Tuesday, December 29, 2009

White Christmas

Day One

The airport at night is a dark void from the air, but down here it's lit like the proverbial Christmas tree. There are blue taxi lights, white runway lights, green centerlines, red and green navigation lights, blinking red beacons, rotating yellow beacons on ground equipment, and the ghostly glow of klieg lights on the deice ramp, all haloed with snowflakes flying past. This snowstorm is only a few hours old and already causing lots of kinks, but I can't help enjoying the bewitching atmospherics of a snowy night. It feels like Christmas. My reverie is pierced by the blinding glare of a taxi light. A company JungleBus has turned onto a taxiway perpendicular to ours and the Captain is displaying a regrettable lack of courtesy. I mumble a few words under my breath and right on cue, the light goes out, leaving me seeing stars.

When I can see again, I glance at my watch. We haven't moved an inch in ten minutes. For reasons not readily apparent to me, the powers that be have chosen to only open three lanes of the 12L deice pad for the opening salvo of the biggest Christmas storm in years. The few crews present seem to be working extraordinarily slowly: it's taken two trucks over 40 minutes to deice a 757-300. It's not snowing that hard yet. Rob speculates that the crews are intentionally working slowly to signal their displeasure with intentional short-staffing on management's part. It's plausible; the tactic isn't exactly unknown among pilots.

I started the day in darkness, too, rising some fifteen hours ago to prepare for an 8:15am show time. Dawn gave me a ride to the airport before heading to school for her last day of work before Christmas vacation. Despite my best efforts in bidding and trip trading, I'd been unable to get Christmas off, so Dawn would be heading to her parents house in South Dakota after school tonight. I look out at a rapidly drifting snowbank by the taxiway and hope she stays safe on the lonely country roads west of Alexandria.

Our earlier roundtrip to Jacksonville passed smoothly and quickly. The winds aloft were unusually southerly, ensuring a fast return leg and signaling the size and strength of the approaching low. The subsequent three hours of unpaid "airport appreciation time" seemed longer than the six hours to and from JAX, particularly since our crew room has no sleeping facilities or even couches to rest on (our former chief pilot, when asked about this, reportedly replied that he didn't want crews fornicating in the crew room!). I'm definitely getting tired. I yawn, stretch, and look outside again to spy the A320 ahead of us creeping forward. I drop the parking brake and roll a few feel closer to the deice pad.

An hour later, we roar down a quite snow-covered 12L, reach V1 mercifully quickly - I'd rather not abort in these conditions - and bound into a night sky full of snowflakes whipping past our landing lights. It took an hour and a half to taxi out and deice for a thirty minute flight! Now there is plenty for me to do. As we pass through 18,000 feet, I complete the climb checklist, stow my Minneapolis charts and retrieve those for Madison, complete the flight release, and begin preparing for the approach into Madison. Over 100 miles out, I pick up the latest weather: a relatively high ceiling and three miles visibility, but a nasty gusting crosswind, an ugly mix of snow pellets and freezing drizzle, and worse yet, runway friction readings around .28 Mu. This is on the low side of "poor" braking action and approaching "nil," which we cannot land in. I check the weather at Green Bay, our alternate; it's still holding up, so I have an easy out if Madison gets any worse. As we begin our descent into Madison, I use Comm 2 to call the tower directly to inquire about the latest field conditions. They inform me that the runway is being plowed and sanded as we speak, and new and improved braking numbers are forthcoming. Sure enough, within a few minutes Madison Approach passes along friction readings around .40, still slick but a lot better than .28.

Descending through 5000 feet, we pass through a layer of warm air, and rain pelts our windshield. The massive low is sucking in warm, moist air from the gulf, which is resulting in sleet and freezing rain over a wide area around Chicago tonight. Another two thousand feet lower, we encounter colder air and the rain pings sharper against the fuselage and runs sluggishly up the windscreen before freezing on every unprotected spot. Freezing rain is the bane of every pilot; no aircraft, however well equipped, can withstand it for long. We request short vectors, the controller obliges, and soon we are bumping down the glideslope to Runway 36. It's a wild ride but Rob handles it well, making an textbook crosswind landing.

Upon touchdown, Rob uses full reverse thrust, as is normal procedure on a contaminated runway, but it seems to me like he's being awfully light on the brakes. Once I take control, I discover why; there is very little braking action to be had. However recently it was plowed, this runway is slick. I slow to a nearly complete halt before gingerly edging the tiller over for a careful turn off the runway. As we pull up to the gate, we are two hours late. The passengers are nonetheless unfailingly polite and grateful as they deplane.

I call the crew hotel for a pickup after putting the airplane to bed, only to learn that the company has not booked us rooms there. In fact, the receptionist informs me that the same thing happened last night and the crew stayed on the Captain's credit card - but that's not possible tonight, for they are fully booked. I call crew scheduling; the supervisor tells me he will contact our hotel booker right away and get right back to me. Fifteen minutes pass; I call crew scheduling back and get a voicemail message. Suddenly, the hotel van is there; we file out into the snow and the driver announces that he is picking up the NewCo crew. We get in, and we no sooner drive off than the driver gets a call from the front desk: it's a mistake, we're not coming to that hotel, we're supposed to be at their sister hotel across town. The driver gamely agrees to take us there, but we've barely left the airport property before crew scheduling finally calls back to say that the hotel booker swears up and down that we should have reservations at the first hotel but he is finding us a new place as we speak. Back to the airport we go.

The van has just disappeared when crew scheduling calls to reveal our new hotel: the one the driver had just been bringing us to! I wearily call the hotel directly to request pickup. Sorry, says the receptionist - we have no driver, we require a 24 hour notice for airport pickup. I sprint outside to see the very last of the taxi cabs departing with the last of our passengers. Another call to crew sked, another apology, another promise to get things fixed right away - and ten minutes later, rooms have magically opened up at the first hotel! What a goat rope.

It takes a while for the van to come back for us, and then it's a twenty minute drive to the hotel through deserted, slickened streets flanked by tall snowbanks. By the time I get in my room and wearily strip off my uniform, it's 11:30pm, and we've been on the ground an hour and a half. Having been on duty some fifteen hours, we are now on a reduced-rest overnight, a good portion of which was spent waiting for the hotel van. I wonder what tomorrow's passengers would think about their pilot landing in a snowstorm after five and a half hours sleep to recuperate from nineteen hours of wakefulness. It's perfectly legal - you can thank the spineless FAA and morally bankrupt airline management for that. At the end of the day, though, I'm the Captain, and if I feel too fatigued to fly safely, I won't. For exercising this discretion, I would face the very real possibility of being called into the chief pilot's office to explain what personal problems are preventing me from being properly rested for work. I collapse wearily into bed and try to calm myself enough to sleep. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.

To Be Continued....

10 comments:

Dave Starr said...

I really do not understand why the FAA is so spineless on this situation. Compare the Federally allowed work rules with the Hours of Service regulations of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Agency and see the shocking differences.

Truck drivers for the most down and out, low-dollar, just able to avoid bankruptcy trucking company could not follow the schedule of airline pilots at all.

Prime example. 14 hours on duty or 11 hours operating the vehicle, whichever comes first, mandatory 10 uninterrupted hours without duty, at least 8 of which must be in a bed. ... these are the rules that union busters like Wal*Mart have to follow ... where the hell is the pilot's union in all this .. is driving a semi all that much more difficult than flying 4 or 6 approaches to minimums per work day in an airliner?

Nothing against truck drivers, but I respectfully suggest a truck surely isn't _that_ much more difficult, is it?

Too many hours driving(flying), way too many hours on duty without uninterrupted rest, too many hours on duty, driving or not in a 6 or 7 day week, etc., etc.

The FAA can't use the excuse of pressure from lobby groups, just consider how many more lobby groups and overall money there is in the road transit industry .. yet another part of the DoT itself can not only stand up to the flack, but can revise the rules to cut back hours in recent years, as they have proven can be done.

Also, it's impossible for me to understand why US airlines are so constantly 'broke' and also allowed to absolutely rape their employees regarding pension plans. Here in Asia we have many discount as well as name brand airlines (many who employ US or European pilots I might add, and at least somewhat competitive rates), and they are making money hand over fist.

Recent example Clark, Philippines to Macau SAR China. (brand new A321 equipment), excellent cabin service, apparently totally competent front office crew .. round trip (same day purchase) about $60 US _round_ trip!... and the company (Cebu Pacific) is growing, expanding routes, etc. _and_ making money.

How can the US majors be so broke? It's not labor costs, it's obviously not fuel costs, it's bullshit so far as I am concerned.

(I'm an American. by the way, and a pilot,although mercifully, not an airline pilot. If I were of the age to be building a career, and already had an ATP, I'd be out of the US so fast it would make your head swim.

Likewise were I a CFI ... flight schools here are literally bursting at the seams ... particularly busy with South Asia (India) and Southwest Asia, (four low fare airlines opened this year in Dubai alone).

With the prices they charge there is no excuse for US airlines to be acting so 'poor', and the government and particularly pilots unions need to 'grow a pair' and at least maintain parity with the rest of the world for US citizens.

Today, US airline pilots (and passengers ... the reason the whole industry exists, remember?) are being played for a sucker in a big, big way.

Or so Dave opines

Anonymous said...

I was also flying through that very same snowstorm, but as a passenger to MDW. By the time we got there, it was just snow, and didn't seem too bad on the way down, although the ceiling looked pretty low. As for the hours of service thing, I think the best thing they can do is guarantee 8 hours of sleep, or at least 8 hours in suitable accommodations with no interruptions. I hear they do that in Canada. Sleep is important, especially for the sorts of things that piloting involves!

Anonymous said...

"It's perfectly legal - you can thank the spineless FAA and morally bankrupt airline management for that."

You can also thank ALPA, and APA, who have allowed it to go on for years and continue to allow it to go on. This is something that could have been addressed through the collective bargainin process.

Oh wait...we wouldn't want to criticize the union, would we.

sounddoc said...

Great post, Sam. As I'm half-way through my part 61 instrument rating it's good to hear stories like this to both keep my head in the game and keep realistic expectations about the life of an airline pilot. good to hear the pax were understanding. when i am a passenger on a delayed flight it kills me to hear other's nasty grumbling about the airline or the pilots, "why can't they just etc...," knowing full well myself what weather situation or subsequent ground stop caused the delay - all in the interest of the safety of said grumbling passenger.

safe flying, looking forward to the next post as always!

Anonymous said...

"The FAA can't use the excuse of pressure from lobby groups, just consider how many more lobby groups and overall money there is in the road transit industry .. yet another part of the DoT itself can not only stand up to the flack, but can revise the rules to cut back hours in recent years, as they have proven can be done."

It has more to do with the fact that far more people die each year on roads, than die on airplanes.

"Also, it's impossible for me to understand why US airlines are so constantly 'broke' and also allowed to absolutely rape their employees regarding pension plans."

Airlines are broke because customers have changed the business model. They want to fly for $99. Those fares correlate to lower wages for employees. Legacy carriers are having to shift how they do business to meet that. Part of the problem is that pensions, in the defined benefit sense, are archaic in the modern economy which is why most everyone is moving to a defined contribution plan. This isn't specific to the airline industry.

"Here in Asia we have many discount as well as name brand airlines (many who employ US or European pilots I might add, and at least somewhat competitive rates), and they are making money hand over fist."

And they fly maybe a tenth of the traffic that US carriers do, and they do it in emerging second and third world markets.

"Recent example Clark, Philippines to Macau SAR China. (brand new A321 equipment), excellent cabin service, apparently totally competent front office crew .. round trip (same day purchase) about $60 US _round_ trip!... and the company (Cebu Pacific) is growing, expanding routes, etc. _and_ making money."

Apples and oranges.

"How can the US majors be so broke? It's not labor costs, it's obviously not fuel costs, it's bullshit so far as I am concerned."

It's absolutely a combination of both. You have mainline carriers paying rates that reflect a bygone era. It's why LCC's are successful. They have lower labor costs. And if you don;t think 70-80 barrel of fuel isn't a high cost, than you have no concept of how the industry works.

"(I'm an American. by the way, and a pilot,although mercifully, not an airline pilot. If I were of the age to be building a career, and already had an ATP, I'd be out of the US so fast it would make your head swim."

Good. Have fun.

"Likewise were I a CFI ... flight schools here are literally bursting at the seams ... particularly busy with South Asia (India) and Southwest Asia, (four low fare airlines opened this year in Dubai alone)."

And how are they doing? That economy in Dubai, really humming along, isn't it? Oh wait...

"With the prices they charge there is no excuse for US airlines to be acting so 'poor', and the government and particularly pilots unions need to 'grow a pair' and at least maintain parity with the rest of the world for US citizens."

This makes no sense. "With the prices they charge". Pan Am offered fares in the 1960s between the US and London for $575 r/t. I just did a quick search on BA and Virgin, and found fares between JFK and LHR for $450 r/t. Prices are EXTREMELY cheaper than they were 40 years ago. And why? Well you, the consumer, the consumers, react only to the bottom line. This means that rock-bottom prices are the only guarantee of market responsiveness. Thus the continual drive to trim the bottom line by airlines, to offer these fares.

"Today, US airline pilots (and passengers ... the reason the whole industry exists, remember?) are being played for a sucker in a big, big way."

No, we get it. You don't.

Sam said...

Anonymous 7:39-- It *has* been addressed through the collective bargaining process, many times at the legacy carriers. Most of those protections were stripped in bankruptcy courts. As for regional airlines, those who did manage to work decent protections against abusive scheduling into their contracts (ie Comair, Air Wisconsin, ExpressJet) have since fallen by the wayside because ALPA (and other unions) never addressed the conditions under which outsourced flying would be flown. I've criticized them in the past for this, and no doubt will again. It's fair to say that nobody at ALPA condones current scheduling practices, they've advocated for change for a long time now. Their ineffectiveness rather than their motives are what warrants criticism.

ararity said...

Now, I'm no pilot (just a lowly flight attendant for a regional) so I'll stay out of the discussion on duty/rest regs (though I certainly side with pilots). I will say, however, that I enjoyed reading this post until it got to the part where scheduling was jerking you around. Don't they have crews going to the same places every night? Don't they block rooms for all those nights every month? After a 15 hour day you should have been at the hotel within 30 minutes of opening the door. Thanks to incompetence by several groups you're now forced to put yourself and others at unnecessary risk by flying fatigued the next day.

Our days should never be 15 hours long with only eight hours of "rest." Normal people simply can't function.

Keep up the good work, and fly safe.

Richard said...

Just for the traveling public (non airline pilots) reading this; Sam is not exaggerating anything here. What's more it happens at airline after airline night after night after night. What truly is a wonder is why there are not more smoking holes in the ground? I should know, I've been doing this for the last 20+ years. Take a hint folks, avoid the early AM departures at all costs, same for the last late night leg too.

5400AirportRdSouth said...

Having been involved in trucking before I got involved in flying, I think you can actually thank unions like the Teamsters for the HOS regs that truckers have.

Same as the weights that you are allowed to carry ( USA in particular ), it has a lot more to do with a strong union protecting jobs by mandating practices that might be done more " efficiently " if left to the accountants.

I'm of the opinion, and I suspect the govt is or was at some point as well, convinced that although alterior motives were/are at play, the point is valid. Safety is also at stake, not just union jobs. The bean counters will argue it the other way round, hopefully someone is listenting...

aviatorpr said...

Sam, unfortunate circumstances, definite goat rope, been there myself at my Memphis based regional. You may have, but I didn't see it mentioned, why not call Screw Scheduling when finally checking into the hotel and tell them to start you RR overnight right then? No way would I allow them so start my rest when I am spending my "rest" time calling on the phone trying to line up rooms for the night and waiting for a van.