Saturday, June 27, 2015

The End of the Commuter Airlines?

In an interesting development, Delta Airlines recently announced the purchase of 20 Embraer E190 100 seat aircraft to be flown by Delta mainline pilots. This is significant because it represents a departure from the business model of 100 seat or fewer aircraft being flown by outsourced regional airlines at significantly reduced wages compared to mainline aircraft.

This deal is contingent on the Delta pilots' union ratifying the latest labor agreement which establishes pay rates for the smaller aircraft. Historically flown by regional carriers such as Skywest and Comair under the livery of Delta Connection, Delta mainline pilots will now operate these aircraft along with the smallish Boeing 717 aircraft which were acquired from Southwest after their merger with AirTran.

The existence of the current regional airline industry has always been dependent on two things: cheap gas and labor. Starting with the introduction of the first small commuter jets like the Bombardier CRJ-200 50 seat aircraft in the mid 90s, the business model was to use the speed and range of the new jets to bypass a nearby hub to feed passengers directly into a distant hub.

A number of factors prevented this vision from being fully implemented but regional jets (RJs) did become a fixture of the airline industry serving smaller airports which might not have enough traffic to support larger narrow body jets like the Airbus A319 or Boeing 737. Typically, regional airlines would sign long term fixed rate agreements with their sponsor airline. All they had to do then was to lower their own costs to make more money.

Primarily hiring young pilots wishing to build hours, regional airline wages for aircrew are a fraction of those in the main line carriers. Relatively cheap prices for fuel in the '90s and '00s also helped to keep this business model afloat even though on a seat-mile basis RJs are more expensive to operate than larger aircraft having many more seats to generate revenue.

Over time the 50 seaters gave way to larger and more economical 70 to 90 seat aircraft in the late '00s. But it appears as if a perfect storm of both high fuel prices and a pilot shortage may be signalling the end of the RJ era.

Large numbers of Vietnam era pilots are retiring from the mainline carriers. These pilots are being replaced with pilots being hired from regional carriers, but new rules recently instituted by the FAA have raised an extremely high bar for aspiring pilots to get the hours required to be hired at the regionals. The result has been reduced service and even the abandonment of some routes by regionals for lack of pilots. The upshot is that wages will rise for the few pilots that remain in a tug of war between carriers.

Delta may have realized that as long as the benefits of having cheap labor around aren't available, there may be no reason to outsource their operation to a regional airline. They'd certainly have more control over service levels and product quality if the operation was kept in house.

This may be what is happening. If the other legacy airlines follow suit, the game may be up for the regional airline model. As always in this business...stay tuned!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Runway Collision Barely Averted in Chicago

On June 16th, two airliners with very similar call signs both started their takeoff roll towards one another on intersecting runways. Delta flight 1328 and Southwest flight 3828 were both lined up awaiting takeoff when the tower controller cleared the Southwest flight to go. The Delta flight erroneously took the clearance meant for the other airplane and also started its takeoff run. An alert tower controller saw what had happened and directed both aircraft to abort their takeoffs which they did. There was no collision.

This is a classic case of mis-hearing an instruction on the radio meant for another aircraft. Listening for your call sign on the radio can be nearly impossible when the frequency is busy. Sometimes you'll only hear perhaps the last digit or two of your call sign. Clearly, that method fails in a case like this when there are such similar call signs. The pilots of both aircraft had been previously advised that another airplane with a similar call sign was on the frequency which they both acknowledged.

Errors such as confusing a heading assignment for an altitude assignment, mistaking an altitude assignment such as "two-four-zero" for "three-four-zero", or mishearing a frequency assignment are legion in aviation today. It's easy to do and all pilots have made such errors. Those that say otherwise are not being honest. The vast majority of such errors are caught by either another pilot or controller and have little ill effect. But the potential for mayhem is always there.

One of the greatest tragedies in commercial aviation, the runway collision in Tenerife between two 747s resulting in 583 deaths, was due in part to radio miscommunication. There have been many suggested remedies over the years but none were practical enough to use. That could be changing with the introduction of digital data link technology.

A new system called CPDLC (controller pilot data link communication) may eventually replace some if not all spoken radio chatter between pilots and controllers. Already in use on some oceanic routes, an onboard data link allows pilots and controllers to relay instructions through satellite communications. Bringing this system to domestic operations could do much to alleviate missed and erroneous clearances.

One ongoing concern about the movement towards datalink communications has been concern over the loss of the "party line" effect. When an instruction is given to one aircraft, all other planes on the frequency hear the instruction which helps pilots to build a mental model of where other airplanes are and what they will be doing. The concern is that with digital communications between just one pilot to the controller over the datalink, other pilots won't for instance know that an airplane has been cleared to land on the runway they might be sitting on awaiting takeoff.

There could certainly be work arounds and other methods for ensuring the benefits of shared information through a common frequency are not lost with the implementation of datalink communication. Most likely, high altitude airspace will be the first place for the deployment of datalinks followed by approach and tower controllers as bugs are worked out.

If the very common problem of misheard audio communications is solved by use of datalink, a large source of errors dating back to the earliest days of aviation may finally be stanched.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Boeing 787 Takeoff? Meh.

Hey, don't get me wrong, the 787 is one beautiful machine and I'm sure the takeoff was very very impressive, but it's really nothing too special. Pretty much any airliner flying today could make a similar display.

One reason that this takeoff video looked impressive is that it was shot from a helicopter with a telephoto lens. The lens makes everything in the distance appear to be foreshortened, which means that the vertical aspect in the shot is emphasized by the magnification of the lens.

The other reason is that the airplane is doing something that is normally never done. It's what pilots call a maximum performance takeoff. And other than places like Orange County, California, it's never seen. Even the takeoffs from Orange County will be less dramatic because those planes have people, luggage and fuel aboard and the pilots are still limited to 20° climb angle. The 787 demo had no passengers, no luggage, and very little fuel. And it was flown by Boeing test pilots.

Judging by how many shares of this video are showing up on Twitter and Facebook, people must be thinking that the 787 is one badass airplane: the airline equivalent of a '69 GTO with the 428 under the hood. That would be a misperception.

The 787, like all airliners, was designed to make money. The engines that Boeing hangs under their airplanes' wings are only big enough to be able to do two things. One is to be able to lift a full plane, carrying enough fuel to cross an ocean off the ground in less than about a mile of takeoff roll. The other is to keep the beast airborne for a few hours with only one engine working should the other one quit.

Any thrust in excess of the amount needed for the above jobs would mean excess weight, and be a waste of fuel and of course money. Remember, this thing has to make money. In fact the whole reason for the existence of this video is to stir up interest for a huge sales event, the Paris Airshow.

One of the largest aerospace trade shows in the world, the Paris Airshow is where corporate poobahs meet to show off their wares and to sign sales orders for billions of dollars on everything aviation related. Who would like to guess how many cases of Dom will be on hand?

And for anyone who has any experience with trade shows or sales and marketing, you know that the decision making depends on way more than mere green eyeshade concerns like acquisition or operating costs. There's also that certain je ne sais quoi which will add just the right amount of pizazz to close the sale. At aviation trade shows, that means airborne displays. Hence the Paris Airshow.

Of course the ne plus ultra of airshow extravaganzas was way back in 1955 when Tex Johnston rolled the prototype 707 at an airshow in front of the world's aviation executives. When called into the office by CEO Bill Allen and asked what he was doing, Johnston simply replied "selling airplanes".

I will bid adieu to this post with a pointer to an equally dramatic takeoff video of a 70s era military DC-10 at an airshow.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Laser Threat to Airliners is Real (and Growing)

The laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) was invented in 1960 and since then has become a technology which is indispensable for modern life. Unfortunately, pranksters shining lasers at airplanes are a growing threat to air safety using them to cause flash blindness and distraction. The FAA started tracking laser attacks against aircraft in 2005 counting about 200. Since then the attacks have escalated in both number and intensity to nearly 4000 reported in 2014. I've personally been lased at least a couple of times.

Properly used, lasers are essential in applications ranging from communications to navigation, manufacturing, lithography, bar code scanners, and of course entertainment. Most commercial airliners even employ ring laser gyros which are used for stabilization and navigation. I recall using a laser to measure the speed of light in my freshman physics class back in 1977 . We modulated the beam and shot it down to the roof of the cafeteria and back to the engineering building measuring the lag in the returning signal to divide into the distance. Little did I know how new or expensive laboratory lasers were back then.

Well as you know, lasers have become quite a bit cheaper since then and pen sized and smaller laser pointers are everywhere. The red dot of a laser pointer could just as easily be coming from a teacher giving a lecture as from cops aiming weapons at a perp. So of course as day follows night, knuckleheads will come up with ways to become a nuisance with their new toys.

One of the first nuisance applications of laser pointers was at sports matches. Flashing a laser pointer in the eyes of the opposing team player was a great way to distract or perhaps momentarily flash blind someone preparing to score. Laser pointers are now banned at most sporting and entertainment venues. Having their fun spoiled there, miscreants then turned their lasers skyward towards airplanes. The problem is that being more than just being a nuisance, flash blinding a pilot on approach can have a potentially bad outcome.

One problem is that the lasers being used are becoming more powerful. They can not only momentarily distract, but can cause long lasting flash blindness and even permanent retinal damage and burns. And this damage can happen with just a few seconds or less of exposure. High power lasers are readily available through internet sales and present a growing threat.

This Isn't Really That New

Way back in the 1980s it was the Russians who first used lasers against aircraft. It was during the cold war that the Soviets would stuff ships disguised as fishing trawlers with all sorts of intelligence gathering gear to spy on US military assets. The Navy would then monitor and sometimes harass these "intel trawlers" with P-3 and other patrol planes. Standard cold war cat and mouse game so far. No one got hurt.

Then in 1987, it was reported that a US military aircraft, a WC-135, had been "illuminated" with a laser from a Soviet trawler blinding the pilot. Had the other pilot not been momentarily looking down, both pilots would have been blinded. This was only one of many attacks by the Soviets against US aircraft. A subsequent accord signed in 1989 banned the use of military lasers against aircraft but the Russians were back at it in 1997 with another laser attack against a Canadian helicopter in the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Vancouver.

Nuisance or Danger

So it's obvious that the Russians were using high power lasers that caused permanent eye damage in the pilots and others who were hit. The helicopter pilot and observer in the 1997 incident were permanently grounded with confirmed laser burns to their eyes. Since that time, laser illumination of commercial aircraft has exploded. Only it isn't a foreign military causing all the trouble now but rather homegrown pranksters looking for cheap thrills mostly. Lasers of course have differing power levels and hence ability to blind. Let's take a look at the various types and power levels available to the public.

The FDA regulates the sales of lasers in the US. They are classified by color, power rating, and their ability to cause damage to the eyes and skin. Laser pointers rated as Class 1 or 2 are considered mostly harmless. The power ratings are in the 1 to 5 milliwatt range. Class 2 lasers cannot harm the eyes in less than the human blink or look away response of one quarter second. Class 3 lasers can injure the eye even through reflections and must be used with eye protection. Class 4 lasers are high powered lasers which can burn both eyes and skin. 

The commercially available laser I mentioned above is sold to the public as a class 4 laser with a 2000mW (2 watt) power rating. And I'll admit that while it looks totally badass in a Darth Vader lightsaber kind of way, I can't think of why anyone would need one. Still, for under $300, why not? Just don't aim it at an airplane. That's a felony. This one, by the way, is not available for sale in the US (but is in Canada and Mexico).

Distance is also a factor in laser attacks. Laser pointers rated at 5mW can make it difficult to see out an aircraft window at 1000 ft slant distance but their brightness falls off quickly, remaining visible but not producing flash blindness beyond about 4000 ft. It should be noted that laser pointers are generally not considered capable of causing eye injury but only temporary flash blindness and distraction. One factor that helps the situation is that it is difficult to keep a handheld laser trained on a moving aircraft which means shorter bursts of light in the cockpit.

It is of course the laser radiation reaching the eye which will cause damage and this is measured in microwatts per square centimeter. The type of eye injury a more powerful laser can cause is dependent on its frequency or color and this is due to the light absorption properties of differing parts of the eye. Some lasers burn the retina while others cloud the cornea and lens. And this damage can happen faster than the blink response for powerful lasers. The most dangerous lasers are those producing infrared or ultraviolet light which can damage the eyes but don't initiate a blink response due to the beam not being visible. The Soviets were alleged to have been using these.

 A safe distance known as the nominal ocular hazard distance or NOHD, describes the distance at which the maximum personal exposure or MPE is achieved. Beyond the NOHD, a laser is generally considered safe if not deliberately stared at. Class 1 and 2 lasers have no NOHD but Class 3 and 4 lasers have an NOHD measured in kilometers...more than enough distance to seriously injure the eyesight of pilots flying overhead. And this has happened recently.

So What's Being Done?

Shining a laser at an aircraft is already a federal crime currently punishable by five years in prison, but in a separate law, interference with the operation of an aircraft carries a penalty of up to 20 years according to the FBI. A man was sentenced to a 14 year term last year for shining a laser at a police helicopter in Fresno. The hefty term was considered a breakthrough which will serve to telegraph the seriousness of this crime. The FBI is also offering a $10,000 reward for information on laser criminals. This should do quite a bit to help nab perps as well.

The difficult part of catching laser criminals is the ease with which a laser can be shot and then quickly put back into a pocket. Many of the current convictions have arisen from laser attacks against police helicopters which of course have assets on the ground to find and arrest attackers. But with only 141 arrests and 87 convictions since 2004, this crime is easy to commit with impunity. Ongoing education efforts will also help to spread the word that lasers are not toys.

Other than counting on concerned citizens actually seeing and reporting lasing incidents, or police helicopters which can pinpoint laser attacks, it appears that not much else can be done. Technology may change that. High resolution airborne cameras may be a possible solution. Dubbed "persistent surveillance" and used in Iraq to spot IED planters, a camera that is always watching the area around an airport might be able to pinpoint the origin of a laser attack and then perhaps even record the movement of the perp back to his house. Perhaps the cameras could be mounted on the bellies of aircraft themselves.

My Incident

I was flying an arrival into Philadelphia from the west a year or so ago and was at perhaps 4000 feet being vectored to final for runway 26R. Over North Philadelphia I noticed a green laser being shone at the airplane from a city street. Being several miles away, the light was not very bright but was very noticeable standing out from the orange streetlights and traffic. After maybe 15 seconds the flashing stopped and we continued on uneventfully. We did notify approach control and filed the appropriate reports. Of course there was no way to even begin to tell what exact street location the laser was fired from.

And that was it. We weren't contacted by any law enforcement agency and left it at that. Perhaps the reports are becoming so ubiquitous that follow-up is not necessary.

I'll close with this one thought. The vast majority of these events are most certainly low-lifes or pranksters but I'm willing to bet that there are some folks out there intent on doing real damage with powerful lasers. Perhaps stationing two or more attackers to hit a plane from multiple angles with powerful lasers is a potential terrorist ploy. Nothing would surprise me these days.