COVID Casualties

Predictions, Observations, and Farewells Amidst Coronavirus.

What will air travel look like post-COVID? It’s still too soon to know. There are many moving parts to this. It’s happening globally, at different speeds, across a diverse range of cultures and economies and market environments. Things will be in flux for a long time, with no defined end. 

Much has already happened, however, and there are signs and signals as to what may lay ahead. Airlines have fallen, trends are emerging, protocols are being set. Below is a look at what we’ve seen, and some thoughts on what comes next, both for airlines and their customers.

This post will be updated periodically as events occur, and as the author’s aggravation levels rise and fall.

 

September 1, 2021. Mask Mania.

If, like me, you’re a fan of the commercial aviation streams on Instagram, you’ve seen them: photo after photo after photo of airline workers cheerfully mugging in face masks. I’ve had it with this.

Yes, everyone who flies needs to put a mask on. This is understood and accepted, as is any airline’s attempt to make the policy clear through advertising, promotional materials, on-board safety videos, and so forth. In other words, treat it seriously. What drives me crazy are the constant attempts to cute-ify the wearing of masks. Because, in fact, there’s nothing cute about it. Masks are a physical symptom of a society, and an airline industry, in pretty serious distress. This isn’t something to giggle at, normalize, or make light of, and we should want them to go away as soon as possible (ironically, by wearing them when and where it makes sense to).

It’s not just aviation galleries. The entire internet is awash in mask selfies. These pictures seem wrong to me, and often feel sanctimonious. Posting a photo with a mask on is a little like posting a photo with a bag over your head. Why do it unless, for some reason of policy or regulation, you have to? Nine times in ten there appears to be no reason the person couldn’t have slipped the damn thing off for the sake of a picture — especially in shots taken outdoors.

Or is that the whole point? If so, it’s not a helpful one. Turning masks into political statements or fetish objects doesn’t keep anyone safer or halt the spread of coronavirus.

 

August 19, 2021. Covering Up.

Earlier this week, TSA announced an extension of its passenger mask mandate. Flyers will now be required to wear approved face masks aboard all U.S. commercial flights until at least January 18th, 2022. Considering current case rates and the high transmissibility of the COVID-19 delta variant, this was neither unexpected nor unreasonable. And so my reaction is little more than a shrug.

The extension is unlikely to affect passenger volumes in any measurable way. Love them or hate them, masks are simply not a part of most travelers’ go/no-go criteria. They do, however, add to the levels of aggravation and frustration in the cabin, and the big issue for airlines now is how the ruling might affect levels of so-called air rage. Instances of passenger violence and belligerent behavior have risen sharply, and masks are a part of that.

I have no big issue with masks on planes in a general sense. One thing I wish, however, is that carriers weren’t so blindly aggressive in their enforcement. I’ve seen flight attendants literally scream at passengers because their masks momentarily slipped beneath their noses. Stepping onto a jetliner, the first words you hear are no longer “hello,” or “welcome aboard,” but a stern, “Sir, your mask needs to be all the way over your nose!” A few days ago I witnessed a flight attendant interrupt and berate a customer because he dared to partially remove his mask in order to ask a question about a connecting flight. (If he can remove his mask to enjoy a meal, why can’t he remove it for two seconds to ask a question?) To say nothing of the endless barrage of mask-related public address announcements that begin well before boarding and don’t end until you’re at baggage claim five hours later.

This sort of combative, absolute zero-tolerance approach is not in the spirit of the rule, and does nothing to keep people safer. All it does is create an atmosphere of intimidation and fear in a setting where tension levels already are high.

 

May 19, 2021. Thresholds.

Daily passenger volume in the U.S. is now about 70 percent of 2019 levels. Airlines are reporting positive cash flow, if not quite profit, and many flights are full. Passenger confidence is returning and there’s the smell of normal in the air.

Of course, a full flight isn’t necessarily a profitable one. It’s easy to fill a plane with cheap tickets, and it’s low-yield leisure traffic that, for the moment, is driving the recovery. Business traffic is what airlines count on, and here any improvement has been agonizingly slow to materialize. It will come, eventually; not to the levels we saw before, but enough to return airlines to the black. Another asterisk is geography. Southern and middle-of-the-country airports are bustling, while places like Boston and San Francisco lag behind. The differences are driven by local economies, culture, even politics. Regardless, almost all of the signs are positive, at least for domestic markets.

The international front, on the other hand, remains a mess. With vaccinations sporadic or even nonexistent in many countries, COVID cases are increasing across much of the world, resulting in paralyzed economies, lockdowns and border closures. Just as worryingly, even “open” countries pose a challenge. What’s lacking is any sort of consistency in entry protocols. Some countries ask only for a vaccination certificate. Others require a vaccination certificate and a so-called PCR test (which can be time-consuming and expensive to get). Others ask for a certificate and the easier kind of COVID test. Others want only one (or both) of these tests, and don’t care about your vax status. Some mandate quarantines on top (or instead) of all this, while others don’t. And so on. The rules are a tangle and constantly being revised.

Just this week the European Union announced a proposal to begin allowing in travelers from select countries, including the United States, without testing or quarantine — just a vaccination. While this is potentially great news, when it might actually happen is unclear. For the time being, they’re not making it easy. To enter Italy, just as one example, a passenger must first pass a PCR test within 72 hours of departure time. He or she must then take a second test at the airport. In case that’s not enough, the passenger is then required to take a third test on arrival in Italy. Three tests, not counting the one you need to return to the United States. No exclusions for vaccination status.

Travelers are not gonna book holidays or business trips when the requirements are this onerous or subject to change on short notice. The world needs groups like IATA, A4A, and USTA to press for more streamlined and standardized procedures.


January 22, 2021. Nowhere Fast.

Newly sworn in, President Joe Biden is unveiling a flurry of policy initiative to stem the spread of you-known-what. Among these is a rule that incoming international passengers must self-quarantine for ten days. This comes only days after a requirement that arriving passengers present a negative COVID-19 test result prior boarding any flight to the United States. There’s no provision for taking a second test after arrival in lieu of quarantine, neither is there an exception for passengers who are vaccinated. Whatever impact these measures may or may not have on COVID-19 cases, they’ll certainly be devastating for airlines and their workers, and will all but crush the small amount of international travel that has begun to rebound — most of it in the Latin America and Caribbean markets.

The U.S. Travel Association lauded the testing requirement, describing it as “the key to reopening international travel.” However, the group is understandably less enthusiastic about the quarantine. “We believe a mandatory quarantine requirement for international travelers could be extremely difficult to enforce—and unnecessary,” the organization said in a press release, “in light of required testing and the many other protections now in place.”

Everything is just a disaster.

 

January 14, 2021. Norwegian Would.

All right, where were we? It’s been a while. Which is maybe understandable, since so little has changed. Or, maybe more accurately, everything and nothing has changed.

This week, discount carrier Norwegian Air announced that it’s giving up its long-haul network. The airline will downsize from 140 planes to about 50, all of them short-haul Boeing 737s, sending its fleet of more than thirty 787s back to the lessors. The carrier will “return to its routes,” so to speak, focusing on low-cost intra-European flying.

This is no surprise. Norwegian never made money on its long-haul services. The long-haul LCC (low-cost carrier) model is exceptionally challenging under even the best of circumstances, never mind in the middle of a crushing global crisis. Once COVID hit, Norwegian never stood a chance.

History — both recent and distant — is littered with the carcasses of LCCs that tried and failed to make it in transoceanic markets. Laker, Tower Air, AirAsia X, WOW, Joon. And now Norwegian. The track record is a dismal one, yet it always seems like someone is willing to try. Indeed, as we speak, Lufthansa is looking into launching a long-haul LCC tentatively named “Ocean.”

 

October 15, 2020. Bordering on Madness.

The recovery, if we can call it that, has been handicapped by the recent spike in COVID-19 cases — and, in no small part, by a media that will not cease its fear-mongering. Yet the numbers are improving, little by little. In the U.S., daily passenger totals are closing in on the one million mark. Looking long term, it’s no longer the domestic front that worries me. Even with a shattered economy and a frightened populace, a return to normalcy is possible within a year or two. What scares me to death, however, is what’s going on internationally.

Across the world, borders remain closed or heavily restricted, with absurdly onerous entry requirements. Countries with few or no coronavirus cases remain closed off even to other countries with few or no cases. And those letting visitors in typically require expensive and logistically complicated “PCR” testing prior to arrival. That’s in addition to secondary testing after landing and, in some cases, a lengthy quarantine. It defies logic, but not having COVID-19 is no longer an adequate criteria to visit many countries. To enter Thailand, for instance, a traveler has to undergo three COVID-19 tests and quarantine for two weeks, after which point you are permitted to stay only in government-monitored hotels, with your whereabouts tracked daily. This in a nation that earns 20 percent of its annual GDP through tourism.

Why simple, on-the-spot instant testing hasn’t become an acceptable standard for entry I can’t understand. But it hasn’t. By and large there have been very few efforts toward developing a rational or reasonable means of reopening borders. Instead we have heavy-handed policies that make any return of tourism or business travel all but impossible, and will further decimate the many industries that support and rely on global travel. That includes airlines, more and more of whom are headed to the brink or beyond.

 

September 2, 2020. Boarding School.

TSA has been tracking the number of passenger boardings at U.S. airports. To the surprise of many, we’ve been seeing daily numbers in excess of 800,000. That’s close to 40 percent of what we saw a year ago on the same days.

On the one hand that’s a spectacular and encouraging statistic, especially with most states only partially reopened, and with an economy off the rails. But looking at it more closely leaves me less sanguine than many of my peers. What I see, rather than a sudden lurch to normalcy, is a limited number of people jumping to take advantage of low fares. Although 40 percent of passengers have returned, 40 percent of revenues have not. Cheap tickets to domestic vacation spots will help fill TSA lines, sure. But looking down the road — especially for the legacy carriers, which rely heavily on international and business traffic — this is hardly a recipe for success.

It’s a positive sign, don’t get me wrong, but the real test begins next week, after Labor Day, when summertime leisure flyers return to work (or to their Zoom meetings). Will boardings continue to rise, or will they plateau and taper off? This will also be the moment when the legacies need to begin separating themselves from their low-cost counterparts. And for that, they’ll need those high-yield business flyers to start coming back, and overseas markets to begin reopening. Until then, “40 percent of normal” doesn’t quite mean what it seems.

 

August 6, 2020. Branson’s Blues.

I wonder what the record is for the most number of airlines going bankrupt in a six-month span. The post-Deregulation period was pretty brutal, but that was spread over two or three years, from 1979 through 1982. The early 1990s were another dark time, with Eastern and Pan Am going under. Never, though, have we seen such carnage in such a brief amount of time.

Earlier this week, Virgin Atlantic became the latest victim of the COVID panic, filing for bankruptcy protection in both American and British courts. Virgin joins Thai, Avianca, LATAM, and several other major carriers (see earlier entries below) victimized by the collapse in global travel. Virgin was especially hard hit because a high percentage of its revenues comes from routes between London and the United States, all of which have been scaled back significantly or canceled outright. More than 3,000 employees have been laid off. Co-owner Richard Branson was angling for a bailout, and offered up his private Caribbean island as collateral. It wasn’t enough.

This is actually the second Virgin franchise to hit the skids. Virgin Australia Airlines, co-founded by Branson twenty years ago, filed for bankruptcy back in April.

 

July 19, 2020. Going Dutch.

I survived the curse of July 17th, and find myself in Amsterdam the following morning.

Subdued, is how I’d describe it here. On a normal midsummer weekend, for better or worse, the central part of Amsterdam would be a virtual wall of tourists. On a midsummer weekend in 2020, however, it’s predominantly locals. Looks more like February than July. But otherwise routine: shops and restaurants are open, people are milling freely. And almost nobody has a mask on. The only place I saw masks was at the airport, where it looked about 50/50.

Meanwhile in America.

 

July 16, 2020. The List Gets Smaller.

Less than two weeks after I wrote about Qantas’s early retirement of the 747 (see the installment below), British Airways has announced it too will cease all 747 flying, effective immediately. This will leave Lufthansa as the only 747 launch customer still operating the jet in scheduled service — assuming it doesn’t follow suit.

Every day brings more and more good news.

I flew in the upper deck of a British Airways 747 once, way back in 1987, from Heathrow to Nairobi. It was an old -200 model with the spiral staircase. Sitting upstairs in a 747 was always special — a private, hangar-shaped mini-cabin distinctly separate from the rest of the aircraft, with its own lavatories and galley. And who couldn’t love those sidewall storage lockers? You were three full stories above the ground, and the view through the windows gave you a sense of the 747’s size. Parked at the gate, you’d be looking over the rooftops of many terminals.

 

July 3, 2020. Decline and Fall.

A lot has been made about carriers — Emirates in particular — having mothballed their A380 fleets. What’s sadder is the worldwide grounding of the 747. Only a handful are currently in service, and regardless of how or when this all pans out, few will take to the air again. History’s most influential jetliner becomes just another casualty of the hideous global panic touched off by coronavirus. More than anything else in aviation, the 747 deserved a more dignified end.

Later this month, Qantas will say farewell to its last remaining 747. The sendoff will include a hangar commemoration for employees and a series of sold-out scenic flights. KLM’s retirement took place in April, more than a year ahead of schedule. That leaves British Airways and Lufthansa as the largest operators. Their fleets sit idle at the moment, and may or may not reenter service. Each of these carriers had a phase-out plan already in place, but COVID-19 has changed everything.

All four of these airlines were among the 747’s launch customers, and have (or had) operated the aircraft uninterrupted for nearly fifty years, beginning with the -100 variant in 1970.

For what it’s worth, I did spot an Air China 747-8 at Kennedy Airport the other day. There’s an irony in there somewhere.

 

July 1, 2020. Going South.

Let’s welcome Aeromexico to the Chapter 11 bankruptcy list. Established in 1934, the carrier operates an all-Boeing fleet of 60 aircraft.

Depressingly, if somewhat predictably, it’s the older and more historic airlines that are biting the dust faster than the newcomers and LCCs.

 

June 23, 2020. Political Masking.

After the 2001 attacks, it was mostly people on the right who bought into the hype and fear; who saw terrorists around every corner and were willing to sign off on things like the Patriot Act, TSA, the Iraq War, and so forth. Left-leaning people resisted. This time, it’s left-leaning people who are the more fearful and pessimistic, while those on the right are advocating for a softer, more laissez-faire approach.

Both crises are similarly sinister in the way they they’ve warped people’s thinking and behavior, but they’ve attracted opposite crowds. Why? I suspect it’s because people who lean right are more naturally drawn to responses involving power and conflict; going after enemies, etc — all the things that came into play after 9/11. This particular crisis, on the other hand, centers on concepts like compassion and “saving people.” Thus it has galvanized that mindset instead of the more reactionary one.

Regardless of the reasons, the more this becomes politicized into a left/right conflict, the longer it’s likely to drag on. Often unfairly, people are being put into two camps. Those in favor of harsh quarantines are Democrats. Those in favor of easing them and opening the economy are pro-Trump. This prejudice extends to the wearing of masks. I live in West Somerville, Massachusetts, one of the most progressive neighborhoods in America. Mask compliance is virtually 100 percent, whether indoors and outdoors. It’s common to see people wearing masks even in isolation, well apart from others: sitting alone in a park, in their yards, or on their porches. Anyone who shows up maskless is immediately pigeonholed as a Trump supporter, regardless of their actual affiliation. Masks aren’t merely a practical tool against the virus; they’re are also a signal and a symbol. The crisis has become a social movement, a cause, and political sentiment is absolutely part of it.

Politicizing COVID discourages people from thinking clearly or freely about what’s happening. Instead you’re assigned a “side” and expected to follow along. Never before has the nation needed to be more united around a cause, and instead we’re being wedged apart — on an issue that requires tough decision-making and bravery, not partisanship. Nonsense like this could postpone any meaningful recovery until after the election. For some, I imagine that’s the intent.

 

June 14, 2020. Creep.

Masks. Social distancing. Remember when taking off your shoes at airport security was just a “temporary” measure put in place after Richard Reid attempted to ignite his sneakers on a flight from Paris to Miami in 2001? Remember when the liquids and gels limits were a “temporary” restriction that came about after the London bomb plot in 2006? We have a habit of growing acclimated to even the most time-wasting inconveniences, long after they cease making sense. And rarely do the regulators or policy-makers enjoy undoing what they’ve done. It’s always a lot harder to rescind a rule than it was to put that rule in place.

Just saying.

 

May 26, 2020. Dominoes.

The newest addition to the 2020 bankruptcy flying circus is LATAM. Crippled by lockdowns and global quarantines, the carrier has filed for Chapter 11 protection. By far the largest airline in South America, LATAM traces its origins to the founding of LAN Chile in 1929. It was formed eight years ago when the LAN group, with operations mostly in Chile, Peru and Ecuador, joined forces with TAM of Brazil. The airline flies passenger and cargo services to 30 countries with a fleet of approximately 300 aircraft, including Boeing 787 and Airbus A350. LATAM is 20 percent owned by Delta Air Lines, with Qatar Airways controlling another ten percent.

 

May 19, 2020. Coast to Coast.

This past weekend I flew from New York to Los Angeles and back. The plane was about half full in both directions. That’s a hundred people, give or take, on a route that has been heavily consolidated (seven or eight daily flights reduced to one or two). It felt good to be back in the seat, though as happened last time I was left a little shaken by the spectacle of two of the world’s busiest airports almost utterly void of people.

The captain and I discussed books, travel, and airline history. I don’t think we mentioned coronavirus more than a couple of times. Like me he’s a bit of an airline trivia buff — a highly unusual trait among pilots, believe it or not — which provided some pleasant distraction.

If you haven’t flown in a while, brace yourself for a whole new onslaught of public address announcements. As if the PA cacophony wasn’t obnoxious and nerve-wracking enough before COVID; it’s been taken to the next level. Curbside to curbside, it’s blah blah blah masks, blah blah blah social distancing, blah blah blah aircraft cleaning, blah blah blah in accordance with the CDC, blah blah blah for the safety of crew and passengers. Boarding and deplaning are now longer and more complicated affairs, with every step of the way accompanied by some noisy and patronizing announcement.

I understand that passengers take comfort in an airline’s efforts to keep them safe. This is important. It’s also important not to scare them half to death or drive them crazy.

 

May 18, 2020. The Hits Keep Coming.

Colombia’s Avianca and Thai Airways are the latest major carriers to declare bankruptcy.

Avianca is the second-oldest airline in the world, and celebrated its 100th birthday this past December. Imagine making it through the Great Depression, World War II, and every other crisis to have come and gone over the last century, only to get knocked out by COVID in fewer than 90 days.

Thai, grounded since late March, dates to 1960 and operates a fleet of approximately 80 aircraft. The airline had been floundering for years until coronavirus broke its back.

Both companies hope to reorganize and resume flying. Thai is government-owned, giving it some hope, but could still go the way of South African (see below) if a bailout isn’t forthcoming.


May 8, 2020. That Didn’t Take Long.

Forty-eight hours, give or take. See my update below on temperature checks at airports. Just today Frontier Airlines became the first U.S. airline to require the infrared fever-screening of passengers. If your reading is 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, you cannot travel.

It’s just a short matter of time before the other carriers follow suit, and at some point TSA (or a whole new agency) will take control of the operation, setting up checks at a centralized location at or near the security checkpoint. Just a “temporary measure,” of course. Sure.

And that’s the scary part. Twenty years after September 11th and we’re still doing liquid confiscations and taking our shoes off. Nobody can really explain why. Is it crazy to think that twenty years from now we’ll still be wearing masks and having our temperatures checked?

More lines to stand in, temperature scans, mandatory masks, no onboard service, higher fares, scared passengers… I’d say the airlines are just about screwed.

 

May 7, 2020. Normal Nothing.

If I hear the phrase “new normal” one more time, I’m going to need medication. I understand that certain measures are necessary and helpful under the circumstances. One thing they are not, however, and should never be, is normal. Nothing about this is normal. Yet there are elements of society, both cultural and political, that appear troublingly eager to make a lot of what we’re doing permanent.

Other terms and phrases that have worn out their welcome include “abundance of caution,” “Zoom,” and “front lines.” Did you know that supermarket cashiers are now called “Front line food distribution workers.”

 

May 6, 2020. Grounded.

Several readers have asked if I’ve been flying. The answer is yes and no. Mostly no. In mid-March I worked a four-day trip to Ghana. Since then, the only thing I’ve done was a simple domestic out-and-back one day about two weeks ago. I bid and received normal schedules for April and May, but every assignment was quickly canceled.

Like many pilots, I’m effectively being paid to sit home. I realize there are far worse fates, but almost nothing about it has been enjoyable. We’re protected through the end of the summer. After that, who knows. Best case is that I’m looking at a significant pay reduction in the fall. Worst case… I’d rather not talk about it. I spent almost six years out of work after 9/11. The thought of having to go through that again is too much.

To repeat something I brought up in an earlier post: What a lot of people don’t realize is that for pilots, should you find yourself laid off, or if your airline goes out of business, you cannot simply slide over to another airline and pick up where you left off. The way airline seniority systems work, there is no sideways transfer of benefits or salary. If you move to a different company, you begin again at the bottom, at probationary pay and benefits, regardless of how much experience you have. You lose everything. So any threat to our companies makes us nervous.

And for any near the bottom of any seniority list, disaster is coming. Thousands of those pilots are about to lose their jobs, possibly for years.

 

May 5, 2020. On the Horizon.

Whats that in my crystal ball? It’s masks. Several carriers now require passengers and crews to wear face coverings. Don’t be startled if regulators step in and make them mandatory. And whether it’s the law or not, they won’t be going away. Expect many passengers to keep wearing them long after the COVID crisis subsides.

And coming soon to a checkpoint near you: temperature checks. You often see these machines when passing through immigration at airports overseas. I have a feeling you’ll be seeing them in the U.S. as well, giving you the infrared once-over before you’re allowed to board. This is great news, because if passengers want anything, it’s another line to stand in.

Overseeing these new measures will be the Transportation Health Administration (THA), to be formed early next year by President Biden.

That last one is facetious. Right?

 

May 3, 2020. Let’s Catastrophize.

You know what would really suck right now for a U.S. carrier? An accident. A crash.

On our side is the fact that airlines have slashed their timetables more than 90 percent, vastly decreasing the likelihood of a disaster. Still, and much as I hate saying it, we’re overdue for one. There hasn’t been a major crash involving a mainline U.S. carrier in almost twenty years — by far the longest such streak in aviation history. Carriers are in dire straits as it is. A mishap could put one under. Airline workers are under a lot of stress right now. It’s important we keep our heads in the game.

 

April 26, 2020. Knockout Number Two: Virgin Australia.

Virgin Australia, the second-largest carrier Down Under, has gone into receivership. The company, co-founded by Richard Branson as Virgin Blue twenty years ago, operated close to a hundred aircraft to over 50 cities throughout Australia, Asia, and the United States. On April 20th the airline entered voluntary administration and filed for bankruptcy. Supposedly a couple of Chinese banks are eyeing VA’s assets with plans to resuscitate the brand, but details are unclear. For now, Virgin Australia becomes the second of what we might call “major” airlines to be punched out by the COVID panic. Others will follow.

 

April 10, 2020. Knockout Number One: South African Airways.

South African Airways has ceased operations after 86 years. The company had been struggling for some time, and in early April the South African government announced it would cut off any further assistance, forcing the airline close its doors and and lay off all remaining staff. This is a very depressing one. South African Airways was one of the world’s “classic” legacy carriers. In the 1970s and 1980s, its 707s, 747s, and 747SPs helped pioneer ultra long-haul flying (albeit during the apartheid years, when airspace bans often forced its planes to take circuitous routings). Its demise is no less sad than the fates that befell Swissair, Sabena, and some of the other great airlines. Gone too is the carrier’s legendary radio callsign: Springbok. Its “flying springbok” logo from 1971, pictured below, was one of the all-time best.

I flew South African Airways three times, aboard 747, 737, A330 and A320 aircraft, on routes between Johannesburg and New York, Windhoek, Lusaka and Victoria Falls.

There’s talk of a new national carrier emerging from the ashes. Chances are it’ll be given some awful-sounding name like “Sunjet.com,” a low-budget paint job and some goofy-sounding callsign.

Related Stories:

THE PLANE THAT NEVER WAS
THE BLACK SWAN. AIR TRAVEL & CORONAVIRUS.

Comments (65)

Q&A With the Pilot, Coronavirus Edition

July 22, 2020

Q: How about a general comment or recommendation on the safety of flying during COVID-19. Should passengers be afraid?

The risks of contracting COVID-19 might be slightly higher on a plane than in certain other settings, but with everyone masked, middle seats empty, etc., they are still very low overall. The air on planes has always been cleaner than people think, and is even cleaner now. In addition, cabins are being disinfected and deep-cleaned after every flight, including a wipe-down of all trays, arm-rests, lavatory surfaces and so on.

At my airline, pilots, believe it or not, have been contracting COVID at a higher rate than flight attendants (though neither rate has been “high”), despite being isolated in the cockpit. That should underscore just how unlikely transmission is between passengers.

I’ve been flying a lot of late, both within the U.S. and a little bit overseas. In the past couple of months I’ve been to New York, Los Angeles, Orlando and San Francisco, among other places, plus two trips to Africa and one to Holland. COVID-19 itself is among the lesser of my worries. What frightens me is the destruction to society caused by our responses to it, necessary or otherwise.

Q: Planes are mostly empty right now. How does that affect the way a jet handles?

First, although fewer planes are operating, not all of them are lightly loaded. Flights have been consolidated and many are full — or as close to full as you’ll get in this environment, with many carriers having blocked off middle seats.

Second, passengers and their luggage comprise only a portion of a plane’s total weight — and that portion can be surprisingly small, especially on larger jets that carry a lot of fuel. For instance, the maximum takeoff weight of a Boeing 747 is about 850,000 pounds. The weight of 400 passengers (basically a full cabin) and their carry-ons is around 72,000 pounds. That’s under ten percent of the total.

It becomes more of a factor on smaller planes, but it’s still not as significant as you might think. The maximum weight for a 150-seat Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 is around 150,000 pounds. A full complement of passengers is roughly 27,000 pounds, or 18 percent of the total.

When I’m flying a 767 back from Europe, our fuel load alone might be 80,000 pounds. With every seat taken (those were the days), the combined weight of the plane’s occupants and carry-ons is under half that.

But now imagine a short, mostly empty flight. Here you have a low passenger load, a small amount of fuel, and perhaps no cargo. In this case the aircraft is substantially lighter than what the crew is used to, and it will handle differently.

The most noticeable change will be slower takeoff and landing speeds. Depending on the runway and configuration settings (flaps, slats, thrust), your liftoff speed (Vr) could be 20 or more knots below normal. This is a good thing in pretty much every respect. You’re using less runway and you’ve got better engine-out performance, all at more docile speeds.

Also you’ll have a more robust rate of climb, at a steeper “deck angle,” as pilots call it — maybe upwards of 20 degrees. I was riding on a mostly empty regional jet out of JFK the other day, and we took off like a rocket. It felt like we hit 5,000 feet within about sixty seconds.

On landing, unusually slow touchdown speeds can throw off a pilot’s perspective. The dynamics of how, exactly, will vary plane to plane and situation to situation. I recently flew an empty Boeing 757 from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Our Vref speed over the numbers was a ridiculous 108 knots, versus the 130 or so that is customary. The sense of “hovering” messed with my flare and the touchdown was, um, lumpier than I’d have preferred. (Strong headwinds can have this same effect: although your airspeed is normal, velocity relative to the ground can be 20 knots or more slower.)

In between, during cruise flight, differences are negligible or unnoticeable. You’ll be able to reach a higher cruising level more quickly, and you’ll consume less fuel, but otherwise there are no real changes in how the plane feels or behaves.


Q: How has the COVID-19 impacted your daily life and work schedule?

How do you even begin to measure this? Thousands of aircraft are grounded and 80 percent of flights, give or take, remain canceled. Any comparisons to 9/11 are beyond hackneyed. There are no comparisons. Nothing like this has happened before, and nothing about it has been pleasant.

I’ve been flying a lot of late, but only because my seniority allows it, and because of the fleet I’m assigned to. Many pilots have been idle for months. Airlines are utilizing different fleets at different rates; at a given carrier, 767 crews might be busier than A320 crews, for example, or vice-versa. Some airlines have been operating long-haul cargo charters, which is keeping their biggest planes — and their pilots — surprisingly busy. Other fleets, meanwhile, have been shut down almost entirely, meaning those pilots are doing nothing.

The so-called “airline bailout,” a.k.a. the CARES Act, was primarily a cover for salaries; it has not kept the airlines from hemorrhaging tens of millions of dollars daily. Salaries make up a significant fraction of an airline’s expenses, that’s true, but it’s still a fraction. The largest carriers continue to lose nearly $1 billion per month, each. All airline workers are pay-protected through the end of the summer. Beyond that, who knows. Industry consolidation, bankruptcies, liquidations, pay cuts, massive layoffs… we are likely to see all of those things.

I’ve been flying commercially since 1990. Most of the early jobs I had were marked by terrible pay and hostile working conditions, and I spent almost six years out of work after 9/11. I was into my forties before I ever made a decent living and had a lifestyle that I could enjoy. The thought of possibly losing it all is terrifying.

I guess this was one way of solving the pilot shortage.

Q: When you’re flying significantly less than usual, what steps must be taken to ensure your licence stays valid?

A pilot’s license never expires. What does expire, however, is his or her currency — i.e. “recency of experience,” as the F.A.A. puts it. To keep current in my aircraft type, I need two things. The first is to pass a semi-annual training evaluation. This is a two-day course that we repeat every nine months, usually referred to as “recurrent training.” In addition, we need to log a minimum of three takeoffs and landings every 90 days. If you drop put of currency, the airline has to run you through the simulator to bring it back again.

Takeoff and landing recency is a common issue for pilots who fly predominantly long-haul, and carriers will normally get you into the simulator ahead of time so that you don’t become unusable. Suddenly, however, amidst the COVID panic, it’s an issue for almost every pilot, and airlines are yet to figure out the most efficient way of dealing with it. To help, the F.A.A. has granted an extension of up to 60 days for takeoff and landing recency — though some airlines have voluntarily limited it to 30 days.

When I was laid off in 2001, I went more than five years without touching the controls of an aircraft. When I was recalled in 2007, that extended downtime made retraining a little more stressful than it would otherwise have been. Overall, though, it went smoothly, which is either a testament to my own skills or to my carrier’s training program. You decide. My return to the cockpit was detailed in a column here.

So much of flying is muscle memory — internalizing the location and operation of the various switches, prompts, buttons and levers — and the longer you’ve been flying a specific model, the stronger your retention. On my last assignment, finally in first officer’s seat again after a multi-week absence, I was surprised more by how quickly it all came back. So it goes, I guess, when you’ve been flying a 757 for 13 years.

 

Have a question? Leave it in the comments section below, or email the author at patricksmith@askthepilot.com

Related Stories:

COVID CASUALTIES
Q&A WITH THE PILOT, Volume 1
Q&A WITH THE PILOT, Volume 2
Q&A WITH THE PILOT, Volume 3
Q&A WITH THE PILOT, Volume 4

Comments (15)

Pilots and Alcohol

Pilots and Alcohol

August 15, 2019

ON AUGUST 3rd, two United Airlines pilots were arrested at the airport in Glasgow, Scotland, after allegedly failing a breathalyzer test prior to operating a flight to Newark, New Jersey.

Curiously, this is not the first time a United crew arrested in Glasgow for the same alleged offense. In August, 2016, at the very same airport, a pair of United pilots were taken into custody under almost identical circumstances.

This is a tough one for me — maybe the most difficult of any subject to tackle. Incidents like these are a shameful black eye for the profession. The sound you heard was that of thousands of pilots everywhere groaning with embarrassment, if not anger. And they have kept alive a lingering stereotype of the airline pilot: the hard-drinking, renegade divorcee, with crows’ feet flanking his eyes and a whiskey-tempered drawl, a flask tucked into his flight case. And it’s easy to jump to conclusions. For every pilot nabbed, there must be ten others over the legal limit, right?

No, frankly. I have to acknowledge that yes, pilots have, on several occasions now, been found guilty of flying, or attempting to fly, under the influence. At the same time, it needs to be made clear how unusual this is. Tens of thousands of commercial flights depart daily around the world. Of all the things might endanger even one of these aircraft, intoxicated pilots is about as statistically insignificant a threat as might exist. I understand and expect that passengers will worry about all sorts of things, rational and otherwise. But as a rule, whether or not your pilots are drunk should not be one of them. These rare and isolated incidents deserve the attention they receive, and they need to be taken seriously. But they are not a symptom of some dangerous and unseen crisis. My personal observations are hardly a scientific sample, but I’ve been flying commercially since 1990 and I have never once been in a cockpit with a pilot who I suspected was intoxicated.

This is not something pilots play fast and loose with. Why would they, with their careers, to say nothing of the lives of their passengers, hanging in the balance? Violators are subject to immediate, emergency revocation of their pilot certificates.

The FAA blood alcohol limit for airline pilots in the United States is .04 percent, and we are banned from consuming alcohol within eight hours of reporting for duty. Pilots must also comply with their employer’s in-house policies, which tend to be tougher. (In the wake of the most recent Glasgow incident, United as moved to a minimum twelve-hour rule.) Above and beyond that, we’re subject to random, unannounced testing for drugs and alcohol. Overseas, the regulations are even tighter. In Britain, the legal limit is set at twenty milligrams of alcohol per one hundred milliliters of blood. That’s four times lower than the British limit for drunk driving and equates to about .02 percent blood alcohol level.

Not for nothing, though: Scottish regulations are more strict that those of the FAA. The legal limit is about .02 percent blood alcohol level. It’s not impossible for a pilot to be in full compliance with the time restrictions and not feel any of the typical signs of intoxication, yet still be in violation. The same can sometimes be said for our own .04. That’s not an excuse; I have no problem with a requirement that pilots abide by a higher, more conservative standard than others. If we need to be extremely careful, so be it, that’s part of our job. But it’s something to think about, and passengers should realize that “flying drunk” isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem.

It’s also true that more than one airline pilot has been pulled aside after a passenger, TSA guards, or other airport worker wrongly suspected the pilot was intoxicated. Typically in such cases, the papers and TV news hastily report the initial suspicion, but not the vindication.

Having said all that, it should go without saying that alcoholism exists in aviation. Just as it exists in every other profession, including many with public safety To their credit, air carriers and pilot unions like ALPA have been very successful with proactive programs that encourage pilots to seek treatment. This has helped keep the problem from being driven underground, where it’s more likely to be a public safety issue.

Not long ago I flew with a colleague who participated in the highly successful HIMS program — an intervention and treatment system put together several years ago by ALPA and the FAA. HIMS has treated more than 4,000 pilots and records a success rate of near 90 percent, with only 10-12 percent of participants suffering relapse. I asked that colleague if, prior to going into HIMS, he’d ever knowingly flown under the influence. His answer was a firm and very believable no.


Some of you may be familiar with the tale of former Northwest Airlines captain Lyle Prouse. Prouse, together with the other two pilots in his crew, was arrested one morning in Minnesota in 1990. All three had spent the previous evening’s layover at a bar in Fargo, North Dakota, downing as many as nineteen rum and Cokes. Tests showed their blood-alcohol levels far beyond the legal limit.

Prouse was sentenced to 16 months in federal prison. An alcoholic whose parents had died of the disease, he later became a poster pilot for punishment and redemption. AFter a remarkable and improbable sequence of events, he was able to return to the cockpit on his 60th birthday and retire as a 747 captain.

Once out of jail, Prouse was forced to requalify for every one of his FAA licenses and ratings. Broke, he relied on a friend to lend him stick time in a single-engine trainer. Northwest’s then-CEO, John Dasburg, who himself had grown up in an alcoholic family, took a personal interest in Prouse’s struggle and lobbied publicly for his return.

You’ll see Prouse in interviews from time to time, and inevitably you’ll be struck by how forthrightly he takes responsibility, without resorting to the sobby self-flagellation of most public apologies. Always one is left, unexpectedly, to conclude that this convicted felon deserved his second chance. In 2001 he was granted a Presidential pardon from Bill Clinton.

 

Related Stories:

DENZEL WASHINGTON AND THE MOVIE ‘FLIGHT’
PILOTS AND MENTAL HEALTH

Comments (27)

Pilots and Mental Health

December 19, 2016

ACCORDING TO a newly published study by the Journal of Environmental Health, as many as 13 percent of airline pilots meet the threshold for clinical depression, and more than four percent — four percent! — admitted to having suicidal thoughts in the two weeks prior to taking the survey. Those are some frightening numbers, and not unsurprisingly the story is getting a lot of media pickup. “Think your job is depressing,” sang one headline. “Try being an airline pilot!”

Right, well, my personal opinion, speaking as just one of around 70,000 airline pilots in this country alone, is that I can hardly think of a less depressing job. Stressful at times, in its own peculiar ways, absolutely. But depressing?

Without wanting to discredit the hard work of researchers and mental health professionals out there, this study isn’t passing my smell test. At best, it feels sorely incomplete. My evidence to the contrary is anecdotal, for lack of a better term, but it’s meaningful just the same, I think, having been working in and around the business for over 25 years: I’ve known enough pilots to feel skeptical of the data. The idea that 12.4 percent of pilots might be clinically depressed is dubious enough; the idea that four percent are potentially suicidal is nothing if not outrageous.

We also need to look more closely at the metrics of the survey. For example, clinical depression, versus simply feeling depressed, or showing “signs of” depression, can be vastly different things.

Of course, without a medical or scientific background, and without fully understanding the nuances of the data — the depression questionnaire, to which around 1,500 pilots responded, is part of a screening protocol called PHQ-9 — it’s hard for a layperson like me to interpret what, exactly, the study reveals. As some have pointed out, the stats revealed by this study aren’t terribly different from those found in the general population. But because it involves pilots, it’s instantly a news story and ripe for embellishment. My disagreement is perhaps a response more to what the media is saying about the study, than what the study is actually saying about pilots. And the media has a well-established habit of taking what might be interesting and compelling scientific findings, and dumbing them down into sensationalist sound-bite nonsense. So, we’d be wise to withhold judgment.

The buzz here, of course, ties in with last year’s Germanwings pilot suicide crash, when a depressed (and quite possibly psychotic) first officer named Andreas Lubitz locked the captain out of the cockpit and flew his Airbus A320 into the Alps, killing everybody on board.

And so, now, people are wondering, how many pilots out there are ready to crack? Is the mental health of pilots being evaluated properly by airlines and government regulators?

The answer is yes, mostly.

First things first, though, let’s be wary of extrapolation. No, Andreas Lubitz was the not the first pilot to kill himself and his passengers. But the total number of pilot suicides, over the decades and within the enormous statistical complex of global air travel, is a tiny one. These incidents are what they are: outliers. By all accounts Lubitz shouldn’t have been near a cockpit in the first place. The system seems to have failed. But that’s not reason enough to suggest there’s some crisis at hand — hundreds of looming Lubitzes waiting to snap, with nothing to prevent them from doing so.

And in only the rarest cases does mental illness turn people violent. The idea that a depressed individual is likely to be a dangerous individual is an ignorant and unfair presumption about the nature of mental illness. As one Ask the Pilot reader puts it, “Lubitz didn’t kill those people because he was depressed; he killed them because he was evil.” Whatever Lubitz was suffering from, it was more than depression.

In the U.S., airline pilots undergo medical evaluations either yearly or twice-yearly, depending. A medical certificate must be issued by an FAA-certified physician. The checkup is not a psychological checkup per se, but the doctor evaluates a pilot on numerous criteria, up to and including his or her mental health. Pilots can be grounded for any of hundreds of reasons, from heart trouble or diabetes to, yes, depression and anxiety. It can and does happen. In addition, new-hire pilots at some airlines must undergo psychological examinations prior to being hired. On top of that, we are subject to random testing for narcotics and alcohol.

Pilots have plenty of things to worry about: job security, the anxieties of training, commuting to work from distant cities, the chronic fatigue that results from long hours spent aloft, and so on. But is this really that much worse or different from what you’ll find in other lines of work? Meanwhile, there are just as many pros as cons, if not more: a good salary (at least at the major carrier level), flexible schedules, long stretches of time at home, and the personal satisfaction, the coolness, that comes from flying planes. It’s a challenging job, and one that doesn’t come easy: the career path is long and unpredictable. But I hardly see it as an environment conducive to depression — or worse.

That said, pilots are human beings, and no profession is bulletproof against every human weakness. Whether the result of stress or more serious mental illness, pilots sometimes need help — just as professionals in any industry do. And they can get it:

If a pilot is having an issue, airlines have become more supportive and proactive than you might expect, while ALPA and other pilot unions have medical and mental health staff that pilots can contact any time. There are protocols in place, and if a pilot has an issue, he or she can simply pick up the phone, usually with little worry of any long-term career implications. Sure, there is still some stigma, and certain pilots would be reluctant to self-report, but I reckon this is a lot less true today than it once was. The FAA, meanwhile, now permits pilots to take certain anti-depressants (albeit after a waiting period and in accordance with strict guidelines). In all but the rarest cases, a pilot with a mental health issue is not an unsafe pilot, never mind a suicidal killer.

We can further debate the merits of additional psychological testing, but at a certain point I’m uncertain what more we should want or expect. In the end, we’re forced to rely on a set of presumptions — it comes down to trust, if you will. As a pilot I do not come to work wondering if one of my colleagues is going to kill me. And passengers shouldn’t either. On the contrary. I don’t want this to sound like an airline commercial or an FAA press release, but you can confidently presume that the people flying your plane are exactly what you expect them to be: well-trained professionals for whom safety is their foremost priority.

Comments (17)

Fact and Fallacy of the Pilot Shortage

Update: October 20, 2017

A WORD OF ADVICE for aspiring aviators:

As discussed below, U.S. regional carriers, faced with a crippling shortage of pilots, have been bending over backwards to attract new hires — and to hang on to the pilots they already have. Salaries have been soaring and airlines are offering retention bonuses north of $30,000. It’s hard to see a negative in this, at least on paper, but if you talk to pilots at some of these companies you’ll learn that many of them are very unhappy. Why?

Although pilots are earning more, overall quality of life at many regionals is still suffering. And that’s because things are in panic mode. The industry is being reactive when it should have been proactive. The improvements we’re seeing should have been put in place years ago. Because they weren’t, numerous airlines now face chronic understaffing issues. This results in pilots being forced to work high-stress schedules with minimal time off. One pilot I spoke to, employed by a United Express carrier, says the company is so understaffed that even senior captains are being “junior manned,” as it’s called, and conscripted into duty on almost all of their scheduled days off, typically with little or no notice. Pilots are quitting in droves, he says, retention bonuses be damned.

As a group, pilots have never had as much leverage or opportunity as they have right now, and with thousands of retirements coming up in the next five to ten years at the majors, it should only get better. However, there are systemic problems in the regional sector, and just throwing money around isn’t going to fix them. It will take a while for things to stabilize. In the meantime, it behooves applicants to do their homework and realize what they’re getting into. Things can change quickly in this business, but some regionals are, at least for now, better-staffed and all-around more pleasant places to work than others. Know which are which.

August 5, 2017

THE PILOT SHORTAGE is here. It’s real, it’s global, and it’s been making headlines. However, we need to be clear which sectors of the aviation industry we’re talking about, and in which parts of the world.

Let’s start with North America, where the first step is to draw a sharp divide between the major carriers and their regional affiliates. The majors, also referred to as “legacy” carriers, are the ones people are most familiar with — American, United, Delta, Southwest, JetBlue, et al. There is no pilot shortage at these companies, and unless something changes drastically they will continue to have a surplus of highly qualified candidates to choose from. They are able to cull from the top ranks of the regionals, as well as from the military and corporate aviation pools. Even amidst an ongoing wave of retirements, a steady supply of experienced crews is unlikely to be depleted.

At the regionals, however, it’s a very different story. And by “regional” we’re referring to the numerous subcontractors who operate smaller jets (regional jets, or “RJs”) and turboprops on the majors’ behalf: those myriad “Connection” and “Express” companies, whose actual identities are concealed beneath the liveries of whichever major they are aligned with. United Express, Delta Connection, American Eagle, and so on. These carriers have been slashing flights, grounding planes, and otherwise scrambling to keep their cockpits staffed. In June, Horizon Air, the Seattle-based affiliate of Alaska Airlines and one of the country’s biggest regional carriers, announced it would be forced to reduce its busy summer schedule due to a dearth of pilots. Earlier this year, Republic Airways, a large U.S. regional carrier that flies on behalf of United, American and Delta, filed for bankruptcy protection. It blamed the filing, in part, on a lack of qualified pilots.

How this came to happen is both a long and short story. The short story is that employment at a regional carrier sucks. It’s not an easy lifestyle, and the pay has been the kind of thing that causes people to skip their school reunions. Salaries have traditionally started out as low as $20,000 a year (in some cases even lower), and have topped out at under six figures. Schedules are demanding and benefits paltry; the relationship between management and the workers is often hostile; and top of all that, the regional sector is highly unstable. Companies always seem to be coming or going, shrinking or shedding planes, changing their names and realigning with different majors. This has driven thousands of pilots out of the industry, and/or has discouraged countless others from pursuing an aviation career in the first place.


Yet pay and working conditions at these airlines have always been substandard, and filling jobs was seldom a problem. So what gives? Well, what’s different is that the regional sector has grown so large, now accounting for half of all domestic departures in the United States! As recently as twenty-five years ago it was around 15 percent. In those days, pilots saw a job with a regional as a temporary inconvenience — paying one’s dues. It was a stepping-stone toward a more lucrative position with a major. Pilots are now realizing that a job at a regional could easily mean an entire career at a regional. Thus, a diminishing number have been willing to commit the time and money to their education and training when the return on investment is somewhere between unpredictable and financially ruinous.

Pilots in the United States are responsible for securing their own FAA credentials, and for logging hundreds or even thousands of hours of flight time before applying at an airline. For those who come up through the civilian channels it’s a slow and very expensive process. An aspiring aviator has to ask, is it worth sinking $100,000 or more into one’s primary training, plus the time it will take to build the necessary number of flight hours, plus the cost of a college education, only to spend years toiling at poverty-level wages, with at best a marginal shot at moving on to a major? For many the answer has been a resounding (and logical) no.

In the meantime, the FAA has enacted tougher hiring standards for entry-level pilots. Over the past two decades, as the regional sector grew and grew, airlines sharply lowered their experience and flight time minimums to fill the thousands of new cockpit jobs this growth created. Suddenly, pilots were being taken on with as little as 350 hours of total time, assigned to the first officer’s seat of sophisticated RJs and turboprops. Then came a rash of accidents, including the Colgan Air (Continental Connection) disaster outside Buffalo in 2009. Regulators began taking a closer look at hiring practices, eventually passing legislation that mandated higher flight time totals and additional certification requirements for new hires.

Some airlines blame the shortage at least partly on these tougher rules. Technically they’re right, but arguing against an obvious safety enhancement is maybe not the smartest idea. Besides, all the new regulations really have done is return things to historical norms. When I applied for my first regional job in 1990, competitive applicants at the time had between 1,500 and 2,000 hours, and most of us had an Airline Transport Pilot certificate as well. That’s more or less what the FAA demands today. Flight time totals are just one indicator of a pilot’s skill or competence, but these requirements are not unreasonable.

The regionals have finally started upping their salaries and improving benefits, in some cases substantially. The cost structures of these carriers, whose existence is primarily to allow the majors to outsource flying on the cheap, limits how much they can lavish on their employees, but frankly they have little choice. New hires at companies like Endeavor Air (a Delta affiliate) and PSA (American), for example, can now make first-year salaries in the $70,000-plus range. That’s three times what these pilots would have made in years past. Other companies are offering signing bonuses of several thousand dollars, and work rules too are getting better. Air Wisconsin, a United partner and one of the nation’s oldest regionals, says that pilots can now earn up to $57,000 in sign-on bonuses. It promises earnings of between $260,000 and $317,000, including salary and bonuses over the first three years of employment. Figures like that are unprecedented.


So, for those considering a piloting career in the United States, the situation is looking better. The problem for the industry, though, is the lag time. Somebody just learning to fly is years away from meeting any airline’s hiring criteria. So while the mechanisms are falling into place to curtail a full-blown crisis, the shortage is going to be with us for a while.

Similar shortages exists elsewhere around the globe, but they are driven by slightly different forces. You don’t have the major/regional dichotomy like you do in North America, but the airline business overall has been expanding so rapidly, especially in Asia, that carriers can’t keep up. Many have success with what are called “ab-initio” programs, whereby young candidates are chosen from scratch, with no prior experience, and are trained and groomed from the ground-up, so to speak, in a tightly controlled regimen that puts them in the cockpit of a jetliner relatively quickly. These programs are ultra-competitive, drawing hundreds of applicants for each available slot. They produce quality pilots, but again there’s a lag time problem: industry growth is far outpacing the rate at which ab initio schemes can produce cockpit-ready pilots. This has forced airlines from Asia to go hunting for pilots in the U.S. and elsewhere, sometimes offering huge salaries and incentive packages.

The Gulf carriers, meanwhile, bring in expats from every corner of the world. Of Emirates roughly 4,000 pilots, the largest percentage is recruited from South Africa, where there are lots of young pilots and a rich aviation culture, but comparatively few jobs.

 

Comments (147)

Checked, Set, Roger

Checklist Segment

September 29, 2015

EVERYBODY has heard the word “checklist.” Most folks know that checklists are a staple in airline cockpits, and they get the gist of it. The term is self-descriptive; you can think of it as a grocery list of sorts — a line-by-line register of specific items, used to make sure that important tasks have been completed, and none skipped. Still, a lot of people don’t understand exactly what a cockpit checklist looks like and how the reading of one is carried out. Pardon the geekiness of what follows, but here’s how it works:

Pilots use checklists for both normal and non-normal operations: for routine situations, for malfunctions, and for emergencies. (You’ll notice I said “non-normal.” That’s a classic aviation-ism, devised in place of “abnormal” for reasons I can’t possibly fathom or explain. It’s a goofy word, but for the sake of realism we’ll stick with it.)

The non-normal checklists are bound together in an overstuffed book called the QRH, or Quick Reference Handbook. This volume contains step-by-step procedures for hundreds of potential situations or malfunctions, from minor component failures to how to prepare for an ocean ditching. The QRH is divided into chapters: electrical, hydraulic, pneumatic, etc. There are at least two in the cockpit: identical copies for the captain and first officer, always within easy reach.

The normal checklists are usually printed on an a card — paper or cardboard — sometimes laminated and often folded vertically and/or lengthwise. A single card will be divided into as many as a dozen separate checklists, each of which will be read aloud depending on the phase of flight. Wording varies airline to airline, but the individual lists will be titled something like this:

PREFLIGHT
PUSHBACK and ENGINE START
AFTER ENGINE START
TAXI
BEFORE TAKEOFF
AFTER TAKEOFF
CLIMB

DESCENT
APPROACH
BEFORE LANDING
AFTER LANDING
SHUTDOWN

Most of these are only five or ten items long and take only a few seconds to perform. The PREFLIGHT checklist is normally the longest, and can have thirty or more steps, depending on the airline and aircraft type. On the newest jets, checklists are presented electronically on a screen — though there’s always a hard copy as well.

Boeing, Airbus, and the other manufacturers devise an initial, standard checklists for every airplane type, and carriers then tweak them. As a result, a 737 checklist at American Airlines will read differently than a 737 checklist at Delta. The basics are always the same, but airlines tailor them in accordance with their training and SOP.

Normal checklist in an Airbus A340.

Normal checklist in an Airbus A340.

Most of the normal checklists are read aloud in a challenge/response format. One pilot reads the item, and the other pilot calls out the verification. On the ground it’s usually the first officer who reads. In the air, it’s whichever pilot is not physically flying. For instance, using C and R for challenge and response, a LANDING checklist would go roughly as follows (this is a generic example):

C: “Landing gear?”
R: “Down, three green lights”

C: “Flaps and slats?”
R: “Thirty-Five, Thirty-five, Set”

C: “Spoilers?”
R: “Armed”

C: “Autobrakes?”
R: “Three”

The pilot who is reading then says, “Landing checklist is complete.”

Sometimes both pilots are required to call out verification of an especially important item. Challenge/Response becomes Challenge/Response/Response. Trying it again:

C: “Landing gear?”
R: “Down, three green”
R: “Down, three green”

C: “Flaps and slats?”
R: “Thirty-Five, Thirty-five, Set”
R: “Thirty-Five, Thirty-five, Set”

C: “Spoilers?”
R: “Armed”

C: “Autobrakes?”
R: “Three”

At other times, the pilot reading the checklist calls out both the item and the verification. It depends.

The verbal reply to a challenge/response might be a numerical value, an “on” or “off,” or a simple “checked” or “set.” Or, it might be something specific like “down, three green,” like you see above. In that case, the pilots are verifying that the landing gear lever has been selected down, and that the warning lights agree that the gear is down and locked for touchdown. When they say “thirty-five, thirty-five,” that’s a verification that the wing flap handle is set to 35 degrees, and that the associated gauge shows the flaps having in fact reached that position.

When one pilot verifies the task of the other pilot, that’s “crosschecked.”

We also say “roger” a lot. (Or “Rogah.” For fun, I am prone to reading the PREFLIGHT checklist in an exaggerated Boston accent: rogah, radah, transpondah, etc.)

To the outside listener, the smooth, uninterrupted reading of a checklist can be an interesting and curious ballet.

Occasionally, though, a checklist is performed silently, by one pilot. The AFTER LANDING checklist, for instance, is ordinarily silent, the only call being when the first officer says “After landing checklist is complete.” He’s meanwhile made sure the flaps, slats, and speedbrakes are retracted, the trim is reset, the radar is off, and so on.

There also are supplementary checklists, such as those used during oceanic crossings and other not-always-routine operations.

Checklist used in an old 747-200 Freighter.

Checklist used in an old 747-200 Freighter.

Checklist discipline is important. You always reach for the card, even if you’re 99.99 percent certain that everything is safe and complete. In the airline environment this discipline is taken for granted. In my entire major airline career, I have never once seen a checklist intentionally skipped.

Normal checklists are just that: check lists. You are verifying that tasks have already been accomplished. All the switches, buttons and levers should be in the correct position prior to reading. The pilots will already have run through their so-called “flow patterns,” a choreographed set of steps during which the physical button and switch-pushing is actually accomplished. For example, on the plane I fly, immediately after the engines are started, the first officer’s flow pattern includes, in a right-to-left sweep beginning at the overhead instrument panel, reconfiguring the plane’s pneumatics, turning on the engine anti-ice (if needed), turning on the center tank fuel pumps, shutting off the APU, checking the “recall” function of the main annunciator panel, and one or two other things. The AFTER START checklist then verifies that everything was done.

The non-normal QRH procedures, on the other hand, can more accurately be described as “do lists.” You don’t do anything until you’re instructed to.

That is, except for those times when so-called “memory items” come into play. These are a brief series of steps performed from memory in urgent circumstances, when time doesn’t permit the luxury of breaking out the QRH. Once the situation is stabilized, you refer to the book to make sure you did everything correctly. It will then guide you through whatever else needs to be done.

The QRH checklists can be complicated and go on for several pages. One or both pilots might be involved in the reading and verification, depending on circumstances. Regardless of which pilot’s turn it is to fly, it’s not unusual for the captain to delegate flying duties to the first officer while he or she breaks out the QRH and troubleshoots. During this process, the most crucial tasks — for instance, shutting down an engine — will require dual verification, and both pilots must become part of the conversation. Newer planes sometimes have electronic, on-screen checklists that pop into view when needed, used in lieu or in addition to those in the QRH.

Sample page from a QRH.

Sample page from a QRH.

All of this, meanwhile, is separate from the execution of what we call “profiles.” All normal or non-normal flight maneuvers are flown according to a profile: what speeds to fly, what angles of pitch to aim for, when to extend and retract the flaps or landing gear — each of these things, and more, happen at a prescribed place and time. It isn’t about switches, levers or dials. Rather, it’s how you fly the plane. Takeoffs, instrument approaches, go-arounds, and all of the maneuvers in between, follow a specific profile. Thus, at any given airline, all crews are trained to perform the same maneuvers the same way. This ensures commonality and, in turn, safety.

Pilots have been using checklists for decades, and it’s a little surprising that other industries haven’t adopted the concept more widely. Finally their use is beginning to spread into other realms, most notably medicine and nuclear power.

 

If you enjoyed this discussion, check out the author’s book.

 

Comments (37)

Pilotless Planes? Not So Fast.

NY Times Hat

UPDATE: April 21, 2015

ON APRIL 10th, The New York Times published an op-ed of mine about cockpit automation and the future role of the airline pilot. This was my sixth op-ed to run in the Times, but easily my favorite, given my long-simmering frustration over the topic in question.

As my regular readers are aware, one of my biggest pet peeves is the public’s widely held belief that jetliners essentially “fly themselves” — the result of a too-gullible media that takes at face value the claims of researchers, professors and tech writers who, valuable as their work may be, often have little sense of the operational realities of commercial flying. Consequently, travelers have come to have a vastly exaggerated sense of the capabilities of present-day cockpit technology, and they greatly misunderstand how pilots interface with that technology.

YOU CAN READ THE STORY HERE.

In the actual newspaper they gave it excellent placement, center of the page, with a graphic showing a Chinese military hat being buzzed by mosquitoes. I’m right between David Brooks and Paul Krugman. Brooks is pretty well-known. Krugman won a Nobel Prize. Not sure what my big claim to fame is. I hope you’ll share the link with friends, and feel free to jump in and leave your thoughts in the Times‘ comments section.

Really the piece is less about the future role of pilots than it is about our current role. My main point being is that it’s pilots, not some computer, that is flying your plane. I only wish they’d give me more space. There’s plenty more to say on the subject. Since the Germanwings disaster, the cable channels, op-ed pages and blog sites have been chattering away about the supposedly diminishing role of human beings in the cockpit.

For instance there was Flying magazine’s Peter Garrison writing in the Los Angeles Times. “From shortly after takeoff to shortly before touchdown,” explains Garrison, “airplanes fly themselves while pilots talk with controllers and one another and punch data into flight management systems.”

That’s up there among the most insulting and misleading characterization of how commercial airplanes are flown ever to appear in print. Garrison is an experienced pilot and should know better than to reinforce this pervasive mythology through such flip and deceptive descriptions. Pilots become their own worst enemies sometimes, not realizing how statements like this are interpreted by the public.

Not to be outdone was John Cassidy on the New Yorker website. “In some ways, human pilots have become systems managers,” Cassidy says. “They prepare the aircraft to depart, execute the takeoff and landing, and take the controls in an emergency. But for much of the time that a routine flight is in the air, a computer flies the plane.” That was good of him to remind us that pilots indeed “execute the takeoff and landing,” which is to say they perform them by hand, but the rest of it is more of the usual nonsense.

The photo accompanying Cassidy’s story shows a simple button marked “autopilot.” I’m not sure what that blue button is for, or what aircraft the picture is from, but the actual autoflight control panel on any jetliner is, suffice it to say, a lot more complex.

There’s more: In the Toronto Globe and Mail, reporter Paul Koring wrote an article called, “Aviation is Fast Approaching the Post-Pilot Era.” He quotes David Learmount, a “veteran aviation expert,” who predicts that “pilots won’t be in cockpits in 15 years but in an airline’s operations room, rather like the U.S. Air Force pilots flying Global Hawks [military drones].” What utter and shameless rubbish.

And my old friend Missy Cummings was at it again, this time fooling a reporter at CNN.com. “Pilots only spend three minutes per flight flying a plane anyway,” she spouts. That’s a disgusting and deceptive thing to say. What she might mean is that pilots spend a relatively little amount of time (though it’s more than three minutes) steering the plane by hand. But they very much are flying it for the entirety.

Occasionally, well-intentioned people will bring up U.S. Airways hero pilot Chesley Sullenberger as a good example of why pilots are still necessary. Point accepted, but still I don’t like this, because it implies that pilots are only valuable in the event of an emergency or some unusual circumstance. On the contrary, even the most routine flight remains a very organic, hands-on operation subject to almost limitless contingencies that require human input. Cockpit automation is merely a tool, and it needs to be told what to do, how to do it, when to do it and where. And though a pilot’s hands aren’t gripping the steering column for hours at a time, as it might have in the 1930s, they are manipulating, operating, and commanding the various systems and subsystems that carry you to your destination.

Here, let me give you a quick demonstration:

I was asked by somebody to talk them through a typical maneuver. A descent, for example. How would I descend my 767 from, say, 25,000 feet to seven thousand feet, with the autopilot on? Well, it’d happen as follows. This is going to be incomprehensible to most of you, but that’s part of the point:

After being cleared to the new altitude, in this case 7000 feet, I’ll first reach up and dial “7000” in the altitude window on the mode control panel. The other pilot will verify this. The next series of steps depends where exactly on the arrival profile we are, but it’s common to activate a VNAV descent using the DESCEND NOW prompt from the descent page of the FMS. Typically I’ll already have the page set up for maybe Mach .79 and maybe 315 knots. This will give you a pretty good rate of descent.

At around 11,000 feet or so, we need to slow down in order to hit the 250 knot restriction below ten thousand feet. You can let the plane do this on its own, in VNAV, but sometimes that carries you off the profile and creates more work, so I come out of VNAV by hitting the VERTICAL SPEED switch. The VS window opens and I dial it back to 1,000 feet-per-minute, or maybe less. The plane’s rate of descent immediately begins to slow. And the instant I hit the VERTICAL SPEED switch, the IAS window also opened, allowing me to set in 250 knots. The thrust levers come back and the plane decelerates.

Now, all I have to do is tweak the rate of descent until I safely hit 250 at or near the 10,000 foot target. I might use 1000 feet-per-minute initially, then reduce it to 500. Whatever it takes. Using the spoilers can be helpful here too (the rectangular panels that rise from the top of the wings). I may already have been using them earlier in the descent if VNAV wasn’t quite holding the profile, or if ATC seemed antsy, etc.

Then, at 10,000 feet and 250 knots, I select FLCH. The 250 knots is now locked in the window and the plane will now hold that speed. I can descend at idle, or use thrust to play with the vertical speed rate, speed-on-pitch style, depending. We’ll be issued several more altitude changes, and I’ll stay with FLCH the rest of the way down, at least until joining up with whatever instrument approach is being used. Some instrument approaches, though, are flown in VNAV, which I’ll reengage later, when it’s needed, and use the speed intervene function of the IAS control to maintain the approach and landing speeds.

And that’s just the altitude control. We’ll have a number of course changes as well, to be dialed in and flown using whatever methods are appropriate (LNAV, heading select, LOC or APP mode…)

And so on. So, why not have the autopilot do this? It is doing it. The autopilot has been on throughout this scenario. This is the automation at work. Point being: it’s the pilots, not a computer, that is controlling the operation. And this is why it is so infuriating when Missy Cummings says pilots are only flying the plane for three minutes.

Granted the 767 is an older plane. It was designed in the late 1970s. There have been a few minor upgrades to the plane’s avionics since then, but nothing major. The plane is still operated exactly as it was when the first 767s were delivered. Frankly, though, even on the newest models, the basics of cockpit automation haven’t changed that much in thirty or more years. The interface between pilot and technology on a 787 or an A350 isn’t drastically different from how it was on a DC-10 or an old 747-200 in 1972. And the Airbus A320, like the one in the Germanwings crash? Its platform technology was developed in the 80s.

People will speak of planes being “highly computerized.” In some respects that true, but not in the sense that people think, and in fact it’s pretty rare for a pilot to refer to any piece of cockpit equipment as a “computer.” That’s just not a word that we use. Obviously certain components are computerized, but look around the typical cockpit and what you’ll see are lots of levers, knobs and switches. Hands-on stuff. Even the most advanced flight deck is yet to have a QWERTY keyboard anywhere on board. Pilots still use an old, ABCD EFGH style keypad to enter data into the FMS or ACARS. Much of our allegedly high-tech equipment is clunky, old-fashioned and user-unfriendly.

To be clear, I’m not arguing the technological impossibility of a pilotless plane. Certainly we have the capability. Just as we have the capability to be living in domed cities on Mars. But because it’s possible doesn’t mean that it’s affordable, practical, safe, or even desirable. And the technological and logistical challenges are daunting to say the least.

To start with, it takes the better part of a decade to design, build, and test-fly a conventional commercial plane. Neither Boeing nor Airbus has a new aircraft platform currently under development, let alone one flyable by remote control.

Not only that, but pilotless planes would require a gigantic — and gigantically expensive — rebuilding of pretty much the entire civil aviation infrastructure, from a totally new air traffic control concept to the redesign of airports. How many hundreds of billions would that cost, globally? And that’s after developing a fleet of tens of thousands of aircraft that are safe and reliable enough for automomous operations. And you’d still need pilots to operate these aircraft from afar!

It’s not impossible, but it would be a hugely more formidable task than people are led to think.

As I write in the Times, though, it’s not the future that concerns me so much as the present. I’ll be long retired and probably long dead before anybody is zipping around on pilotless planes. What riles me up is the simple wrong-ness of so much of what people think they know about a profession that in fact they know very little about, how simple they think this concept would be to develop, and the smugness with which they pronounce pilots as all but obsolete. It really insults me. And the public, for its part, deserves an accurate understanding of how planes fly, and of what pilots actually do for a living.

SEE THE NEW YORK TIMES STORY HERE.

New York Times illustration by Alvaro Dominguez.

 

Patrick Smith is the author of COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL.

 

Comments (115)

Attention Media: Copilots are Pilots

Epaulets

 

UPDATE: February 4, 2015

I don’t know what caused the TransAsia Airways ATR turboprop to crash earlier today — an accident caught spectacularly and horrifically on video. Early reports suggest an engine failure that was improperly handled by the crew. Whatever the cause, it’s clear that CNN didn’t read my original blog post, below. The emails I sent them on this topic also went unheeded.

In the network’s coverage of the TransAsia accident, reporters Euwan McKirdy and Vivian Kam wrote: “The plane’s pilot and two co-pilots were among those confirmed dead, authorities said.”

On and on it goes. This wouldn’t be bothering so much if I hadn’t just been complaining about it only a few days ago:

 

ORIGINAL POST: January 30, 2015

I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE. How many times can the media, whether it’s a print reporter or a celebrity newscaster, make the same mistake? And why aren’t the supposed experts, often right there on camera with these people, putting them straight?

What I’m talking about is the characterization of the copilot. This has been a topic du jour since earlier this week, when it was revealed that the copilot of AirAsia flight 8501 had been at the controls when the Airbus A320 was lost, and then on Thursday when the captain of a Delta flight was locked out of the cockpit, requiring the copilot to land the plane in Las Vegas.

Good god, a copilot at the controls! The media apparently has no idea this is perfectly normal.

“Is that a problem?” CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked expert Dave Soucie the other night, in a discussion of the AirAsia crash. Soucie’s half-baked answer did nothing to sway the accepted notion that a copilot is something less than a “real” pilot and thus not entitled to actually fly an airplane.

I’ve harped on this before. It’s in my book. I wrote about it numerous times in my columns at Salon, and in earlier posts on this site. That nobody is getting the message is a testament either to my own lack of reach or to stubbornness on the part of journalists. Maybe it’s both. Either way, allow me to cut and paste:

Dear Anderson, et al:

There are always at least two pilots in a jetliner cockpit — a captain and first officer — and both of these individuals are fully qualified to operate the aircraft.

The first officer is known colloquially as the copilot. But a copilot is not an apprentice. He or she shares flying duties with the captain more or less equally. The captain is officially in charge, and earns a larger paycheck to accompany that responsibility, but both individuals fly the aircraft. Copilots perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do, in pretty much all weather conditions, and both are part of the decision-making process.

In fact, while protocols might be slightly different carrier to carrier, it’s not unusual during emergencies or other abnormal situations for the captain to delegate hands-on flying duties to the copilot, so that the captain can concentrate on communications, troubleshooting, coordinating the checklists, etc.

Do I seem sensitive about this? That’s because I’m a copilot.

 

 

And a copilot becomes a captain not by virtue of skill or experience, but rather when his or her seniority standing allows it. And not every copilot wants to become a captain right away. Airline seniority bidding is a complicated thing, and a pilot can often have a more comfortable quality of life — salary, aircraft assignment, schedule and choice of destinations — as a senior copilot than as a junior captain. Thus, at a given airline, there are plenty of copilots who are older and more experienced than many captains.

Now, in some areas of the world, including parts of Asia, the experience disparity between captains and copilots tends to be more pronounced, and the typical new-hire copilot has considerably less experience than his counterpart would in America. The captain of AirAsia 8501 had ten times as many flight hours as the first officer, who even after working for three years at AirAsia had logged less than 2,500 hours total. In America that would be unheard of; the average new-hire at a major airline has around 6,000 hours and often many more. In the AirAsia copilot’s defense, the raw totals in one’s logbook are only part of the story and aren’t necessarily representative of skill or talent. Airline training is never easy, and any pilot, no matter his or her background, needs to be good to succeed at that level. Still, it’s not surprising for people to wonder why such a comparatively inexperienced person would have been flying the plane during violent weather. Maybe, when this is all said and done, the correct question isn’t “Why was the copilot flying the plane?,” but rather “Why are such low-time pilots in these cockpits to begin with?” That’s a different conversation altogether. And it remains to be seen if either pilot’s actions had anything to do with the accident.

It can vary country to country, but captains usually wear four stripes on their sleeves and epaulets, and copilots wear three.

On older planes there was a third cockpit station occupied by the second officer, also known as the flight engineer. (I spent four years as a flight engineer on a cargo jet in the mid-1990s.) Once upon a time planes also carried navigators, but the last known navigator in these parts was the old Howard Borden character from the original “Bob Newhart Show.”

Long-haul flights carry augmented crews that work in shifts. There might be two copilots and a captain, two captains and a copilot, or two captains and two copilots. It varies airline to airline and with the length of flight. For example, at my airline, a ten-hour flight will carry three pilots: two copilots and a captain. Each crew member will have roughly one-third of the flight free. He or she retires to a bunk room or designated crew rest seat, while the other two remain up front.

In most conversations the term “co-” implies equal. With cockpits though, the presumption is of something less. I’m not sure exactly from where this stems. The cockpit cultures of years past probably have something to do with it. In the decades prior the advent of “cockpit resource management” and all that, the cockpit hierarchy was very rigid and the captain’s authority went unchallenged. Copilots were expected to be subservient and were seldom treated as equals by imperious captains. This culture has not entirely disappeared in some parts of the world.

Reporters’ frequent use of the term “the pilot” is another part of the problem. “The pilot” did this, “the pilot” said that. Well, which pilot exactly? Use of the singular implies that the other person in the cockpit is something other than, and presumably less than, an actual pilot. I’m not sure if reporters have a style guide for these things, but this is nothing a simple “s” can’t fix: “the pilots.” Alternately, one could say “the cockpit crew.” If a differentiation in rank is needed, I’d recommend using the terms “captain” and “first officer.” Just be aware that either pilot may be at the controls during a particular incident.

 

Epaulets photo by the author.

 

For more about pilot training, lifestyle and culture, see chapter four in the new book.

 

Comments (94)