Monday, December 15, 2014

The Busted Pilots of Instagram

By now I'm sure many of you have seen "The Pilots of Instagram" piece that's been going around the interwebs. I'm choosing not to post a link because the author printed the names and airlines of the pilots involved, even in cases where it's pretty clear that safety was not compromised and not even certain that regulations were violated. Even if the pilots did mess up, viral press like this has the potential to ruin careers where more measured discipline might be more appropriate. You can find the article easily enough if you want to.

That said, the piece was surprisingly accurate and nuanced for a general news source (if that's what you call it; I'd never heard of Quartz before this). The author had a solid grasp on the particulars of the new FAR 121.542 regulation and how it interfaces with the more established sterile cockpit rule. I dare say the author has much better knowledge of the legalities of in-flight photo-taking than most airline pilots do. I wrote about the new regulations back in June, when I learned about them several months after they took effect. Since then most airline pilots to whom I've mentioned the new 121.542 were either unaware it existed or had an inaccurate idea of its provisions (erroneously thinking that only laptops were banned, that phones are ok in airplane mode, etc). Most airlines, it seems, did little to educate their pilots about the new law.

In some cases, such as my airline, many personal electronic devices were already prohibited by the Flight Operations Manual (FOM). Though it contains airline policy, the FOM is approved by the FAA and technically has the full force of the FARs (and even supersedes them, where there is conflicting guidance). Despite this, it is my experience that pilots tend to be less heedful of FOM rules than the FARs, and in many cases the FOM has considerable grey areas open to interpretation, whereas the FAA's stance on most major regs is well known. Here's a good example. In my June post, I wrote that my airline's FOM already prohibited any camera with electronic functions, which would rule out nearly every modern example. Later, a check airman pointed out that my interpretation hinged on the meaning of a single word, and that based on the use of that word elsewhere in the FOM and the FARs, this provision would not appear to prohibit cameras that were otherwise permitted by FAR 121.542 (that is, cameras with no wireless capability). So my new understanding is that in a non-sterile phase of flight, I can take a photo with my Nikon D5000 SLR, as it has no capability that would render it a "personal wireless communications device." I could then, after the flight is over, insert the SD card into my laptop and upload the photo to Instagram, or Facebook, or use it for one of my Flying articles, all without being in technical violation of the regulation.

There's another loophole mentioned in my previous piece that very well may have been at play with some of the photos and videos referenced in this article. The FAA specifically said in the final ruling that 121.542 does not apply to jumpseaters. When I see a photo or a video that appears to be taken from near aircraft centerline rather than the left or right side of the cockpit, I tend to suspect it was taken by a jumpseater. For that matter, what of a first-generation GoPro with no wireless capability that is set up on a suction mount in non-sterile flight and then allowed to run through landing and all the way to the gate? Depending on the provisions of that airline's FOM, I can see one arguing that this meets the letter of the regs. In most cases, it's very difficult to tell just from the photo or video whether it was taken legally. Even in seemingly egregious case, such as a photo on short final, it can be difficult to tell whether safety was compromised. What if it was a still from a video shot by the aforementioned mounted camera? If mounted out of the way, I find it hard to accept that any lives put in danger.

Here's the thing though. It's one thing to take a photo or video in the privacy of your own cockpit under circumstances that are arguably safe and legal. It is another thing to put that photo or footage, with identifying information, on a website that allows anyone to view it (or in the case of Instagram, encourages maximizing public views). I myself have had to become a lot more careful about this over the years. I once took a picture at PHL while parked on a taxiway with engines shut down on an extended ground hold, and later posted it to this blog. The FOM of the airline I was with at the time made clear this was a non-sterile period, and allowed us to open the cockpit door under these circumstances. I was immediately lambasted by a commenter for violating sterile cockpit, and why not? I certainly couldn't prove that we weren't in a sterile phase of ground operations. Likewise, the outed pilots of Instagram that posted landing footage taken from aircraft centerline can't prove that a jumpseater was holding that camera. When it comes to the court of public opinion, the concept of innocent until proven guilty definitely does not apply; nor does it hold much weight when facing company discipline.

Honestly, I really dislike that my job has come to this, that recording the neat things that I do and see on a daily basis and sharing them with my friends would put my livelihood at risk. It is what it is; going against the grain and posting this stuff online is almost inevitably going to end up with someone trying to destroy you. I'll certainly continue to share inflight pics and vids with you, my friends...but they're generally going to be taken from a single-engine airplane flying under FAR 91. For the past few years that's been my flying club Cub. As of today, however, you're going to start seeing another pretty yellow airplane cropping up in my multimedia offerings. More on that in my next post!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Sixteen Again

At my new airline, as at Horizon, many of the captains I am flying with are my parents' age or a little younger. Most of these have adult children and part of the standard "getting to know you chit-chat" is inquiring how many kids they have, what they do for work, what their marital status is, and whether any grandkids are on the way. Most of these children's lives were spent while their father (or mother) worked at a major airline. Which is to say: most had an upper-middle-class upbringing, often involving private schools and world travel and the chance to attend a good university. They tend to fall in either the brilliant-and-going-places category or else good-for-nothing-and-probably-moving-home, at least in their parent's retelling. What I not yet heard is even a single example of a child who is now an airline pilot. This makes sense, in a way. Most captains in this age bracket have offspring that came of age around or just after 9/11, when the airlines were in full economic free-fall and pilot group after pilot group was facing bankruptcy or liquidation. Nobody in this situation would encourage their kids to follow in their footsteps. Many have said as much.

Lately, though, I've also flown with quite a few newer captains who've been with the airline for "only" 14 or 15 years. These pilots suffered the effects of 9/11 much more acutely than their senior brethren; many spent months or years on furlough, and they've stagnated in the right seat since. However, their kids were young at the time and are just now getting to the age where they have to pick a career field. Surprisingly, I've flown with three or four younger captains whose kids are actively pursing being an airline pilot. They're either taking flight lessons, are planning to, or are a Private Pilot already, and are selecting an aviation college for their advanced training. All have their parents' enthusiastic support despite the formidable costs involved. Some of this is probably attributable to the upbeat attitude around my airline at the moment. There's a lot of hiring and upgrading going on, the company is making a lot of money, the profit-sharing checks are handsome, and the pilot contract has been slowly inching up towards pre-9/11 levels. My friends at other major airlines report that morale there is considerably worse, understandable since they're all still working through the merger glitches that my airline had to deal with five years ago.

It's made me wonder what I would do if I was sixteen again and looking for a career to pursue, knowing what I know now. When I was sixteen in 1997, the major airline bankruptcies and furloughs were starting to fade from memory, profits and hiring were on the upswing, and Kit Darby was declaring that the biggest pilot shortage in history was right around the corner. I loved flying and thought I was good at it. The idea of flying heavy iron across the world fascinated me. Flight training was a lot of money even then, but I figured the eventual payoff justified it. Had I been able to predict 9/11 and its fallout, had I known that payrates would be gutted and retirements stolen and huge swaths of the domestic networks outsourced to lowest-bidding regional airlines and flown for inferior pay with zero job stability, I'm not sure my decision would have been the same. Had I foreseen it would take 15 years of hard work and low pay and cross-country moves and occasionally dangerous flying to get to the majors, I might not have taken the leap. If my gift of prophecy had included insight into the runaway executive pay in this country coupled with the continuous shrinking of the middle class, I might have gone to business school.

It's probably good I didn't know the future, because I've enjoyed life and flying over the last fifteen years despite the career bumps along the way, and I seem to have arrived at the majors at a good time. But what would I tell a sixteen-year-old version of myself starting out right now? That consolidation has ensured continued profitability and stability at the remaining major carriers for years to come? That the mandatory retirement numbers are incontrovertible and the pilot shortage is real this time? That the upheaval in the regional sector will have played itself out by the time he's qualified and he can expect a more defined, secure career path? Or would I say that the inexorable march of automation has ensured the continual decline of the airline pilot's worth, or that the capacity discipline exhibited by the major airlines of late will attract new entrants and fresh upheaval, or that cabotage is inevitable and the US airline industry will go the way of the US maritime industry? Hell, for all I know airliners could be pilotless in 30 years. By the same token medicine could be automated by then, tort reform may put thousands of lawyers out of work, or the revolution could come and MBAs will swing from every lamppost. I don't know what's going to happen.

I do know this: Aviation has been an unstable, irrational industry since the day Wilbur cracked up on Flight Four and will likely continue to be thus for a long time to come, consolidation be damned. Even in the salad days airline pilots were known to bitch about pay and working conditions, and will continue to do so until they're finally replaced by robots. Very few pilots will have smooth careers from beginning to end. Most of those getting into aviation for money, lifestyle, prestige, or excitement will find one or all of those things lacking at some point in their career, and it may be enough to kill whatever love of flying they had in the first place. For those who love to fly, though, and can't imagine doing else, the joy of flight transcends what's going on in the industry at any given moment. If you are that sort of person, and you can be happy despite low income, birthdays and holidays spent away from family, and uncertainty about the future, you are probably well-suited for a career in aviation. The good news is that at some point along the way, there's a good chance that you'll happen into a sweet well-paid gig that affords a decent lifestyle. As long as those things are considered side benefits, and the flying is the main goal, it's still a pretty decent way to make a living. Of course, if you're an airplane-mad sixteen-year-old like I was, you probably don't need some old codger to tell you that.