttles and keep the plane on centerline." "Ok, good. Let's try one."

I told Brackett Tower what we were up to; they cleared us for takeoff on 26R with as much delay as we wanted. Anas lined up and brought the throttles up for takeoff; I hid the mixtures behind my left hand, and waited until around 20 knots before cutting the right mixture.

Immediately, the plane lurched towards the right side of the runway. Not only did Anas not retard the throttles, he made no attempt to maintain directional control. He just sat there as I cut the other mixture and got on the left rudder a second too late, the airplane departing the runway and bumping through the weeds. By the time we were back on the runway, I'd retarded the throttles and brought the mixtures back before the engines died completely. "Seneca 159, are you okay out there?" asked Tower. They'd seen our off-runway exploits. "Yeah, we need to go back to ADP," I replied. I was fortunate that 26R had no runway lights to hit. I stayed calm and professional until I was out of earshot of Anas, at which point I exclaimed to a mechanic: "He tried to freaking kill me again!" The mechanic grinned: "Welcome to ADP!"

*****

Sometime during that summer I was up in Monterey, CA, with a multi-engine commercial student whose name I don't recall at the moment. It was a fairly low overcast and I shot the ILS approach to get in, and decided to grab a bite to eat in the terminal before making our return flight. I believe the restaurant's name was The Golden Tee. I had a fairly big bowl of clam chowder, which really hit the spot. Once we were done we walked back to Million Air, paid for our fuel, rechecked the weather, and took off. Within a minute or two we were IMC.

Almost immediately after takeoff, I started getting ill. I broke out sweating in chills, my stomach was churning, and it felt like the seatbelt was suffocating me. I started looking for a sic sac or plastic bag or anything I could vomit into without making an unbearable mess. For once the airplane was completely clean. My student was looking rather concerned but was doing a fine job flying the airplane. We leveled off at 7000' when I could stand it no longer. I told him to slow down, I was going to open the door to puke. He slowed to around 95 knots and I opened the door.

Thhhwappp! In an instant, my neatly folded Jeppesen enroute chart was snatched off my lap and sucked out the door into the night. I had more pressing matters, but once I was done relieving myself of the cursed clam chowder, I realized that this was the only IFR chart for the area we'd had on board. My student hadn't bought Jeppesen plates yet because the current ones were just about to expire, so he'd been using mine. That chart (LO-3) covered our route on V27 all the way down the coast to Gaviota, where LO-5 picked up.

In retrospect, I should've fessed up to ATC. Instead, I hid my shame by referring to the VFR sectionals for the radials that defined V27. Soon enough we were on the LO-5 chart and nobody was the wiser. I never ate at the Golden Tee again, but I fortunately wasn't scarred enough to lose my love of fresh clam chowder...

*****

Jesse was a Taiwanese student who'd just started his instrument training with me. We would do a lesson every few days, with the rest of his time devoted to cross-country flying to build up his 50 required hours of x/c time. Jesse didn't speak english very well, but seemed to handle ATC communications fine on our lessons. He'd tell me where he was going everyday but I didn't oversee him closely, since he had a PPL and wasn't really my student on his independent VFR cross countries.

One day while Jesse was gone on a flight, ADP got a call from Montgomery Field Tower in San Diego. Mark, the manager, took the call, but then summoned me over to talk to them "Sir, we have your student on the ground here, and we think you'd better come and get him. SoCal Approach has instructed us to not let him take off again." I quickly realized he was talking about Jesse, and inquired what he'd done.

Apparently, Jesse was talking to SoCal approach on his way down to Montgomery Field but was not cleared into Class B airspace, electing instead to stay below it and skirt Class B to the east. Unfortunately, as he turned west towards Montgomery Field, the late afternoon sun in the haze cut visibility down to almost nothing, and he became disoriented. He overflew MYF without seeing it and almost landed at Mirimar Naval Air Station, violating Class B airspace in the process. SoCal Approach tried to help him, but he was so utterly flummoxed at this point that he seemingly lost all ability to understand and speak english. After Mirimar, he became entirely unresponsive to ATC.

At this point he found the coastline and followed it southward - directly over Lindburg Field, San Diego's airline served Class B airport. After that, he flew low over North Island Naval Air Station, and then crossed the border into Mexican airspace. He actually made a low approach to the runway at Tijuana, going around only when the tower repeatedly flashed him with a red light gun signal. He flew through Brown Field's airspace on his way back north, and then miraculously found Montgomery - where he dutifully called the tower for landing clearance. I'm still amazed that the FAA didn't pursue action against his certificate. This was pre-9/11; these days doing what Jesse did could potentially get you shot down.

Another instructor flew me down to MYF, where we searched the dark field for several hours before finding Jesse. He was tearful and speechless the entire flight home. Later, he couldn't explain what'd happened; he could barely remember any of it. I took him up for some remedial cross-country training and he performed beautifully, his english better than I'd ever heard. He flew the rest of his cross-countries with instructors and other renters; nobody ever reported a problem. It seemed to be a one time screwup of epic proportions.

*****

I have another few good stories but this post is getting long, I'll save em for another time...

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

RIP, ADP - Part II

When I went back to school after the summer of 2001, I wasn't planning on returning to instruct at ADP. I had about 700 hours at the time and figured that after instructing part-time during my senior year at UND, I'd be in a good position to apply at regional airlines.

Of course, 9/11 happened shortly thereafter. Suddenly UND had a glut of instructors as recent graduates returned, newly furloughed. Few of the full-time instructors were getting the time or pay they needed, to say nothing of the part-time instructors. At the same time, I realized that I really didn't want to stay in Grand Forks any longer than I needed to. In April of 2002, I was hired by Piedmont Airlines on the condition that I needed 1000 hours total time before being assigned a class date. I called around to some major flight schools around the country, but most had no need of extra instructors in the year after 9/11. The manager at ADP, Mark, said I was welcome back anytime. I left the same day I graduated from UND.

The school had changed from the last summer. There were less students, fewer of them were foreign nationals, and the Egyptians had completely disappeared. The drop in revenue was having a clear effect on profitability: fewer and fewer planes were being kept airworthy. When a plane had a crash or major maintenance issue, it was parked and used for parts. The flightline started looking more and more like a boneyard as major portions of the fleet sat engine-less and forlorn on their tails. The Seneca fleet, once ten airplanes strong, was decimated by a series of gear-up accidents and engine failures.

In my last post, Ron noted that of his flight school's fleet of 35 airplanes, not a single airframe has been lost since he's been there. Air Desert Pacific's fleet was about that size when I started. When I was there, ADP lost a Warrior in the San Gabriel mountains in poor weather (it still hasn't been found), had several Senecas land gear-up, had an Arrow land so hard the gear came through the wing, suffered several prop strikes, a nose gear collapse, a major engine fire, and a Joshua tree that totalled a Warrior during a forced landing in the desert. In the last case, a shady local prop shop was to blame; it was shut down after several other accidents, including a fatal Travelair crash. Most of these incidents were simply pilot error. Several of them were cross-country renters that'd been given a cursory checkout; a few of them had inexperienced instructors on board. One of the Seneca gear-ups was on a commercial checkride. The maintenance at Air Desert Pacific may have been sketchy but it didn't seem to be a factor in most of the accidents. I kind've think it was just the nature of the place: with so many accelerated students and short-term renters on holiday, we had a lot of different people flying those airplanes, and some of them were clods.

The diminishing fleet of aircraft resulted in less flight time, but I was okay with that. Dawn, then my girlfriend, had moved out to SoCal, so I was glad to have more free time than the last summer. I had fewer accelerated students, and got to take several primary students through their PPL checkride, which I really enjoyed. I had decent multi-engine time, so the drop in multi-engine students didn't bother me. I was one of the senior instructors, so I got more of the "challenging" students. Some simply needed a change in instruction, some an attitude adjustment, and a few simply had no business flying airplanes. When that was the case, feelings might get hurt, but the school's management at least backed me up.

In the fall of 2002, I was ramp checked by the FAA in one of ADP's better airplanes and they found 13 different airworthiness issues. The inspector didn't violate me but gave me a strong verbal warning. I'd been watching the flight school go downhill and I felt the time was right to get out of instructing. Piedmont postponed my class date indefinately when they went into bankruptcy with USAirways, and no west coast airlines were hiring at the time, but the Part 135 freight op affiliated with the flight school, AEX, had an opening. In January 2003, I ceased to instruct full time and became a freight dog.

The last thing I heard about ADP before they went out of business was that Mark quit and got a job as an engineer for Rockwell-Collins. I was glad to hear that. He was a good guy who worked tirelessly to keep the flight school going, and I often felt that he was the glue holding the whole shambles together.

Next post: my very favorite ADP stories.

Monday, September 18, 2006

RIP, ADP

I hadn't been back since last year; since then I'd heard rumors from several aquaintances but didn't know for sure. Only this week did I get proof that my old flight school had finally gone belly up: the phones have been disconnected and the website no longer exists. Air Desert Pacific is no more.

Air Desert Pacific was well known not only at Brackett Field but all throughout Southern California. It was not a complimentary reputation. Wags joked that ADP stood for "Another Downed Piper" or "Another Dead Pilot." The several notable fatalities in the school's history were due to pilot error, but the decrepit appearance of the aging planes contributed to ADP's sullied reputation. It didn't help that half of the flightline was occupied by crashed, scrapped, or partially stripped airframes being used for parts to keep the motley remainder of the fleet flying.

I first heard of ADP in the spring of 2001, when I was an intern at (also now defunct) Trans World Airlines in St Louis, MO. I was looking for flight instructing work for the summer, once the internship was over. A Chautauqua captain staying in my crashpad had built time instructing at ADP and suggested I give them a call. After emailing the manager, I jumpseated to LAX on a TWA 767 and showed up at the flight school unannounced. The interview lasted about five minutes and ended with the promise of a job after I completed my CFII/MEI training the next month.

My very first hour of dual given was on the same day that I passed my CFII/MEI checkride. It's a long story that can wait for another post - but the highlight was finding myself just above stall speed, 50' above the runway, with the panicked student hauling back on the yoke in a death grip. It was an omen of things to come. My first multi-engine student attempted to kill me twice on the same flight in IMC, and ran off the side of the runway the next day during a low-speed engine cut. I had no less than 15 near-midairs in the crowded SoCal practice areas.

I wore myself to the point of exhaustion that summer. I flew morning, afternoon, and night, seven days a week; my few hours of sleep were on a couch rented for $150/mo at a 2-bedroom crashpad shared by seven bachelors. My car gave up the ghost halfway through the summer, and I commuted to the airport on roller blades. It was a meager, pathetic existence, but I was building those all-important hours.

The school was a very busy place back then. A good many of our students were foreign nationals - Japanese, Chinese, Brits, Germans, Greeks, and more than a few Egyptians. The last group, in particular, broke airplanes and provided drama well out of proportion to their numbers. Most of them came from extremely priveleged backgrounds in Egypt and viewed their stay as a vacation, a few months to relax and party. There was often little interest in learning or even in flying. In one incident, an Archer was found tied down at a nearby airport with the engine running; the student, supposedly on a long cross-country flight, was found at the adjacent strip club. In another case, two Egyptian students set the parking brake on a Seneca in Phoenix and crawled in back to play chess with the engines running; the idle speed in 115 degree heat cracked several cylinders. After 9/11, the Egyptian students quickly disappeared; the loss of income contributed to the school's subsequent downward spiral.

That first summer, I didn't have a single primary student. Most of the students were working on single and multi-engine commercial tickets, with a few instrument students thrown in. Almost everyone was there for accelerated training; they expected to complete a multi-engine commercial in three intense days, or an instrument rating in two weeks. The reality is that maybe half actually showed up with the required preparation to do it in that time. Even when you had a sharp student who was prepared, and the weather was cooperative, it could be tough getting an airplane. The scheduling was done on a big ledger, with one row for every airframe, and it wasn't uncommon to find your student's entire training scheduled for an airplane that'd been sitting without an engine for the last month. More than once I also caught instructors erasing and repenciling the schedule to give their students working airplanes and my students broken ones.

I got to know the various airplanes intimately. For weeks I was the only instructor flying N15379, an abhorrently ugly Piper Arrow II with paint flaking off all over and an interior patched together with foam and duct tape. Despite the appearance, I much preferred it to N47455, an Arrow III with beautiful paint and interior but inexplicably abysmal performance. N2925Q was the best performing Piper Archer we had, a favorite mount for trips to Big Bear Lake. I flew it from Minneapolis to LA after the cross-country renter's check bounced. N8295L had radios with a bad tendancy to glitch out; twice I called the tower with my cell phone when that plane's radios stopped working.

N74SA was my very favorite of the ten Senecas until it suffered a prop strike; the right engine was always screwy after that. Two years ago it was totalled in an accident that surprised nobody familiar with ADP. An instructor shut down an engine in the practice area and was unable to get it restarted (forgot to turn the fuel back on). They returned to the airport with the engine still feathered and the student pilot flying. When he got low and slow on final, the instructor told him to go around - and predicatably, the airplane got below Vmc, rolled, caught a wingtip, and cartwheeled down the runway. The pilots miraculously walked away.

By the end of the summer, I had given over 400 hours dual instruction in three months, doubling my flight time. More importantly, I felt that I had greatly improved my breadth of experience: the airspace, the traffic, the frequent IFR weather, and the ratty airplanes were all a long ways from the protected confines of UND. That said, I had no plans to return to SoCal when I drove out of LA in mid-August. I had two semesters left to finish my degree, during which time I would instruct part-time. Regional airlines were hiring first officers at well under 1000 hours. I figured that I'd paid my dues that summer, and it'd be smooth sailing from there on in. How I underestimated the humbling abilities of the aviation industry!

Tomorrow: RIP, ADP Part II - Sam comes back to ADP, and things go downhill.

Friday, September 15, 2006

We're All Screwed!

The US District Court of New York just handed down a decision that, if it withstands appeal, has far-reaching and disasterous consequences for every worker in the airline industry. The decision, which can be read here, essentially means that airlines in bankruptcy may unilaterally change unionized workers' contracts and the affected unions are powerless to do a thing about it.

Under normal circumstances, union-management relations at airlines are governed by the Railway Labor Act. The provisions of the RLA are designed to provide a level playing feild for collective bargaining while minimizing air transportation system disruptions due to strikes. Under the RLA, both management and unions go through a long negotiating and mediation process before they are allowed to engage in self-help, which would include imposition of a contract on management's side and any combination of strike, sickout, CHAOS, etc on the union side. Jumping the gun and engaging in self-help before you're allowed to gets you slapped down quickly, as American Airlines pilots found out when they staged an illegal sickout several years back. The system encourages the sides to resolve their differences before self-help is permitted, since each side is released into self-help at the same time and each can inflict damage on the other party.

US Bankruptcy code, of course, has provisions which allow insolvent companies to abrogate or unilaterally change certain contracts, including labor contracts, with the permission of the court. In the case of airlines, this is a contradiction of the RLA, since it is engaging in self-help outside of the established process. The courts have held, however, that the bankruptcy code takes precedence. What's been untested, until now, is whether the unions are still prevented from engaging in their own self-help when the company imposes paycuts and work rule changes on them without their permission.

Northwest Airlines has been seeking draconian concessions from it's Flight Attendants that, in addition to 40% paycuts and work rule changes, would allow them to replace a significant portion of the unionized flight attendents with non-unionized foreign nationals working for lower pay. After Northwest flight attendants overwhelmingly rejected these terms, the airline imposed many of the conditions unilaterally. The bankruptcy court approved the new contract, but they also allowed the AFA to use the threat of rolling strikes to bring management back to the negotiating table. Northwest appealed to the District Court, which issued a temporary injunction against the AFA on 25 August and a permanent one this morning. With this ruling, the District Court essentially puts unions at any bankrupt airline at the same disadvantage NATCA has: "negotiate" with management all you want, but at the end of the day they'll do whatever they want to and you have no recourse.

Airline bankruptcy just got a whole lot more lucrative. Unions not rolling over for your demands? File bankruptcy, they can't strike! We're all seriously screwed.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Fear

Avatrix's Five Years post set off a (rather predictable) torrent of debate in her comments section over fear in the post-9/11 world. One side was lamenting how irrational fears are allowing Bush/Blair/Howard to get away with things they otherwise wouldn't, and the other side was arguing that the sources of fear are real and it's unwise to ignore them. I was going to respond in Aviatrix's comments but it got a little long. I'd suggest you read the original post and comments before my response.

Many who oppose Bush and Blair's anti-terrorism and foreign policy initiatives have seized upon this meme that said politicians and their ilk have created a culture of fear in order to get their way. It is certainly true that much of what Bush has done would've been utterly impossible before 9/11. The administration realizes that and has been quite vocal in expressing what they believe to be different about the post-9/11 era. Critics charge that this is fearmongering used as a means of control.

Fear, of course, is not always irrational. Fear might keep a pilot from attempting to scud run in mountainous terrain, and that would be wise. When there is a real danger, fear is an excellent motivator to save ourselves from bodily harm. On the other hand, fears can be imagined. As critics point out, the average American has far greater chance of dying from a car crash or cancer than an act of terrorism. Unless you regularly walk the streets of Baghdad, terrorism simply is not a significant threat to your life.

The thing is, I think this sort of irrational fear is a straw man. I sincerely doubt that the citizens of Kansas are cowering in fear of planes being flown into their grain elevators. I do think that many people are concerned about terrorism in general and Islamic fanaticism specifically, but moreso for the future of the nation and Western civilization as a whole than their personal wellbeing. Up to a point, these fears are not irrational; they represent questions that have been ignored for too long, and we in the West need to openly discuss these questions.

Several of Aviatrix's commenters charged that fear is not misplaced when radical Islam constitutes a threat to the very survival of the West. One expressed fear of his granddaughter being brought up under Shar'ia (Islamic) law. This is an overstatement of the threat in the United States and Canada, I think. Our numbers of muslim immigrants are relatively small and reasonably well integrated; the native populations are demographically sound. There is a threat that alienated members of the Islamic community will turn to extremism, but there's no possibility of an Islamic States of America anytime soon.

Europe is, perhaps, another matter. Many countries there have relatively large populations of unassimilated Muslim immigrants increasingly prone to radicalism. These immigrants have birth rates several times that of the native populations, which are actually shrinking and aging. A recent survey within Great Britain showed that a majority of Muslims there wanted Shar'ia law; in some urban areas, they make up a majority of voters. If current trends continue, some European countries could have Muslim majorities within 100 years. That said, it is quite possible that these population's birth rates will decrease, the average age will increase, and radicalism lose it's appeal. Europe will no doubt become more Islamic but I don't think it'll turn into the Middle East soon.

If radical Islam does not constitute an existential threat to our civilization, it still has the very real ability to do significant damage economically. The several thousand deaths on 9/11, while tragic, were a blip on the overall mortality rates in the US. The effect on the economy was much more pronounced; a more severe terrorist attack could be crippling. Our dependance on middle eastern oil is also a major weakness and a potential point of economic attack. Simply the threat of Iran closing the straight of Hormuz would cause oil prices to skyrocket.

Basically, I think that the heightened concern over terrorism & Islamic fanaticism isn't a bad thing. The threat was there long before 9/11, with counter-terrorism experts perenially lamenting the lack of public consciousness. That said, it's important to be realistic about what exactly the threat is, define it, and look at the best options for dealing with it. Overhyping the threat does a disservice, as does denying that the threat exists.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Ridden Hard & Put Away Wet

I didn't mean to let 11 September go by without writing something. I can't believe five years have gone by already, and I have a lot of thoughts about how we as a nation remember that day and what's come after it. But I got to my hotel room on Monday and couldn't get past the first few lines. I was completely brain dead, toasted.

It's been a long time since I've flown a trip like this one. All last bid I had nice cushy SMF-BOI-RNO trips with four or less legs per day and lots of carefree California Dreamin'. No frantic turns, no Montana thunderstorms or wildfire smoke, no Seattle stress. Man, it made me go soft!

This trip really isn't that bad compared to what our MiniWhacker pilots do every day. But it's tough for a MegaWhacker trip. The first day had only four legs, but they were in four different airplanes! That's a personal record. It certainly makes a day seem much longer. I'm not sure what the aircraft routers were thinking. If I asked, they'd no doubt mumble something about the Big Picture. The second and third days had six and seven legs respectively, with seven hours of flying each. Today we finally catch a break: two legs and we're home. Hopefully the plane will be running on time.

Yesterday's first five legs were running the Seattle-Spokane shuttle. I actually like this flight a lot. It usually lasts around 35-45 minutes, so you stay busy without being frantic, and the Spokane rampers are great, and the scenery over the Cascades is beautiful on a nice day. This is often the route on which I do scenic tours, and I was able to do it twice yesterday for the first time in a while. I regret that I didn't get up to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness once this year, although hiking in Switzerland definately made up for it.

Here are some pictures I snapped yesterday:






These were actually last week but kinda cool:


Monday, September 11, 2006

I'm still here...

Work and travel and sickness and recovery have prevented me from blogging over the last week. I'll get back on it soon, though! In the meantime a lot of you have sent emails & left comments, so I'll get caught up on those. Also, my blogroll is in serious need of updating. I'll probably add some blogs to it, but I'm not sure which ones. If you all would be so kind as to comment on which of your favorite aviation blogs aren't on my blogroll, I'd appreciate it!

Monday, September 04, 2006

Happy Labor Day, NATCA....

Somebody at the FAA has a rather finely honed sense of irony. They decided that Labor Day was a good occasion to put the screws on Air Traffic Controllers and their union, NATCA, by unilaterally imposing a contract that contains significant wage and work rule concessions (see AvWeb's story and NATCA's press release). The FAA has said for some time that they would do this after declaring an impasse in contract negotiations last April, but the timing and exact terms were uncertain. In fact, the cuts are deeper than what the FAA told Congress that they'd impose.

The most noteworthy changes to the work rules concern controller fatigue. Until now, controllers have been required to take a break once every two hours of duty time; this has long been recognized as a major factor in keeping controllers sharp over long duty periods at busy facilities, but the FAA deleted this provision. Another huge safety concern is that controllers can no longer declare themselves too fatigued to work. Pilots' unions have long recognized that fatigue is more dangerous than sickness and have fought to extend sick leave policy to fatigue. At my airline, a fatigue call makes you lose pay (you can't use sick time) but at least you're not subject to discipline. I dare say that many pilot unions would strike over fatigue policy because it's such a safety issue.

But NATCA can't strike, because they're federal employees. Recall that when PATCO struck in 1981, Reagan fired them all. So they have no leverage to force the FAA to bargain in good faith, and when the agency decides there's an impasse, NATCA has to accept whatever terms the FAA imposes. It seems to render the union completely moot. This should concern everyone who flies as a pilot or passenger, however they feel about unions, because NATCA has been an important watchdog where aviation safety is concerned. Do you think the FAA will always act in the interest of safety if not forced to? Consider that they had the gumption to impose work rules that increase the risk of controllers working fatigued at the very time that the press is raising questions about the role that controller fatigue may have played in the Lexington crash!

At this point the controllers have very few options. One is CHAOS - to work in such a way that multiple delays are introduced at various points in the system, compounding each other and creating massive gridlock in the air traffic system. If controllers simply started using six or seven miles of separation in situations where they only need three, you'd see massive ground hold delays for "rush hour" arrivals into the nation's busiest airports. While this wouldn't be good for the airlines, it'd at least force the public to look at what the FAA is doing.

Perhaps the most asinine rule change is the new dress code. Controllers have an infamously relaxed wardrobe, which makes perfect sense when your only connection with your "customers" is your voice across the radio. It's much like how many work-from-home entrepreneurs conduct business in their pajamas. The FAA is now requiring controllers to wear a collared shirt & dress slacks. I suspect many controllers will seize on this opportunity to demonstrate their contempt for the new rules foisted upon them. I know a few controllers read this blog - feel free to send pics of the new fashions you see in the cabs & behind the scopes! I'm personally hoping to see at least one pink leotard & feather boa....

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Sierra Sunrise

Saturday, September 02, 2006

RNP is here!

Exciting news this morning: My airline has become only the 2nd airline in the US (behind Big Sister) to receive FAA approval to conduct RNP approaches. RNP stands for Required Navigational Performance; to get approval for RNP approaches, you need to demonstrate the ability to remain with .3 miles of the final approach course & missed approach course under the worst possible conditions - including GPS sensor failure on the approach. The UNS1E flight management system on the MegaWhacker uses DME triangulation and inertial data as backup in case of loss of GPS signal.

From an operational standpoint, an RNP approach is very similar to a GPS approach - we use virtually the same procedures for planning and executing the approach. One major difference is that you can fly curved courses with RNP, even inside the final approach course or on missed approach. This, plus the redundancy that RNP guarantees, allows for much lower minimums than GPS (or other non-precision) approaches to airports with significant terrain. At Palm Springs, for example, the current approach gets us down to 1823 feet above airport elevation and requires 3 miles visibility; the RNP 31L approach will get us to 304 feet with 1 mile visibility.

My airline says it has been working on RNP for around nine years, with very intensive testing and certification work over the last two years. This is a pretty big milestone, then - one with the potential to revolutionize our operations at airports with challenging terrain, like Sun Valley, Palm Springs, or Mammoth Lakes. Oh wait, did I let that last one slip? Heh, it's wishful thinking but feel free to start a rumor...

Friday, September 01, 2006

RNO Layover...in Tahoe

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Reno's one saving grace is that it's a 30 minute drive to Tahoe.