Monday, January 24, 2011

How Not to Build a Trip

Last month I was assigned a trip that is an excellent example of how the current rest and duty rules are woefully inadequate and change is long overdue. I have reproduced the trip key below with only format changes to improve clarity. I hasten to add that although this is a NewCo pairing, every airline out there has these trips to some extent, and they are relatively rare here. Since their work rules were stripped away in bankruptcy, even the major airlines build some rotations like this one, and a few regionals build trips far worse than this one as a regular practice.

M7284 BASE REPT: 1050L

MO 5694 MSP-YYC 1135 1343 308 37
MO 5876 YYC-MSP 1420 1803 243 132
MO 5778 MSP-MDW 1935 2103 128
BLOCK 719 DUTY 1028 REST 1658
DUTY END: 2118L REPT: 1416L

TU 5749 MDW-MSP 1501 1635 134 230
TU 5755 MSP-BHM 1905 2134 229
BLOCK 403 DUTY 733 REST 926
DUTY END: 2149L REPT: 0715L

WE 5887 BHM-MSP 0800 1038 238 237
WE 5784 MSP-OMA 1315 1425 110 30
WE 5729 OMA-MSP 1455 1606 111 254
WE 5657 MSP-MSN 1900 2004 104
BLOCK 603 DUTY 1304 REST 926
DUTY END: 2019L REPT: 0545L

TH 5649 MSN-MSP 0630 0740 110 240
TH 5696 MSP-MKE 1020 1132 112 35
TH 5696 MKE-MSP 1207 1332 125 208
TH 5850 MSP-ORD 1540 1657 117 103
TH 5850 ORD-MSP 1800 1925 125 E75
BLOCK 629 DUTY 1355
TOTALS BLOCK 2354 LDGS: 14 CREDIT 2354 T.A.F.B. 8050

Since most readers don’t likely see many trip keys, I’ll break this one down. The first two days are pretty easy, with three and two legs, respectively. The first layover, at Chicago-Midway (MDW), is a long one of nearly 17 hours. The following day, two legs to Birmingham (BHM), has less than 8 hours of duty time. That night, though, has only 9 hours and 26 minutes of rest time. In this situation, 9 hours is the legal minimum. It might even be adequate if followed by a moderately easy day and a long overnight. The trip, however, goes rapidly downhill from there.

On day three, there are four legs, three of them short, which combine for 6 hours of block time. Duty time, however, is 13 hours and 3 minutes thanks to two lengthy sits in Minneapolis. The day ends in Madison, WI with another barely-legal overnight. After 9:26 minutes of rest time, day four begins at 5:45am - completing the circadian swap from a trip that began on a P.M. schedule. There is a nearly three-hour sit in Minneapolis after the first leg, followed by a Milwaukee round trip and another two-hour sit. The day concludes with a Chicago O’Hare turn, with a little over an hour spent in Chicago. Block time and pay is 6 hours 29 minutes, but duty time is nearly 14 hours.

In all fairness, I bid for this trip, although not intentionally. I set my computer bidding preferences to look for efficient trips, those that have the most pay per day. This one is fairly efficient from that standpoint, with nearly 24 hours of pay in 4 days. It is inefficient from the standpoint that much of the down time is spent at airports, where there is no possibility of sleep, instead of at layovers. This is not, however, a criteria that our bidding system can sort. I was surprised when this trip appeared on my line, but on closer inspection saw that it did indeed meet all my criteria. There was nothing to do but fly the trip and get as much rest as I could in the little time allotted.

The first two days went fine. Everything was on time, the weather was good, and we even got into Birmingham a half hour early on day two, lengthening the layover to a full ten hours (although a late hotel van meant that less than nine was actually spent at the hotel). Day three was pretty long and tiring. We had plane swaps on each of our long sits, and the Omaha turn was delayed for a late inbound and for deicing. When we got to Madison, I was ready to hit the hay. Instead, we got to wait a half hour for the hotel van, and then spent twenty-five minutes riding to the complete opposite end of Madison. It was 9pm by the time we got to the hotel. I hurriedly ate a late dinner and went to bed. I tossed and turned for a long time before finally falling asleep, and then woke repeatedly throughout the night for a noisy fan that wouldn’t turn off.

The 4:30am wakeup call came bone-achingly early. The long ride to the airport, coupled with a shuttle that leaves on the top and bottom of the hour, meant we had to take a 5am van for a 5:45am show time. A hot shower and early cup of coffee didn’t do much to break my stupor. The short flight to Minneapolis seemed to take forever. A nap on our long break would have done wonders, but there was nowhere to sleep at MSP. The crew room is constantly busy, bright, and loud, and the designated quiet room off the side has been declared off limits to all but airport reserves. Instead I had another large cup of coffee. It worked, for a while: I was practically jumping off the seat on our way to Milwaukee.

Then I came crashing back down on the return leg, and I found myself missing radio calls and messing up simple things. On the descent, I fought an aggressive case of the nods by using the oxygen mask on 100% oxygen. We still had a two hour sit in Minneapolis – often more tiring than actually flying – followed by a four hour Chicago turn. There was no way I was going to make it. I called in fatigued shortly after landing.

The crew scheduler sounded incredulous. “Fatigued? You’ve only done three legs!” I told him to take a look at the trip, but that didn’t move him. “You’re going to have to talk to a chief pilot about this!” he exclaimed, obviously annoyed that he would need to find someone to cover the O’Hare turn. I told him I would go downstairs and talk to the base chief pilot that very minute, and hung up.

I’m happy to report that the base chief pilot was very supportive. I showed him the trip key and explained how the cumulative shortage of sleep was affecting me, and he agreed that the trip wasn’t exactly conducive to obtaining sufficient rest and thanked me for doing the safe thing. I know that fatigue calls are handled in a much less positive manner at certain other airlines, and that previous flight ops managers at NewCo reportedly took a different tack. In this case, the only negative effect I suffered was the loss of around $180 in pay.

It’s worth noting that none of my other crewmembers called in fatigued. They all said they were tired, but felt they could battle through the day safely. Fair enough; fatigue affects different people differently, and they may have been more successful in getting sleep the previous night. It’s impossible to say how the loss in pay may have affected my poorly paid flight attendants’ and First Officer’s decisions.

In any case, it’s hard to see how our crew planner could put together that pairing without it occurring to him that chances were excellent that at least one crewmember might become severely fatigued. At most airlines, not just NewCo, there is a prevalent attitude that “If it’s legal, it must be safe.” From a statistical perspective I suppose they’re right. We just finished the third year out of the last four without a major airline fatality in the United States. If pilots are flying around tired, they’re doing a remarkable job of not killing people in the process. The ATA and RAA’s obstructionism of the new rest and duty regulations shows they’re utterly willing to accept an occasional Colgan 3407 here, an American 1420 there, right up to the point that the body count causes passengers to start booking away.

Fair enough. They have tickets to sell and profits to make, and these days corporate responsibility in this country tends to start and end with the stockholders. It’s not like the majority of passengers disagree; I suspect the vast majority would willingly sacrifice 100 strangers every few years to keep ticket prices low. As a pilot, though, safety is my only concern. Sure, I put in the effort to run my ship in a timely and efficient manner, but I don’t lose any sleep if I block out a few minutes late or burn an extra hundred pounds of gas. My real job, indeed the very core of my professional identity, is to minimize the risk to my passengers in every way practical.

This is also, theoretically, the FAA’s only job. They do not have a responsibility to ensure the airlines turn a profit. Congress removed their responsibility to promote aviation economically a few years back for the very reason that I’m writing this post. Now, the FAA’s only job is to manage risk, and fatigue is clearly the chief risk factor they have allowed to go unaddressed for too long. It’s high time to put the new rest and duty regulations into effect and end the silliness of asking pilots to fly exhausting trips that tempt them to fly fatigued.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Old World New Year

As mentioned in my last post, I took advantage of my new-found super seniority to bid thirteen consecutive days off without the use of vacation time, which gave Dawn and I the rare opportunity to travel during her Christmas break. Not wishing to altogether shun our kin over the holidays, we attended our families' respective festivities on December 23rd through 25th, and then took off for Spain on Christmas afternoon. Old Man Winter very nearly nearly threw a monkey wrench in the whole works when Atlanta's first white Christmas in some 128 years resulted in our flight to Madrid, among many others, being scrubbed. Instead, we flew to Amsterdam and connected to Madrid on Iberia, arriving scarcely an hour later than the original plan. Unfortunately, my brother Jon, who had been planning on coming with us, backed out at the last minute both due to the weather difficulties and anxiety about making it back for the start of his next college semester.

Last-minute changes notwithstanding, it was a wonderful trip; we enjoyed Spain immensely. I planned a rather ambitious itinerary, encompassing Madrid, Seville, Tangier (Morocco), Granada, Valencia, and Barcelona in the space of seven days. We could have spent a week at any one of these places - Seville and Granada particularly - and will hopefully get the chance to do exactly that sometime in the future. In the meantime, this was an excellent introduction to the country and a great way to ring in the New Year.

We took some 700 pictures over the course of the trip; sorting and editing the photos was a sizable undertaking on our return. Here are a few of my favorites so far, with a few notations.

I wasn't that impressed with Madrid at first blush. It was a nice enough city, to be sure... but it struck me as being fairly blandly, typically European with nothing really identifiably Spanish about it. It reminded me a lot of Paris, which I suppose is rather high praise, except that when I wish to visit Paris, I generally go to France. This was my first impression. But it was a sunny Sunday afternoon, the day after Christmas, and the streets were soon overflowing with Madrileños - at El Rastro Sunday flea market (top), at Plaza Mayor and Puerto del Sol and on Gran Via, in the tapas bars on Calle de la Cava Baja (bottom), in the galleries at Museo de la Reina Sofia and Museo del Prado. It seemed like the entire city was out and about in 40º weather (4º C), having a good time. That sort of thing is infectious, and I found myself liking Madrid a lot more.

We loved Seville at first sight, even though our first experience in the city was getting hopelessly lost among the tangle of medieval streets at the end of our 5-hour drive from Madrid. Palm and orange trees lining the streets and squares (top) put one in a tropical state of mind on a cloudy 15º C day. The houses and buildings are varied and interesting, and Spain's Islamic past echoes through the years in an abundance of beautiful and intricate geometric adornment (second). Of course there are grander remnants of the Caliphate of Al-Andalus such as La Giralda, the magnificent 12th century minaret that became the Cathedral of Seville's bell tower after the Reconquista (third). Among the maze of back alleyways of the Barrio de Santa Cruz are many hidden treasures like tabernas and tapas bars no much larger than the average American bathroom, or the unmarked entrance to former coal storehouse turned flamenco club La Carboneria (bottom).

I approached our side trip to Tangier with a little trepidation. Not quite Africa, not quite the Middle East, but certainly not Europe, I wasn't sure what to expect. The town's reputation for seediness is as ancient as its port, and travel forums overflow with tales of fraud, petty crime, and persistent touts. After disembarking from the ferry and shaking one of those touts over the course of three blocks, we decompressed over sodas on the terrace of the famous Hotel Continental (top) before wandering into the Medina in search of accommodation - and immediately becoming hopelessly lost. Paying a young Moroccan a few dirham to show us to the Petit Socco (second) earned us persistent entreaties to be our tour guide for the remainder of the day. We found our way to the Kasbah, Grand Socco, and Cafe Hafa (third and fourth) just fine without him, although perhaps his presence might have dissuaded other touts. I do have to say that everyone we encountered aside from the touts was unfailingly kind, polite, and helpful. As our ferry pulled away from Tangier the next morning (bottom), it looked much less foreign than it did the previous day, and I reflected that should I have the opportunity to return, it'll be much easier with a knowledge of the Medina and practice in turning down touts.

Like Seville before it, Granada secured a special place in our hearts. It's a graceful, beautiful town (top) in the shadow of the snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountains, Spain's highest (second, third), and the magnificent Alhambra. The entire complex is beautiful, but the Nasrid Palaces are particularly breathtaking. Photos cannot adequately capture the beauty of their situation, design, and intricate detail (fourth through eighth). We could have spent days wandering the Alhambra, but the sun was soon setting and beckoning us to join the Granadans in staying out late among the multitude of tabernas, bodagas, and tapas bars (bottom).

I've always admired Santiago Calatrava's sweeping, innovative designs, so it was a real treat to be able to visit his Ciutat de les Arts i Ciéncias in Valencia. Several of the structures within the complex are notable in their own right, but to see these sleek designs clustered together in a futurescape of tile, steel, and water is quite striking, and a treat to photograph (first through third). Several kilometers northwest, we climbed the Cathedral belltower for a bird's eye view of the rather more traditional architecture of Valencia's city core (fourth). After dark, the town really came alive (bottom); strolling, people-watching, paella, sangria, and midnight flamenco kept us occupied until 1am, when we realized that an early drive to Barcelona must keep us from staying out quite so late as the Spaniards.
I was impressed by the Spanish roads and drivers, both of which were better than I'd been led to believe. In the interest of time we most often stuck to the Autovias and Autopistas, but made an exception for a glorious stretch of C31 that is scratched into rocky headlands jutting from the Mediterranean south of Barcelona (top). With a wheezing 1.0L engine, our Kia Picanto (bottom) wasn't the fastest car on the road, but it was the best handling. No, wait, it wasn't... but it was quite comfortable. Er, actually not that either. It was truthfully about the worst automobile I've driven in my life. All the same, after 1440 miles I had some unaccountable fondness for the little car.
The highlight of our short stay in Barcelona was a visit to Antoni Gaudi's still-unfinished masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia (top, second). I can only hope it is completed in my lifetime. Just down the road lie Gaudi's other contributions to L'Eixample's modernista architecture, Casa Mila (third) and Casa Batlló. Across the Barri Gotic is the original source of Barcelona's wealth, Puerto Vell (fourth), which once hummed with shipping to and from the Americas. Shortly before midnight, we pried ourself away from good Rioja and tapas to join the throngs on La Rambla, headed to Placa Catalunya (fifth). The atmosphere was jubilant and chaotic, but surprisingly there was no mass countdown to midnight. Instead, each counted and celebrated according to his own watch (bottom). I noted that 2011 should be an excellent year for us, as we have seven more hours to make good use of it than all of our friends!

The original plan was for Dawn to fly home on 1 January and for me to remain for a few more days, but then the flight loads closed up on Saturday and opened up for Sunday. Dawn agreed to stay an extra day, and I decided to go home with her. In the meantime we had an extra day to go somewhere we hadn't originally planned on visiting: the Pyrenees of Spain, Andorra, and southern France (top, second). The driving was excellent and the plucky Kia took to the mountains like a fish to water, so long as I didn't mind about 20 degrees of chassis roll from one curve to the next! We spent the night in the foothills some 60 km northeast of Barcelona, in an attractive but sleepy little town called Vic (third). The next morning we drove to BCN, said goodbye to our little car, waited rather shortly for seats (bottom), and flew to New York.