Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Real Reason that Southwest Just Announced Hawaii

As you probably know by now, Southwest Airlines announced their intention to serve Hawaii this past Wednesday night. There has been speculation about if and when Southwest Airlines would begin service to Hawaii for years. Driving these rumors is the fact that they've been removing many of the obstacles holding them back from flying to the islands.

For instance, flying long distances over water requires specially equipped and maintained aircraft. Known as Extended Operations (ETOPS) certification, the aircraft and crew have to demonstrate an ability to lose an engine and to safely divert to an alternate airport. Southwest has been operating ETOPS compliant aircraft, and trained their crews in over water navigation procedures several years ago. So why did they wait so long to start service?

One reason to not serve the Hawaiian Islands is that it is a very difficult market in which to make money. This may seem counterintuitive as Hawaii is one of the premier vacation destinations in the world, but let me explain.

Leisure or Business?

Airlines rely on two types of passengers to make money: business and leisure. Business passengers are by far the more profitable customers as they are usually on a tight timeline, and are not generally flexible in their travel plans. Many times they have to travel at the last minute. These factors mean that airlines can charge business passengers a lot of money which ends up making them high margin customers.

Leisure passengers, on the other hand, often plan their vacations well in advance, and are more cost conscious as opposed to time sensitive. Add in that money used for vacations is discretionary, meaning that a small increase in cost may mean going to a cheaper destination or not going at all, and you can see that airlines are competing for these passengers on price. The leisure market ends up being a high volume, but low margin business. And Hawaii is the quintessential leisure market.

Another factor in the Hawaiian market is of the airlines' own making. That factor is their loyalty programs. Decades ago, the airlines figured out that giving away free flights to loyal customers was a great way to keep those customers from jumping ship (so to speak) to another carrier which beat them by a few bucks on price. One of the premier destinations for loyalty program redemptions, however, was Hawaii. This meant that the airlines found themselves flying full airplanes to the islands with very few paying customers, a huge number of them being redeemed "miles" flights.

The type of aircraft being flown can also affect the profitability of a particular market. Wide-body aircraft carrying several hundred passengers enjoy an economy of scale which lowers costs. The fixed costs of maintaining gates and ticket counters are essentially the same for all airliners, so an airline flying wide-body aircraft can spread those costs over more customers. This is a disadvantage for airlines with only narrow-body aircraft such as Alaska and Southwest.

All of these reasons have made Hawaii a difficult market that up to now Southwest has elected to forego. But something made them change their mind, and that something was from outside their company.

It's War!

In April of 2016, Alaska Airlines announced their intention to acquire Virgin America creating a west coast powerhouse airline with national aspirations. For decades, Alaska was content to serve their fiercely defended home turf of Alaska from their Seattle hub, along with west coast routes including Mexico, while only occasionally venturing east of the Mississippi.

The addition of the Virgin America network added a robust transcontinental capacity giving the new entity a significant east coast footprint. They also decided that the time was good to challenge Southwest for primacy in one of the largest markets in the country: California.

Southwest has long been the primary carrier for California intrastate travel having wrested the old PSA routes away from USAir back in the early '90s. Flying California intrastate routes as many as six times daily, Southwest has more or less had that market sewn up until earlier this year. Starting in March, Alaska announced new service and frequency to cities such as Burbank and Sacramento, Southwest strongholds. A fare war has subsequently broken out with fares as low as $57 for intrastate travel.

No Holds Barred

Fare wars, while good for airline travellers while they last, can be brutal to the bottom line. Alaska did not start this fight without intending to either win, (unlikely) or at least to grab a good chunk of Southwest's California market share. A war of attrition will batter both airlines' financial results even though Southwest is somewhat better positioned to prevail as they have lower overall costs than Alaska.

Alaska, though, does have some tricks up their sleeve which will keep them in the fight. One is that they have codeshare agreements with 15 other airlines to include large international carriers like British Airways and Emirates. Southwest does not codeshare at all. Funneling passengers into a worldwide network brings in revenue and exposes their product to more potential customers.

The other feature that Alaska has is Hawaii. They've been flying there for years, even though it may not be a huge revenue generator. And this is an ace in the hole when you are fighting for California. As it turns out, over half of all Hawaii tourists originate from California. 

The whole point of loyalty programs is to capture customers who will then fly one particular airline for both business and leisure travel. When you are trying to build brand loyalty, as Southwest is, not serving one of the largest nearby leisure destinations means that you are inviting your customers to fly on your biggest competitor. This is the real reason that Southwest has finally decided to fly to Hawaii.

In Conclusion

A fare war over California means that there are huge consequences at stake. Alaska is attempting to establish a larger presence on the west coast after their merger with Virgin America, while Southwest does not intend to let one of their largest markets be challenged. In order to compete against this new attack, Southwest has to offer their customers access to Hawaii unless they want to see their customers fly on the competition for both business and leisure.

Captain Rob Graves is a veteran airline pilot and retired Air Force officer. He currently flies a Boeing 737 for a major American airline where he has over 25 years of experience. His Air Force career included instructing future USAF pilots in the T-37 primary jet trainer, aerial refueling in the KC-135 Stratotanker, and conducting worldwide logistics in the C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft. He is the author of This is Your Captain Speaking, an aviation blog. It can be found at He also writes for Any opinions expressed are solely his.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

How Do Pilots Check the Weather Before Flying?

Honeywell's GoDirect Weather Information Service app displayed on an iPad

An old aviation aphorism states that there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots. Going flying without first checking the weather would be sort of like gambling in a casino but with no way to win and many ways to lose. So it is universally recognized by all pilots that one of the keys to a long and prosperous aviation career involves thoroughly checking the weather before committing aviation.

The methods that pilots have used over the years to investigate the weather along their route and at their destination have been continuously updated over the years through advances in technology. The Weather Bureau, a predecessor to the National Weather Service, first established an aerological department in 1914 to meet the growing needs of aviation.

Since that time, government-provided weather services have been the backbone of aviation weather, but that is changing. With the reality of the internet, aviation weather became more democratized and the advent of wireless connectivity means it has never been easier to have access to high quality weather information and graphics wherever a signal is available.

There are many products currently available for pilots to use as a source for weather information, but one I've been using has been a standout. Honeywell's GoDirect Weather Information Service (WIS) is a fully functioned product for presenting a range of weather observations and forecasts to include high quality graphics for pilots. The app is available for both Windows and iOS, but I've been using it on an iPad. It is available from the Apple app store and installed easily.

It's Fast!

The first thing I noticed about this app is that it's fast. I mean really fast. I have used many other weather apps and it seems that waiting for a radar picture to load can take forever. That is not the case with WIS. Hit the weather uplink button and your weather data is displayed within less than a second. I realize that this time will vary depending on the speed of your underlying data connection, but the uplink was fast in comparison to other products I've used with the same connection.

The data that you get is everything you need to safely plan and fly your trip. Multiple overlays are available on the map display to show as much or as little data as you care to see. Again, toggling overlays on or off is nearly instantaneous with no discernible lag to render graphics. Did I mention that the software is fast?

The available map overlays include terrain, airports, navaids, waypoints, and political boundaries. Most of these are user selectable to provide information when needed or to de-clutter the display when not needed. Another feature of the app that I have really come to appreciate is an automatic map de-clutter feature that displays information based on zoom level.

You would think that such a feature would be standard on most software to be used while performing an intensive task such as flying, but that is sadly not the case. Fumbling through menus to de-clutter a map when you might be trying to avoid a storm is not an optimal use of cognitive resources. The engineers at Honeywell have figured this out, and data such as waypoints, navaids, and airports will automatically change presentation based upon the zoom level. Again, this was quite fast with no lag time for rendering. I found this feature quite useful and it made the software a pleasure to use.

You're In Control

When flying in challenging weather, knowing what has happened in the past can be just as important as knowing what the current conditions and forecasts are. Honeywell has included an intuitive time slider on the map display which allows pilots to easily see conditions up to three hours old. Historical data can be displayed as an animation or statically.

And just as the observations time slider allows a look at past conditions, the app also includes a future time slider to display forecasts up to 24 hours ahead of the current time.

The program presents radar, satellite, and lightning data along with available PIREPS in an easily readable and selectable map format. Clicking on any observation or forecast feature will display a window showing the details of that particular area. All of these features worked together to make the product easy to use while flying.

In addition to knowing the "when" of the current and forecast weather, a Flight Level selector lets you control the "where." Moving this selector will present the clear air turbulence (CAT), winds and icing forecasts for your chosen flight level. Satellite observation is also selectable using this slider. This again reinforces the philosophy of only seeing that information which is of use while not cluttering up the display with extraneous data.

Another powerful tool which I found to be very useful is the Vertical Situation Display (VSD). Showing a vertical slice or profile view of weather along the loaded flight plan, it is easy to determine where icing, turbulence and CB tops lie along your route. These things can be determined without the display, but seeing a graphical display is immensely helpful when planning a route. Again, the Honeywell engineers seem to have really put some thought into how this product will be used.

Flight Plans Made Easy

And speaking of flight plans, WIS makes loading and editing flight plans a snap. Flight plans can be loaded from Honeywell's GoDirect Services, pasted from the clipboard or entered directly. Once loaded, plans are easily edited. It is important to note that the program accepts routing in standard ICAO terms, so don't forget to add "DCT" when proceeding directly between fixes. Plans are then rendered as an overlay on the map display.

The program even has an “own ship” centering feature which can access the GPS signal from the device on which it is installed. Tracking your own progress has never been easier.

A related airports list adds easily accessible weather information from selected airports to a side panel. The best part of this feature is that when refreshed, only data for selected airports will be uplinked, thereby saving data costs.

If you are interested in seeing the weather at any one particular airport, just clicking on the airport symbol on the map brings up a window in which the current METAR, ATIS, and TAF can be instantly displayed. This was probably my favorite feature saving me multiple steps in obtaining this information from several separate sources. It's all conveniently aggregated into one place.

In Conclusion

We are living in a golden age of weather information which is available for pilots to plan and fly. But as with any data stream, the presentation and analysis of that information can be just as important as the data itself. A smart and intuitive interface is essential for proper flight planning and conduct, and Honeywell's GoDirect Weather Information Service provides that in spades. Equally useful for both pros and recreational pilots, it’s an easy recommendation for me to make.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Air Traffic Control Reform: The Battle of the Fat Cats

Should air traffic control be privatized?
Should air traffic control be privatized?

There is a battle royale brewing over the future of Air Traffic Control in the US which could affect much of the nation's air transportation system. While the usual ideologically pro and anti privatization partisans are playing their roles to perfection, there is an array of very well heeled interests on both sides of this legislative food fight. This has scrambled the rich and powerful vs. the little guy narrative which usually attends these sorts of melees.

Some Background

You may or may not have been following the story about efforts to corporatize and privatize the FAA's Air Traffic Control Services (ATCS), so here's the story so far:

Organized under the DOT, the FAA is divided into several divisions which have responsibility for the nation's air transportation system. The major divisions in the FAA are responsible separately for airports, aviation safety, space transportation, and air traffic control services. It is this last division, air traffic control services, that has become a political football in recent years.

The idea of privatizing ATCS dates back to 1985 when an airline industry trade group, the Air Transport Association (ATA), published a paper calling for a federal corporation to take control of air traffic control. Since then, the idea has percolated in think tanks and resulted in various legislative efforts, but has never had enough support to pass into law. Interestingly, there have been efforts on both sides of the political aisle for privatization including a 1994 proposal from Vice President Al Gore's reinventing government initiative.

Fast forward to today and the idea is once again back within striking distance of becoming a reality due to the Trump administration's desire to reduce costs for businesses while both branches of Congress also belong to Republicans. President Trump held a meeting for airline executives shortly after taking office where he stated support for the idea of ATCS privatization, which has been somewhat of a holy grail for the airlines.

The idea is to spin off the FAA's ATC services into a not-for-profit corporation which would be funded by user fees (with some carve outs). This corporation would be controlled by a board consisting of stakeholders from across the industry. Over 50 countries around the world including Canada have adopted a similar structure for their air traffic services to date.

The mechanism by which privatization of ATC would occur is the current FAA spending reauthorization bill. Now working its way through Congress, Senate Bill 1405 does not include provisions for privatization while the competing House Bill 2997, called the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform & Reauthorization Act (or AIRR Act.), does include the privatization of ATC.

Funded through September 30, the FAA will need a short term authorization to continue to function without the passage and reconciliation of these two bills. Whether ATC privatization survives the legislative sausage making process is an open question.

As alluded to above, though, some interesting alliances have been formed for both the pro and anti privatization sides, and they aren't exactly lining up as how you might expect. For starters, there are some very well connected and deep pocketed players on both sides. Shall we have a look?

The Pro Side

The airlines are predictably the most pro-privatization players on the field as they have the most to gain through the legislation. Operating about 27,000 flights daily carrying about 2 million passengers, the airlines see delayed technology rollouts and inefficiencies in the current system as a direct threat to their business model. 

As Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher once put it, "In no other industry does a government bureaucracy have direct control over the production line of a multi billion dollar industry." With about $200 billion in revenue for 2016, US airlines have quite a bit on the line and also the means to advance their cause for a more streamlined ATC system.

An unlikely voice on the pro side is that of the air traffic controllers themselves. The controllers, through their union (NATCA), have come out decidedly in favor of privatization. It is rare that a public employee union would come out in favor of the privatization of their own jobs, but reviewing their materials reveals a rare exercise in realpolitik. 

The controllers complain that their livelihoods are a constant political football subject to the political whims of the day concerning FAA funding and disruptions such as sequestration. In their opinion, a not-for-profit air traffic corporation funded by user fees would provide needed stability and growth to their career field. 

The Anti Side

Some of the most ardent opponents of the privatization of ATC services are the owners of small privately owned aircraft. Known as "general aviation" (GA) and represented by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) this group is fiercely opposed to the scheme, and probably with good reason.

With the FAA and by extension air traffic control services currently funded by excise taxes on fuel, the fear is that a new user fee regime would end up sticking GA pilots with higher operating costs. This may or may not be true, but if you are happy with the current arrangement, you will be skeptical of any changes. It should be noted, though, that the legislation currently under consideration keeps the GA funding method through excise taxes on fuel the same as it currently exists.

One argument used against GA owners is the allegation that they consume ATC services in excess of what they pay into the system and therefore like this arrangement just as it is. The airlines, who pay excise taxes on the gargantuan amount of fuel they consume, would allegedly like a change to a user fee system which would shift away some of their cost burden. The challenge of any ATC reorganization will be to determine the amount of ATC services each group consumes and to then apportion the costs in relation to that consumption; no easy task when each side mistrusts the other.

The last group on the anti side are the owners of private business aircraft or business jets. These people are perhaps the fattest cats in the sky. They have thrown their lot in with general aviation believing that the airlines would have undue influence in a new air traffic control corporation and restrict their operations into major airports where a bizjet carrying two or three passengers can take up as much airspace as an airliner carrying hundreds.

In Conclusion

How this fight eventually ends is really anyone's guess. You might believe that because the Republicans control both the House and Senate that passage would be a slam dunk, but that is apparently not the case. The partisans on both sides of the debate have their champions in Congress and very deep pockets to keep them in the fight.

I'll admit to being personally agnostic on this issue. From my perspective as an operator and primary consumer of ATC services, there is little doubt that the system could use a boost in efficiency and a more rapid deployment of promised technology. That said, as currently structured, the system does handle an amazing number of aircraft and is staffed by dedicated and competent professionals.

And it should be noted, that even though the holy cause of safety may be invoked by either the pro or anti side, I don't believe any questions of safety are relevant in this debate. Our current aviation system is about as safe as it can be made short of parking airplanes and it is likely to stay that way in any reorganization.

Monday, July 03, 2017

How the Airlines Infuriate their Customers...By Giving Them What They Want

In the genre of travel writing, bashing the airlines has always been a no lose proposition. Mirroring critiques on the decline of civility and a decaying culture in general, the sorry state of air travel makes for an eye catching lede in the Sunday travel section. A vintage photo of cosmopolitan passengers in a spacious cabin being served confit on fine china used in comparison to today's experience of TSA body cavity searches and knee-chewing seat pitch is de rigeur for this type of exposé.

And they're not wrong. There is little doubt that flying today has become nasty and brutish, especially when compared to the experience of decades gone by. But the part that these articles invariably leave out is that flying is the way it is today because that's exactly the way we want it.

You heard me correctly. We, meaning you and I and the rest of the travelling public, are getting exactly what we want and, more importantly, at the price we want it. Let me explain.

In those pictures of yore, it appears as if the entire cabin was travelling in first class luxury. Given the prices that an airline ticket cost in those days, they in effect were travelling first class. Before deregulation, flying on an airliner was something that only society's elite could engage in with any regularity. No one other than the wealthy would have even considered flying to Chicago for a weekend to see a Bears game and then back to Omaha.

Now, of course, that option is open to nearly anyone. I know this because I regularly sit next to sports fans returning from a game somewhere. I always root for the away team because the only thing worse than sitting next to a drunk fan is sitting next to one whose team has just lost.

In order to understand where the industry is today, a brief history of  the airline business since airline deregulation may be helpful.

The Economics of Air Travel

Air travel in the US was deregulated back in 1978 with Jimmy Carter's signing of the Airline Deregulation Act. Since that time there has been a precipitous drop in air fares accompanied by an explosion in the number of passengers carried. The industry was democratized.

There have also been dozens of airline startups, bankruptcies, mergers, reorganizations, and failures. For a time, economists doubted whether it was possible for the airline industry to ever stabilize. This is because the economics of an airline seat resemble that of over ripe bananas or stale bread at the supermarket.

An airline seat, like day old bread, is what economists call a perishable commodity. That is, its value diminishes as it sits unsold. This is why supermarkets heavily discount their old bread. It is better to get some revenue from the bread than to have to throw it out. They might even sell it below cost as that revenue is better than zero revenue from thrown away bread.

An airline seat is the ultimate perishable commodity as its revenue value drops to zero the second the airplane leaves the gate. The marginal cost of producing these seats is next to zero, so airlines have every incentive to discount their unsold seats. This had the effect of creating price wars between airlines to clear their extra inventory. It also left the industry billions of dollars in debt.

Enter the Low Cost Carrier

In the wake of deregulation, the market was flooded with low cost carriers who could cherry pick the most price sensitive customers from the traditional legacy airlines. With their low costs, they could remain profitable while undercutting the legacies. Airlines like Southwest, People's Express, PSA, and America West made up the new vanguard of the low cost carriers (LCCs).

The legacy airlines found that they were unable to compete on price even though they continued to offer full service such as meals and assigned seats to their customers. They then attempted a competitive response by starting their own low cost subsidiaries such as United's Ted, Delta's Song, and Continental Lite though these efforts bore little fruit and were eventually abandoned.

Part of the problem was that the legacy airlines were hamstrung by their relatively generous union contracts. They could never get their costs down to the level of the LCCs. Their answer to this puzzle was to exploit a hole in their union contracts allowing the outsourcing of airplanes with less than 100 seats.

The Regional Response

The establishment of regional airlines predated deregulation, but as the legacy airlines looked for a way to compete with the LCCs, this model was expanded dramatically. Regional airlines, flying under the brand and colors of their mainline partners, utilized new fast and long range jets to offer service to many smaller and midsize cities that their mainline partners then abandoned.

As they were separate corporate entities, regionals were not restricted by the union work rules and pay rates that covered the legacy airlines. Annual pay for regional jet pilots for example was routinely under $20k, but in the wake of 9/11, the choice was to take that pay or leave the industry. Regional airline flying eventually came to dominate domestic airline flying eventually accounting for well over half of all US departures.

Industry Consolidation and the Big Four

As the 2000s came to a close, a wave of long sought after mergers among the legacy airlines left only three: United, Delta, and American. All three had declared bankruptcy in the wake of 9/11 and had drastically reduced their costs. Joined by Southwest, whose costs slowly crept up to match the slimmed down legacy airlines, the new "Big Four" now controlled over 80% of US domestic airline flying.

With only four large airlines left standing, there has been some measure of stability introduced. By engaging in "capacity discipline", the big four have voluntarily restricted their growth thereby allowing fares to rise and, for the first time since deregulation, to become consistently profitable. Low fuel prices have also helped the big four to return sizable results to shareholders.

Internet Pricing and the Ultra Low Cost Carriers

This would end our story except for the introduction of new ultra low cost carriers (ULCCs) and the quest to get to the top of the search engine price stack. As it turns out, the one thing that airline marketers have learned over the years is that the only reliable way to sell airline tickets is through pricing. This was the reason for the creation of the original band of LCCs, the regional airline response, and now the ultra low cost carriers.

This new model for air transportation embodied in carriers like Frontier, Allegiant, and Spirit, is to take the no frills LCC model to an extreme. These airlines have "unbundled" and added a price tag, to every possible service item to include assigned seats, overhead bin space, and even speaking with an agent. Their basic stripped down fare, which almost no one pays, then gets listed at the top of an internet fare search.

Spirit is universally reviled as having one of the least pleasant airline experiences possible. Their seat pitch is a knee capping 28 inches while their 73% on time arrival rate and second highest number of complaints for 2016 (beating out Frontier) puts them at or near the bottom of airline rankings.

But there is one thing about Spirit that you may not know. They are growing. Fast. For the past several years Spirit has returned margins of at least 15% while increasing capacity 15% to 20% annually. Their low rankings and poor customer treatment don't seem to affect the popularity of this airline with the flying public.

Giving the Customer What they Want

These ULCCs are growing so fast that they now have the attention of the big four. This time, though, the legacies aren't waiting to see how the story ends. Knowing that the airline at the top of the internet search is the airline that gets the sale, three of the big four airlines have introduced a new product to compete with the low price competition. Enter "basic economy" class or what some might call "economy minus".

All three airlines are calling their product Basic Economy, and they have features such as non-changeable and non-refundable fares along with other restrictions. American airlines recently came under fire in the travel press for announcing that they will reduce the pitch on their new 737s from 31 to 29 inches, but only for some rows, not the whole airplane. 

It is easy to see what is happening here. These airlines are carving out sections of their existing airplanes for the basic economy product, but the real contest is on the internet in the fight to get to the top of the price rankings where sales are made. Southwest, one of the original LCCs, is sticking to its guns believing that free bag checking and customer service will carry the day. Time will tell, but if it works for them, they'll be the unicorn in an industry where pricing has always been king.

In Conclusion

Airlines have learned the hard way, taught by their customers, that while everyone says they love roomy cabins and inflight meals, no one wants to pay for them. Those few who do can still get those things by flying first or business class.

This "revealed preference" for the lowest fares has driven the industry to provide their customers exactly what, through their purchasing behavior, they say they want. We have indeed met the enemy--and he is us.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Where are the Pilotless Airliners?

Peter Thiel, PayPal founder and tech evangelist, noted several years ago that "We wanted flying cars, but instead got 140 characters." He was, of course, talking about Twitter, but his larger point was that the technological advancements that seemed to be inevitable have—when they've even shown up— been underwhelming.

The pilotless airliner, like the driverless car, is one of those innovations that always seems to be close, but like a mirage in the desert, keeps receding into the distance. And it certainly isn't for lack of effort. DARPA has recently been testing a robot which occupies the space where a copilot sits on an airliner.

A recent headline proclaimed that this robot was able to fly (and land!) a 737. So that's that right? We can finally get on with the business of halving (or eliminating) our pilot force, solving the pilot shortage, and saving a ton of money to boot.

Well, I wouldn't be so quick to quit flight school and dust off that medical school application. We are still quite a ways away from single or no pilot airliners for a number of reasons. But first, I'd like to review where we've come from when it comes to cockpit automation and what we'll ultimately be asking our machines to do.

There was a time not too far removed when it took five or more crew members—in addition to flight attendants—to operate an airliner. Besides the two pilots up front, there were navigators to navigate, flight engineers to keep the engines running, and a radio operator to communicate. Over the years, these positions have been eliminated through the use of technology and automation.

The last airplane Boeing manufactured that had an engineer's panel in the cockpit was the 1960s era 727 which ceased production in 1984. Navigators and radio operators were eliminated decades earlier, replaced by inertial navigation systems and solid state radios.

Job Functions Were Consolidated, not Eliminated 

I think it important to note that none of the functions that those earlier crew members accomplished were actually eliminated, but rather consolidated into the job of pilot. Airplanes still needed to be navigated, engines needed to be started, monitored and kept running through fuel management, and radios still needed to be tuned and monitored. 

Automation has allowed pilots to assume all those duties while still flying the airplane. And as you've no doubt read somewhere on the internet, pilots only actually "fly" their airliners for just a few minutes per flight during takeoff and landing. For the most part this is true. I personally like to hand fly the jet more than most, but that is because I enjoy it. There is certainly no need to do so. For many, it is gear up, flaps up, autopilot on.

The dirty truth is the autopilot can fly better for longer than any human can. Sure, some pilots can fly a better final than "George" (the autopilot), but George doesn't get tired or rusty. This is a good thing, because it is that autopilot which frees up the two pilots to deal with things like a low oil pressure light during a diversion in bad weather.

Why Have Pilots at All?

Technology has eliminated all those other jobs on the airplane, and we have autopilots that routinely handle almost all the flying already, so what's the problem? Just make a machine that can handle the other three minutes of flying and we're done here.

This gets down to the fundamental reason pilots are really on the airplane, and that is decision making. The reason there are two pilots aboard? Collaboration and validation of the decision making process. Plus having two people up front has the added advantage that they help keep each other awake. (Laugh, but it will need to be addressed in a single pilot airliner.)

We will only need  to write some software that can handle the decisions that pilots are expected to make. This gets down to the question of things that machines do well versus the things that humans do well. They each have their strengths and weaknesses.

Pattern Recognition and Heuristics 

Computers are really good at tedious detail work such as, say, doing a spell check or a word find and replace on a blog post. What they're not so good at is deciding if you've buried the lede, or if your prose is somewhat leaden. That takes judgement, which is more difficult to code.

Have you ever wondered why all the fruits and vegetables in the supermarket have those little stickers on them used by the scanner? Why can't the scanner just look at a tomato and recognize it? The reason is that when you program the computer to recognize something that is "red" and "round" it will confuse tomatoes with apples (or red bell peppers). While humans will rarely mistake an apple for a tomato, getting a machine to routinely recognize the difference is more difficult, (and expensive) hence the stickers.

In short, humans are much better than machines at pattern recognition and heuristics, which is a fancy word for an educated guess or hunch. Humans are better decision makers in ambiguous situations. And many situations on an airliner can be ambiguous.

Canned Decision Making or AI

What is software other than prepackaged expertise and decisions? Automation is threatening whole sectors of the economy such as accounting because expertise and best practices can be distilled into code and sold to people who couldn't otherwise afford to hire a tireless expert. Accounting software, though, is unlikely to be presented a scenario which hasn't been preprogrammed. If it does come across such a situation, it would likely come to a halt state to await human intervention.

The software in a pilotless airplane would need to be either pre programmed with every possible scenario likely to ever be encountered, or to employ some sort of artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence (AI) is the ability of a machine to be able to process information which it hasn't specifically been programmed to handle, i.e. to learn. In short, it is canned judgement.

Advances in AI are being made all the time but it does have a way to go. Imagine a piece of software which would have the judgement to tell the difference between a need to do a gate return for a woman who'd left her purse in the gate area versus one whose husband had been seriously injured (or one of several million other scenarios). I can't imagine that either. 

So it seems apparent to me that we're going to need humans available to make decisions on or about airliners for the foreseeable future. The question arises as to how many humans are required, and if they should they actually be on the airplane.


Our current commercial airline transportation system consists of at least four people watching over your flight at any one time. Two or more pilots are up front, a dispatcher has planned your flight and keeps watch over things like destination weather and other operational concerns, while air traffic controllers keep your airplane away from all the other airplanes flying around.

All of these jobs are supposedly ripe for replacement through automation. Back in my military days my crew would come in the day before a scheduled flight and spend the entire day flight planning. Dispatchers today plan and oversee many dozens of flights per shift using sophisticated software tools. They become extremely busy, though, when many airplanes under their control have to divert in the case of bad weather in one location.

Similar automation and technology advancements are impacting the job of the air traffic controller as well. The FAA has proposed using advanced data tools to have a flight fully cleared and deconflicted from all other airborne traffic before it has even taken off. Controllers would only be available to intervene in the case of rapidly changing weather or other unpredictable contingencies such as aircraft emergencies.

Virtual Copilots

In the most likely interim single pilot scenario, one pilot aboard an airliner would be coupled with a "copilot" assistant on the ground connected through datalink. A decision would need to be made as to how many airborne planes would be assigned to each assistant. If the ratio is one to one, there would be little cost savings as assistants would likely make about as much as copilots currently do. Perhaps two to one or four to one. An optimal number will need to be found though this would open a new cost versus safety frontier that does not now exist.

These assistants would be only available for voice or text consultation given the current state of deployed technology. Robust telecommunications networks allowing for remote control of airliners along with control systems aboard airliners to allow such control, while technically feasible, currently do not exist and would require a sizeable investment in hardware and infrastructure to implement. This is certainly doable, but there is little evidence of any movement towards this future other than pure research.

The trend is unmistakable though. Fewer humans will, over time, be involved in watching over your flight, and this may work out just fine. The advantages of automation are manifest: lower costs and higher productivity being two of the greatest. A third metric, however, safety, may be the fly in the ointment.

Is It Safe?

2016 was a record year in US commercial aviation as there were no fatalities on any US commercial airline anywhere in the world. It is also the seventh straight year that this feat has been attained. In 2015 that worked out to 7.6 billion miles flown with a (non-fatal) accident rate of 0.155 per 100,000 flight hours. There are about 24,000 commercial flights per day in the US. Flying is extremely safe and this is not by accident.

The current state of safety in the airline industry has been achieved over the years through dogged research into human factors, technical standards, preventative maintenance, training, and accident investigations. Aviation policies and procedures for operators, controllers, and maintainers have years of development and history behind them. 

One of the best reasons to cheer the introduction of driverless cars is the promise of a reduction in the 35,000 annual US auto accident deaths. The promise of the pilotless airliner is mostly economic. Our commercial aviation system is already nearly as safe as can reasonably be accomplished short of parking airplanes.

The burden of proof from a safety point of view will be upon those wishing to introduce large changes into this system for marginal economic gains. Measured in defects per operations accomplished, matching the current safety record will be a challenge. Not impossible, but the bar is pretty high.

I personally find myself having to intervene multiple times a day to correct "errors" made by our current state of the art automation. My experience is not unique. Automation is not nearly as automatic as advertised. This record of course must improve before the system can be fully autonomous.

The current pilot shortage, one of the justifications for increasing automation, is a mostly self inflicted injury by the US aviation industry compounded by Congress. It will eventually work itself out through rising wages and ab initio training programs for prospective pilots. It should also be noted that the shortage is currently only a problem facing regional airlines. Major airlines are poaching all the pilots they need from the regionals and military for the time being. 

In Conclusion

To deflect the inevitable charge that I am merely a dinosaur expressing indignation at my own extinction, I'll say that I have every confidence that the goal of pilotless airliners will eventually be achieved given enough time and money. I also believe that it will not be nearly as cheap nor as easy as some acolytes of pilotless airplanes believe. If you'll notice, I haven't even touched on the acceptance of this idea by the flying public. I leave that for you, dear reader, to discuss in the comments. In any event, I'll be retired long before then.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The First Time the B-2 Bomber Flew was in the Belly of a C-5

B-2 wings
B-2 Wings being loaded at Boeing Field  (Photo - R Graves)

Not the whole bomber, mind you, but rather pieces of it. Big pieces, including the wings and the "cargo hold" otherwise known as the bomb bay structure were delivered for assembly by C-5 Galaxy airlift.

But first, a little background on the B-2 is in order. The B-2 Spirit, America's newest manned bomber was rolled out of the hangar at the Northrop facility at  Plant 42 in Palmdale, California on November 22, 1988. Echoing the design of Jack Northrop's YB-49 flying wing, the B-2 features computer flight controls to maintain the stability lacking in the earlier design along with advanced stealth structures and coatings designed to evade enemy radars.

As usual, the procurement program ended up being contentious. Starting with an initial planned buy of 132 aircraft, the number was later reduced to 75 aircraft, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, further reduced to only 20 aircraft. A test aircraft retained by Northrop was eventually delivered to the Air Force as an operational bomber to bring the total to 21 airframes. Including spare parts and other support, the final cost was nearly a billion dollars per delivered bomber. Adding in development, facilities, and procurement costs resulted in an astounding final cost of over two billion dollars per aircraft.

I am of course reminded of the Calvin Coolidge quote in regards to aircraft acquisition: "Why don't we buy just one airplane and let the pilots take turns flying it." He was more prescient than he knew.

The B-2 was assembled by Northrop in Palmdale, Ca, as I mentioned above, but as with any large acquisition program, much of the work was actually farmed out to many subcontractors who manufactured major parts of the aircraft. One of these subcontractors was the Boeing Corporation which had responsibility for the outboard portion of the wing, the aft center fuselage section, landing gears, fuel system and weapons delivery system.

Special Delivery

This work was carried out at the Boeing Military Airplanes Company facility located at Boeing Field in Seattle, Wa. How these large aircraft structures got from Seattle to Palmdale is where your humble narrator comes in. Rather than ship them via rail, which was perhaps the most cost efficient method, they were shipped via C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft. I don't know the reason for this, but it was probably due to secrecy and security considerations.

I was assigned to the crew that flew one of these missions back in 1993. It encompassed two days flying from Travis AFB to Boeing Field for pickup, and then on to Palmdale for delivery before returning to Travis. We laid over in Seattle.

One of the enlisted crewmembers on the trip was particularly resourceful and had arranged to get the entire crew a tour of both the Boeing facility and the Northrop assembly plant. This was no easy feat as the program, while not officially "black" (secret), still retained many of the security safeguards and procedures from the "black" days. This meant getting background clearance and customized ID badges. It turned out to be a real treat.

Plastic Model Kit

The inside of the plant appeared as you might expect with lots of large machinery laying about along with many technicians moving here and there. Entrance from any section of the factory to another required a keycard swipe and code entry which for 1993 was new and exotic. Right away though, it was obvious that something different was being built here.

The wings of the B-2 are not made of aluminum, but rather are constructed of resin impregnated graphite fiber. This was a new material used in aircraft construction which was first used by Airbus in the A320. The difference for Boeing was that while Airbus still used aluminum for the main structure of the wings on the A320, the entire structure of the B-2 wing is constructed of composite material.

And even though the technology involved in the manufacture of large composite structures is quite complex, I got the feeling I was watching a huge plastic model airplane being glued together. A huge jig which matched the shape of the wing was used to hold the cloth which was laid down by a computer controlled spool exactly where it was needed. Resin would then be applied, and the entire structure, which probably weighed several tons, was floated on air jets into a giant autoclave, which is a fancy word for oven.

It was there that it would cook until the resin and cloth were bonded. This formed an upper or lower skin panel of the wing which was then attached to composite "stringers" or beams to make up the wing structure.

Surprise Finding at Boeing Military

As we walked around, I couldn't help but notice a somewhat similar jig to that of the B-2 wing. It turned out to be for the tail of the new 777 project then undergoing. Like the Airbus, Boeing designed the horizontal stabilizer (or tail) of their new airplane using composites as well. Also interesting was that our guide was extremely reticent to talk about it when asked.

If you'll recall, back in that timeframe Boeing and Airbus were conducting a war of words over government subsidies to their respective industries. Boeing claimed that Airbus was able to undercut their pricing due to subsidies they received from their government owners, while Airbus countered that Boeing had similar advantages due to military contracts and technology transfers from military programs.

It makes sense to put all your large composite manufacturing projects in one location to avoid unnecessary duplication, but no doubt our guide may have been concerned about the optics of such an arrangement or had instructions to not discuss the subject.

Oxygen and Heart Monitors

In another part of the factory we then observed the wing being assembled. After the top and bottom skins had been attached to the stringers, workers would enter the wing structure to install wiring and plumbing. These workers were outfitted with oxygen masks and monitors to ensure that if they became incapacitated, they could be rescued quickly.

Our guide explained that in years gone by, an incapacitated worker might have been extracted by actually cutting into the aluminum wing skin. That wasn't happening on the billion dollar bomber, hence the monitors.

A Spy!

The next morning we were up early to preflight for our short flight from Seattle to Palmdale. As we got to the airplane, it was still being loaded with the B-2 wings which were tightly wrapped in tarps and attached to a travel framework. One of our contacts mentioned that in the "black" program days, the package would be augmented with extraneous pieces of styrofoam under the tarps to attempt to disguise the actual payload. The loading was also done at night. Neither of those precautions were necessary for our trip.

As we were in bright daylight and in view of the public, I asked for and received permission to take a few photos. In the process of so doing, another guard approached rapidly yelling for me to stop and wanting the film from my camera. The person who originally OK'd my reconnaissance intervened and I was allowed to remain out of custody with my camera film intact. That was just as well because there was no one else available to fly their bomber wings out that day.

Fred Soils the Boeing Ramp

As the loadmasters were busy closing up the nose of the airplane and securing our load, one of our APUs decided to blow a hydraulic line and dump some of the contents of the system onto the Boeing ramp. This got everyone quite excited. The folks at Boeing, being in a civilian organization under the auspices of the EPA and other government busybodies, were very concerned about a "hazardous fluid spill."

Now I've seen my share of hydraulic spills from the C-5 over the years and this one was relatively modest and quickly handled by a few shovelfuls of oil dry onto the offending puddle. In between snide comments by the Boeing personnel questioning the parentage of  Lockheed design engineers, the spill was cleaned up and the leak was secured.

Off We Go!

Other than being somewhat bulky, the wings didn't weigh much so our airplane was rather lightly loaded. The flight from Seattle to Palmdale is only a few hours so the fuel load was light as well. The leg was mine and Fred (the C-5) was just as anxious as we were to depart and quickly leapt into the sky.

After an uneventful flight to Palmdale we were ready to unload our precious cargo and enjoy another tour, this time of the Northrop assembly plant. Many of the same security protocols were in place here but we were not permitted down onto the factory floor. Instead we got to observe from a raised catwalk.

This factory did in fact look quite similar to any auto or aircraft assembly plant except that there were B-2 bombers in the line instead of 737s or cars. We did get to speak with one of the B-2 program test pilots whose name escapes me after the decades. This gentleman told us that he had also worked on the C-5 flight test program and relayed interesting factoids such as the B-2 having more wing area than that of the C-5.

Northrop B-2 Assembly plant in Palmdale, Ca (Photo - R Graves)

One Last Story

That was the end of our B-2 adventure but I wanted to relay one more bit of B-2 lore. On that day back in 1988 when the B-2 was first rolled out of the Northrop plant for public viewing, the Air Force took extensive steps to ensure that the back of the airplane would not be publicly visible. Shielding the engine exhaust from radar was considered a difficult problem to solve and the intent was apparently to conceal the exact design.

An enterprising editor at Aviation Week magazine named Mike Dornheim noted, however, that the Air Force had neglected to close the airspace over Palmdale that day. Dornheim rented a Cessna and along with a photographer got complete photos of the entire B-2 which were featured prominently in the magazine the following week.

But one has to question the need for all the secrecy, as it was later noted that the stylized star design painted on the ramp for that occasion was actually made using silhouettes of the bomber.

Overhead shot of B-2 rollout
Overhead photo taken by Aviation Week editor

B-2 logo star is made up of five B-2 silhouettes
B-2 Rollout. The star is made of
B-2 silhouettes.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Decision Making in Real Time: Are Your Priorities in Line?

Steer clear of this

I recently operated a flight from Las Vegas to New Orleans which, while having an unremarkable outcome...we landed safely at our destination...presented my first officer and I with some interesting challenges. In short, a solid line of thunderstorms had formed stretching from southwest Texas up to Wisconsin. While the line was mostly unbroken, there were a few gaps that an airliner might have safely passed through. The rest of it was bad news and several serious tornadoes were spawned by this storm.

The questions confronting us were: Could we get around the line? Did we have enough fuel to deviate around the line and continue to our destination? Should we deviate to the south to go around the line or to the north and try to shoot through a gap? Should we turn around and return to Vegas? Or should we simply divert to a closer airport to wait out the storm?

We of course knew that there was a forecast for convective activity and were carrying extra fuel for that reason, but the exact shape and location of storm formation cannot be forecast with any accuracy. We deal with a world of probabilities.

First, though, I should describe the nature of thunderstorms for any aviation laypersons who might be reading. Thunderstorms, otherwise known as "convective activity" or "extreme precipitation" are not to be trifled with. There are essentially no aircraft, including military aircraft, which can safely penetrate a large thunderstorm. Even the military "hurricane hunter" C-130 aircraft must avoid embedded storm cells, and while a fighter aircraft might not be torn apart by a storm, it's engines can be easily extinguished by the sheer amount of water that they would ingest or the canopy might shatter due to hail.

Airliners, of course are soft targets when it comes to large thunderstorms. Though built to take a lot of pounding, intentionally penetrating a thunderstorm in an airliner would be a supremely foolish and dangerous act. It just isn't done, and much care is taken to avoid tangling with these monsters.

Operational Priorities are at the Heart of Good Decisions

Having been made aware of the unbroken nature of this line several hundred miles prior, we had to make a decision and implement it with not much time before we were upon the storm. Decision making is never done in a vacuum, but must include the consideration of current conditions, collaborative input from other resources such as my copilot, air traffic control, and our dispatcher, and finally and perhaps most importantly, our operational priorities.

My airline, along I suspect with most others, has published a list of operational priorities to which we must adhere in all our operations. Those priorities in order are 1) Safety, 2) Service, and 3) Being efficiently on time. I must confess that having such a simplified and straightforward list of priorities really makes my job a lot easier. I can also see that losing sight of these priorities is an easy way to get into trouble.

So keeping these priorities in mind, we had to decide the best way to either navigate around the storm or to turn around and to wait it out. Revisiting our decision tree with these priorities in mind, we determined that the storms were too high and dangerous to go over, and while the gap up north might have worked, there was no guarantee that it would stay open until we got through it. Turning around and returning to Las Vegas would have been safe, but would also have caused an unnecessary delay and burned a lot of fuel for no reason, violating priorities two and three.

We were left with choosing between a divert to a nearby city to wait out the storm or to deviate to the south to go around the line. As we had fuel for the extra distance, we elected to fly several hundred miles to the south to go around the line while enjoying a truly awesome lightning display. Had we decided, however, that the extra flying took more fuel than the extra fuel that we had, a divert to a nearby city would have been the next best choice.

What are Your Priorities?

I have it much easier than you. My company has given me a short and cogent list of priorities, and any decision I make will be weighed with those in mind. You, however, may not have a list or it may be a long and constantly changing one. Or perhaps it is vague to the point of uselessness. Your challenge, in whatever business you may happen to be in, is to ferret out what those priorities are and to apply them correctly in your business decisions.

When you do make a decision, be sure to make a note of the priorities that were under consideration at the time. Monday morning quarterbacking is easy to do (which is why it gets done so often) so it is always best to be able to explain your thought process. A bad decision is much easier to defend if it was made in good faith with pre established guidelines.

So that's it. We lived to fight again another day by keeping our priorities straight, and you will too. Now if we can only get through Atlanta one more time with our sanity intact.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

A Good Rant

airline cabins are dictatorships, not democracies

I found this little essay while surfing the Interwebs. Slightly overwrought perhaps, but it does a reasonable job of getting this guy's point across. Enjoy:

Let's get some facts on the table. As an airline captain, I am the sole authority on the airplane. With that authority comes great responsibility. Likewise, FAR 91.1 states that I am solely responsible for the safe operation of the flight. Therefore, I am responsible for each and every one of you once you cross the threshold of the airplane door. Keep that in mind as we progress.

In other words, you break a rule and I could lose my license. My livelihood is not worth your inability to comply. That aside, lets look at why the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR's) are what they are.

Most pilots will agree that the FAR's are written in blood. Every one of the rules was written as the result of the loss of life (a crash.) For example, most of you don't get why you have to have your seat-back and your tray table up for take off. Fact is, the most dangerous part of your fight is the high-speed takeoff regime-- that point from approximately 100 mph to lift-off. I don't need to get into the reasons why, but it is.

Should an engine fail and the captain decide to stop on the runway, the odds are great that the plane will sustain damage and emergency evacuation will be likely. Imagine that situation with the moron in front of you having reclined his seat to the aft position and the idiot in the seat between you and the aisle having his tray table down.

The FAA knows this and regulates against it because the FAA certifies airplanes based on a full airplane evacuation in a set amount of time. They do not take into account idiots like the guys ahead of you and next to you. In this scenario, you will likely burn and die. Those non-compliers blocked your egress, and you suffered.

I wish our Flight Attendants could tell you all this. Maybe you would police each other for your own safety. Then, our flight attendants would not have to tell you to put your seat up and hear words like "witch" uttered under your breath. This is just one example of rules made by the FAA to protect YOUR safety.

Fast forward to this situation. Do you remember 9/11? Do you remember Pan Am 103? There are so many security protocols of which you are not aware. Seats assigned must match names. Luggage must match seats assigned. You cannot book on two flights simultaneously. The computer systems know this. You cannot merely give a seat to another person. That is kinda how Pan Am 103 happened--seat bought for someone then someone else showed up and took the seat.

As a result, the security systems in place at every airline can immediately send me, on the flight deck at Flight Level 350 (35,000 feet), everything I want to know about you. I can conference call every government security entity that I so desire. I plan to go home to my son and the other Captain Walker at the end of every flight, so guess what? I’m not giving an inch on security. I get paid to get ALL 220 people there safely, not just you and your whiney, self-centered issues. Your refusal to play by the rules like the rest of us and merely change the name on the seat is no better than any other law-breaker.

At some point, all this arguing on the ground in the back of my airplane becomes a threat to FAR 91.1, my edict that I ensure the safe operation of the flight. If you cannot follow orders on the ground, it’s highly unlikely you will do so at FL 350. Get one thing strait, once you board a US airliner, you are entering a DICTATORSHIP.

IT IS NOT A DEMOCRACY. I AM THE DICTATOR. NORMALLY, I AM A VERY BENEVOLENT DICTATOR, BUT A DICTATOR, NONETHELESS! DON’T FORGET THAT. It is my ship. I am in command. I have the full faith and backing of the Federal Aviation Administration (thus the US Government), my company, and my co-workers. There are NO “ifs”, “ands”, or “buts” about it! I don’t care about your lawyers, or your camera phone.

I have one job to do, and that responsibility--the safety of the other 199 people--trumps your wants or needs. And, if I do not do that job, including removing you for being disruptive, I could lose my licenses, livelihood, and even end up in jail. Therefore, when push comes to shove, I WILL WIN. You can take that to the bank.

Let me take a moment and explain this. 99.99999% of the time, all goes great. I meet wonderful customers for whom I am sincerely thankful for their business. I take kids to see Mickey Mouse; military sons to reunite with their families; and, even fallen heros home to rest. But, every now and then, there is one. There is one person who cannot play by the rules; one person who thinks their situation is more important that all the others on the airplane; one who just cannot follow instructions.

Imagine for a moment you are a Captain on a flight with someone who just cannot follow instructions, whether it be not turning off their phones for takeoff (there really is a reason for this), or someone won’t put their tray table up. You know all this before take off because the flight attendants keep calling. Would you take this insolent passenger for a ride knowing that if everything goes great, no harm done, but if one thing goes wrong, you could be called to sit before the NTSB and answer questions about your judgment and likely lose your career?

You have a passenger on board who will not comply with simple flight crew requests on the ground, and you stupidly take them flying. Now you are at FL350. You cage a motor; conduct an emergency descent; and, ask your flight attendants to prepare the cabin for an emergency landing. There are deadheading flight crew in various seats in the back. They are fully trained on the operation of the over-wing exits, slides, rafts, and evacuations.

As Captain, you tell the flight attendants to move the crew to the emergency exit rows to facilitate a fast evacuation giving the most number of passengers a fighting chance at survival. However, your insolent problem who refused to put up his tray table is now refusing to change seats with the trained deadheading pilots. The lives of 200 people are in your hands. What do you do?

Now, perhaps, you understand why the law of the sea governs the skies. You know why you need that dictator at that point who knows their job, and can fly the $hit out of that plane. And, you know why the majority of us pilots will get problems removed before we ever get in the air.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Why is it Always So Freaking Cold (or Hot) on my Plane?

Temperature control on airliners shouldn't be difficult
Freezer or Sauna?

You get to the airport parking lot, run to catch your shuttle, make it through the TSA body cavity search, and then schlep your stuff a thousand yards to the gate. You board and heave your rollaboard into the overhead bin. After finally sitting down you notice two things: you are drenched in sweat and there is almost no air coming out of the vents. Or if there is air, it is warm.

Or perhaps it's July and you have a light shirt and slacks on for your trip but have brought no jacket. But shortly after takeoff you notice that it's cold in the cabin. I mean really cold. Your hands are blue and you are shivering.

So why the heck can the airlines never seem to get the temperature right? How difficult can it be?

As it turns out, getting it right is more difficult than you would think. This issue has about 85 moving parts involving both human and mechanical factors. I'd like to go over each aspect of what goes wrong, but first let me give you a quick description of the systems in place which provide heating and cooling aboard your aircraft.

Heating and Cooling At the Gate

In years gone by, heating and cooling at the gate were mostly provided by running a unit on board the aircraft known as the auxiliary power unit or APU. This is a small turbine engine usually mounted in the tail which provides both electrical and hydraulic power for use during preflight and also pressurized air to run the air conditioning or heating system. 

It generally worked well but consumed a lot of fuel and the technique was eventually replaced by the use of large heating and cooling units mounted directly on or near the jet bridge. Ground crews are required to attach a large air hose to the belly of the aircraft to allow this unit to heat or cool the interior of the plane. The systems are either programmed to provide a preset temperature or a temperature probe might be hung in the cabin to provide feedback to the system.

737 Pneumatic System
737 Air Distribution

Cooling and Heating While Under Way

After the airplane is away from the gate and under its own power, all heating and cooling is provided by onboard systems which are powered by compressed air from the engines. These onboard units are known as pneumatic air cycle machines or PACs (on Boeing aircraft) and not only provide heating and cooling but also pressurization to the cabin while at altitude.

Without going too far down the rabbit hole concerning Carnot cycles and thermodynamic flow equations, suffice it to say that the units take hot compressed air from the engines and make cold air out of it or use the hot air directly for heat. Yes, all the air that you're breathing on an airplane is brought in through the mouth of the engines. It is also why an engine malfunction can quickly fill the cabin with smoke, but that's a topic for another time.

After going through some plumbing and a water separator, the air is distributed to the cabin through ducting and the gasper outlets, which are those little twisty vents over your seat. The system temperature is controlled through the use of a thermostat which is usually located in the cockpit. It is supposed to be a "set and forget" type of arrangement which should always provide a comfortable temperature over a range of aircraft operating states such as taxi, climb, cruise, or descent.

At least that's how it is supposed to work. Let's now take a look at the many things that can go wrong to make you miserable.

Human Factor Errors

One of the basic problems concerning complex feedback systems is that the freezing or sweating in your not the controller. A systems engineer might say the feedback loop of this control system is in an open state. My suggestion is that you attempt to close the loop by hitting your call button and complaining. Many times certain parts of the plane may be warmer or cooler than others. The galley where the flight attendants spend most of their time may be fine. Let them know that you are not fine.

Another issue could be that the user is feeling perfectly fine, but that person is not you, it is a flight attendant. They are the ones who call the cockpit to request a warmer or cooler temperature. On some airplanes, they can control the temperature directly. Remember, they are constantly on their feet and are likely to appreciate a cooler cabin than you sitting in your seat motionless. Again, if no one complains, they have no way of knowing.

The same dynamic is true for the pilots. If they don't hear any complaints from the back, they'll just assume everything is OK. And speaking of pilots, they are sitting up front in a glass house. It is the guy in the right seat who controls the temperature, so if he is on the sunny side of the airplane and is warm, he'll just dial it down.

Another thing I've noticed is that some folks just naturally run cold or hot. Heavier people seem to like it cooler than thin people. So if your first officer appears as an endomorph and is sitting on the sunny side of the plane, that may explain why you're freezing in your seat. Again, hit that call button and complain.

Operator Errors

Another class of error in temperature control might be classified as operator errors. For instance, on a coolish spring or fall day the ground crews may simply neglect to connect the air hose thinking that the temperature outside is cool so it must be OK inside the airplane. What they don't realize is that several hundred bodies in an aluminum tube will always result in a stuffy cabin even on the coldest of days. This problem is compounded when the pilots fail to look out the window to see a folded up or deflated air hose. The solution is to start the APU and get some air flowing.

Being a commuter, this is my personal pet peeve. We have a certain set of pilots who mean well but have their priorities askew. They are reluctant to start the APU because they've been told that it uses too much fuel, so in this situation they will call station operations on the radio to request that the ground air be hooked up. Station operations will then call the ramp agent who's probably loading bags and now has to stop what he's doing to hook up the air. All this might take five minutes. And surely you won't mind going into your meeting with sweat stains on your shirt.

My technique is to reach up and to start the APU, get some air to the customers, and to then perhaps chase down why the ground air isn't hooked up or working. Most jet bridges are owned by the airport authority which is usually a city-owned bureaucracy. If they are out of service for maintenance, making a call to get them fixed is literally the same as calling city hall to get a pothole fixed. Good luck with that.

I was even once parked at a gate without a working APU, so the only source of air was the ground unit. As I sat there in a full airplane on a summer day, a city crew pulled up, turned off the unit, and before I could shout at them, drained the coolant out of it to perform some maintenance. When I asked them if they noticed this big blue thing with wings and engines sitting there, the answer back was that they had their orders and didn't know nuthin about no airplanes. Luckily we were close to pushback, but this is part of the impenetrable stupidity that makes the job so enjoyable.

Lastly, sometimes the system is either overwhelmed such as waiting for takeoff on a 110 degree day in Phoenix with a full airplane, or it simply doesn't perform as expected. There's not much that can be done about the former, but if the system won't heat or cool properly, it needs to be written up and fixed. This can take some time.

In Conclusion

The heating and cooling systems on jet aircraft are charged with keeping you comfortable while the temperature outside the aircraft can range from over 100 degrees to 50 degrees below zero at altitude. They usually do a pretty good job but have their limits mainly due to human or mechanical error. The best thing you can do to ensure a comfortable ride is to speak up...and to bring a jacket.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Curious Case of Dr. Dao

The Curious Case of Dr. Dao
There were no winners here

By now we've all heard of the events on United Express Flight 3411 wherein a passenger refused to deplane to accommodate some deadheading crew and was eventually dragged off the aircraft by Chicago law enforcement officers. The passenger, Dr. David Dao, suffered some injuries including two broken teeth and had to be treated in a hospital following his forceful removal from the aircraft.

As this is an aviation blog, and before I bury the lede too far, I'd like to look at this event from the aspect of what the pilots could or should have done. The answer is much less than you might expect given that the airplane was parked at the gate and that there were no safety concerns. In spite of what a few keyboard warriors hanging around my blog may assert, federal law concerning pilot authority is quite clear on the limits to a pilot's responsibility and authority.

But before I dig into that, let's review the story as it stands so far, shall we?

The incident was captured on various personal devices for our enjoyment and the internet predictably blew up on cue. Many hot takes were given, much outrage was expressed, and many gallons of ink were spilled as everyone who could form an opinion, valid or not, did so. Here are just a few.

Everyone has gotten in on the act

The entire sovereign nation of China, one of United's largest destinations by customer count, wasted no time in ginning up the indignation sirens claiming that Dr. Dao's shabby treatment was a result of racial animus against persons of Chinese descent. This had to be revised to accusations of a general anti-Asian bias when it was revealed that the good doctor is of Vietnamese extraction. (The incident was nothing of the sort, and it would be nice if racism wasn't the knee-jerk go-to explanation for everything under the sun.)

Economists have weighed in on the economics of offering money to entice people to give up their seats. There's a good reason that economics is called the dismal science, as my head hurts after reading about all the game theory that applies. Perhaps United should have just upped the ante of cash offered. Eventually someone would have taken the deal.

Legal eagles have offered advice concerning the fine print that is contained in the contract of carriage which all passengers agree to when purchasing a ticket. One aviation lawyer I found believes that the airline was justified in removing the doctor as his opinion is that no property right is created through the purchase of a ticket. Another lawyer blog believes otherwise stating that United did not correctly follow its own directives. In the end, it will come down to precedent, case law, and the legal interpretation of words such as "boarded" and "oversold". The doctor has hired a competent lawyer and is planning on suing everyone in sight. My personal view is that while United may win the legal battle, it long ago lost the PR war.

From a law enforcement point of view, three officers from the Chicago Department of Aviation, were the ones who removed the doctor from the plane. The doctor resisted their efforts and in the process of this resistance hit his face on an armrest resulting in his injuries. At least one of the officers has been placed on leave for not following standard operating procedure (SOP). While I have no doubt that an investigation will determine whether SOP was followed or not, it seems to me that if a 69 year old man can't be removed from an airplane without being bloodied then perhaps they were doing it wrong. On the other hand, resisting law enforcement is never a good idea.

Civil libertarians of course see this as one more road sign along the route to the coming police state. I'm not so sure that this incident is reflective of an improper use of law enforcement. After all, should you plant yourself on a couch at Macy's at closing time and refuse to move, you will likely be escorted off the property by some form of law enforcement given enough time. United for its part has forsworn the future use of law enforcement to remove passengers. I think I can safely predict a new class of delay as passengers refuse to disembark for this reason or that and nothing gets done.

For some homespun humor and common sense about the incident we turn to Mike Rowe who points out that a simple appeal to reason would have quickly resolved the problem.

Lastly, many are pointing out that the good doctor himself has a somewhat shady past involving drugs and sex which cost him his medical license for a while. Even the doctor's story as to why it was important for him not to be removed was not quite true. So what does this have to do with anything that happened on the airplane? Absolutely nothing. Nothing, that is, unless you are a lawyer trying to paint the doctor as a quick witted grifter who intentionally acted out in search of a pay out. It will be left to the lawyers, judges, and jurors to sort that one out.

Pilot's Authority

The pilots of United were quick to point out that this incident actually took place on a Republic Airways owned and operated flight hoping to avoid association with the affair. That's some facile reasoning as the airplanes are branded with the United brand and the Republic employees are clothed in United uniforms. But the pilots probably shouldn't be so defensive. The pilots on that plane likely had zero input into any of the events that transpired. They may not even have known what was going on until the police arrived.

This of course brings us back to the topic of what the pilots could or should have done. There may have been a time in the distant past where pilots were expected to exercise authority over every aspect of the operation. Think back to, say, a Pan Am Model 314 making its way around the Pacific Rim in 1939. Back then the captain was the chief customer service agent and company representative. He had to be. There was no one else around.

Today things are different. Ticket agents, operations agents, boarding agents, customer service agents, ground operations supervisors, and the big kahuna, complaint resolution officials control nearly all aspects of airline customer service while the airplane is parked at the gate. They decide who goes on and who gets pulled off. The pilots do not.

 Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) are quite clear on this matter. Here's the relevant text:

 §91.3   Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command. 
(a) The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft. 
(b) In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.

In case you were wondering, the term "operation of that aircraft" does not include who gets denied boarding while parked at the gate. Do pilots have any input into this process at all? Yes, but only from a safety or security point of view.

For instance, should a flight attendant inform me that a customer appears to be inebriated during boarding, it is my responsibility to make sure we don't fly with an inebriated passenger, which is a violation of FARs. However I have been given zero training in recognizing the signs of inebriation. Perhaps the passenger has a medical condition or just took a pill to help with anxiety. I don't have the slightest way to tell.

Fortunately, the airline has hired and trained individuals who do have the expertise to make such a call. In fact all airlines expect their hired and trained experts to handle such customer service issues. Any pilot who came charging out of the cockpit to throw a passenger off for anything other than a clear safety issue would quickly find himself in the chief pilot's office making arrangements for an unpaid vacation or the target of a discrimination lawsuit or both.

In the case of a mis-boarded passenger as was the case here, pilots have little or no input. Oh sure, pilots can offer an opinion, but customer service issues are the purview of customer service agents. And once law enforcement arrives to remove a passenger at the direction of ground operations, pilots again have zero official input.

In Conclusion

United airlines unwittingly touched the third rail of customer dissatisfaction by becoming a lighting rod for an ocean of pent up frustration concerning airline passenger treatment (to mix metaphors). This frustration is no doubt heavily contributed to by the goons running the TSA, but it is the airlines' problem to solve. All airlines should do themselves a big favor by using this unfortunate incident to take a good look in the mirror and to ask themselves why their customers are so ready to grab the pitchforks when it comes to customer service. Incidents like this don't help.