Thursday, September 20, 2007

An Appropriate Sendoff

Well, my time as a pilot for Horizon Air has come to a close. I've flown my last flight and have made the last entry to my logbook with an aircraft type of "DHC-8-402." The Q400 sent me out in very typical style, though.

The last leg was from Billings to Portland, the only leg of the day. We were late to the airport because one of our flight attendants left her ID badge in her room and then couldn't find it (was between the nightstand and the bed!) but we were still able to block out on time. No time for sentimentalities during preflight; just as well. We started up, pushed back, and began taxiing for runway 28R. "Well, go ahead and run your very last taxi checklist," the Captain commanded rather grandly. "Flaps 15, Set....awww, crap," I said and pointed to the bottom of our engine display where the message "POWERPLANT" had just appeared.

What an appropriate way to end my career in the Q400. Like most of the fault messages we get, this one is usually caused by some computer glitch. Unlike the caution lights that can be extinguished by pulling and resetting the appropriate circuit breakers, this one requires maintenance to crack into the onboard computers and find the fault codes. When it's a spurious message it generally takes an hour or less; when the plane is really broken it's usually really broken and requires parts to be flown in.

Fortunately, this time the plane wasn't really broken, the computer had just spit out some garbage. How typical. Contract maintenance from Big Sky was pretty quick to come on board, pull the codes, and do a few engine runs to make sure the message didn't come back. They signed off the logbook and we reboarded and pushed back again. This time, the captain didn't jinx us by calling for the "very last" taxi checklist.

As I took the controls for takeoff, I was aware that it's the last time I'd do so in the airplane but mostly from the standpoint of "Wouldn't it just be peachy if I had an engine failure on my very last takeoff!" Fortunately the PW150A's ran just fine and we were soon climbing out to the west.

I filmed the takeoff and landing. Before you jump all over me for violating sterile cockpit, I just set the camera on the glareshield and let it run; I didn't monkey with it anytime that sterile cockpit is required. Below is a segment from just before takeoff until around 2500' AGL. Sorry for the poor quality, it's a still camera with a nominally useful movie function.

Billings to Portland is one of the longer legs we do in the Q400 and it seemed to drag on even longer than normal, mostly because we were in the clouds most of the time so there wasn't much scenery to look at, and it was bumpy. Of all the things I'll miss, bumping through the clouds at FL250 all winter long is not going to be one of them.

I got a nice view of Mt Hood on descent into Portland, bumped through another cloud layer, broke out around 5000', and show the Commuter Visual to 28L. I've been on a string of nice landings lately, which in the Q400 is a warning sign that you'll make a really horrific thumper soon, but my luck held out for one last nice landing. Below is the approach and landing; note how little the pitch increases in the flare, and how little I have to lower the nose after touchdown to put it on the nosewheel. This airplane screws with your ability to land all other airplanes.

After we taxiied to the gate and the passengers deplaned, the crew and I had a ramper take a photo of us next to the plane (I'll upload it later, don't have my camera cord with me). Then the flight attendants gave me hugs and I shook hands with the captain (one of our check airmen but a good guy to fly with). Then I walked away. I didn't even look back like I often do. That chapter of my life has closed, and I'm eager to fly the JungleBus.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Bittersweet Exit

Today I started my last four day trip at Horizon, although it actually ended up getting split into a day trip followed by a three day. Tomorrow I'll check in for the last time, and I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it. I'm not as excited as I think I should be. I know this was the right thing to do, but my heart's just not really in it right now.

The basic problem, I think, is that I really like working for Horizon. It's a good company, and a quality airline that I'm proud to say I work for. I enjoy my coworkers and the overall culture; it's a place I fit in very well. For all of it's faults, I'm pretty fond of the Q400. The variety of flying keeps me interested, and I never get tired of the beautiful scenery around the Pacific Northwest. I feel privileged when I go to work. That's not easy to give up.

You know how when you travel to a place for the first time, it's usually different from how you thought it'd be? Sure, you may have read about it in books and seen it in movies and thumbed through friends' vacation photos, but the image you build of the place in your mind is only slightly informed by these factual scraps; your imagination supplies the myriad details, creating a world as fictional as Narnia or Middle Earth. Then you visit and the actual sights and sounds and smells quickly displace the imagined details until you can't even remember what your preconceived image of the place was like. The fictional place suddenly becomes real, as though it sprang into existence when you arrived.

This is the way I feel about NewCo. As of yet, it's basically a nonentity that exists only in my imagination. It's hard to get excited about something that doesn't exist. Horizon, on the other hand, is real to me and I can't help but be sad that as soon as I leave it will cease to be part of my reality, living on as a relic of memory with the occasional radio call or Q400 sighting as a reminder that I didn't imagine that world or my former place in it.

I feel the same way about Portland, actually. I suspect much of my ambivalence about leaving Horizon is closely tied to leaving the Pacific Northwest. Of course, in this case I'm not leaving a known for the unknown but a known for the even better known place that I grew up. It must seem that I hate Minneapolis, but I really don't. Winter weather notwithstanding, there are many attractive things about it. In some ways it's like Portland: a modern, forward-looking city that's not huge or overbearing, that offers a high quality of life, places a high premium on parks and green space, and invites it's citizens to get outside and play. Minnesota as a whole is a beautiful, varied state that's a great place to raise a family. I have nothing against Minnesota or Minneapolis.

I think it's more so that I just don't see myself as a Minnesotan anymore. It's not home. The Pacific Northwest, and Portland in particular, has become home in a way SoCal never was when I lived there. You could say I've made it part of my identity. In ages past, where you were from was a key element of one's identity, but in today's increasingly mobile and rootless society, where you've chosen to make your home says more about who you are and how you want others to see you. Identity itself has become an increasingly fluid concept; reinvention of self has become the norm. Pick your career, pick your spouse, pick your hometown, pick your hobbies; if you don't like your life, change one or all.

So I guess the problem here is I don't especially want to reinvent myself. I kinda like being me, thank you very much. I'm comfortable being the Midwest boy who escaped to the west coast and has enthusiastically taken up hiking, backpacking, skiing, drinking microbrews, and hanging out with friends at the coffee shop on rainy days. For that matter I like being the pilot who enjoys flying a unique turboprop instead of another McRJ, gets a kick out of going to little airports in the mountains in bad weather, and is proud of flying for a decent regional with a good contract instead of undercutting the profession like everyone else. Ooof, I sure fell hard off of that particular high horse, didn't I? The basic problem here, if I'm being honest, is that I need to get over myself and swallow my pride. Nobody's all that into me and nobody's gonna care if I go back to being the Minnesotan guy flying an RJ.

On the other hand, maybe I'm just getting old and set in my ways, content to let life's inertia carry me along. The funny thing is that I generally crave change; the "imagined place becomes real" aspect of travel I mentioned earlier is a major reason I enjoy traveling. Why shouldn't it apply to life? Maybe I'm just looking at this all wrong; maybe I should start seeing it as the Next Big Adventure. Horizon and the Pacific Northwest? Been there, done that, have the microfleece vest! After all, I didn't realistically expect to stay here my whole life; I might as well keep my adventurous and adaptable side alive before I get too comfortable here.

Wow, this is an insanely self-absorbed post (in the tradition of bloggers everywhere, might I add). Several of you will no doubt point out that it was my choice to leave and if I'm bummed about it now, well boo-friggin'-hoo. I know, I know. I know it was the right choice, I'm just trying to come to grips with how I feel about it. I do think writing this post helped me shift my attitude, though. One more trip, then NewCo here I come! Can't wait to get my hands on that JungleBus! And ooh, the snow stays wonderfully dry for skiing at 30 degrees below zero!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Picture Post Extravaganza

It's been a while since I've had any picture posts, so here's some of my favorites from the last few trips.

The Willamette River in Eugene, OR. Our Eugene layover lends crewmembers bicycles, and Eugene has an extensive multi-use trail system on both sides of the river.

My trusty mount.

A sunny day for a bike ride along the river.

VFR-on-top at 10,500 from Bend to Eugene: The Three Sisters.

Mt Washington, Three Fingered Jack, and Mt Jefferson.

Golden hills west of Spokane, WA.

Lake Roosevelt in the distance.

Sunset reflected on the glaciers of Mt. Rainier.

Meet the New Boss - Missoula, MT.

"Seattle Center, Horizon 466 request VFR on top and deviation left of course with own terrain separation for Mt. Rainier tour."

"Ladies and Gentlemen, greetings from the flight deck. We have a special treat for you today. It's a beautiful day for flying, and air traffic control has given us permission to fly closer to Mt. Rainier than usual, so we're going to give you a tour of the mountain. It'll be coming up on the left side of the airplane in a few minutes, so those of you on the right side may want to grab an empty seat on the left."

"At 14,410 feet tall, Mt Rainier is the highest point in Washington as well as the tallest volcano in the Cascade Range. As you can see, much of it's surface is covered by 26 different glaciers totaling 35 square miles, making it the most heavily glaciated peak in the US outside Alaska. It was first climbed in 1870, and now more than 10,000 people from around the world attempt the climb every year. About half make it to the summit."

Ring of Fire: there are no less than 12 volcanoes in this photo. From south to north they are Broken Top, all three of the Sisters, Mt Washington, Black Butte, Three Fingered Jack, Mt Jefferson, Mt Hood, Mt St Helens, Mt Adams, and Mt Rainier.

Mt Hood casts a shadow into eastern Oregon.

Very little snow, if any, remaining on Mt. St. Helens.

Six Horizon Q400s lined up across the airfield in Spokane awaiting inspection.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Two Outta Three Ain't Bad?

The SAS gear collapse accidents have sparked a lot of conversation on the internet and in the crew rooms. A landing gear failure like this is pretty rare, and two identical failures within three days of each other is downright spooky. We actually had a gear unsafe indication on one of our planes (the Party Barge) a few days back, but thank God it was a different problem than on the SAS airplanes and the crew was able to successfully extend the landing gear.

There's been a lot of discussion online about the configuration the crew chose to land the airplane in. Some of this has amounted to Monday morning quarterbacking by the uninformed: on FlightInfo, "The Russian" was vigorously arguing that the crew should've secured both engines and made a deadstick landing (and should've touched down softer as well!). Of course, on a Q400, shutting down both engines results in the loss of all AC power, most DC power, all hydraulics, and your job. More reasonable people (like Olli from my comments) have asked whether the crew should've at least secured the right engine to prevent the spectacular prop fragmentation and engine fire seen on the video of the Ålborg crash.

I personally think the Ålborg crew did a fine job. Reports indicate that they followed the alternate gear extension and emergency landing checklists to a tee; if SAS checklists are like ours, they don't direct you to secure the engines until after the airplane has come to a stop, which you can clearly see them doing in the video. Beforehand, they moved the passengers to the left side of the airplane and away from the prop arc, which isn't in the checklist and indicates that they were mindful of the danger from the prop disintegrating. There is a Kevlar shield on the fuselage along the prop arc, but it's intended to prevent dings from ice chunks, and indeed one section of prop blade ended up penetrating the cabin. Thanks to the crew's precautions, it didn't injure anybody. As for the engine fire, CFR crews were right there to quickly extinguish it.

Interestingly, the Vilnius crew did secure the right engine before landing. Of course, they had the hindsight of the Ålborg crash three days prior. The Vilnius plane suffered much less damage, mostly due to the right prop not turning but also due to a softer touchdown (more luck than anything in a Megawhacker) and the slight left bank on landing. If you've never flown a twin engine airplane, it's standard procedure to slightly bank into the good engine when you have one secured, as this produces zero sideslip and decreases the rudder pressure required to keep going straight. Now, shutting down an engine isn't in the Emergency & Abnormal checklist, but is the sort of decision the Captain has the power to make in an emergency. In this case it worked out so everybody is saying how smart the Captain is. If it exacerbated the situation everybody would be jumping all over him or her for not just following the checklist.

The alternate gear extension checklist actually directs the pilots to make a belly landing if they can't lower both mains. The Ålborg video clearly demonstrates why: to avoid catching a wingtip and losing directional control while still at significant forward speed. It turns out that in both of these incidents, the landing gear wouldn't retract. The crews were forced to land on the nosewheel and left main.

Although the grounding was originally voluntary, Transport Canada has issued an emergency airworthiness directive that requires the visual inspection of all Megawhackers in addition to the detailed inspection of those that have over 10,000 cycles on the airframe. At least we finally have a description of the inspection so our maintenance crews can get to work. We cancelled another 140 flights today, but it sounds like we'll start getting planes back on the line by tomorrow. So it seems like I will indeed be flying my last trip on Sunday through Wednesday.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Wow. Just wow. Interesting times for my last week at this airline. Nearly 2/3 of our Megawhackers were grounded indefinately today.

This all stemmed from an incident that took place in Denmark a few days ago. You can find video here. The SAS crew had a right main gear unsafe indication in the cockpit and ran the appropriate procedures while circling to burn off fuel; on landing the right main gear collapsed, causing the wing and right prop to come into contact with the runway with spectacular results. The right engine started on fire but SAR was on it right away. There were only five light injuries.

Turns out that this was the second incident involving the right main landing gear at SAS in three days. The Megawhacker has been plagued by landing gear problems from day one, though - recall the ANA flight in Japan that landed without a nosewheel a few months ago. Bombardier has called for the voluntary grounding of all Megawhackers with more than 10,000 cycles on the airframe until they can be inspected. My airline has wisely chosen to comply, although that means 19 of our 31 Megawhackers are down. Bombardier hasn't put together the inspection program yet, so nobody knows how long they'll be grounded. We've cancelled over 100 flights so far today alone. This is going to be expensive.

As for me, my last trip at this company was supposed to be next week, but I don't know how much of it I'll end up flying. I may have just flown my last flight in the Megawhacker. We'll see. In the meantime, they're deadheading us home - in that reliable workhorse of the fleet, the Miniwhacker.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Labor Day Thoughts / Rant

Labor Day is a bit of a throwback to a time when "labor" was synonymous with unions and trade guilds, and those organizations wielded real power in this country. Oregon was the first state to declare the first Monday in September a "workingman's holiday" in 1887, and 23 other states followed suit before Congress made it a federal holiday in 1894. This was a time of epic clashes between the labor movement and the leading industrialists of the day, when policemen and National Guard troops were regularly called upon to violently break up strikes and demonstrations, and when the judicial system was overwhelmingly in the businessmens' corner, as evidenced by the death sentences handed down to seven labor leaders following the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886. Slowly, though, progress was made: the unions prompted legislation that outlawed the most abusive employer practices, pay steadily rose, and even long time dreams like the eight hour workday became reality by the 1930's. The middle class bloomed, and the American Dream as we know it today was born.

Of the American workers celebrating Labor Day this year, a rather small minority are actually members of a union. Most are utterly ignorant of the fact that the pay and working conditions they enjoy are largely due to the early efforts of the labor movement. Many are openly hostile to unions and cheer their diminished influence.

The airline industry is a pretty good example of the malaise that affects trade unionism in this country today. The deck has been stacked more heavily against us than any time in the last 70 years. The problem starts with the antiquated Railway Labor Act of 1926, which has governed labor relations at airlines since 1936. Back then, the regulated and localized nature of railroads and airlines meant that strikes could be crippling for a region's economy, and Congress decided that it was in the public interest to ensure that strikes happened infrequently and with plenty of notice. Under the RLA, contracts never expire, they merely become amendable. Negotiations can stretch on for years and years; unions can strike or companies can impose contracts only after the National Mediation Board declares a stalemate and releases the parties to self-help following a 30-day cooling off period.

Under the current administration, the NMB has been utterly unwilling to do this even in the most helplessly deadlocked negotiations. The result is that when unions are looking for contract improvements, management can stonewall them for years on end without any real fear of a strike. You'd think this would work both ways, so that management would have a harder time getting what they want, but they found a way around it. Airlines have recently found bankruptcy courts quite willing to release them from their obligations under the RLA while holding the unions to theirs. The result has been the absolute destruction of everything our predecessors fought so hard to build: the decimation of payrates, the elimination of work rules, the frittering away of pensions, the farming out of many mainline jobs to lowest-bidder regional airlines that pay their own pilots far less and work them harder.

Consider that pay is considerably lower at many carriers than it was 10 or even 15 years ago. Think about how much food and gas have gone up in that time. Think about how much more expensive it is to buy a house. If that doesn't make you mad, think about how much more airline executives are making now, despite continued dismal performance on their part.

Perhaps you think I'm being melodramatic. "Pilots have always had to pay their dues," you say, "and at the majors pilots still made a decent living compared to the average joe." OK, the dues paying aspect has always been there, but paying your dues never used to involve contributing to the destruction of the mainline job you're seeking! And "good enough" is no mentality to have, because then it will be continually defined downward. At which point is it not good enough? $65,000 a year? That's what Skybus is paying A319 captains right now! At what point do you realize that it's insanity to go $30,000-100,000+ in debt for a job that doesn't pay enough to get out of debt, much less build any sort of financial independence or even save for a freaking retirement since that's no longer provided for you!?

This really pisses me off beyond words. This is not what I signed up for! The industry has always been cyclical, sure, and I'd be fine if I thought this was all one bad downturn, but airline management has been busy making sure the downturn is permanent so far as our careers are concerned! Most recently they've been busy getting the next generation of 76-100 seat jets flown by "regional" pilots at craptastic wages. In a few months I'm going to be flying a 76 seat, 85,000 lb MTOW jet for $23/hr as an FO and $61/hr as a Captain. It kills me knowing that I'll be making less as a Captain than the FOs on the DC-9 it's replacing. I would so much rather be flying this airplane at mainline. What's scandalous is that senior mainline pilots signed off on this turkey. Gee thanks fellows - why don't you extend your career another five years since you've done such a crack-up job with it thus far?!

There's good news on the horizon, though, and it's from the source you weren't guessing: the good 'ole free market. Management had you believing it only worked in their favor, didn't they? Turns out people can do the math, and fewer and fewer of them are willing to ante up serious wads of cash for a career that's looking less lucrative every day. The regionals are suddenly desperate for pilots. The worst ones can't fill their classes with enough fresh meat while requiring a mere multi-commercial ticket! Worse yet, the majors are hiring all the experienced captains, and the current FOs don't have enough time to upgrade because they were hired with 1000 hours or less! At this point, the only way of growing a pilot group is by poaching from other regionals, and several carriers are offering signing bonuses of up to $5,000, adding to the bottomfeeders' misery. How do you like THEM apples, Jon Ornstein!?! Reap the whirlwind, sucker!

I really think the key to fixing the majors is fixing the regionals. Most of the current major airline guys - especially the senior ones - are too myopic to realize this, so it's up to us young guys and gals to save our profession. This pilot shortage gives us a rare opportunity because it takes away management's greatest weapon at the regionals. They can't shift our flying to other regionals if our costs go up because none of the other regionals can find enough pilots to expand significantly! The only place to shift flying is back to mainline, which would be A-OK by me. This is the time to push hard and squeeze the weasels!

The ASA pilot group has got the fire in their belly. They've been negotiating a contract for five freakin' years now, and management won't budge. The NMB is refusing to release them, so they're taking matters into their own hands. They're only showing up for work if they're 100% fit to fly, they're taxiing at extra-safe speeds, flying the contract down to the last letter, not doing anything not specifically required of them, and not leaving unless the aircraft is 100% airworthy. Reliability is therefore in the toilet, hurting management where it counts: the bottom line. Good on them! The main problem with this route is that it leaves the union open to charges of sponsoring an illegal work action in contravention of the RLA. That same sort of thing earned AA pilots a $40m fine for a sickout back in 1998. I don't think the ASA pilots really care at this point, but only because they've been pushed so far. Industry wide, not many pilots are upset enough to engage in CHAOS; many also hesitate to use such tactics because they hurt paying passengers.

I have an alternative idea that I've been thinking about for a while: a hiring moratorium. This would intensify the effects of the pilot shortage. When a regional is at a critical junction in their negotiations and management isn't budging and the NMB won't release, the carrier's ExCo or MEC should declare a hiring moratorium and request of all pilots that nobody show up for new-hire class. As a carrot, those who get hired but don't attend class would be paid a "non-signing bonus" or stipend out of a fund set up by the union. As a stick, those who do show up would be considered the equivalent of scabs and existing pilots would be expected to treat them as such. In the current environment, it wouldn't hurt up-and-coming pilots because plenty of other airlines are hiring. Management would quickly find themselves starved of pilots and canceling a ton of flights with devastating consequences for the bottom line. Meanwhile current pilots collect their paychecks and probably some good premium pay as well, making this tactic more sustainable than a strike. Best of all, it's not an illegal work action because the only action is being taken by pilots not yet on the property!

Obviously, this idea wouldn't work in an environment like right after 9/11, when work was rare enough that a new pilot might accept the stigma of "scabbing" to feed their family. But in an environment like our current one, I think it could work wonders in pressuring management back to the bargaining table since the NMB is failing to do so. We need fresh ideas; this is perhaps one of many. We're at a critical juncture for our profession; the time to act is now.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Fuel Optimization

Over at Flight Level 390, some of Dave's readers are having a discussion about how he makes decisions to add "uh oh" fuel and whether he suffers any consequences as a result of adding fuel that costs the airline money. At his airline, dispatchers determine the optimal fuel load considering such factors as weather, fuel price differential, and payload. If the fuel is cheap at your destination or if you'd need to bump payload to tanker fuel, the optimum fuel load will probably be close to the minimum legally required fuel load. When the Captain's "spidey sense" starts twitching, as Dave's did for the flight in question, they have the power to add more fuel. This is one of the areas that Captains are being paid to exercise the judgment that comes from years of experience, and most airlines are pretty good about not griping if that extra fuel means bumping payload because the cost of diverting for fuel enroute would be much higher.

At my airline, fuel optimization has been a huge issue over the last few years as fuel prices have skyrocketed. We do things quite a bit differently from Dave's airline. Here, the Captains order fuel for themselves with little input from dispatch, with the request that they try to save the company money when possible. There are some captains who always just take min total plus a few hundred pounds, but most are pretty good about working out the optimal fuel load.

There's a large disparity between fuel prices at our hub cities and those at most outstations, so it almost always makes sense to tanker fuel on outbound legs. This is much more of a no-brainer on the Megawhacker than most jets, because unlike jets, the extra weight does not result in appreciably more fuel burn. The most common explanation I hear is that jets fly a given mach number and increased weight requires more engine power to maintain that mach, whereas we just set cruise power and accept whatever airspeed we get (or pull the power back to stay under Vmo). I think there's more to it than that, because you'd think that all other things being equal, increased weight results in decreased airspeed and higher fuel burn for the leg. I think the real difference is that most jets are flying close to their maximum altitude, where extra weight increases induced drag appreciably. The Megawhacker always flies far below its aerodynamic maximum altitude (it's restricted to FL250 by lack of O2 masks and the pressurization differential limit); our angle of attack is only a degree or so in cruise, so extra weight doesn't increase induced drag much.

Whatever the explanation, it always makes sense to tanker when we're flying somewhere that fuel is more expensive, so we simply figure out how much we can get away with taking. Maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) on the Megawhacker is 65,200 lbs, and maximum zero fuel weight (MZFW) is 58,000 lbs, so you'd think that we'd always be safe taking 7400 lbs (7200+200 lbs taxi fuel). However, many of our shorter legs are weight limited not by MTOW but by the Maximum Landing Weight of 62,000 lbs. If this is the case, you add the expected fuel burn to 62,000, and that gives you your new max takeoff weight. You subtract MZFW of 58,000 from that, and this gives you the most fuel you can take while protecting max payload. If this number is below min total and you have a full boat, you may need to bump bags or pax.

This method protects maximum payload by assuming you'll be at MZFW, but that's seldom the case with the Megawhacker. Even with 76 passengers, it's rare to have so many bags that we bump up against MZFW. Every pound below MZFW is a pound of fuel we could be tankering. The trick is to guess how much payload we're going to have before boarding, when we write the fuel slip. To that end, the company has begun providing load planning sheets, printed 25 minutes before departure, which estimate passenger load and cargo weight. Most captains leave a little wiggle room for last minute passengers and jumpseaters. You add the expected payload to aircraft Basic Operating Weight (BOW), subtract that from most limiting takeoff weight, and that gives you fuel load. When passenger loads are light, we might fuel all the way up to our maximum capacity of 11,700 lbs.

It is, however, possible to tanker too much fuel. You need to take the next leg into consideration. If you're doing a short turn (SEA-GEG-SEA for example), you don't want to put so much fuel on that you arrive back in the hub city with 4000 extra pounds of fuel! Worse, if you have a lot of payload on your next leg, you could find yourself with way too much fuel and be forced to bump a lot of people or bags. Our dispatch release tells us how many people we can expect on the next leg, and the more conscientious dispatchers put down the expected min total fuel as well. The ideal is to tanker enough fuel to arrive with more than min total, but not so much that you risk bumping payload.

It seems like a complicated process, but you get pretty good at it after a few weeks on the line, to the point you just "know" what to tanker by looking at your release and load planner. The company recently added a fuel optimizer program to the PDAs they issue to Captains, but it turns out that the program doesn't work nearly as well as the old method. The really effective way to do this would be to just take the pilots out of the picture like Dave's airline does; let the airline decide when to tanker. That way, the only decision the Captain needs to make is whether the company's number gives him/her warm & fuzzies, and if it doesn't, exercise their prerogative to add some extra.