Wednesday, May 30, 2012


When I think about all the complexities of an airline, all the moving parts that need to work together for a flight to get out, and how "lean" most operations are these days, I'm frankly amazed that we ever run on time. Yet, this is the case far more often than not. The U.S. Department of Transportation has collected data on airline performance since 1995, and most years at least 75% of airline flights operated on-time (defined as arrival within 14 minutes of scheduled time). So far this year we're at nearly 84%. Typically between 1% and 3% of flights are cancelled, and around 1 in 500 are diverted enroute.

NewCo turns in frequent on-time performance of 90% or more, but it's not necessarily due to superior management or pilots (as much as I'd like to claim the latter). It's mostly a function of where we fly. I've landed the JungleBus at 83 airports in 40 states and five Canadian provinces, which is amazing for a small airline of 42 airplanes (and there are a dozen additional destinations I've never landed at). This is because WidgetCo is a bit schizophrenic about how to use us, as they are with all ten of their regional partners. Right now we're doing a lot of west coast flying out of Salt Lake City, which is very good for on-time performance. Last year, though, we did a lot of flying up and down the east coast out of Washington-National Airport. The year before that, we did a ton of flying out of New York's LaGuardia Airport, to the extent that we nearly opened a crew base there. Our on-time rating took a huge hit then.

The northeast airports - particularly PHL, EWR, LGA, JFK, and BOS - have the most air traffic congestion, along with mega-hubs ORD and ATL. This has such a big impact on airline operations that when WidgetCo wanted to rid themselves of a troublesome long-term contract with Mesa Airlines, they simply moved their airplanes to JFK, waited for the inevitable, and then terminated the contract for poor performance. During JFKs evening peak, a two-hour taxi is fairly common - and that's without weather. In the summer, a single air-mass thunderstorm 100 miles west can shut down most departures. In the winter, it doesn't take much snow to bring ground traffic to a grinding halt. The DOT's three-hour rule further complicates things. Even on decent weather days, it's pretty common to have a EDCT (Expect Departure Clearance Time) to the northeast airports.

Most places outside the northeast, though, delays are usually weather-related, and tend to vary seasonally. Minneapolis, Chicago, and Detroit suffer in the winter. Thunderstorms regularly shut down Dallas and Atlanta in the spring and summer. Los Angeles hums right along in all seasons.

Behind weather and air traffic control, unplanned maintenance is a common cause of delays. Most of the time, airplanes are scheduled for maximum utilization with few breaks, so any unplanned maintenance results in a rolling delay for the rest of the day unless the airline has a spare airframe handy somewhere along the way. For this reason, many minor items can be deferred for later repair through the use of a Minimum Equipment List (MEL). When I find that something has broken, the first thing I reach for is the MEL book, followed shortly thereafter by the aircraft logbook and my phone to call Maintenance Control. We discuss whether the discrepancy can be deferred, whether it should be deferred, and if not, what our plan of action is. I try to get an estimate of how long it'll take mechanics to arrive at the airplane and how long it will then take them to either fix the discrepancy or at least arrive at a diagnosis. If passengers on board, I try to give them an update on our status every fifteen minutes or so. If we haven't started boarding, I pass along information to the gate agent.

With experience, one develops a sense of which maintenance problems will be resolved quickly and which ones will have you sitting a while, and you can act accordingly. With a long anticipated delay, both passengers and cabin crew will be happier with the passengers off the airplane. If at a hub, I'll start bugging dispatch about getting a different airplane in these cases. If I think it'll be resolved quickly, I'll start or continue boarding and have everything ready to go on my end as soon as we get the logbook back. It's important to communicate with the ground crew, as they otherwise often get left out of the loop and will wander off to other airplanes; you can find yourself finally ready to go but with no personnel to load the last bags or push back the aircraft. Over time, I've learned to overestimate maintenance delays when talking to passengers, as they have a way of dragging out long than expected; best to under-promise and over-deliver.

In my experience, the most common source of delays is simply receiving the airplane late from another crew at the start of your day. I've had days where this has occurred three times, every time I had a plane swap. It's frustrating, especially during an already-long day when delays cut into already-short rest time.

Once delayed, your goal is to get back on-time or as close to it as possible, although always within the bounds of safety. It is possible to get so fixated with going fast that you make mistakes. There are usually some easy, common-sense steps, though. You can request a more convenient runway from ATC. You can request more direct routing from center. You can change your altitude based on aircraft performance and winds aloft, and you can fly at a faster cruise mach number. This may result in worse efficiency, but sometimes it's worth it to get the airplane back on time - particularly early in the day, when making up fifteen minutes makes all subsequent flights that day fifteen minutes closer to on-time. On long flights that tend to be over-blocked, it's possible to make up 30 to 45 minutes in one flight. That said, it's important is to make sure you don't short yourself on fuel you might need later. I'm far more likely to cruise at Mach .81 and FL300 going to Billings on a clear day than I am going to Newark with forecast thunderstorms. You need to coordinate with your dispatcher, and take on extra fuel if necessary.

The other time to make up delays is on subsequent ground turns. The key here is communicating with ground personnel. They'll know you're coming in late, but expressing the need for a quick turn and the crew's willingness to pitch in helps put them in high gear. Small things like starting the APU early to shut the engines down quickly, helping clean the cabin, and running gate-check bags out to the rampers can help shave off minutes.

One thing I do find a bit ludicrous is the obsession many airlines, most gate agents, and some pilots have with "On-Time Zero" or "D-0," basically making sure the airplane isn't even one minute late in departing. Some people go to extraordinary lengths to get the door closed and the parking brake dropped by departure time, even if there's still a lot that needs to be done and the airplane can't actually move for another five or ten minutes. Mind you, all that's at stake is the airline's own internal records. So far as the DOT is concerned, the airplane is on-time until it's fifteen minutes late. The gate agent, however, is often called to account by their supervisors if the plane is even one minute late. This was particularly bad at Northwest; Widget is a bit less extreme about it, although some gate agents still get really wrapped around the axle about it. My own philosophy is that I'll do my job efficiently and will do what I can to help get the flight out on time, but won't cut corners just for the sake of some meaningless internal record that has absolutely no effect on whether we actually get to our destination on-time or not. I've been called by the chief pilots office over very minor delays in the past, and that's always the answer I've given them. I've never been in trouble over it.

As you can see, most delays are out of the crew's control, and we typically do a lot to help mitigate them. There is one exception to this rule: a withdrawal of enthusiasm, or WOE. It usually occurs during contentious contract negotiations. The idea is that if the company is stonewalling or applying undue pressure to the pilot group, the pilots do their job as defined in the contract, and nothing more. You don't have to try to deliberately delay the airline, that takes care of itself. You simply fly the same way whether the plane is delayed or not. Because airlines have become so used to pilots going above and beyond and have built their schedules accordingly, the operation falls apart when the pilots don't make the extra effort. It can be very effective; as recently as 2007 a WOE campaign resulted in Northwest deleting some of the most onerous provisions of their pilots' bankruptcy contract. Whether it's legal is another matter entirely, as a number of judges have ruled that even a withdrawal of enthusiasm constitutes an illegal work action under the Railway Labor Act. This interpretation, however, hinges on the WOE being coordinated. It's apparently hard for management and their accomplices in the legal profession to imagine that pilots who are being told how little they are worth to their companies might be a bit less than willing to go the extra mile, on their own and without the urging of their union.