Monday, December 08, 2008

Earning My Keep

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.


zb said...

It's funny how little is said about control theory during the current economic events. What makes the crisis interesting, from a nerd's point of view, is the timing issues. Many market analysts only seem to look at proportional (immediate) effects, neglecting all the issues of dead times and delays. While the whole world seems to be talking about sustainability, I hardly notice any real efforts towards good, planned-ahead decision making, which is just what control theory cares about.

Your words about future pilots delaying school or altering their decicion in favour of a different career are a really good example. There's a delay involved, and this delay might bite our behinds just when we don't need it.

Another example might be the amount of time it takes for a jet engine to develop thrust after the lever is pushed. If pilots wouldn't consider this, many go-arounds would lead to nasty consequences. There's a link to corporate policies here, as well: During slow times, companies should invest in their infrastructure. They should use the time to keep their machinery well maintained, they should train their staff. As soon as better times show up at the horizon and there's an increased demand in the books, everything is good to go and there will be a huge advantage compared to the companies that saved their infrastructure to death.

Needless to say: The stock market is probably the place that cares least about timing issues a.k.a. control theory and thus, by its design, is the place that messes up things in a very efficient manner.

Jonathan B. said...

In theory, I have tremendous sympathy for pilots not getting paid enough. In practice, I think you guys screw yourselves with the unions. Why should we support more pay for pilots, when it only goes to the senior pilots, and when the unions do everything they can to avoid having ability even remotely come into the equation of compensation?

The hardest flying jobs are the least senior, and so no matter what you guys get paid, the guys flying commuter props and RJs will get paid shit.

When the unions create a pay system based entirely on the amount of time one has been working in the job, with no consideration given for ability, it doesn't really make the flying public support the idea of higher pay, because it doesn't sound like we'll get safer pilots. Just richer ones.

Personally, I'd be happy to pay more for tickets if it meant that pilots were paid more, especially on the props. But I don't think it would result in safer pilots.

Fred said...

Wow, GREAT post, Sam. Not that all your others aren't great, but you know what I mean! :-)

I agree with the last commenter about unions; I loathe them in general and would only consider them useful in a miniscule set of circumstances. But that's not the point of your post, I don't think.

That your job is difficult is not at question (from flying the Level D Boeing 767, I have a small taste of what it's like to fly a jet around; and all the systems work all the time in my sim!) but perception is more important than reality and there's where those unions bite.

The greater questions surrounding the economy and long-term airline viability are complex enough to require experience and knowledge that I don't have so I won't comment beyond saying, there will be interesting times ahead (President-elect Obama, call your non-existent office.)

Rick Barlow said...

Jonathan and Fred I respectfully suggest you both read "Flying the Line" Books One and Two by George E Hopkins (Author) available from Amazon Books and elsewhere to gain better insight to the origin of pilot unions. As someone who has been part of the industry for 35 years now I can assure you only the names and color of the planes have changed in the interim. Please post back after having done this I would be curious to see if your opinions have changed?

Jonathan B. said...

Hi Rick,

Thanks for the suggestion. If I get a chance, I will check those out. I always enjoy reading about the life of pilots, especially back in the "good old days."

For the record, I didn't say I have a problem with unions, or even that I think they aren't neccesary. If you read what I wrote, you'll see that I *only* said I have a problem with their current policies, specifically basing advancement on seniority, and the way they have COMPLETELY failed to look out for entry level pilots.

This is pretty typical of all unions, these days, most of which have turned against their roots and have become just another big concentration of power that is abused by the leaders at the expense of the rank and file.

By the way, I was working on my commericial when 9/11 happened. I decided it wasn't going to be a very good career choice, and gave up, but I really do have sympathy for pilot pay. And no, my decision had nothing to do with pay, it had to do with job prospects, which I note are made worse by unions, not better. I had no intention of working in a field where no matter how good I was, I'd be furloughed if I wasn't high up enough on the seniority list.

If you want people to become pilots, perhaps give them the hope of being able to feed their families in the years before they fly big jets, and give them some hope that hard work and competence will lead to a better job quicker.

Michael said...

Excellent post!

Jim said...

I'm fundamentally a free-market person, and so I'd like to comment on:

I can tell you this: the current level of pilot compensation is not attracting many new people into the industry.

My question is: Rather than "attracting many", is it "attracting enough"? If yes, then the pay is adequate. It may not be what the individuals would like to get, but they chose a job the really wanted to do, and accepted the package that came with it.

I agree - yes, the entry-level pay rates suck. But that's not the airline's problem - go kick your union in the ass if you don't like it. Alas, the unions would have to give up something else to get more pay for the young guys, so they'll keep throwing the young guys under the bus.

Anonymous said...

Same weather/runway situation on Sunday night. It wasn't fun watching you guys slide around from up stairs.

tower guy.

Anonymous said...

Great post, well written & engaging.

Jim has it right on the subject of pay, however. It's fundamentally a supply & demand issue. People want to fly because it sounds sexy and interesting. Your posts don't dispel the allure. So long as a sufficient number of new pilots enter the industry and are willing to work on the terms offered, your wages will not go up. And with nothing but capacity reductions and pilot furloughs in the near future, this won't soon be changing.

If you want to see your wages rise, start writing about what a crappy, terrible, miserable job you have, and how no one in their right mind should do it ;) But somehow I think you're a bit more honest than that...

Sam said...

Good comments all. I don't have a whole lot to add - we've had the whole union argument before and I don't feel like getting into it right now. Like Rick, I feel that unions are absolutely necessary in this business, but there are certainly some valid points about the weaknesses of today's unions, particularly in the airline business. I'll get around to a post about that subject sometime soon in the future.

I do want to address Jim & Anonymous' comments about the free market. Essentially, with all leverage out of the unions' hands (for a variety of reasons), it IS the free market that is determining wages at least at regional carriers. In 2007-early 2008, they came very close to being forced to raise wages to attract new pilots because there was such a shortage. They were "saved," if you want to call it that, by the high price of oil and then the present economic downturn. Majors stopped hiring so attrition dropped to zero, most regionals' growth stopped, and airlines started cutting 50 seaters, and the collapse of several carriers meant there was a sudden glut of experienced pilots on the job market. So, from a completely free market standpoint, you're right - there's nothing to support pilot wages going up *right now*.

That wasn't the point of the last paragraph, however. There is still a severe pilot shortage coming. We saw the beginnings of it before Age 65 and this downturn postponed it 3-5 years. The shortage will be worse when it returns, I think; nearly 10 years of depressed pay, stripped out contracts, on-and-off furloughs, and skyrocketing training costs are making it less and less lucrative to go into flying. In this economy, there are very few willing or able to drop 50k+ on training, and far fewer lenders willing to borrow it to would-be students. Jim, yes, right now it's still attracting "enough." When the cycle goes the other way, though, there won't be nearly enough that are qualified. That should bring up wages - yay for me! - but because there's significant lag time between starting training and being qualified for an airline, there will be a great many regional cockpits filled with what woefully inexperienced first officers the airlines can scrounge up, for a while at least. That was the point of my last paragraph.

Sam said...

One more thing - most seem to have interpreted my comments about wages as applying only to regional carriers. I was referring to the depressed wages at majors, as well. The wages at regionals have always been crappy but pilots have been willing to endure them because the payoff of a job at a major was so lucrative. The payoff is no longer what it once was, so now pay at the regionals is relevant. One or the other has to come up or there will not be enough pilots in the pipeline on the next upturn (refer to zb's interesting comments on control theory).

Ron said...

I believe that what we get paid for isn't our flight time totals, our skill in making a feather-soft landing, or our ability to manipulate the controls.

We get paid for our decision-making ability. We get paid for knowing when it's time to pay attention to those hairs on the back of your neck. Re-read your own post with that in mind. :)

I think you also get paid for taking on full responsibility for a $100 million, 100 ton aluminum tube filled with a couple hundred people hurling through the air at nearly the speed of sound.

Either that, or you get paid because you just look so dapper in that uniform. :)

Anonymous said...

That was nice of you to let the co-pilot land the plane. You're a great captain for letting him do that. He must have been thankful at the end of the flight. Are you going to teach him to land smooth next time.

Sam said...

Sure thing, right after lessons on how to wear the cap at a jaunty angle and how to flirt with flight attendants. With my help, he'll be a real pilot someday!

/loves anonymous flamebait

Anonymous said...

Just recognizing your awesomeness as a Captain. The way it was written about you being comfortable with him landing on a snow-covered runway in Minneapolis make you sound like a top notch ass. The only difference between you and the FO is your seniority.

Sam said...

OK, you win. I AM a top notch ass. Congratulations on ferreting that fact out of one sentance of one post of 500. I salute your perceptiveness, sir.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, that's all i wanted!

Fred said...

What a tool.

Flying Europe said...

What a great blog!

I agree on most points..should be printed out and posted in our crew rooms if you ask me...

I do not know if you are aware of it, but in Europe most airlines (regional and major) hire their (future) pilots before these have even seen a flight deck from the inside, train them and put them onto airliners with a total time between 150-250 hours. And we are talking about RJ's, Dash's, Airbus', Avro's, Boeings etc.. everything in the 50-250 pax range.

This is significantly different to the way it is done in the states, and I guess the training itself is probably as different as the EU vs. US philosophies on that matter.

(Ab Initio Airline training from day 1 vs. the private, commercial, cfi, instructing modular path).

Both ways produce good pilots. Both systems have their pro's and con's.

However I don't think younger pilots are not as "safe". What do 1500 hours of experience in a Cessna 152 during VMC conditions help you in the low fuel holding scenario you described so wonderfully in your post? Nothing, I think! Not all experience is good. Not every flight hour contributes to it. Some build up "bad" in "I've done it so many times and it worked, even though it's risky...".

I also do not think that pay can be directly related to safety, or to creating "better pilots".

Eventhough the money is an important aspect, what should really be improved are the flight time limitations, the monthly rosters and with that the quality of life.

Now concerning the shortage: As long as people are willing to pay their own typeratings or even pay airlines to get flight hours I don't see it coming, not here in the EU.

Keep on posting, it's great to read!


aduneura said...

Trying to make sense of pilot pay? Good Luck... In a related vein, try to make sense of an even worse disconnect between CEO salaries compared to their employees:

"In 1970, CEO salary and bonus packages were typically about $700,000 - 25 times the average production worker salary; by 2000, CEO salaries had jumped to almost $2.2 million on average, 90 times the average salary of a worker, according to a 2004 study on CEO pay by Kevin J. Murphy and Jan Zabojnik. Toss in stock options and other benefits, and the salary of a CEO is nearly 500 times the average worker salary, the study says."

Personally, I think this is another sign of an economic system that will crash - or maybe I should write, "is crashing?"...