As a Captain, you can distill the whole of your many daily tasks down to two simple, overarching duties. The first is to transport your craft and your passengers from point A to point B, on a set schedule and with the utmost reliability and efficiency. The second duty is to shout "stop" and abandon your first duty whenever you determine that it cannot be done or is not being done safely and legally. Technically, every airline employee has these dual responsibilities. At some airlines, the second is emphasized as strongly as the first. At others, management merely pays lip service to the second duty while making very clear through their actions that moving airplanes is their primary concern. This seems to be particularly prevalent at the regional airlines, where performance numbers are one of the primary criteria by which their mainline partners judge their suitability for continued business. Sometimes it can feel very lonely to be the only person holding up the operation when everyone else is saying "go, go, it's allright."
A little over a month ago, I was starting out a three day trip with a Chicago-Midway turn. It had been snowing fiercely in Chicago, and although the weather was forecast to improve, visibility was still near approach minimums. My First Officer, whom I had never flown with before, was fresh off IOE, although he had flown the JungleBus previously at his last airline (from which he had received his second furlough in under a year).
Twenty minutes before our scheduled departure time, two maintenance personnel appeared in the cockpit door and announced that they were going to upload a new FMS database, since the current one was due to expire a few hours after our arrival back to Minneapolis. Passengers were already boarding but we were assured the update wouldn't delay our departure. It's usually a quick, routine matter.
This time that did not prove to be the case. For whatever reason, the FMS froze partway through the upload process and was unresponsive to subsequent attempts. The maintenance guys told us to recycle the ship's power, which we did. That compounded our problems: not only did the FMS continue to refuse the new database, it dropped the current one out of the system! Further attempts at getting the system to respond were futile.
After conferring with maintenance control, the mechanics informed us that their solution was to defer both FMS's for now and worry about solving the problem later. I referred to our Mininum Equipment List (MEL), and sure enough, it permitted the aircraft to be flown with both FMS units deferred. This effectively turns the JungleBus into an old-school DC-9, confined to navigating from VOR to VOR. Now, back in my freight dog days I could do that, single pilot, without an autopilot, in solid IMC and moderate turbulence, while filling out paperwork and listening to the ballgame on the ADF - but these days I'm a little out of practice on that sort of thing! The FO and I reviewed the MEL and a related portion of our Flight Operations Manual; it laid out, in great detail, how to accomplish lateral and vertical navigation without either FMS. I reviewed the routing and approach at MDW; they were uncomplicated and easily accomplished "green needles." I checked the weather in Chicago, which was rapidly improving. Finally I conferred with the FO and determined that we were both comfortable operating the aircraft in this condition. That settled, the mechanics began signing off the logbook, and I turned my attention to my preflight flows.
I quickly realized there were greater problems than a simple lack of FMS navigation capability. I couldn't access any of the MCDU pages other than the Radio and Thrust Setting pages. Some of these, like Navigation, Route, and Flight Plan were to be expected - but some, like ACARS and the Performance page, seemed wholly outside the scope of the MEL. The Performance pages are especially important to the operation of the JungleBus. Without them, we have no way to set our takeoff and landing airspeed bugs. Moreover, there is no other place you can enter the takeoff flap setting for the takeoff configuration warning system. We had no idea whether we'd get a "No Takeoff" warning when we advanced the thrust levers on takeoff, necessitating a mandatory abort. Finally, the inability to enter a zero fuel weight in Performance Initialization disabled our flight director until we selected a vertical mode at 1000 feet AGL.
I told the mechanics about these problems, and stated that in my opinion this was outside of the scope of the FMS deferral. I pointed out that the MEL contained very detailed operational information on how to navigate laterally and vertically without FMS navigation or VNAV, but was utterly silent on how we were supposed to work around the lack of access to the Performance pages. They disagreed, saying that Performance is one of the FMS's functions and therefore the MEL applies. I told them that I would accept that if they could provide supporting documentation, including Operator notes on how to cope without the Performance pages. They began perusing the MEL, randomly pointing to anything containing the word "Performance" no matter how unrelated to the problem (ie, "Required Navigational Performance"). I was unmoved; they were exasperated. "There's no way anyone would build a plane so automated that you can't fly without the automation!" one exclaimed. It was clear that they just wanted us out of their hair. They called maintenance control to report our recalcitrance. Meanwhile, I went back to the cabin to report to the passengers why we still hadn't left - it was now well past departure time - while keeping the specifics fairly vague.
When I returned to the cockpit, the mechanics handed the phone to me. On the line was the maintenance controller, who told me that it was his opinion that our condition was indeed covered by the FMS MEL, but I could talk to the supervisor. When the supervisor picked up, I again recited the litany of problems and reasons it didn't appear that the MEL covered them, and repeated my offer to reconsider if anyone could provide any supporting documentation for their contention that we were good to go. He said he didn't have anything beyond the MEL, but thought that the Director of Maintenance might have better answers. "Sure, transfer me to the DM," I said.
The DM was initially even more strident that we were legal than the others. "The FMS modules in the avionics cabinets handle the performance pages," he said. "The MEL covers the whole FMS." That might be so, I answered, but if that was the intention of those drafting and approving the MEL they certainly didn't make that clear, given the explicit operational guidance on how to operate in lieu of LNAV and VNAV but the absolute dearth of information on how to substitute for speed bugs or flight director and how to ensure the takeoff warning system worked correctly. At this he began to back down: "I don't know anything about VNAVs or bugs or anything," he sputtered, "I just know that it's all in the same module and that module can be MEL'd!"
It was well past time to get the Chief Pilot's Office involved. I called the Chief Pilot and the two assistant CPs; nobody was answering. I left a short message for the Duty Chief Pilot to call me ASAP. Then I called our dispatcher, who was rather curious about why I was refusing an airplane that everybody from the line mechanics to the Director of Maintenance said was legal. I gave him the rundown and told him I certainly wouldn't be leaving until a chief pilot called me. He said he'd try to track one down. I hung up and went back to the cabin to update the passengers. We were over an hour late now. I tried to give them more specific information without letting on that this was essentially an argument between me and the company. I admitted that I didn't have a timeframe for a go/no-go decision at this point. Several passengers requested that they be allowed to deplane. I coordinated it with the harried gate agent; shortly after, half the plane got off, to her exasperation. Finally I settled back into the my seat in the cockpit to await a call. My FO and I talked the situation over again. He agreed with my interpretation, and pointed out that even if they were correct and it was legal, operating with this condition would involve making up several procedures on the fly, and it wasn't our job to make up procedures.
A few minutes later, my phone rang. It was the Duty Chief Pilot. I summarized the problem, our interpretation, and the response from the maintenance department. He was rather taken aback: "We can't be operating without the Performance pages!" he exclaimed. That was a relief, as I was wondering if everyone in the company would push me to go. He said he'd call the Director of Standards, the man who had written the MEL, to make sure that our interpretation was correct. He called back a few minutes later and said the Director of Standards definitely agreed that the Performance pages were not intended to be covered by the MEL, and the aircraft was unairworthy in its present state.
I informed the mechanics that I was refusing the aircraft and asked whether they would attempt to fix it. They told me they had "bigger fish to fry" and stormed off in disgust. Dispatch said they were attempting to find another airplane for us to take. I told the remaining passengers this airplane wouldn't be going to Chicago; they filed off glumly. Shortly thereafter we were assigned a new aircraft so we quickly packed up and hurried off to the new gate. As we deplaned, our gate agent was in an animated argument with her supervisors. Nobody, it seemed, was very happy that I hadn't simply accepted the mechanics' word and launched with a very questionable airplane. C'est la vie.
Afterward, I wondered what I would've done if the Chief Pilot who called me had backed the maintenance department up and said the airplane was airworthy. Ultimately, it shouldn't have made a difference: it's the Captain who determines if his craft is airworthy. Practically, though, it would've added immensely to the pressure to go. Most chief pilots, although they're management, are pilots first and foremost. Most would've been like the one I talked to and recognized that from a pilot's standpoint, the aircraft was probably not airworthy and there certainly wasn't enough guidance to operate it safely. There are a few chief pilots out there, however, who believe their primary mission is to ensure that the peons keep the metal moving. I'm not claiming any of my chief pilots are that way, but they are scattered throughout the industry. They make it harder for a Captain to say no when he needs to say no, but don't in any way relieve him of that responsibility. Ultimately, a Captain may have to pay the price for doing what is right. Having some good contacts among the Feds can help. Being part of a union is better yet.