Monday, December 06, 2010


The course of a flying career may be measured in terms of one's progression between two extremes. At one end, you work your butt off for very little pay. At the other pole, you fly your choice of trips only rather occasionally and seemingly rake in the dough. In general, you do everything in your power to move from the former position to the latter, but for the most part one's career progress is a matter of time and luck.

Meanwhile, this progression is repeated on a smaller scale at the individual employers one might fly for over the course of a career, and even within individual fleets at companies with a variety of equipment. Aviation is a 24/7/365 sort of industry, and whether the unions forced its use or not, seniority is the only workable method of determining who spends Christmas with the kids and who spends it shooting ILS approaches in the snow. Consequently, one's career progression more resembles the game of chutes and ladders than one continuous incline. You start completely over at each individual company over the course of your career. Within each company, your relative seniority suffers as you bid onto larger aircraft.

This does introduce some element of control in an often out-of-control industry. You can choose whether to leave for a more lucrative job, or whether to bid for the bigger airplane or for a Captain slot. By choosing to pass those things up, you can gain more time off, more control over your schedule, and greater stability; in turn you often forfeit a larger paycheck or future career opportunities. At every step of the career you see pilots who have made this choice. There are grizzled old freight dogs flying tattered Metroliners long after they needed to. At the major airlines, there are thousands of widebody FOs who could've held a Captain slot on narrowbody equipment ages ago. At the regional airlines, there is an increasingly huge contingent of lifers who are content to keep a decent schedule and a middling paycheck rather than play "furlough roulette" at the bottom of a major airline's seniority list.

With the recent departure of 60 senior NewCo Captains flowing up to WidgetCo, I suddenly find myself in the unusual position of being quite senior; next month, I will be #25 out of around 400 pilots. I've never been senior anywhere I've worked. I was the designated mop-up guy at AEX (my first part 135 gig), couldn't even get my choice of Lance routes at Ameriflight, was only around 50% of the Q400 FOs after 3.5 years at Horizon, and wasn't an FO at NewCo long enough to enjoy the fruits of seniority. I'm not complaining, because those moves were all the right thing to do from career and personal standpoints. I have, however, become quite accustomed to reserve, working weekends and holidays, inefficient trips, and other things that go along with being junior.

Earlier this year, my company closed our Memphis base and most of the Captains, many of whom were junior to me, came to Minneapolis. I went from 55% seniority to 45% seniority in my seat over the course of a few months. That small change was like flipping a switch. I went from being able to hold only one or two weekend days a month off to holding a cushy Monday-Thursday schedule. I was able to hold efficient trips. I was able to bid a lazy 75 hours instead of an excruciating 95. I was getting 3-5 more days off every month. This was a revelation: flying can be a really nice gig! Suddenly I get why regional lifers stay put, particularly at high-paying places like Horizon.

The thing is, being senior is no guarantee that you'll stay senior, particularly at the regionals. Our seniority list is riddled with pilots who had a good gig before their last airline went belly up or fell on hard times. That's enough to put any thought of sticking around at NewCo out of my head. I'm keeping my options open, but at this point there's a decent chance I'll wind up at WidgetCo sometime next year. If that happens, I'll be tickled, but I will be very, very junior for a long time. Therefore, I'm enjoying the benefits of being senior now - starting with having the 24th through the 31st of December off, heading to Spain with Dawn and my brother, and ringing in the New Year in Barcelona.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Security Silliness

The least favorite part of my workday is at the very beginning, when I am required to subject myself to security screening by the Transportation Security Administration. The checkpoints are usually crowded, power-tripping TSA agents are often barking orders, I feel like a jerk cutting in front of long-suffering passengers, and then there's the process of trying to disassemble and reassemble my luggage ensemble in a timely matter without battering surrounding fellow-sufferers. There are usually no less than five items to send through the X-ray machine: flight kit, overnight bag, lunch bag, bin with laptop computer, bin with hat and overcoat. It's small comfort that they don't make flight crew remove their shoes.

All this inconvenience would be an acceptable part of my job if I felt that it serves some purpose. It does not. It's completely absurd to screen the pilots who will, in less than an hour's time, be seated at the controls of a fuel laden aircraft in flight, with crash axe within easy reach! This was recognized before 9/11 and we were allowed to bypass security. That changed in the wake of 9/11, but not due to any credible threat of terrorist acts by pilots or pilot impostors. Rather, it was believed that seeing flight crews forced to go through security would make the public more accepting of new procedures. This is exactly the sort of useless display that has become the TSA's primary stock in trade, what security expert Bruce Schneier refers to as "security theater."

Recent changes in TSA equipment and procedures have elevated flight crew screening from a mere inconvenience and exercise in stupidity to an outright violation of rights and decency. The TSA recently installed hundred of whole body imaging scanners, both of the Millimeter-Wave (Terahertz) and Backscatter X-ray varieties, in order to better detect non-metallic weapons and explosives. These machines penetrate clothing to create a nude image of the subject. Ostensibly this image is to be viewed in private by a screener of the same sex, and TSA claimed that images cannot be saved; both of these assurances have been shown by events to be false. TSA also asserts that the devices are perfectly safe and cannot cause health problems. Expert opinion is not nearly so settled, particularly regarding backscatter technology, and in any case there have been no independent studies to verify that the TSA's health claims are any more authentic than their privacy claims.

Anticipating these objections, the TSA danced around Fourth Amendment issues by allowing pilots and other travelers to "opt out" of whole-body imaging and subject themselves to secondary screening instead. Simultaneously, the TSA changed their secondary screening procedures to make them infinitely more humiliating and invasive, and thus discourage further opt-outs. I have witnessed this process first-hand at several airports. First, the TSA agent loudly exclaims "Opt out! Opt out!"; this is sometimes parroted by other TSA agents, and has the effect of drawing the attention of other passengers. Then, in full view of those passengers (unless the subject specifically requests a private screening), a TSA agent aggressively pats down the subject's body, including breasts and genitals. The TSA manual states that the breasts and genitals are to be searched using the back of the hand, but I have twice observed TSA agents breaking that rule (at LaGuardia, I even observed an agent take both of a woman's breasts in the palm of her hands and squeeze hard twice - "honk, honk!"). This would be sexual assault if anyone other than the government were doing it. Worse yet, they can and do subject children to the search (again at LGA, I observed a TSA agent groping a crying 3 or 4 year old girl).

It is one thing to pass through a magnetometer and have my belongings X-rayed as a requirement of my job. It is another thing entirely to be forced to choose between a virtual strip-search that adds to the radiation I already get on the job (higher than a nuclear plant worker!) and a government-sponsored molestation. Those are absolutely unacceptable conditions of employment, and it's high time that pilots fight back. Toward that end, both the Allied Pilots Association (American Airlines' union) and the US Airline Pilots Association (USAirways) recently issued recommendations for their pilots to opt out of whole-body imaging, request a private room for secondary screening, require the presence of a supervisor or law enforcement officer during the pat-down, report inappropriate TSA behavior, and call in sick if the process leaves them too shaken to fly safely. That is excellent advice which has the potential to quickly overburden TSA checkpoints. It has already had the effect of reviving a long-stalled program to verify flight crew employment and allow them to bypass security. Sometime soon, I may not have to subject myself to the TSA's goons to go to work.

But what about when I travel out of uniform? What of my wife and parents when they nonrev? What of all our passengers, our customers, our bread and butter? Many of them are required to fly as a condition of their livelihood. Why should they be required to give up their Fourth Amendment rights by dint of setting foot on an airplane? Why have airports become rights-free zones? Because aviation has been targeted by terrorists? Trains and subways have been extensively targeted worldwide, should search and seizure without probable cause be allowed on them as well? New York City itself has been repeatedly targeted by terrorists more than any other city in America; should the Bill of Rights no longer apply on the island of Manhattan?

The standard worn-out answer is, "If you don't like it, you don't have to fly." That's a horrible excuse that can be expanded to cover nearly every trammeling of God-given rights. You don't have to travel by train or subway, or visit or live in New York City, do you? You don't have to use the sidewalk by your house, do you? In that case, should using these purely optional pieces of public property be probable cause for a police officer to detain and strip search you? I'm not saying we shouldn't have security at airports, nor that every right should apply (the 2nd ammd clearly does not, for example). The courts have clearly held that security checks at airports, as previously conducted, are constitutional administrative searches. That said, unelected officials have made a very large leap from minimally invasive passive technologies such as magnetometers and explosive trace sniffers to highly invasive technologies and techniques without a sniff of public debate on the constitutional implications and the poor precedents that might be set. That worries me.

Not everyone is so worried about rights. Some are a lot more worried about terrorism. Some are willing to give up almost any right "so long as it makes us safer from terrorists." It's not a mindset I agree with, but even by this standard there is not much reason to support the new body scanners. Many security experts doubt whether they would've detected the components that the "underwear bomber" of NW253 sewed into his undergarments. They cannot see under the skin, nor in body cavities. Remember that both surgically implanted bombs and bombs inserted into body cavities have already been used in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and presumably any operation sophisticated enough to produce a viable high-explosive device would use one of these methods of gaming the body scanners. In a German test of one of the machines, a subject was able to hide all the components needed to assemble a bomb on his body (not in cavities) and pass through the scanner undetected. The Israelis don't use them for airport security and have no plans to; the head of security at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport called them "expensive and useless." For detecting explosives, sniffer machines are also expensive and maintenance intensive but considerably more useful. More low-tech but still one of the best means of detecting explosives: trained dogs. It just happens that the body imaging companies have far better lobbyists. Chief among them: Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security immediately preceding Janet Napolitano.

I'm on the front lines here. If, God forbid, a terrorist should succeed in detonating an explosive on board an airplane in flight, there's a decent chance that somebody I know will die, and I will find myself out of a job in rather quick order. I'm generally in favor of things that decrease the possibility of that happening. I don't think subjecting ourselves, spouses, and children to a virtual strip search or public molestation does anything to help in that regard, and the one thing it does do is make flying a far less pleasant experience. Meanwhile, rampers and other airport workers with much less extensive background checking than pilots are allowed to bypass security entirely. The TSA refuses to considers the one thing the Isrealis have found to be effective: behavior-based profiling, essentially ensuring that each traveler gets some face time to chat with a trained security officer and tailoring further screening according to their behavior.

I think it's high time we put our foot down to the TSA's incompetence and boorishness. To that end, the recommendations put forth by APA and USAPA show the best way forward: use the opt-out process to bring the whole works to a grinding halt. I suggest that everyone who will be flying on November 24th participate in "National Opt-Out Day."

Friday, November 05, 2010

The "A" Model

There's an old saying in aviation that goes "Never fly the 'A' model of anything!" It neatly encapsulates the conservatism and resistance to change that, whether through innate personality, training, or experience, is an enduring trait of professional aviators. There's also the hard fact that a number of new aircraft designs over the years had hidden flaws that became apparent only after a fatal crash or two. Much more commonly, the bugs aren't serious enough to cause an accident, but cost early-adopting operators considerable time, money, and operational reliability while they work through the teething stage. This was the case with Horizon when they were the launch customer for the Q400, and with the JungleBus when jetBlue, USAir, and Republic took their first deliveries (At jetBlue, it was popularly known as the E180...because you'd always make a "180" back to the gate!).

On Thursday, a Qantas A380 suffered an engine failure six minutes after takeoff from Singapore's Changi Airport enroute to Sydney. Although modern engine failures are quite rare, they do happen, and they're not always indicative of a design or widespread manufacturing flaw. Even in a new design like the A380, an inflight engine shutdown would likely attract little interest outside of Qantas, Airbus, and Rolls-Royce.

This engine, however, failed in a very violent fashion, essentially blowing itself apart - a rare event known as catastrophic failure. When any such failure does happen, it most typically originates in the fan stage. For this reason, cowlings are built extraordinarily strong in the area around the fan blades, and engine manufacturers conduct rather spectacular tests to ensure they are sufficient to contain any catastrophic failure. You can see the "Blade Off" test for the A380's Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines here.

In this case, the failure appears to have originated in the high-pressure compressor or turbine sections, creating an uncontained engine failure. Any uncontained failure is an extremely eye-raising event, given its extreme rarity and potential danger, but never more-so than in a brand new design. What makes this one worse yet is the extensive damage it did to the airplane. The worldwide press, usually happy to hype minor incidents out of proportion, has been unusually reserved in reporting this as a mere engine shutdown or loss of a cowling. Photos of the damage to tell an entirely different story:

There are at least two major complete perforations of the wing visible, along with several smaller ones. Fuel vapor is visibly streaming out of the two large holes in the upper picture. Considering that those holes were likely made by turbine blades that have a normal operating temperature of 500-900º C, and that onboard witnesses reported seeing flames around the engine, I think the potential for a catastrophic fire resulting in the loss of the aircraft and 466 souls was very real. I don't think Qantas, Lufthansa, or Singapore Airlines were overreacting by grounding their remaining Trent-900 powered A380 fleets pending initial inspections.

Whether this failure originated in a design flaw or faulty procurement or manufacturing processes, or was simply a one-off fluke, will probably take some time to determine. In the meantime, there will be plenty of very concerned folks at Airbus, Rolls-Royce, and the early A380 operators - to say nothing of A380 passengers. Meanwhile, I don't think anyone at Boeing is popping champaign corks over their competitor's troubles: the forthcoming B787 is powered by the similar Trent 1000 engine, which suffered a very similar uncontained failure during ground testing this last August.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Roman Holiday

One of the least desirable effects of the recent sale of NewCo is that our non-rev benefits are getting decimated on January 1st. Buddy passes are going away, priority passes are going away, our priority is getting lowered, and parents will now have to pay "yield fares" so high that they make non-revving a moot point. Worst of all, our international travel will be limited to one round-trip per year. I don't mind saying that this is a slap in the face to a lot of people who've served WidgetCo's passengers well the last few years, and we're going to lose some of our best flight attendants over the arbitrary removal of a benefit that costs WidgetCo nothing.

That said, it doesn't look like anything we do is going to change the situation, so many of us are taking advantage of the benefits we have while they last. This weekend, I had four days off and Dawn was busy, so I was looking to take a quick trip somewhere. My mom, who has never been overseas, said she'd like to go to Europe before her benefits get cut off. To my mind, if you can only go one place in Europe in your lifetime, it has to be Paris or Rome. I've spent about an equal amount of time in each, but the flight loads favored Rome, so that's where we went.

I got off work at 8pm on Thursday, traded in my crew bag for a pre-stashed backpack, met up with mom, and boarded the 9:50pm flight to London. We got business class on the way over - the lie-flat seats on the B767-400 are great! - and landed in London a few minutes early. Good thing, too, for the later Alitalia flight to Rome had filled up; our early arrival allowed us to just make the earlier connection. We touched down in Rome a mere 10 hours 20 minutes after takeoff from Minneapolis, which has to be close to a non-rev record!

We had a great weekend. Highlights included unexpectedly seeing the Pope say Mass at St. Peter's Basilica and a madcap scooter ride through Rome's crazy traffic. Despite forecasts calling for rain, the weather stayed very pleasant (partly cloudy & 70º F) until Monday morning, when we departed. We got on the first flight out that we tried, although we subsequently made it out of JFK by the skin of our teeth after flights to Minneapolis unexpectedly filled up. And then I got to fly MSP-ORD-DTW-BHM-DTW on Tuesday, just as the largest windstorm in recent memory struck the Midwest. The altimeter in MSP was 28.66 when I took off on Tuesday morning!

I'm going to miss taking little trips like this. It's just added motivation to get out of NewCo ASAP. Here are a few of my favorite photos from the weekend.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Fall Flight

Fall is in the air in Minnesota, which is good because I love fall weather, football, postseason baseball, thunderstorm-free flying, apple cider, pumpkin pie, and changing leaves, and bad because our six-month winter is just around the corner. Autumn here is measured in weeks, not months, so it behooves one to get out and take advantage while you can.

Last Sunday, Dawn and I rented N738FZ for a leaf-peeping excursion to Duluth and up Lake Superior's North Shore. I originally planned on making a day of it by stopping at Two Harbors or Silver Bay for lunch and returning via Wisconsin's Apostle Islands, but someone else needed the plane after us, so we just did it as a non-stop 260 nm round trip. Obviously, we need our own airplane!

It was a beautiful day for flying, and the leaves in the northern portion of the state were at their peak colors. We flew low, navigating by roads, rivers, and lakes. Dawn would occasionally open her window and lean out into the icy blast to take photos, and other times would take the controls so I could do so out my side. It was a lovely time, and a reminder of just how great small planes are for gaining fresh perspective on familiar territory.

Here are some of the best photos from the day.