Friday, March 28, 2008

In Search of Summer

Well, I now remember what I dislike about wintertime in Minnesota. It's not really the cold snaps that get to me - there are only a few per winter and you can minimize outdoors time during them. No, it's the fact that winter lasts so freaking long. Spring keeps making tantalizing days-long appearances, and when the snowbanks are melted down to their last filthy icy nubs, it snows again! It's almost April, and there's a good chance we'll get one more snowfall before winter takes a break for all of six months.

The good news is that it's always summer somewhere. This week, Dawn and I are heading there. Dawn's school is on Spring Break, and I managed to phenagle twelve days off in a row. We flew to Portland last night; this morning we signed for the final sale of our house. It was supposed to be several weeks ago but was held up by some kinks in the buyer's financing. Thankfully they're resolved now. We were only planning on going on this trip if the house sale went through, so it's been very touch-and-go this week. We only got confirmation that everything was ready just before we got on the plane to Portland last night.

The original plan was to catch the 2:30pm flight to Tokyo today, connect to Singapore, and spend the week on some islands off Malaysia's east coast. We didn't get on the flight, for about the dumbest reason possible. The loads were pretty heavy but some late Horizon flights resulted in misconnects freeing up seats for nonrevs. The gate agent called us to the podium about 20 minutes before departure time to give us boarding passes, but then asked for our paper tickets. Now, RedCo has a paperless nonrev system for its own employees and those of its affiliates; as a NewCo employee I knew I didn't need a paper ticket. The gate agent suggested that maybe the policy was different for international flights, but the paperless system worked when I went to Germany in October. With minutes to go before departure, I pulled out my cell phone and called up RedCo's employee travel department. The woman who answered sounded puzzled by my predicament, said she would check into it, and put me on hold. Meanwhile, the gate agent said she would let us on this flight without a paper ticket, but she doubted the Tokyo agents would be as lenient and we could get stuck in Tokyo. Just then the employee travel department lady came back on the phone and said she might be able to fix it but it would take a bit. I told her the door was closing in about a minute; how long would it take? Several minutes, she replied. "OK, if I board now and stay on the line, do you think I'll be OK in Tokyo?" I asked her.

She said she wasn't positive she could fix it, so I stepped back as the gate agent left the podium and walked briskly down the jetway to close the aircraft door. Less than a minute later, the employee travel lady told me she fixed the problem and I was good all the way to Singapore. I sprinted back to the podium but it was too late; the aircraft door was closed for good. I went through all five stages of grieving several times over for the next few minutes before Dawn talked me down off the ledge and I settled on resigned acceptance. We collected our bags and walked over to C concourse to have lunch at Gustav's (incidently, the airport version of Gustav's, while my favorite PDX restaurant, does a disservice by not offering spƤtzle and serving only one German beer, Spaten). Over dinner, it dawned on me that we no longer own a house across the river to go home to, and we had to find a hotel for the night. Up until that rather obvious realization, I still thought of Portland as "home." As I called around to find a hotel with a decent airline crew rate, it no longer felt that way.

Well, a little 24 hour setback isn't ending my search for summer. It's colder in Portland than Minneapolis; it actually snowed here this morning. I'm ready to roast in a tropical sun blazing directly overhead and sweat in 90 degree air thick with humidity. The flight to Tokyo tomorrow is wide open. The connecting flight to Singapore is oversold, so we may end up going to Bangkok instead. If that's the case we'll go island-hopping down Thailand's Andaman Coast. Either way, my palid winter chicken limbs are gonna be clocking some quality sun time on the beach this week.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Western Geography Tour

When I rebuilt my March flying schedule from trips in open time, I was able to give myself three Vancouver day trips. These are pretty highly sought after because they're so efficient: you fly two legs for 7 hours and 42 minutes of credit, so you can only legally do three a week. The show time is at 8:30am and you're back around 5:30pm, making it about the closest thing to a 9 to 5 job there is in airline flying. Of course, I like the trip because it gets me back to my old stomping ground and - weather permitting - affords great scenery viewing. The first two daytrips I did were marred by widespread cloudiness but the third had good scenery viewing weather. I took most of the following pictures on the return leg from Vancouver to Minneapolis.

I don't have time to write captions right now so I'm gonna turn this into a competition instead. Fire up Google Earth and figure out the location of each shot. The person that posts the most correct answers in the comments section wins. Hint: shortly after takeoff we were given direct routing to Fargo, then the Gopher One arrival into Minneapolis. And I sit on the right side of the airplane. Good luck!

Monday, March 03, 2008

An Ode to Crew Sked

I have my cell phone set up so that a call from Crew Scheduling brings up the caller ID "Satan," and the accompanying ringtone plays "I Hate Everything About You" by Three Days Grace. The animosity is mostly feigned; I know they're generally just trying to do their jobs, and most of the contact I have with them is positive or neutral.

Crew schedulers are generally least liked when they're trying to "junior man" you (make you work on a day off). To junior man you, though, they must contact you, and this is easy to avoid - especially when any call from them displays the caller ID "Satan." You're not required to answer the phone on days off. You can let it go to voicemail and then listen to what they have. If it pays well and you're willing to work on your day off, call them back; if not, ignore it.

Getting extended is harder to avoid. In this case, you're already at work and are required to be contactable by crew scheduling, so they can sink their claws into you by calling you, sending a text message on ACARS, or even paging you over the airport PA system. Your best bet is to delay calling them back as long as contractually permissible in hopes that they get impatient and come up with a different plan. Once you call, your only hope is to beg your way out of it, and most crew schedulers are indifferent to pilots' pleadings; they've heard it all before. Getting extended at the end of a long four or five day trip is very dispiriting and is a primary source of pilots' animosity toward crew schedulers.

Trip trades are another wellspring of ill feeling. Unless you're among the top ten percent or so of pilots in your position, it's unlikely that your awarded schedule is entirely satisfactory. Fortunately, there are often plenty of trips in open time - due to vacation, training, bid transition conflicts, etc - that you can drop your current trips to pick up, and thus adjust your schedule to better fit your needs. The problem is that crew scheduling is the gatekeeper. At Horizon, the pilot contract stipulated that trip drops and trades only need be approved if staffing was "adequate" - which was left for crew scheduling to define. They set the bar so high that even when the airline was well-staffed, trip drops and trades were approved only rarely. Of all the requests I submitted while at Horizon, only one or two were approved without going a step or two above crew scheduling (the chief pilot's office).

Fortunately, this is one of the few areas in which NewCo's pilot contract is markedly better than Horizon's. It allows the company to deny trip trade requests only if the trip to be dropped falls on a weekend and would cause the company to use more than 30% of available reserves.

With this in mind, I tried to trade the last three weeks of my February schedule away. I was sick of Saskatoon and there were some excellent trips in open time. None of the CDOs to be traded away fell on a weekend; nevertheless, crew scheduling denied the first week's trade due to staffing. I told a crew sked supervisor that the contact didn't allow them to deny the trade and even read the applicable section to her word for word. She responded "Well, that's not the way we do things around here. We don't want to create more work for ourselves." I was almost speechless at that. I sputtered something about not being able to disregard the contract, that I would be fired if I didn't show up for work because I "didn't want to create more work for myself." She curtly suggested I bring it up with a chief pilot and then added that it didn't matter because one of the trips I wanted to pick up was gone now anyways. Pheww, there went the grievance that I was already writing in my head. At least the last two weeks were approved. I stewed the extra week I was freezing in Saskatoon, though.

When I bid my March schedule, I did so under the assumption that the last half of the month would be dropped for Captain IOE. Bad assumption: it looks like it'll be April now. I was left with a rather undesirable March schedule, especially for the purposes of going somewhere on Dawn's spring break. I figured I didn't have a fighting chance at getting any trip trades approved since all the trips I'd be dropping fell on weekends. No matter - I decided to go for broke, requesting a drop of all my trips in March, building a completely new schedule out of trips in open time. It filled up the complete trip trade request sheet. For kicks and grins, I even filled out a second sheet with an alternative schedule if the trips I was trying to pick up were no longer in open time, and faxed them both in to crew sked. I called a day later to ask about their disposition. "Oh, that huge trip trade? Yeahh, we're still working on that one...."

After my sister's wedding last Friday, I checked my phone and noted a missed call from Satan. I listened to the voicemail and was shocked to hear that my "gigantic trade request" had all been approved. A warm wave of affection swept over me; the past was forgotten. If they weren't in Virginia, I would've brought them cookies and given them all hugs. Heck, I may still. Instead of 12 days off and a bunch of 4-5 day trips, I have 16 days off with four daytrips and two five day trips. I have weekends off, and the last few days of the month that start Dawn's spring break. Hopefully I can bid for (or trade into) the first six days of April off. In that case maybe we'll go somewhere. After the Minnesota winter, somewhere warm would be nice. We're thinking maybe Singapore and Malaysia. I'll have to send crew sked a postcard.