Monday, September 27, 2010

(Another) New York Story

From our position at Gate 5, I couldn't see the lightning flashing over the skyscrapers of Manhattan or the tenements of the Bronx, but the flashes were reflected in the dark, heavy clouds above. Even inside the JungleBus cockpit, the air was thick with the smell of rain. A week after my introduction to LaGuardia, I was back for another turn, but this was shaping up to be a potentially much longer visit. I reloaded the radar screen on my phone. It showed an angry purple line just over the Hudson River. The storm was moving fast, 40 knots or better by my guess. Our flight attendant Eric handed in the passenger count, and First Officer Rob bent over the FMS to punch in the numbers and request our weight and balance numbers. A Captainly decision was in order.

Realistically, there was no way we were going to take off ahead of the squall line - not during the 5 pm rush at LaGuardia. The real question was whether we wanted to ride it out at the gate, or while in line for takeoff. It didn't particularly matter from a passenger standpoint; they were all on board already, and the gate agent wasn't going to want to deplane them for the 20 minutes it would take the line to pass. If we pushed back now, we would have an on-time departure - something the company has really been emphasizing lately - and a spot in line for takeoff once the airport reopened, potentially saving an hour or more of additional delay time. If we stayed at the gate, we would have to wait at least ten minutes after the storm passed to push back - that's how long it takes the ramp to reopen after a nearby lightning strike - and would then be competing with everyone to get out at the same time, a sort of ground-bound reenactment of my experience over Ripon. "Let's get out of dodge before the ramp closes," I decided. The gate agent closed the main cabin door, retracted the jet bridge, and waved goodbye as the first fat droplets of rain smashed onto our windscreen.

We pushed back from the gate just in time; the flashes were becoming brighter and more frequent, and the ramp closed only a minute or two after our ramp crew disconnected us at Spot 34. We started one engine and called for taxi; Ground Control informed us that the airport had just closed for departures, but we could taxi westward on Bravo, pull in tight behind a Cactus Airbus just past Mike, and shut down our engines. We did so, and then watched the western sky go completely black as the storm rolled across the airport. The southerly wind started blowing hard, shaking the plane with each gust. Planes and buildings on far side of Runway 4/22 disappeared into the rain, and within another minute a veritable wall of water was upon us.

Visibility shrank to almost nil in the extremely heavy rain. We were pulled up fairly tight behind the USAirways A320, yet I could barely see his tail, and couldn't make out his winglets or red beacon. The grassy areas between Taxiway Bravo and Runway 13 filled with rainwater within minutes. I would later learn that wind gusts approaching 100 mph were recorded in other parts of the city, and one man in Brooklyn was killed by a falling tree. For all its fury, though, the line took no more than five minutes to pass. As suddenly as it began, the rain petered out, the aircraft ahead of us reappeared, and the setting sun's golden rays burst through the gloom.

It took nearly 30 minutes for departures to resume. The wind was still favoring Runway 13, which would run departing aircraft right into the storm that had just passed. Instead, a steady stream of arrivals landed on Runway 22. Gridlock soon ensued as many of these arrivals could not make it to their gates due to the crush of outbound aircraft, or because their gates were still occupied by delayed departures. The departure line behind us snaked down Bravo, then back up Alpha to past Mike - completely cutting off access to and from the Widget and USAirways terminals. Finally, departures started trickling out, but the lineup on Bravo didn't budge until an hour after we pushed back. At that point, I estimated at least 40 aircraft ahead of us for departure.

Now I was seriously second-guessing my decision to push back before the storm. We had undoubtedly saved our passengers an hour, probably more, by doing so. However, the dreaded Three Hour Rule was rearing its ugly head. For those who are unfamiliar with this debacle, earlier this year unelected bureaucrats at the Department of Transportation decreed that air carriers could spend no more than three hours on the ground without giving their passengers an opportunity to deplane. The fine for violating the rule is a draconian $27,500 per passenger - more than $2 million on a full JungleBus, or more than the price of one of our engines. The Number One Imperative for airline pilots - short of "don't crash" - has become "don't violate the three hour rule." We have detailed procedures established for lengthy taxi delays, one of which decrees that you must begin a return to the terminal after two hours at any airport where congestion could significantly delay your taxi back. LaGuardia definitely qualifies in that regard.

Therefore, we had less than one hour to get off the ground, and a good 40 planes ahead of us. On good days, LaGuardia's maximum departure rate isn't much over 40/hour, and this was not a good day. When we returned to the terminal, it would likely entail another two to three hours of delay, assuming they didn't just cancel the flight altogether. All in the name of "Passenger Rights!"

But then a funny thing started happening: the Three Hour Rule actually worked in our favor as aircraft in line ahead of us began hitting the two hour limit and requesting to return to their gates. In many cases they were on the west side of 4/22, only ten or fifteen aircraft from departure, and it took ground control a long time to get them back across the runway and slowly working their way back on already-congested Taxiway Alpha. Those of us on Bravo, however, moved ahead steadily. I kept dispatch appraised of our progress every fifteen minutes or so, and continued to make PAs and ask our flight attendants about the mood in back.

At taxiway Golf-Golf, the lineup split into two: those headed north and west from New York proceeded straight ahead on Papa to Runway 13, while those of us going south stayed straight ahead on Bravo to cross 4/22 at Echo. One of the south departure gates, WHITE intersection, was still closed by the storm; those of us filed over WHITE had to be recleared via BIGGY, and then re-sequenced to provide adequate separation in trail. When we finally reached Echo, we were cleared to cross 4/22 and take a right on Delta-Delta, and told to contact clearance delivery for our reroute. The clearance delivery frequency was predictably jam-packed, and it took several minutes for Rob to get a word in edgewise. We had less than 20 minutes left. Once our reroute was copied, entered into the FMS, verified, and briefed, we told ground control we were ready to roll. He told us to hold short of the windsock and monitor tower, who would sequence us. Aircraft were converging from DD, CC, BB, and Papa; with less than 10 minutes remaining, our fate was wholly dependent on however ATC chose to sequence us.

"NewCo 5837, you're next, left on Golf and Papa, hold short of runway 13." We're getting out after all! We were cleared into position behind a departing Dash 8, waited for a United 757 landing on 22, and then cleared to take off. We roared down Runway 13 and lifted off one hour and 55 minutes after we pushed back.

We got lucky. I'm still not sure whether my decision to push back ahead of the storm was the correct one. Given the massive gridlock in the storm's wake, its possible that pushing back 40-60 minutes later would have still entailed a 2 hour taxi-out. The bottom line is that the Three Hour Rule makes it very difficult to operate at an airport like LaGuardia in anything other than perfect conditions. It has done absolutely nothing to improve the average passenger's experience; far the opposite. That hasn't stopped the unaccountable cretins at the DOT from claiming moral victory and proposing a new bevy of "passenger rights" rules. Even worse, they're playing fast and loose with the rules they do have in place, as evidenced by them fining United $12,000 for "wasting valuable Department resources" by dutifully reporting four delays that exceeded three hours!

These fools deserve to be run out of Washington on a rail, as do the politicians who allow this chicanery to go on. This is a bipartisan politican rant, by the way: while the Obama Administration owns this DOT, Secretary Ray LaHood is a Republican, and it's not like Republicans haven't appointed their share of idiots to the DOT (here's looking at you, Libby Dole). A pox on both their houses: our entire political establishment is corrupt and rotting. Come November, only one principal will guide my voting: no incumbent will receive my vote. A country where a vast, unaccountable bureaucracy has the ability to confiscate vast amounts of wealth based on arbitrary rules they impose at whim might not feel like much of a democracy - but by God, at least we still have the ability to Throw The Bums Out!

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Show, Part 2

On Tuesday morning, I woke to the considerable racket of a early-model Learjet departing Runway 18. I wanted to beat the morning rush to Ripon, so we got up, broke camp, and packed everything back into Foxtrot Zulu. Our neighbors helped us push her out of the wet grass and up onto the taxiway. Taxiing the full length of the flight line to Runway 36 was like being in a parade, given how many people were sitting in front of their airplanes eating breakfast and waving to passing aircraft. We lifted off and turned westward toward Ripon at 7:30am.

The airspace over Ripon was much calmer than the previous evening. I spotted a Ercoupe following a Tri-Pacer, and fell into line. A Cessna 150 approaching from our 3-o'clock position s-turned to follow me. We proceeded up the tracks to Fisk, where both vintage aircraft were sent east along Fisk Avenue, while I kept trucking northeast by myself for the right downwind to 27. Approaching the numbers, Tower told me to follow a TBM on a two-mile final, follow him, and land on the green dot. I scanned the shoreline of Lake Winnebago for the svelte single-engine turboprop, and instead spied a chunky, dark-blue radial-engined warbird. Of course, a TBM Avenger, not a TBM-700! I followed close behind and put Foxtrot Zulu right on the green dot, making a much nicer landing than the previous evening's effort in Fond du Lac. After ten minutes of following EAA flagpersons down a narrow service road, I was marshalled onto very soft grass on the northeastern side of 9/27; a mighty blast of throttle was required to keep moving until we reached our parking spot. I shut down with a happy sigh. We had made it, after all.


The North 40 was shockingly empty. Usually by Tuesday every square foot of grass around Runway 9/27 is filled with airplanes and tents, but when we arrived there were no more than 100 airplanes in our immediate vicinity, plus a few early arrivals scattered around the south side of the runway, stranded in the bog. Over the week, the entire area eventually did dry up enough to accommodate campers, but I don't think the North 40 ever completely filled up after Tuesday.

We attended the show on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and then flew home on Friday morning. Here are some of my favorite pictures from the show.

2010 is the 75th anniversary of the venerable DC-3, so there many DC-3's and C-47's in attendance.

Never was an overpriced burger so good as on a hot Wisconsin afternoon filled with the noise of radial engines.

The history of this airplane is rather astounding.

Dawn's favorite airplane, she's been begging me for a ride in one for a while. So, uh, anyone here own a Stearman?

Did you know Wacos are still in production? I didn't! When I hit the jackpot....

The ultralight field is, for my money, the most fun you can have at Oshkosh. Crazy people giving rides around the patch in questionable machines while funny old dudes kibitz over the loudspeaker? What's not to love?
On the other hand, when you need to get away from the heat & crowds, you can't beat the seaplane base. I took a really nice nap on the grass, dangling my feet in the water, occasionally opening an eye to peek at whatever was taking off or landing.

I can't imagine the expense of owning and operating an F-4, but I'm glad that at least one guy considers it a worthwhile use of his money.

Sean Tucker is a no-name chump, real men do Akro in a Beech 18! One of our favorite acts.

This is just...unnatural. I mean, even moreso than normal helicopters.

Don't try this at home, kids....

Covering an elevator at the Stitts Poly-Fiber fabric workshop.


All in all, it was a great time, if a bit overwhelming at times. Oshkosh has that reputation. Dawn said she had a lot of fun and would like to go back sometime, but maybe we should skip a year or two first.

Our flight back on Friday was smooth and relaxing. On my way back in '99, I let my ten-year-old brother Josiah do most of the flying, and taught him how to navigate VOR-to-VOR. This time, I had Dawn do most of the flying and navigation using dead reckoning and pilotage. She did a great job.


On the way back, we stopped in Siren WI to pick up my seven-year-old nephew, Dylan. We were bringing him to Grandma and Grandpa's house for the weekend, and it was his first airplane ride ever. The afternoon air was a little turbulent, but Dylan did great. I promised him that he could sit up front with me next time, and I'd show him how to fly.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Show

In the summer of 1999, when I was 18 years old and freshly graduated from high school, I flew a Cessna 172 to the Experimental Aircraft Association's Annual Convention and Fly-In - then newly branded as "EAA AirVenture Oshkosh" - in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I along brought my little brother Josiah (then ten years old), and we camped under N738FZ's wing for the week. For a plane-obsessed kid about to head to college for aviation, it was absolute heaven.

I didn't make it back for eleven years. I got busy with flight training, and then moved to the west coast. Although I stayed current in small planes for a while, it wasn't a priority, and by this summer it'd been over three years since I'd flown one. My work tends to scratch my flying itch, so I never felt any overwhelming need to go back to Oshkosh.

It turns out that I've been blessed with a wife with a flying itch of her own, and my job doesn't do anything for her. Dawn had been nudging me to get checked out in a light plane here in Minneapolis, but most of the FBOs and flight schools of my youth have withered away and the survivors' rental rates are painfully high. In July, though, I got back in touch with my first flight instructor and had the chance to get reacquainted with N738FZ. My first few landings, it must be admitted, were humbling, but before long I got the hang of Cessna wrangling again. I meekly asked my old CFI what he'd think of me stealing Foxtrot Zulu for a week and taking Dawn to Oshkosh. He said yes without batting an eye.

The plan was to fly in on Sunday 25 July, the day before the show begins. Mother Nature had other ideas. Eastern Wisconsin, already the recipient of record rainfall in July, got an utter drenching that Thursday night. On the very eve of the world's largest airshow and fly-in, virtually every unpaved inch of Oshkosh Airport was either underwater or was a bottomless mud bog. There was no place to park the 12,000 expected aircraft, no place for RVs and tent trailers, few places even suitable for parking cars. I checked the uniformly grim site updates through the weekend. Maybe we should throw in the towel and just head to Spain instead? My friend in Girona invited us to come on over. We almost did, until insane loads to Atlanta made the open flight to Barcelona a moot point. Finally, EAA announced that general aviation camping would be opening at some point on Monday. We decided to take off from on Monday morning and head that way.


The air was still as lifted off Runway 16 at CBG and turned eastward to climb out over the St Croix River. We leveled off at 5500 feet and admired the stunningly green Wisconsin scenery as it passed slowly by. Dawn helped me identify landmarks from the WAC chart; no GPS in this old bird! Past Eau Claire, scattered cumulus started popping up around us. I weaved around them for a while until they became too numerous to avoid, then descended to 2500 ft and followed a high-tension powerline eastward. Approaching Wisconsin Rapids, I tuned up the Oshkosh ATIS. It was still faint but I picked out the words "General Aviation Camping closed." Oh well. I chopped the throttle and banked into the downwind for Runway 20 at KISW.


There was only one spot to park N738FZ, for we weren't the only ones waiting to go to the show. I talked to a couple of guys in Super Cubs with bush tires, one of whom had come from Edmonton. Long flight. A couple of ultralight trikes landed for gas. I checked the OSH site update page on my Palm obsessively; frequent updates kept promising an imminent opening but suggested it might be after the airshow. Dawn and I walked into town for lunch. Sure enough, while we were at lunch Oshkosh opened briefly for general aviation campers, but we didn't have enough time to get back to the airport and fly to OSH before it closed for the daily airshow. I figured we'd take off around 5:30pm to arrive over Ripon around 6PM, when the airport usually reopens.


Everyone at Wisconsin Rapids had the same idea; we all took off in quick succession and proceeded southeast en masse. Approaching the start of the VFR arrival procedure at Ripon, it quickly became apparent that everyone within a hundred-mile radius of Oshkosh had the same idea. The approach control frequency was utterly clogged with pilots self-announcing their arrival over Ripon and holding over Green Lake, contrary to the NOTAM's instructions and the approach controller's exasperated admonitions. "OK, we have entirely too many airplanes over Green Lake," she finally declared. "Everyone pick a spot near you and circle it until we reopen the airport and get Green Lake cleared out!" I spotted a Mooney circling under us, and dropped down to stalk him around his circuit of a large marsh, playing with his wake. Within a few minutes I saw a Cherokee doing the same thing behind us.

The airport reopened shortly after 6PM, as expected. At first the line out of Green Lake, over Ripon, and up the railroad tracks seemed to proceed in an orderly fashion. Then somebody cut in line, and a speedster caught up to a slowpoke, and soon the frequency was again utter chaos. The approach controller kept admonishing the pilots to listen rather than speak, then gave up in frustration and was relieved by another controller. Finally the end of the line was reached and all of us holding outside Ripon were given clearance to proceed inbound. I stayed behind the Mooney, establishing a half-mile in trail at 90 knots and 1800'. With any luck, I thought, I'll be able to follow him into the line and up the tracks. That turned out to be wishful thinking.

As we approached Ripon, an utterly incredible sight unfolded. The airspace above the small town was positively swarming with dozens of airplanes buzzing about in every which direction with no sense of order whatsoever. It strongly reminded me of a dogfight sequence in an old WWI film. As we closed in, even more airplanes appeared, more than I've ever seen flying in close proximity; for a few seconds I was filled with utter dread, and then we were in the thick of it, planes all around us. I followed my Mooney guide toward the tracks, my head on a constant swivel. There were five or six of us roughly abreast of each other, all converging on the tracks. This was not going to work. The Mooney had some competition of his own and bugged out to the left. I had just rolled into a left bank to follow him back around the northern edge of Ripon when a C210 flashed by right-to-left a hundred feet or so ahead of us, cutting into the slot between me and the Mooney. I slowed five knots to increase the separation, then kept following the interloper in the absence of any other semblance of order around us. Our little conga line again made a move towards the tracks and was again thwarted, then snaked off to the southwest around the west side of Green Lake. Another conga line was going the other way, up the east side. When it ended, the Mooney swung around to follow, with the Centurion and Foxtrot Zulu close behind. Ah, order out of chaos! There were still planes on every side, above and below, many of whom attempted to cut in, but our impromptu squadron held formation through the gauntlet.

The radio was strangely calm during this frenetic fifteen minutes, for the approach controllers had mostly succeeded in berating the pilots into holding their tongues and waving their wings in reply. Now, as we closed in on the town of Fisk, I listened intently for them to call Brown and White Cessna. "Red RV4, follow Fisk Avenue for left downwind 18L, monitor tower 126.6. Yellow Cub, wag your wings. Thank you, Yellow Cub, follow the tracks for right downwind 27, tower 118.5. Blue and Yellow Biplane, rock your wings...good rock, sir! Follow the RV4 for 18L, tower 126.6....OK, white Mooney, rock your wings!" I perked up - the Mooney was two ahead of us. "OK, Mooney, Oshkosh is saturated, break left, start holding at Rush Lake." Uh-oh. "Retractable Cessna, follow the Mooney. Brown and white Cessna, follow him, everyone hold at Rush Lake."

We didn't even get to Rush Lake when the controller announced that General Aviation camping was closed for the night, but showplanes could proceed inbound. Technically, any airplane built until 1970 qualifies as a showplane - and we later saw many beat-up spam cans in showplane camping - but Foxtrot Zulu is a '78 model. The door had slammed shut. I decided to beat a quick path to Fond du Lac before everyone else got the same idea. I climbed well above the swarm at Ripon and then turned east and began descending to FLD.

Fond du Lac was as busy as I expected, with the controllers issuing the same continuous stream of instructions to anonymous aircraft as Fisk Approach was. Our downwind was extended to follow a flight of T-28s, and then on a three mile final were told to maintain at least 90 knots for a P-51 breathing down our neck. I kept the airspeed high all the way to the numbers, then bled it off seemingly forever in ground effect before making an embarrassingly flat, skittish landing. I braked hard to turn off and was barely clear when the P-51 went roaring behind us. Our timing was fortuitous, for we claimed the third-to-last camping spot on the airport. As we set up camp, representatives of the local EAA chapter came by to fleece us to the tune of $50 (!); this, in addition to $25 per person per day to shuttle to Oshkosh. The airport had very basic facilities, no potable water for cooking, one food stand, and nothing else nearby. After the adrenaline rush of aerial warfare over Ripon, this was a bit disheartening.


Dawn and I talked about it over burgers and cheese curds. We hadn't come all this way to camp at Fond du Lac and take a bus to Oshkosh, we decided. Tomorrow we would break camp and brave the crowded skies above Ripon once again. It would be Oshkosh or bust!

(Next: The Show part of The Show)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Big Apple Arrival

If I had my way, I'd never fly anywhere but Montana. The scenery is beautiful, the people friendly; the flying is just challenging enough to be interesting, but ATC is relaxed and delays are few, making for a pretty stress-free experience. All this is true of most of the west coast, actually, but Montana has all these qualities in spades. Alas, I don't get to fly west all that often anymore.

Instead, the great majority of my trips these days send me east from Minneapolis. Flow control, holding, last-minute reroutes, ATC inflexibility, clogged frequencies, postage-stamp sized sectors, gridlocked taxiways and ramps - these are a few of my least favorite things, and they are all permanent features of east coast flying. In fact, the severity of these problems seems to vary in direct relationship with one's proximity to New York City. Flying to any of the NYC airports - JFK, LGA, and EWR, "The Trifecta of Suck" - is just asking for a screaming migraine. I can't imagine being based there, which probably guarantees I will be at some point.

Although I've long been well acquainted with Newark's wonders, thus far I've managed to mostly avoid JFK and stay completely away from LaGuardia. This has been through a combination of lucky and purposeful bidding, as well as the occasional strategic trip trade. A lot of other guys see a New York airport and dollar signs flash before their eyes: there's an excellent chance of picking up over-block on these flights. I'm more than willing to help them out, as the hassle and stress isn't worth the extra money to me. With NewCo's increasing presence in New York over the last few months, it's getting tougher to stay out. The last few months, I've flown into JFK several times. And then last week, I could avoid LaGuardia no longer.

I actually had two LaGuardia turns, one at dusk on Wednesday night and the other at dawn on Friday morning. Keith, the FO I was flying with, had been into LGA a number of times so I had him fly the first turn, while I took the second. We got some holding on the arrival on Friday night due to gusty winds forcing a runway configuration change; after landing, taxiway gridlock and a last-minute gate change (to a remote pad, utilizing air stairs and a bus) upped the stress level for a few minutes. On departure a few hours later, it took 20 minutes to push back and over an hour to taxi out thanks to extreme congestion and some VIP activity on the airport (we departed #2 behind Air Force Two). The turn on Friday morning involved quite a bit less hassle, but the lineup for departure was still fairly long. Congestion is an unavoidable fact of life at an extremely popular airport that is inherently limited by its configuration and is hemmed in between Queens and Flushing Bay with no room for expansion.

Despite the hassle factor, I rather enjoyed the visits to LGA thanks to being able to fly the famous Expressway Visual approach to 31. LaGuardia actually uses another neat approach, the River Visual, whereby one steams up the Hudson at low altitude for the full length of Manhattan before cutting straight across the Bronx on final to Runway 13. The Expressway Visual offers a little less in the way of skyline appreciation but makes up for it with nice seat-of-the-pants flying that's a rare treat in a transport category aircraft.

You can find the approach plate here. Approaching from the southwest on the Milton Three arrival, we were cleared to DIALS early on and spotted the twin white tanks before we reached the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Cleared for the visual approach, we descended to 2500 feet until reaching the tanks, then turned right to intercept and follow the Long Island Expressway through Queens. Approach handed us off to tower, who told us we were #2 to land after traffic on left base and cleared us to land. I clicked off the autopilot, cleared the flight director, and called for "Flaps 3, Speed 160" as I began a 3-degree descent. There is no vertical guidance on this approach until you pick up Runway 31's VASI at relatively low altitude, so you take a guesstimate of flying miles remaining and maintain a descent that puts you at 300 feet for every mile to the runway.

Passing through 1500 feet, I called "Gear Down, V-Approach, Landing Check" and Keith read the landing checklist as we slowed to our approach speed of 131 knots. Coming abeam Meadow Lake, I rolled into a 20-degree left bank to follow the Flushing River out of Flushing Meadows Park, pirouetting nicely around Shea Stadium Citi Field. Passing 500 feet, I shallowed my bank to make a sort of slightly curving final approach all the way to the runway; tall cranes by the mouth of the Flushing River prevent us from making a straight-in final the last 500 feet, as is usual practice. The VASI came into view; we were right on glidepath. On about a half-mile final, I finally leveled the wings completely. The winds were gusting out of the north, and as I came over the threshold I kicked in left rudder to align the nose on runway heading while using right aileron to keep the upwind wing slightly down. Squeak-squeak-squeak went the right main, left main, and nosewheel, just the way I like it; our light weight allowed me to use minimum reverse and medium braking to slow in time to make the taxiway Tango turnoff, just the way tower likes it.

I'm sure a lot of my GA pilot readers are looking over my description and thinking "What's the big deal?" Visual approaches by reference to surface features are the rule rather than the exception in light planes. The context that you're missing is the stultifying routine of the great majority of airliner arrivals. For us, the rule is being vectored onto a 20-mile final for an ILS-served runway 10,000 feet long, 3 miles in trail, 160 knots to the marker - over and over again. Turning off the autopilot, flight director, or even autothrottles (gasp!) are about all you can do to provide some variety, and even this is barely enough to keep the rust off. Good stick and rudder skills are seldom needed in the airline world; here, being a good pilot is primarily about effective crew coordination and decision-making skills. Chances to go beyond being a cockpit manager, to go back to being a pilot, are relatively rare and genuinely cherished. The Expressway Visual 31, or the River Visual 13, or the Carnesie Visual 13L/R at JFK, or the River Visual 19 at DCA are what passes for fun flying in the airline world. Well, that and flying to Montana!

If you'd like to see what the Expressway Visual looks like the cockpit, here's an excellent video on youtube. This crew is approaching from the northeast, so they overfly LaGuardia and Manhattan before turning in at Prospect Park, but the approach is otherwise the same from about the 5:40 mark.

Friday, September 10, 2010

(R)Evolution

I've put off writing this post for two months, with good reason. When NewCo was unexpectedly sold off on July 1st, I was so emotional about the whole thing, so utterly pissed off, that anything I cared to write would have been a fireball launched directly into the face of my new employer, daring them to fire me. Since then, I've had time to simmer down and think through what this sale, and even more disruptive recent events, mean for the industry. There have also been some positive developments that are making me think that perhaps I'd like to keep my job, after all.

On the morning of July 1st, I was flying from Houston to Minneapolis on day three of four. I was paired with Mike, an excellent FO and great guy with whom I'd flown a number of times. We'd just pulled into gate G18, completed the shutdown checklist, and turned on our phones; they both began going crazy with multiple texts and voicemails we'd missed during the flight. We looked at each either; it was obvious something big was up. My first text was from a friend who flies for Pinnacle. "What the heck...you guys are screwed!" it exclaimed. When a Pinnacle guy says you're screwed, he isn't kidding. I loaded up the company website and discovered that WidgetCo had sold NewCo late the previous night. That wasn't the shocker; there had been swirling rumors of an impending sale. The unexpected part was who we were sold to.

Our new parent company has been around for some 30 years. I'll give them the pseudonym "Osage Airlines," in honor of their early days flying to Lake of the Ozarks. They are privately owned by one individual, who built the airline from the ground up. They do not have a good reputation among pilots. Part of it is their industry-wide reputation for being cheap. There are lots of cheap regionals, though; most of the animosity stems from something that happened about five years ago. Osage had been awarded new CRJ-700 flying for a major airline. Because of a scope clause at one of their existing mainline partners, they were forced to start a new certificate. The original plan was to use Osage pilots; however, when their ALPA MEC refused to fly for below-market rates, Osage decided to bypass them by using non-Osage pilots. This appeared to be against the Osage pilots' contract, which stipulated they were to do all flying controlled by Osage Airlines. Osage management got around this by creating a new holding company to own both Osage Airlines and the new company, and then successfully arguing that the contract was between the pilots and Osage Airlines, not the new Osage Holdings. The new airline - let's not sugarcoat it, I'll call it Pariah Air - took delivery of 25 CRJ-700s and hired pilots while Osage was getting rid of older turboprops and furloughing. It created an enormous amount of ill will among pilots, and those who went to Pariah are despised by many regional pilots - including the many Osage furloughees that ended up at NewCo. My First Officer, Mike, was one of these furloughees. You can imagine his reaction to learning that WidgetCo sold NewCo to Osage Holdings.

We had a three hour break after our arrival from Houston, so we packed up and walked down to the crew room. The mood there was veering between bleak and apoplectic. Between the press release and an employee FAQ, we got a few details. NewCo was sold for a paltry $20 million, which was financed by WidgetCo, who also leased the aircraft back to Osage Holdings. We were to be operated as a separate airline, alongside Osage Airlines and Pariah Air. Our nonrev benefits were to be slashed to those of a contract carrier. Most alarmingly, the flowthrough agreement to WidgetCo - our senior-most 60 pilots were scheduled to flow yet this year, with me close behind - was revealed to be subject to cancellation due to the sale. Although the FAQ said that all parties would meet soon to determine the future of the flow agreement, the consensus that morning was that it was toast. Delta didn't want it and Osage didn't want it, we believed, and we were the suckers for ever thinking it might work despite the failure of other flowthrough agreements across the industry. Our company president, to his credit, showed up in the crew room to deflect angry inquiries from an increasingly hostile crowed. I didn't believe one of his answers and made it clear to him. Finally, Mike and I headed out for the flight to our Columbus overnight. During the crew briefing, I told him: "If there was ever a flight in which we were distracted a dangerous level, this is it. Let's both be extra vigilant and watch out for each other." We did, and got to Columbus just fine, where we promptly headed to the nearest brewpub to commiserate over beers.

It helped to empathize with our colleagues at Mesaba, for NewCo wasn't the only airline that WidgetCo sold on 1 July. A little history is in order. Mesaba was forced into bankruptcy in 2005 after the bankrupt RedCo withheld millions of dollars in payments owed them; RedCo subsequently purchased Mesaba for mere pennies on the dollar. Fast-forward to 1 July 2010: WidgetCo, having bought all of NewCo's assets including Mesaba, sells Mesaba to Pinnacle Holdings for $62 million. I would say a lot more about this but everything I could type would constitute more of those fireballs I was talking about.

It turned out that this double sale was only the start of interesting developments for the regional industry this summer - or perhaps the continuation of trends I noted earlier this spring. Skywest recently announced the purchase of erstwhile industry giant ExpressJet Airlines, which it plans to merge into subsidiary Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA). Meanwhile, Freedom Airlines shut down after WidgetCo won litigation allowing it to cancel its contract for poor performance; the survival of Freedom's parent Mesa Air Group seems increasingly in doubt. American has made it increasingly clear that Eagle is for sale if someone would just make a reasonable offer. Just last week, Comair (still wholly-owned by WidgetCo) announced that it would slash its fleet to half of its already-diminished number and furlough a substantial portion of its workforce.

Just what is going on here? A key component is the increasingly obvious obsolescence of the ubiquitous 30-50 seat regional jet. The $150/bbl oil of 2007 felled the first blow, the depressed revenue environment of 2008-2009 gave the RJ a further bludgeoning, and major airline consolidation into 2010 just may have put the final nail in the coffin. Mind you, 30-50 seat RJs will always have a niche to fill, but it has become apparent that there are far too many in use today for roles they do not fill well. This has left many regional airlines desperately exposed; as 30-50 seat contacts come due and are not renewed, these airlines stand to shrink significantly, with an accompanying explosion of their cost structure and subsequent loss of competitiveness in all seat categories (see: Mesa Airlines).

So what to do? I think there are essentially four choices out there for those who own or manage regional airlines. You can try to go independent, either with existing aircraft or by acquiring larger aircraft. From Independence Air to go! to branded ExpressJet, the track record is not encouraging here. You can acquire larger national airlines and use them to compete with mainline "partners," as Republic Holdings has done. The jury's still out on that one. You can acquire other regional airlines in an effort to diversify your air service agreement portfolio, obtain synergistic cost savings, and decrease competition for increasingly scarce RFPs. This seems to be the tack taken by Skywest, Osage, and Pinnacle. Or, you can position yourself to be acquired. I think this is what WidgetCo is doing with Comair, and American with Eagle.

So I get what Osage and Pinnacle were thinking when they picked up NewCo and Mesaba. The real question is what was Widget looking to gain by selling these airlines off - particularly for a paltry $82 million, a tiny fraction of WidgetCo's total debt? I'm still trying to figure this one out. You could take Widget's CEO at his word when he told investors that it was simply a way to decrease Widget's liability. Think about that one for a sec. It implies that the bean-counters were so concerned about the possibility of a crash and ensuing liability from one of the regional airlines 100% under their control that they chose to move those airlines out from under their control, and ostensibly decrease their liability in case of a mishap. Doesn't give one the warm fuzzies, does it?

In the week after the sale, surprise and confusion gave way to seething anger. Dawn said she had never seen me so negative about my career in the decade she's known me. That's no way to go through life, though, and I've cooled off considerably since. Thus far it's looking like Osage is willing to let NewCo keep running the way it's been run - which isn't perfect, mind you, but has improved considerably since I started and is at present a pretty decent operation that backs up its pilots when they make safe decisions. Furthermore, I was pleasantly surprised when WidgetCo agreed to keep the flowthrough agreement for all NewCo pilots on property as of the sale. If current hiring projections hold, there is a real chance that I'll be at the controls of a Diesel 9 or Mad Dog or Fifi sometime next year. I sure hope it happens - the regional industry is getting far too interesting for me as of late!

I haven't mentioned one potentially truly revolutionary development. The Continental and United pilots are demanding, as a condition of cooperating in the merger between their airlines, a gradual end to outsourcing, with all regional flying eventually to be flown by pilots on the combined seniority list. I consider this a definite long-shot to actually happen, but if it does you will see a great deal more turmoil in the regional industry as well as great celebration from airline pilots of all descriptions.