Friday, June 20, 2008

Don't Lay Around on Layovers!

The one thing that connects practically every airline crewmember in the world regardless of the company they fly for is the fact that they spend a major portion of their life away from home. Attitudes toward this vary pretty widely. For some pilots and FAs it's the best part of the job, for some it's a necessary evil, some hate it with a passion. I personally find that it's what you and your crew make of it. Four day trips mostly spent in hotel rooms can be pretty boring, lonely, and depressing. It's not always easy to get out and do stuff, though. A lot of layovers are too short for anything but grabbing a bite to eat and getting a few hours of sleep. Many of our layovers are spent in airport hotels with nothing to do in the surrounding area. Ground transportation can be tricky to arrange; the weather's often not conducive to roaming around town, especially in winter. It's not uncommon to fly with a "slam-click" crew that's uninterested in getting together on the layover.

Despite all that, I've had pretty good experiences on layovers. Sometimes it's as simple as getting together with a good crew for conversation over drinks and dinner; often it involves taking advantage of the opportunity to explore an unfamiliar area. Horizon was a great airline for this as the Q400 flew to many smaller mountain towns that had attractions within walking distance of the layover hotel as well as good hiking in the surrounding area. NewCo is a little tougher for layover options. We fly to mostly bigger airports and tend to layover in nearby hotels far from the city center. On the upside, I'm going to a lot of towns where I've never been or have only passed through, so there's a lot of new places for me to explore when I have the time to take public transportation into town.

I had a long Washington-Dulles layover on Memorial Day. NewCo's IAD hotel is located in Chantilly VA, near the airport; all my previous layovers had been too short to venture into DC. I've been to 42 of the 50 states and 13 countries at last count, but had never been to our nation's capitol. My FO and I caught a bus from Dulles that dropped us off at L'Enfant Plaza just south of the National Mall. We arrived just as the Memorial Day Parade kicked off on the east end of the Mall near the Capitol Building. We followed the parade westward along Constitution Ave, stopping in at the Washington Monument. Memorial Day ceremonies were ongoing at the WWII Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial. The day was brilliantly sunny, with a light breeze; crowds sought shelter from the afternoon sun on the steps of the cool, cavernous Lincoln Memorial. After a respite, we moved back east against the parade and ducked north to say hi to George at the White House. From there we walked all the way to the southeast corner of the mall and visited the National Air and Space Museum. I could spend days in that place. I could spend hours in the lobby alone. You enter the doors and look up and it's almost too much to handle: there's the Spirit of St. Louis! And the Bell X1! And SpaceShipOne! And the X15! When you look back down, there's the Gemini IV capsule and Apollo 11 command module! As an aviation and history enthusiast, it was the proverbial candy store for this kid. Alas, we had only a few hours for a cursory inspection of the museum's offerings before they kicked us out and we walked back to the bus stop as the setting sun turned the Capitol Building golden.

That last shot is of the headquarters of everyone's Favorite Aviation Administration.

A week later, I had my first layover in Norfolk VA. Our hotel is actually in between the airport, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach - basically in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately there's a bus stop a few blocks away for a bus that my flight attendants and I took to the beach. The water was too cold for swimming but we walked up and down the beach at surf's edge and people-watched. Later we had dinner at a local restaurant, then got some cheesecake to go for dessert on the beach. Turns out that blowing sand gives cheesecake a distinctly different texture. After that the flight attendants got somewhat bored so they buried me to my neck in sand.

A few days later I had a Kalispell layover. That was one of my favorite layovers at Horizon and remains so at NewCo. Dawn came along with me. One of our flight attendants also brought her husband. They had never been up to Glacier Park before so they went in on a rental car with Dawn and I and we drove up to the Park. Again, it was a gorgeous clear-blue day, perfect for being out doing outdoorsy things. Unfortunately, most of the Going-to-the-Sun road was still closed for snow. We were able to go as far as the Avalanche Creek trailhead, where we did the easy 5.5-mile roundtrip hike to Avalanche Lake. I'd been there a few years ago and forgot how gorgeous and majestic it is - pictures don't do it justice.

And then there's layovers like this one, where I stay inside blogging. They've been somewhat far and few in between, leading to a darkening complexion but also a dearth of new material on the blog. I'd blog on my days off, but, well, the weather's been too nice to not be riding my motorcycle or playing tennis or walking around the lakes. The harsh MN winter definitely is making me appreciate summer more.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


It's official. The US airline industry is (back) in the crapper. With oil at $130+ per barrel, it's just a matter of time before one or more of our major airlines goes back into bankruptcy, maybe for good. The airlines have finally been able to get most of the fare increases to stick, but they'll need to increase yet more for airlines to make money... and the number of passengers willing to pay that much to fly in a less-than-stellar economy is surely less than the number flying today. Something has to give. United and Continental are taking preemptive measures by significantly cutting their capacity. USAirways and perhaps American will follow suit. The more cynical among us believe Northwest and Delta are holding off on capacity cuts for only as long as they need to secure approval of their merger.

When airlines cut capacity, the pilots most directly affected are those most recently hired. The bottom 10% or so of any seniority list is referred to as "furlough fodder," although there have been furloughs or series of furloughs that have gone halfway up the list and beyond. Getting furloughed is like getting laid off in the non-aviation world. You retain the right to your old position if the company expands again, but that's about it. You might get non-rev benefits for a while. You can get medical bennies through COBRA but it's on your nickel. Some pilots find work outside of aviation while they await recall; others take flying jobs at regional airlines or corporate gigs. Some go back on active duty with the military. Many simply move on with their careers and get hired by another airline, never to return. The ranks of SWA, JetBlue, Airtran, FedEx, and UPS are full of pilots who were furloughed by major carriers after 9/11. When airlines recall furloughees, they often find the acceptance rate to be less than 50%.

Even if a pilot avoids furlough, everyone except the very top is losing relative seniority. Many are displaced to smaller (and lower-paying) equipment. Worse yet is the Captain that gets downgraded to First Officer, sometimes taking a pay cut of up to 50%. This is on top of payrate and benefit cuts of up to 50% that were imposed in bankruptcy after 9/11.

There likely wouldn't be that many furloughs, displacements, and downgrades this time around except that the mandatory retirement age was just changed, from age 60 to age 65. Now there are far fewer retirements to absorb some of the capacity cuts. The irony, of course, is that those enjoying an extra five years at the top of the pay scale are those least likely to be impacted by capacity cuts. A guy on the top 5% of the list isn't going to be displaced, much less downgraded or furloughed. I hope the guys staying past 60 enjoy their extra five years. Their newfound freedom to "fly 'till they die" is going to set back a lot of junior guys' careers at least five years.

I've mentioned in previous posts that I don't see keeping my job beyond a year or so. With recent developments in the industry a downgrade and subsequent furlough is looking more and more likely. It'd only take a few hundred furloughs (flowdowns) from RedCo to kick me off the NewCo list, and that's on the small end of expected furloughs at many companies. The political pressure to avoid cuts until the merger is approved may be my saving grace in the short term.

In the meantime, I'm getting some good practice for my eventual downgrade by flying in the right seat. We're pretty short on FOs right now and I'm on reserve, so crew scheduling has seen fit to use me as a first officer for two weeks in a row now. It's not a super big deal - I'm being paid as a Captain, and I was an FO recently enough that I still know the duties well. That said, by the time I lose my job, I'd really like to have some decent turbine PIC under my belt. I'm seriously contemplating bidding a CDO line for next month to avoid flying as an FO on reserve. True, I'd get less sleep, but it's not like us airline pilots are sleeping that well lately anyways.

Monday, June 02, 2008


I've mentioned that we sold our Blazer rather than drive it back to Minnesota. Our experiment in single-car living has mostly been a success. Dawn works about 20 miles from where we live so she gets the car most days. I commute to work via bus and train, and we live within walking distance of stores, restaurants, theaters, parks, and lakes. For a bit of inconvenience, we've saved a lot of money on gas, insurance, and maintenance.

That said, it can be frustrating to be stuck at home with no wheels. The frustration doesn't merit the expense of a second car, but we came up with a workable solution: buy a motorcycle. At least, that's the practical justification. I've been riding my dad's and brothers' bikes since last summer, and have been wanting to get one of my own. The fact that Minnesota has a six month riding season at best means a motorcycle is more of a recreational expense than a practical one.

Last week I bought a 1988 Yamaha FZ600. It's an early light sport bike in the same class as the Ninja 500. It's a lot lighter and more maneuverable than my dad's and brother's BMW sport-touring bikes I've been riding until now, while much friendlier to beginning riders than my other brother's R6. This one's been used and has a few battle scars to prove it, but honestly I wanted a less-than-perfect first bike so I won't be devastated if I drop it. The guy I bought it from put a fair bit of work into the bike's mechanicals. With luck I should get some decent miles of enjoyment out of the FZ600 while building motorcycling experience.