On Friday I was in San Antonio on a long layover; we had a van time of 4:45pm for a 5:51pm departure to Minneapolis. I slept in that morning and woke too late to do anything interesting like go to the Alamo or Riverwalk. Around noon I met Brent, my FO, in the lobby, and we walked over to Bill Miller's BBQ for their wonderful chopped pork sandwich platter. Over lunch, we had a conversation wherein Brent said something interesting that sparked an idea for a blog post. As soon as I got back to the hotel room I pulled out my notebook and began writing.
I should have given the idea more time to percolate before I started. I wrote several pages of disjointed paragraphs full of half-baked ideas and contradictory proclamations, despaired on my first reading, threw the pages away, and started over with a new preliminary outline. The post I sketched out didn't seem much better than the one in the trash can. I wanted to write a thoughtful essay about the thorny subject of pilot pay. I wanted to move beyond the usual arguments about being overpaid or underpaid and explore the question of what exactly pilot pay is really based on. Is it knowledge? Experience? Certificates? Responsibility for lives and property? Ability of the aircraft to generate revenue? Difficulty of the job? A life spent on the road? Negotiating leverage? Free market value? I doubted whether there's really any subjective answer; you'd certainly get differing opinions from pilots, management, unions, and the traveling public. The framework for an interesting essay was there but I was getting nowhere in fleshing it out. I realized that I've written enough on the subject over the years that I should only return to it if I have something to add. Also, most of my readers are a whole lot less interested in the question of whether I'm paid enough than I am, so any further exposition on the subject ought to at least reward the reader with decent writing. This clearly was not it. Frustrated, I set the notebook aside and did a crossword puzzle instead.
At 4:20 I repacked and changed into my uniform and then met my crew in the lobby; we departed for the airport on time and arrived at the gate just as the inbound crew disembarked. They reported that the ship was "clean" and the ride was good. I checked the radar online; an icy blue smear nearing Minneapolis provided the first clue of things to come. Sure enough, the TAF called for snow to begin falling before our arrival, although visibility and ceiling were respectively forecast to stay above one and a half mile and 1500 feet. Our alternate was LaCrosse, Wisconsin, a small airport about 100 miles southeast of Minneapolis with a similar forecast. Our dispatcher thoughtfully provided us with 800 pounds of holding fuel along with 1500 pounds of contingency fuel. The difference between the two is a fine but important distinction. Holding fuel is considered part of the "minimum fuel load" listed on the release, while contingency fuel provides an additional buffer above the legal minimum.
The departure from San Antonio was uneventful; Brent was flying the leg. This was day three of a four day trip, Brent had several hundred hours in the airplane, and I was comfortable with him landing on a snow-covered runway in Minneapolis. On a leg like this, where there are clues that some Captainly wiliness might be required, I'd just as soon be non-flying pilot anyways. As the western sky grew dim, I set the ACARS up to automatically retrieve the Minneapolis ATIS every time it was updated.
The first two hours of the flight were quiet except for the frequent annunciation of a new ATIS. The snowfall dropped the visibility to three quarters of a mile at first but then it rose and held steady at around one and a half miles; the ceiling stayed pretty high. We could clearly get in but my Captain's antennae were still beginning to twitch. For starters, nearly every ATIS update - specials were coming out every 20 minutes - showed runways 12R and 12L being alternately closed for snow removal. Minneapolis cannot function on one arrival runway without significant delays, as the construction on 30L/12R so convincingly proved in 2006. I decided to climb and slow down a bit to save fuel. We checked on with Minneapolis Center with nary a word of delays. By the time we turned over Fort Dodge IA onto the TWOLF One arrival, I thought that perhaps we'd dodge the bullet yet.
"Newco 1917, got a new route for delays into Minneapolis, advise ready to copy." I groaned and grabbed the clearance printout and a pen. "Newco 1917, cleared to Minneapolis via Sioux Falls, Redwood Falls, SKETR Three arrival." Whoa. I knew Sioux Falls was quite a ways northwest of our position. I pecked "FSD" into the FMS and requested a direct track; sure enough, it appeared on the moving map nearly 90 degrees to our left and over 100 miles away. As soon as I inputted the rest of the arrival, I started crunching the fuel numbers. They weren't pretty; the reroute had decimated our contingency fuel and added nearly 30 minutes to our flight. I texted the new routing and landing fuel to our dispatcher via ACARS.
The flight plan attached to our release normally tells us minimum fuel for each waypoint, but we were no longer on our planned route so I had to work up new numbers. I started with my personal fuel minimum for arrival at MSP. In this case it happened to coincide with the dispatcher-calculated minimum of 5400 lbs, only because of the 800 lbs of holding fuel. If we ended up holding, the dispatcher might amend the release to turn the holding fuel into contingency fuel, reducing our minimum fuel at MSP to 4600 lbs (2400 lbs fuel burn to our alternate plus 2200 lbs reserve). If that happened, however, my personal minimum at MSP would remain 5400 lbs because there's no way I'm going to be shooting an approach in crummy weather at the alternate with less than 3000 lbs in my tanks. After all, the company defines 3000 lbs as a "minimum fuel state" and 2000 lbs as an "emergency fuel state." Working backwards from MSP, I calculated the minimum fuel number for several waypoints on the arrival. Crossing Sioux Falls, we were only 400 lbs above the minimum. As we turned eastbound again, I told Brent to slow down more to take advantage of the strong tailwind and save fuel.
"Newco 1917, holding instructions for delays into Minneapolis...hold southwest of SHONN as published at flight level 350, leg lengths your discretion, expect further clearance 0253 zulu, time now 0205 zulu." I read back the clearance but added "We'll have to run the numbers and get back to you on our fuel state." We were going to arrive at SHONN nearly 30 minutes before our EFC time, with only 500 lbs over the minimum fuel at SHONN. I told ATC we had enough fuel for perhaps 10 minutes of holding before diverting and asked if Minneapolis Approach might take that into consideration. The controller sounded doubtful but said he'd check.
I texted the news to our dispatcher along with a request for updated weather at KLSE as well as KRST. My thinking was that if the weather was good enough at Rochester, we could make it our new alternate; since it's closer to MSP, the decreased fuel burn to the alternate would free up some fuel for holding. Our dispatcher responded with weather for Rochester and Brainerd, about 100 miles northwest of MSP, but not LaCrosse, and asked me to pick KRST or KBRD as my new alternate. Rochester had 3/4 mile visibility, actually below alternate minimums. Brainerd was better but almost as far away as LaCrosse. I texted that I'd just keep KLSE, and the dispatcher responded by informing me that LaCrosse was down so he was changing my alternate to KBRD. Ah...okay then. It didn't save me any fuel but at least the weather was nice there!
We were rapidly approaching SHONN so it was time to tell the passengers something. I wasn't going to mention the possibility of diverting just yet, but they had to be wondering why we weren't on the ground yet. "Folks, from the flight deck...that forecast snow in Minneapolis showed up a few hours ago and is making a pretty good mess of things, with lots of delays going into MSP. We were given a reroute over Sioux Falls which helped, but air traffic control still needs us to hold over a point about 50 miles southwest of MSP for up to a half hour...." I glanced at Brent who was gesturing wildly to me and released the PA button in time to hear ATC cancel our hold. "...Uh, nevermind folks, they just cleared us to come on in, hopefully without much further delay. Flight attendants please prepare for arrival."
We made up some more fuel between SHONN and the airport thanks to our slowed speed, the tailwind, a delayed descent, and an early vector to the downwind. ATC put us on a nearly 30 mile final for runway 12L; 12R was closed for snow removal. We were another 15 miles along when ATC broke us and a preceding NewCo flight off the approach because another aircraft reported nil braking, closing the runway until the snowplows could clear it. The other NewCo flight diverted to their alternate immediately. I told approach we had a little fuel to work with so long as there wasn't much delay in opening 12R. They assured us it'd be open soon and resequenced us onto a 20 mile final.
This time we got almost to the FAF before approach control again broke us off the approach; the snowplows weren't going to have quite enough time to get off the runway. I reconsidered our fuel status. The fuel burn to Brainerd was 2200 lbs, so I wanted at least 5200 lbs on landing. We had a few hundred more than that, enough for six minutes or so. "We can take another go if it's a short final, otherwise we need to go to Brainerd." ATC assured us they'd keep us close in and they lived up to their word. We got the runway in sight a few miles out, and Brent made a nicely firm landing. Despite the heavy use of thrust reversers, the ship was rather slow to decelerate; as soon as I took the controls, I could see why. The runway was quite slick though it had just been plowed. The anti-skid surged in and out rapidly as I mashed down hard on the brake pedals, a rather unnatural act of faith. I slowed to a nearly complete stop before even beginning the turn off the runway, and just as well, for the taxiways hadn't been cleared recently. The centerlines were buried so I stayed in other planes' tracks on the way to the gate. The airport was eerily calm, and I thought that it looked like a ghost town with a two inch layer of chalky dust covering the abandoned wagons and buggies.
No time for such fantasies; we were pretty late getting in, and due out to Missoula in less than a half hour. Almost as soon as our passengers were deplaned, new ones trudged wearily onboard. Brent and I went through our familiar preflight dance efficiently, with the addition of a radio call to the Iceman. Paperwork complete and handed out with a wave to the harried gate agent; door slams shut, made up some time on the turn. We taxied out, got deiced, and took off into a post-apocalyptic orange-hued overcast with snowflake constellations warping past in the momentary glare of our landing lights.
Not until we settled into the reverie of a darkened cockpit in cruise did my thoughts wander back to the previous flight. Pretty uneventful, really - got delayed a bit, decided we had enough fuel, landed. Lots of other planes out doing the same thing, and lots of other snowy nights left in this Minnesota winter. To be sure, the events of the flight drew upon my knowledge, experience, and judgment much more than your average sunny-day flight. Truth is, if every day was sunny and trouble-free, a monkey could do my job. But they are not, so he cannot. It takes an army of well-trained, experienced pilots to keep the fleet flying safety and efficiently in all sorts of conditions. The fact that flying is so routine, so safe - the fact that flights like the last one barely merit mention - is perversely held up as proof that a pilot's job is easy and pilots are overpaid!
So are pilots today underpaid? I think so, but plenty of others disagree. I can tell you this: the current level of pilot compensation is not attracting many new people into the industry. We saw a glimpse of the consequences as recently as this summer, when regional airlines were so short on qualified applicants that they were hiring 250 hour freshly minted commercial pilots into the right seats of RJs captained by 2000 hour freshly minted ATPs. The pendulum has since swung the other way, and there are thousands of qualified pilots on the streets looking for nonexistant jobs this holiday season. There are not, however, that many people taking out $60,000 loans to learn to fly these days, so the pilot shortage will return with a vengeance when the current economic distress subsides. When that happens, I would think twice about putting oneself or one's family on a regional jet on any dark and snowy winter night.