Thursday, January 03, 2008

Fly By Night

When I was new at Horizon, I was on reserve for about a year and a half. I knew it'd be significantly shorter at NewCo, but figured I'd probably do at least one month. Actually, it turned out to be only two weeks, because I got a regular line for January. That's encouraging but not particularly noteworthy. Here's the crazy part: it's a Monday through Thursday, weekends-off line. In 3.5 years at Horizon, I was never once able to hold that kind of line.

It turns out to have been a case of fortunate timing for me and rather unfortunate timing for several pilots senior to me. I went to Montreal a week earlier than the rest of my class, finished training more quickly than expected, didn't wait horribly long for IOE, and was then assigned a very efficient IOE schedule that went smoothly so I knocked it all out in one five-day stretch. The end result was that I (and my sim partner) finished IOE just in time to be eligible to bid for January. Meanwhile, everyone else in my newhire class (all senior to me) was one week or more behind me in the training cycle. Those one week senior to me, who I joined in Montreal, had delayed checkrides due to check airman availability issues. Several pilots in the class two weeks before me had their IOE delayed due to flight cancellations, sick check airmen, and other issues. The end result was that there were no less than eleven pilots senior to me who were ineligible to bid at the bid close, although they'll all be done with IOE before January. They'll get assigned to reserve, where they'll end up covering all the flying contained in the junior lines that went unawarded.

That alone does not explain why I could hold a normally coveted M-Th schedule, since I still had 16 FOs bidding senior to me. The other piece of the puzzle is that it's a CDO line, which many pilots bid away from. An explanation is in order. CDO stands for Continuous Duty Overnight. They're also known as hi-speeds, stand-ups, or a few unprintable names. The idea is that to maximize aircraft utilization without overnighting multiple crews, the same crew will operate the late flight into an outstation and the early flight back to the hub. On a CDO, you're technically on duty all night, and therefore aren't bound to the usual eight or nine hours of minimum rest. There's anywhere between three and eight hours between your last PM flight and first AM flight. Most airlines provide hotel rooms for your admittedly short nap, although a few regionals have made their crews sleep on board the aircraft during shorter CDOs (Mesa famously provided crews with plywood boards to make beds out of seat rows).

A lot of pilots dislike CDOs. They screw up your sleep schedule, and if you have family or other obligations that prevent you from actually resting during your daytime rest period, a few straight nights of CDOs will really fatigue a pilot. A few regional airlines with weak contracts (or non-union carriers) have CDO trips that are arguably unsafe, with multiple legs before or after the short overnight and duty times approaching the legal limit (16 hours). Another common gripe are lines that mix normal trips with CDO trips, which really screws with circadian rhythms and makes it hard to establish a good sleep schedule.

NewCo's contract, while weak in many areas, contains pretty good restrictions on CDO scheduling practices. Each CDO trip may contain no more than 12 hours of duty and five hours of block time, may only contain two flights (one out, one back), must have at least four hours of "rest", and each crewmember must be provided a hotel room. CDOs cannot be sprinkled throughout regular lines but must be grouped into "pure CDO" lines like the one I bid, and these have a number of restrictions such as no more than three consecutive CDOs and every stretch of two or three consecutive CDOs must be followed by at least two days off. That's part of what makes a CDO line palatable for me. The other thing is that I'm a very flexible sleeper, and I do well sleeping a few hours at night and then napping for a few hours in the daytime.

My schedule for most of the month is Saskatoon CDOs on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights. I show up at Minneapolis at about 8:30am those nights and I'm released around 9:00am the next morning. I get about 5 hours of rest in Saskatoon - if everything goes right. The last few nights we were delayed by over an hour getting out of Minneapolis, making that nap in Saskatoon painfully short. I'm getting a few hours of sleep in the afternoons, though, so I'm pretty well rested the following evening.

In February I'll have those eleven FOs bidding senior to me, but there are six senior to them that are upgrading so I should only move down five numbers. In the meantime the amount of flying and number of normal lines will continue to increase so hopefully my luck in bidding holds for another month. I'm enjoying it while I can, because I'm sure I'll be on reserve for a while after I upgrade, especially when they open Detroit and Memphis bases and start sending airplanes there.


charles said...

Congratulations and good luck. CDO actually sounds like fun to me, but what do I know -- I'm not a pilot.

Speaking hypothetically, if one were to sleep all day during a CDO, I suppose it would be possible to spend the "rest period" overnight reading or something like that, no?

Ward Bush said...

I'm not sure this is an appropriate place to put this, but in case anyone is wondering what happened to Aviatrix of Cockpit Conversation, here's a bit of an explanation:

I hope everyone will post words of encouragement.

Anonymous said...

RE: plywood planks to make beds on board ...

I was on a mission trip to Mexico a few years ago. The chartered bus driver and his helper routinely slept on a mattress in the cargo hold - both to protect the bus at night and to save money. This was apparently not unusual in that line of work.

Anyone wondering about the need for strong union contracts in the future and pilot solidarity might be well-advised to keep this in mind. There are airline execs "out there" who will cut costs wherever they can.

My two cents worth.

"Pilots are just a bunch of over-paid, over-sexed, bus drivers" Harry Steel - President of Eastern Provincial Airlines circa 1980 during tough contract negotiations. "Hey! At least he was partly correct..." - Unidentified CALPA negotiator.

Anonymous said...

Sam-- the more I read your blog about NewCo (and your previous references to Horizon, etc.), the more I worry about safety when I am forced to fly the regionals. I know that the training is standardized all over, but the gremlin you wrote about earlier, and the low number of hours in new captains and FO's, and now the issue of fatigue in the "CDO" schedule -- it doesn't add up to a great deal of confidence as a passenger. The only reassuring part is that the pilots are professionals: guaranteed. And I know that the training is top-notch. But the margin of error seems to be lower than one would think. Your blog is a fascinating window into the world that most of us passengers are unaware of. I don't fly the regionals that much, but I do occassionally. The last time I did, it was PHL to PWM on U.S. Air. Thanks again for your blog.

MathFox said...

Anonymous, fatigue is a known risk factor and that is why the crew scheduling rules have limits on duty time and obligatory resting periods. NewCo's rules for CDOs are far stricter than the FAA's and I don't expect significant security risks there.

Do you know how many of the drivers on the road are tired (or under the influence)? And you enter the "10 yards separation, no ATC" mess daily?

skittles said...

I work in yxe so I guess I kind of figured out what you fly and holy smokes! You fly that! Good for you.
Good luck with your job.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand. How can someone in your class be senior to you?


Sam said...

Seniority within the class is determined by age. I was the youngest.

Brian said...

Hey Sam,
Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good, right? Best of luck sticking with that schedule.

I have a secondary reason for posting as well. I help put together a newsletter for an aviation-related web site, and wanted to feature your blog (and several others, all part of a bigger feature).

I don't want to turn this comment into War & Peace, but I'm happy to give you greater detail if you'd like; just drop me an e-mail at brian.hunsicker (#at#) gmaildotcom.

Thanks in advance for your help...

Sastre Air said...

Sam, it's the second time I've seen "fly by night" being used. What's it mean?


P.S. Love reading your posts by the way.

Anonymous said...

I see many posts comments here from the traveling public, our bread and butter. You should write a blog that reminds them all these "safety threats" are a by-product of the competitiveness of our industry. When airlines are forced to undercut the competition in prices to garner greater market share, safety is the ultimate price that is paid. Seriously folks, if you don't want to read the horror stories, and believe me Sam is writing about some doozies here (there are much worse)you need to accept the fiscal responsibility and only viable solution and pay more for your tickets. It's just an ugly fact of the buisness. You remember the NASA report in the news recently? The study of pilots candid assements of the state of aviation in the US? I'd be willing to bet it's full of these stories or worse. We airline pilots do the very best we can with the cards we are delt, but there is a breaking point. Safety always comes at a price.

Xaqman said...

"fly by night" refers to the underhanded charlatans of the world. After collecting money and making promises they flee (fly) under cover of (by) darkness (night).

What's the story with Aviatrix? I followed the link above, but it provided no illumination that I could discern. Anybody know? Illness?

Xaqman said...

Presumably you meant to say that you showed at 8:30PM...

My best-ever trips at QX were CDOs. Report at around 7pm, one leg to Denver, five hours of sleep, one leg back, off around 7am. Three times per week.