Wednesday, March 23, 2016

What Makes a Go-Around So Dangerous?

Distractions and fatigue make tough go-arounds even tougher
A FlyDubai 737-800

Even though the investigation into the crash of FlyDubai 981 is still in its preliminary stages, one of the more plausible accident scenarios being discussed is that the aircraft attempted a go-around from an approach and subsequently stalled causing the high descent rate and impact on the runway. Video which captured the accident shows the aircraft in an extremely steep descent which is indicative of a stalled condition. And in fact the last transmission from the aircraft to the tower was that it was going around. So why are go-arounds so dangerous?

A go-around is simply a maneuver whose purpose is implied by its name. If at any time during an approach the pilot feels that for whatever reason that landing isn't the best idea, he or she aborts the landing and "goes around" for another try. This involves adding power and climbing away from the runway for another shot while retracting the landing gear and flaps or "cleaning up" the aircraft.

Sounds simple, right? Well for various reasons go-arounds seem to be one of the most stress inducing maneuvers for pilots. It is also one of the most critiqued items during checkrides as a result of being performed incorrectly. But to be perfectly truthful, a search of the NTSB database turned up only three fatal accidents attributed directly to go-arounds since 1985, at least in airline, or Part 121 flying. In general aviation, however, the number is much higher at 273 fatal accidents since 1982 attributed to go-arounds.

Those accident results suggest that pilot experience may play a factor in the successful completion of go-arounds as many general aviation pilots don't have the experience that airline pilots do. Still the go-around can be deceptively difficult and due to the low altitude nature of the maneuver leaves very little room for error if performed incorrectly.

And while the NTSB results do not capture low-speed events which did not result in a stall or accident, those types of incidents are now being identified by new data recording and analysis equipment recently installed on most airliners. These data suggest that low speed and approach-to-stall events are more prevalent than previously thought.

So What is it About Go-Arounds that Makes Them Difficult?

There are two aspects to a go-around that can make them difficult to fly and costly to screw up. The first is that the maneuver is performed close to ground. Any mistake made at low altitude has less time to be corrected before terra firma ends the flight in an abrupt fashion. The second aspect of the maneuver is that the entire vertical vector of the aircraft has to change. 

By this I mean that your 30 ton airplane which is descending at perhaps a vertical velocity of 800 feet per minute while on approach has to have its downward momentum stopped, reversed and flung back into the air at perhaps 1000 to 2000 feet per minute. It is this reversal of momentum which causes the most problems. The problem is one of "energy management".

Energy management is best illustrated by thinking about an old style roller coaster and is central to flying an aircraft. As a roller coaster tops a hill, its speed is slow but the potential energy is high. As it hits the trough, the potential energy is low but the speed, or kinetic energy, is high. The same principle applies to an aircraft as pilots can often trade airspeed for altitude or vice versa.

During an approach, however, both the speed and altitude are necessarily low. The aircraft is flying at only 1.3 times its stall speed and has both gear and flaps extended which add drag. It has a low energy state. The only way to get the airplane back up in the air from this position is to add a lot of power from the engines. But this addition of power must be accompanied by a coordinated and precise pitch adjustment.

Pitch control during a go-around is extremely important. The use of insufficient pitch, or keeping the nose too low, may cause the aircraft to merely accelerate but not climb. Use too much pitch, or raise the nose too high, and the aircraft will climb, but the speed may drop. Remember that at this point the aircraft is already very close to stall speed. Stall the aircraft, and it drops like a rock with little chance for recovery at low altitude.

One last characteristic of most airliners is that their pod-mounted engines are hung below the wing. What this means is that an addition of power causes the nose to tend to come up as the thrust vector is being applied from below the wing. This tendency must be anticipated and countered to prevent the pitch from getting too high.

Distractions and Fatigue Don't Help

So we've decided to go around, put the power in and are climbing away from the ground. What happens next? It gets extremely busy is what happens next. The tower will be barking instructions at you with headings and altitudes to fly or you may be scrambling to read your previously issued climbout instructions and approach plate. You will also have to clean up the aircraft without overspeeding anything. This means retracting the gear and then the flaps on their speed schedule. You'll also be getting a frequency change right about now to return from tower to approach control. Not blowing through your assigned altitude is also somewhere on your plate since you are now climbing at full power.

There's a hierarchy of flying priorities that many a flight instructor attempts to instill in their students: Aviate, Navigate and Communicate (and in that order). Forgetting to do these tasks in the proper order can result in a bad outcome. Or as an old aviation commandment instructs: 

Thou must maintaineth thy airspeed lest the ground reach up and smite thee.

A mention of fatigue is in order here. All of these things are challenging to do on any given day, but being fatigued, as has been alleged of the FlyDubai pilots, makes them especially tough. My personal experience with fatigue is that while you might feel alert during a tricky approach and go-around, channelizing attention on one particular item is very easy to do when fatigued. This means that instead of simultaneously managing many different tasks in the cockpit during a go-around, it is easy to become fixated on one particular item at the expense of others

The danger of course is that of fixating on say a course change while dropping your pitch and airspeed out of your scan. This one mistake, if not corrected quickly, can doom an airplane. Recovering from a stalled condition takes many thousands of feet of altitude if the stall is severe enough, and that is altitude you just don't have.

Go-arounds, if you happen to be on an airplane when one happens, are really no big deal and I don't mean to make any nervous flyers more so. Many times they are for mundane things like spacing too close to the previous airplane or being directed by the tower. I personally like flying them as they're a challenge and something a little different from the routine. Just know that when they do happen, the guys or gals up front are really busy.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

FlyDubai 737 Crash - No Survivors

Flydubai FZ-981 crash - no survivors
No survivors from Airdubai crash

A FlyDubai 737-800 enroute from Dubai to Rostov on Don in Russia crashed on approach to the runway. There were no survivors among the 55 passengers and seven crew.

The aircraft had attempted one approach which was unsuccessful.The aircraft then held for two hours. Upon the second approach attempt, the aircraft appeared to strike a wing tip and crashed on the runway.

The weather at the time was an overcast ceiling with winds gusting between 27 and 42 knots. Investigation continues.

Friday, March 18, 2016

So You Want to Be a Pilot? Career Advice for Beginning Pilots (Pt 3)

Career advice for future aviators
An aviation career is rewarding but not without risk.

So let's say that you've graduated from high school or college and want to pursue a career in aviation. You want to "slip the surly bonds of earth" and spend your days with your head in the clouds. Well hold on just a second there, pardner.

I don't want to crush your dreams, kid, but I'd be remiss to not be brutally honest about the career field you are hoping to enter. Let's explore for a few moments some short and long term trends in aviation that you need to consider before chasing this particular dream.

Short Term Outlook: Big Opportunities but High Barriers to Entry 

As I mentioned in an earlier article in this series, there's never been a better time than now to get into commercial aviation jobs-wise. There are huge numbers of pilots retiring from the largest major airlines who need to be replaced in the next five to ten years. These pilots are mostly being replaced by pilots who are currently flying for regional carriers and to a lesser extent the military.

A huge vacuum is forming at the regional carriers who for various reasons are having trouble replacing those pilots with new hires. This means job opportunities for pilots who have or are willing to get their ratings and hours. I recently attended an aviation job fair and the competition for new pilots is fierce. Regional airlines are boosting pay, offering signing bonuses and even offering to pay for crash pads for commuting pilots, all unheard of for years.

Now for the reality check. You have two routes into an airline cockpit: military or civilian. Both routes will get you where you want to go but they both have high costs, one in time and the other in money.

Military Flight Training: Long Service Commitments

In years gone by, the majority of airline pilots came from the military. That is no longer even remotely true. While I don't have the exact numbers, the majority of pilots being hired by major airlines now have only a civilian background. Reductions in the size of the military along with lengthened pilot training commitments are two of the biggest reasons.

The Air Force requires a ten year service commitment in exchange for pilot training while the Navy has an eight year commitment. The Coasties, Army and Marines have similar commitments. These commitments don't start until after successful completion of flight training which takes about a year. Leaving the service on the day your commitment expires might not be completely realistic as well as you'll probably incur other service commitments for things like aircraft commander upgrade or training like fighter weapons school.

The military spends a ton of money on its pilots and wants to get a return on that investment. You also have to hope that the airlines are hiring when you are ready to leave the service. This was the route I took, spending a total of 10 years on active duty (the commitment was six years when I joined). On the bright side, when you leave the military you will have the hours and experience to apply directly to a major airline.

If this is the route you wish to pursue and haven't yet graduated from high school, your choices for commissioning are through either an ROTC program at a college, or one of the service academies such as USAFA, Annapolis or West Point. ROTC scholarships are available and the service academies are free. Upon completion, you will have a college degree and be commissioned as an officer. But getting into these programs is highly competitive and even then you are not guaranteed a pilot training slot. You must compete for those as well.

If you already have a college degree, you can join the military and be commissioned through an officer training program such as the Air Force's OTS or the Navy's OCS. This program was memorialized in the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. From there you would go to pilot training. This was my route. I had a degree and joined the Air Force after college (but never dated Debra Winger).

If you get selected for pilot training you will undergo a very intensive but comprehensive training course in advanced technology aircraft. Your training will involve all aspects of contact and instrument flying for starters. Should you perform well enough to be selected for a tactical aircraft, you will also be trained in formation flying. Once you graduate from a pilot training course you will be awarded your wings and then proceed on to your mission aircraft which may involve up to another year of mission training and qualification.

The training is fast and intense and offers very little tolerance for regression. Every simulator session and ride in the airplane is graded. Pilots who experience difficulties during the program are given some remedial training, but once the extra training has been expended, a quick dismissal from the program can be expected for pilots who can't keep up with the syllabus. When I was an undergraduate pilot training instructor in the Air Force, three busted rides in the airplane was all it took to get a ticket home.

Civilian Flight Training: It's Your Nickel, Spend it Wisely

Taking the civilian route will likely get you into an airline cockpit in less time than the military, but it is going to cost you a ton of money to get the ratings and hours to qualify for a job. The FAA recently started requiring all pilots hoping to fly for a commercial carrier to have a rating known as an airline transport rating or ATP. Here's the problem. You'll need 1500 hours of time to qualify for this rating. That number is reduced to 1000 hours if you graduate from an accredited aviation school. 

What kind of money? A quick internet search came back with numbers like five to nine thousand dollars for just a private pilot's license which only qualifies you to rent a plane to buzz around. Getting the full panoply of ratings that will allow you to start on your career will set you back something on the order of 60 to 80 thousand dollars.

After spending that kind of money you will still have to flight instruct or do another entry level flying job such as banner tow to build the 1000 (or 1500) hours you will need for your ATP. Simply purchasing those hours is not realistic at $100-$120 per hour airplane rental costs.  

No matter how you slice it, it will be expensive. But if you're willing to take on the debt, there's probably a job waiting for you. And while the pay at regional airlines is famously low, it is going up as regionals are engaged in a bidding war for the dwindling number of available pilots.

Another difference in taking the civilian route is that you will end up being the architect of your own career more so than the military route. You have to decide which aviation school you will attend, whether to take out loans or work a day job while pursuing your career and which flying jobs to take. Deciding between flying jobs such as corporate, regionals or night freight are some of the decisions that await you on your path to the majors.

My advice is to seek out mentors who are working pilots and can advise you on the best path to take. I took the military path and as a result would probably not be able to offer meaningful specific advice to someone in the civilian pipeline. But seek out someone who took the path you are contemplating. There are many aviation internet forums available where pilots like to hang out and many are willing to offer advice.

And you will need advice. There are dozens of schools all promising a path to an airline seat and all willing to take your money. Caveat emptor is the rule when vetting flying training programs.

Long Term Outlook: Automation and the Pilotless Airplane

So things look rosy for the short term, but what about the long term career outlook? That is an excellent question. If you are say, 20 years old and hoping to begin your career in aviation, you are planning on a career lasting 45 years (more if they raise the retirement age past 65).

We've all heard about drones and Google's driverless cars, but what about airplanes? Will there ever be a day when people line up to get on an airplane that has no pilot? The answer is unequivocally yes. There will eventually be pilotless airliners. The only question is when.

Balderdash and poppycock you say? Consider this: What would have been the reaction if you'd asked a railway passenger back in, say, 1890 if there would ever be engineer-less trains. I'm guessing the reaction would have been similar and yet we routinely get on trains with no humans driving and think nothing of it.

But, you retort, those are small applications such as airport transports on closed systems. Subways, passenger and freight trains still have human drivers! And you are absolutely right, but how many humans are driving those trains? A fraction of the number it used to take. And that's the key.

Simply look at the trend of how many humans it has taken to fly an airliner over the years. In the immediate postwar era it took four: two pilots, a navigator and an engineer. Navigators were quickly eliminated by INS systems and the engineers were next to go being replaced by ECAM systems. Now we all love first officers (well, most of them), but airline managements, maybe not so much.

Current research at places like DARPA is aimed at perfecting robots to eliminate first officers. And just eliminating copilots will slash the need for pilots by 50% overnight. Again the question isn't so much of if but rather of when. Estimates vary, but if you are just now embarking on a career that you hope will last for four decades, you will likely finish your career as a system monitor in the front of an airplane (or perhaps a flight center data linked to an airplane) if you have a job at all.

That's not what I'd call great aspects for career advancement or seniority. Food for thought. Still not convinced? Take a look at this video.

In Conclusion

This post concludes my series on career advice for pilots. I'll be the first to admit that even though I've had a charmed career and love flying, I'm not sure I can recommend a flying career without some reservations, especially to a bright kid who has other options. 

If you're already flying for a living, it's a great time to be in the profession. If you are thinking about starting on a career in aviation, some deep soul searching is in order. This profession has a knack for crushing souls and dreams, but should you pull the trigger and go for it, the view from your office window will be second to none. Good luck!

And if you have any questions at all about your own situation, leave me a message in the comments. I'm here for you!

Parts 1 and 2 of the series are here and here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

So You're Getting Out of the Service? Career Advice for Pilots (Pt 2)

Leaving the military for the airlines
Leaving the military for the airlines requires careful planning.

So you've decided it's time to hang up the spurs. Perhaps you're tired of being deployed, are fed up with the service or simply feel that you've accomplished all that you wanted to and now it's time to move on. Or maybe you've got your 20 years in, don't want to climb the leadership ladder beyond the squadron or wing level and are looking for your next gig but want to keep flying.

Well you're in great company. As most military pilots eventually realize, the longer you stay in, the less you'll fly. And if flying is your bag and going to work for USAA or your father-in-law doesn't appeal to you, you're in luck: the airlines are looking for you. I mean they're really looking for guys or gals just like you.

The airlines really really like military aviators and over the years have given them hiring preference. And even though this has always chafed pilots with civilian backgrounds, there are several reasons for this. One of the biggest is that you are a known entity. That is, airlines know that your flight training was comprehensive and rigorous. They also know that you fit well within a hierarchy and play well with others, especially if you made it to retirement. Lastly, they know that if you are a retiree, you are getting a monthly check from Uncle Sam for the rest of your life. This, they believe, will ameliorate future pay and retirement demands.

For you civilian guys firing up your keyboards to flame me, please don't take any of this personally. I'm just the messenger. Many of the absolute best pilots I've ever flown with have had civilian backgrounds and some of the biggest horse's rear ends have been military bred. But from a management point of view, military pilots are known and wanted.

Things to Think About Before Pulling the Trigger

I'm going to assume that you've saved some money and have thought about how you'll pay the bills in the interim before leaving the service, but there are other things you should consider.

Get an FAA Class I medical. That's the medical certificate you'll need to be an airline pilot. Some airlines only require a Class II for copilots, but you'll eventually need a Class I, so get it now to see if there are any problems. I'm aware that you get an annual physical from the flight doc, but while the FAA medical requirements are in many ways less restrictive than the military, you want to make sure any problems are uncovered and dealt with. If you fly under a military medical waiver, you'll probably need to get an FAA waiver for the same issue. That can take a while so start early.

The next thing to think about is your FAA ticket or license. If you don't have one, you'll need to get one. Luckily, the FAA has made this a little easier for military pilots exiting the service. If you are currently qualified in an aircraft, you need only take a written test to be issued a commercial instrument license. And if you are currently flying a military version of a civilian airliner such as the C-40 (737) you can even get a civilian type rating in that aircraft.

Another license you will need is the ATP or "airline transport pilot" rating. This you'll have to purchase on your own unless your prospective employer offers one to you in their training program. There are many programs around the country offering these in light twin aircraft. It will take about 5 days, 10 or so flight hours and involve a checkride with an FAA examiner or designee. A cursory internet search showed prices at about $5K. Don't forget transportation and hotels costs.

Guard or Reserves?

If you still want to keep your hand in military flying, then signing on with the Guard or Reserves may help you to do that while offering a little extra income and a fallback should the unthinkable happen and you get furloughed. This was the route I took. There are a few things to consider here as well.

First, if you have a regular commission you might be asked if you want to resign your commission or take a reserve commission. If you're sure that you'll never again set foot on base then go ahead and resign. But my recommendation is to accept a reserve commission so that if you change your mind and try to get a Guard or Reserve job, you'll already have the reserve commission. Without that, the unit you hope to sign on to will have to offer you one, and it might be at a lower grade than the one you now have.

My second bit of advice if you join the guard or reserve is to make sure to avoid what I call the "devil's triangle" of combined military and airline duty. That happens when your home, airline domicile and reserve duty station are in different places. It will be nearly impossible to make this work unless you're single. And if you aren't single, this is an excellent method to become single. Trust me, I've never seen it work well. I was lucky enough to have my airline job, reserve base and home all within an hour drive and I recommend you attempt to do this as well.

Lastly, don't forget your priorities. Working effectively for three masters may leave none of them very happy with you. The airline has to give you time off for military reserve duty by law, but my feeling is that abusing this to avoid weekend or holiday airline flying is dirty pool. And just ignore all the cajoling you'll get from your reserve or guard unit about your "career". Your career is now being an airline pilot and the military is something you occasionally do because you're a patriot and enjoy hanging with your squadron mates.

Once You're Out

Military pilots leaving the service and hoping to fly for an airline will find that while some things about civilian aviation are very familiar to them, other aspects are bewildering and new. For pilots who flew a crew aircraft, the flying will be pretty close to what you've been doing already but without the extra mission qualifications such as airdrop or air refueling.

Pilots who flew tactical aircraft may have a few new things to learn in a crew aircraft, but the overall pace of the action will be slower than you've been used to. And even though we know you can do it all day long with your eyes closed, you're not expected to both fly and talk on the radios at the same time.

One huge difference between military and civilian flying is that in the civilian world, you are being hired to fly airplanes and to only fly airplanes. Your ability to write a shining OPR or awards citation that would water the general's eyes is just not that important. And while it is certainly fine to bring those additional duties up in an interview, remember that it is your flying and leadership skills as a pilot that are most important.

Interviewers are going to want to know how well you get along with other pilots in both routine and also stressful flying situations because no one wants to fly with a d*ck. For you single seat tactical guys, emphasizing your leadership and followership skills in a formation setting will help to fill this square. Being a team player, a skilled aviator, and demonstrating that you are not too full of yourself are the keys to getting hired.

In Conclusion

Making the decision to bail out of the military or transitioning to civilian life after retiring is a huge change. Many people you encounter may have little understanding of the lifestyle that you spent the last several decades immersed in. Your bosses won't be wearing birds on their shoulders (and it can be tough to figure out who they are) but you should still accord them all the respect you did your commander. It will, though, be a new adventure for you, and you're good at those. Good luck!

If you have any questions regarding the transition from military to civilian aviation, leave me a note in the comments. I'm here for you, Mav!

Update: Part 3, advice to non-pilots wishing to start an aviation career is here.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

So You Want to Fly an Airliner? Career Advice for Pilots (Pt 1)

Aviation career planning is essential
Charting a path to a successful aviation career can be daunting.

I often get asked for career advice by aspiring and younger pilots and thought it might be helpful to condense some thoughts in a post on aviation career strategy. The Women in Aviation Conference was recently held in Nashville and I gave jumpseat rides to a number of younger pilots making their way out there for some face time with the recruiters who were there. This got me thinking about where a young pilot might find some career advice. There is quite a bit of change currently underway in the aviation career field, and plotting a path to a successful career can be daunting.

The Timing has Never Been Better to be a Pilot

So you want to become a major airline pilot? Well the timing has never been better in terms of demand for pilots. Due to the mandatory retirement age of 65, US airlines will need to replace thousands of retiring pilots in the next five to ten years. The numbers are staggering. Estimates run to a need for over 18,000 pilots to be hired just to replace retiring US pilots in the next five years. Those numbers don't account for airline growth nor do they factor in early retirements and should therefore be considered minimums.

And it is unlikely that many of these pilots will be hired from overseas as the pilot shortage is a worldwide phenomenon. Boeing estimates the worldwide need for pilots at over 500,000 in the next 20 years. The major airlines have or are about to embark on a hiring binge to replace the thousands of retiring Vietnam era pilots currently flying their airplanes. They are hiring primarily from the ranks of regional airlines who in turn are scrambling to keep their airlines staffed. The military, a traditional source of trained pilots, is doing a better job of holding onto their people so those numbers will be made up primarily through the hiring of pilots with civilian backgrounds.

One need only search the term "pilot shortage" to see stories of regional airlines having to park airplanes due to a lack of pilots. Republic Airlines even cited the pilot shortage in its recent bankruptcy filing. In the meantime, a bidding war has broken out between regional airlines for the dwindling number of pilots who meet the new 1500 hour minimum requirements. Those requirements are dropped to 1000 hours for pilots who have graduated from an accredited aviation school, but those graduates will likely be carrying the better part of a hundred grand of debt for their schooling, which is why there aren't many of them.

The following comments are directed at currently qualified regional, military or corporate pilots who are looking to make a jump to a major airline. I'll address the subjects of entering the career field for non-pilots and special considerations for military pilots leaving the service in parts two and three.

Seniority is Life

As an old tale from aviation lore goes, a wise old captain was once advising a young copilot on the things which contributed the most to a fulfilling career. The captain said that a career flying airplanes was, besides a love of aviation, about time off and money. And he made sure to emphasize and in that order. 

A career in aviation means being away from home. A lot. It is a tradeoff that all pilots make. And while we understand that we will be at the bottom of the seniority list when starting out, the hope is that given enough time, we will eventually earn those coveted weekends off and summer vacation blocks and an upgrade to the left seat or a widebody. And that means seniority.

There are two ways to become senior at any airline. The first is through growth. If the airline you get hired by doubles in size in say five years, you will upgrade to captain in five years give or take. The second way to seniority is through the retirement of those pilots who are senior to you. Given the current state of the four largest airlines which control about 80% of the US domestic market and are not likely to grow any faster than the overall economy, it is retirements which will likely fuel your ticket to watching football in your own living room and not in the hotel bar on a layover.

This means that during any extended hiring binge, like the one which is just getting under way, getting your foot in the door as early as possible is of supreme importance. Getting ahead of a hiring wave means you will spend most of your career in the left seat enjoying the pay and prestige that comes with that position. Get hired at the end of the wave and you will likely spend years throwing the gear for captains who are just a few years older than you.

My advice, then, is to get on with your preferred carrier at the earliest possible time. This means getting your required PIC hours as soon as possible through whatever means. There's a land rush going on out there and you don't want to miss out.

For you regional pilots toiling away with the hope of getting a job through a flow-through program, my advice is to ignore those and do whatever it takes to get your hours and to then get your resume out on the street. A flow-through program is just a promise and not worth the paper it is written on if things change, and things change all the time.

Which is the Best Airline to Fly For?

That's an easy one. The best airline is the one that hires you. Don't ever turn down a job offer from any airline offering you a job flying equipment that is larger than what you currently fly. Show up to training, act like that airline is the only one you've ever wanted to fly for, and then should an offer show up from where you really want to work, just walk out the door. Of course be polite and gracious for the opportunity, but never forget that this is your career and life we're talking about here. It's just business.

But all else being equal, and assuming that you get an offer from the airlines you're considering, there are a host of factors which will influence your decision. As I mentioned above, the existing demographics and pending retirements will be one of your biggest considerations. Next you'll want to consider where your prospective airline has pilot domiciles. Pick the one which has a domicile in a city where you want to live. Yes, commuting is possible, but a career of it will effectively mean extra years sleeping in hotels and crash pads which could be spent in your own bed.

Next you should consider the equipment that the airline flies. Widebody flying pays the most and generally has the most days off. It will take some time to get into a widebody, but if the airline doesn't own any, you'll never fly one. And if you ever get sick of flying international routes, bidding back to domestic equipment is always there if you so desire.

Furloughs. Yes, the "F" word. No one can predict the future and fuel shocks, mideast wars and recessions are always possible. And when they happen, you might find yourself back on the street. Southwest is the only one of the big four US airlines which has never furloughed any pilots, but they are resembling a legacy carrier more each day, so past performance may not guarantee future results. In any event, getting on early with an airline that has the most retirements will move you up the list and away from the furlough zone the quickest.

In Conclusion

I've just barely scratched the surface here but have touched on some of what I feel are the most important considerations for pilots who are looking for a job at the majors. Since the topic is so large, I'll be doing several additional installments where I give my advice to military pilots who are leaving the service, and also to non-pilots who may be hoping to explore a career in aviation. Stay tuned!

Lastly, please feel free to ask any questions you might have about your own job search in the comments. Is there something you'd like to ask about your own career progression? Just let me know. I'm here for you!

Update: Part 2:  Career advice for pilots leaving the military is here.

Update: Part 3  Career advice for those looking  to start a career in aviation is here.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Gulf State Airlines Behave like Flying Sweatshops but Elite Flyers Love Them

Are Etihad, Qatar and Emirates crews mistreated?
Gulf State airline cabin crew hail from many nations

Unless you are an international jet-setter or perhaps an airline industry enthusiast, you may not have heard of three relatively new airlines that are taking the world by storm. Otherwise, you may probably be aware of the existence and may even have flown on one of these three airlines. They are collectively known as the Gulf Three and are made up of Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways and Emirates Airlines. Etihad and Emirates are both based in the United Arab Emirates, while Qatar makes its home in Doha, Qatar.

Etihad, Emirates and Qatar, founded in 2003, 1985 and 1993 respectively, have grown from nothing to become global aviation powerhouses in a few short decades. They collectively employ about 112,000 employees and have a collective fleet of 526 aircraft. And they are fleets of big wide body airplanes, not puddle jumpers. Emirates, for example, has a fleet of 60 A380 Superjumbo aircraft, and is the world's largest operator of the Boeing 777 with a fleet of 149 of those widebody aircraft.

These three airlines have been embroiled in a controversy about alleged subsidies they have received from their respective governments which I wrote about here. Leading the charge against the Gulf Airlines is a consortium of US based airlines and their associated labor groups. Their contention is that the governments of Qatar and the UAE funnel billions of government dollars into their hometown airlines thereby allowing them to undercut their competition.

For their part, the Gulf airlines counter that they deliver a far superior product to their customers than do American based airlines. This is the reason, the Gulf airline managements cite, for the competitive advantages they currently enjoy. All the Americans need to do to compete, they say, is to up their game.

And in terms of customer service satisfaction, the Gulf airlines do indeed deliver. The three Gulf airlines routinely wind up at the top of airline customer satisfaction surveys. For instance, the Gulf airlines took second, third and fifth place in the 2015 Conde Nast Traveller Reader's Choice Awards.

In the Skytrax Awards, which bill themselves as "the Oscars of the aviation industry", the Gulf Three placed first, fifth and sixth. Delta, as the top rated US international carrier, came in at a dismal 45th place while United and American placed quite a bit further down the list.

There's Something Wrong in Paradise

So it would seem that the US carriers do indeed need to tighten up their customer service game a bit, but as usual, there's more to the story. Over the past several years reports have leaked out about hiring practices and working conditions for cabin crew at the Gulf airlines and they don't paint a very flattering picture. 

The three Gulf airlines hire their cabin crew from all over the globe including many impoverished areas. For many of these employees, a job with an international airline is a dream ticket into a jet-setting lifestyle. Except that it apparently isn't.

Reports of long hours, low pay and stringently enforced limits on marriage, pregnancy and weight plague the Gulf airlines. A 2014 Wall Street Journal article noted that pregnancy may result in termination at all three Gulf airlines. Flight attendants must also remain single for the first five years of their contracts as well or seek the airline's permission to marry.

Other critics maintain that workers at the Gulf airlines live in a climate of fear for their jobs and are under daily surveillance in their company provided dormitories. The companies insist that strict security is necessary for the safety of their cabin crews. Qatar Airways in particular has a reputation for being quite severe in its treatment of cabin crew. From the Economist:

Allegations of harsh treatment and overbearing scrutiny are commonplace. Many complaints centre on the accommodation provided to cabin crew, where rigid curfews and restrictions on visitors create a less-than-homely atmosphere. Swipe-in door keys and CCTV on the premises have fuelled speculation–warranted or otherwise–that management are interested in more than just their employees’ safety.

Given that even appearing in public without a niqab can be problematic for women in Doha, having extra security precautions for a dormitory full of young, single women far from home in an Islamic country may not be unreasonable.

Union Sour Grapes?

Earlier in 2015, several US flight attendant unions also jumped into the fray when Etihad announced new service to Orlando, Florida claiming that the Gulf airlines had "abhorrent labor standards".

One can't help but notice that many of the complaints about working conditions are coming from labor unions. It should also be noted that unions are illegal in the Gulf states where these airlines are headquartered. It must be teased out, then, whether the conditions are truly as horrid as is being reported or whether the reports contain a measure of union hyperbole.

My guess is that there is a pinch of truth on both sides of this story. Emirates states that it receives over 400,000 applications annually from 143 different nations for jobs across their network so there seems to be no lack of enthusiasm for those wishing to sign on. Conversely, with those types of numbers, it can be easy to see that should an employee have an infraction or be anything less than completely submissive, it is far easier to sack them for a younger replacement.

Hypocrisy of the Elites

Getting back to the popularity of the Gulf Three airlines with elite status flyers, I must confess to being completely amused by the comment sections on the various news and opinion websites which report on this story. Here's a good example (typos and grammar in the original):

Yes the middle east carriers have unfair working practices But I prefer to fly on those airlines than american carriers as the staff in general are rude and not interested in any service what so ever . Plus the middle east carriers have young crews who are either more motivated or scared not to do there job properly so makes for a more enjoyable flight. I think the american carriers have just realised that the gulf carriers are so much better and just jealous thats all

Yes, of course, who doesn't appreciate young, attractive and motivated (scared) flight attendants? This commenter is likely more correct than he realizes: US airline managements are no doubt quite jealous of the freedom their Arab counterparts have to fire flight attendants when they get married, old or overweight...just like it used to be here back in the "halcyon" days of the 1960s.

Who also doesn't have at least a bit of nostalgia for the image that Leo DiCaprio presented in Catch Me If You Can as he traipsed in his pilot uniform through the airline terminal accompanied by half a dozen young, alluring and razor thin flight hosties? One need not look too far into aviation literature to find a paean to the good old days of "coffee, tea or me?"

Well, we are living in the future that we created here in America. Oddly enough, we won't buy tickets on our own airlines, but instead opt to be served by young hotties who can be fired on a whim.

I personally believe that there probably exists some middle ground between what is effectively third world indentured servitude as practiced by the Gulf Three, and the hardened battle-ax ingrates employed with depressing regularity by US airlines who seem to relish bashing into your kneecap with the cart.

Some lessons often need relearning. We should be careful for what we wish, for the aviation gods have a sense of humor and may smite us by granting our wishes.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

How Does an Airline Go Bankrupt with Fuel This Cheap?

A pilot shortage is causing airline bankruptcy
Republic operated E175 jet in American Eagle Livery

Earlier this week Republic Airlines declared bankruptcy stating that a lack of pilots resulted in lost revenue due to grounded flights. Anyone in the travelling public reading this story must be confused as to how an airline can go bankrupt in this time of cheap fuel. After all, planes are jammed full and stories of record profits being set by airlines abound.

To understand all this, it is important to note that Republic isn't a "real" airline in the customary sense. That is, you can't go online and buy a ticket on Republic Airlines. Republic, like most "regional" airlines, is simply a provider of aircraft and crews to their major airline partners. Their aircraft are flown under the banners of American Eagle, United Express, and Delta Connection.

The agreements which bind Republic and other similar airlines to their partners, known as "capacity purchase agreements", delineate the terms under which aircraft and crews are provided to fill the schedules dictated by those major airline partners. Once signed, as with any contract, the terms are set. And again, as with any business contract, there are likely a host of penalties imposed for non-performance of the terms of those contracts. This is all routine business stuff.

Revenue Restricted but Costs Unbound

The regionals, then, are bound on the revenue side of their ledger by the contracts they've signed. They don't get to raise prices on their flying customers because they don't really have any. Their customers are the major airlines with whom they have signed contracts. Passengers are the cargo who incidentally happen to be on the airplane. You can easily see how incentives are aligned for the "enhanced" customer experience that most regional airlines provide.

The only way for a regional airline to increase profit, then, is by reducing costs.

One cost input that most likely wasn't considered highly variable was that of labor, specifically pilots. One of the main reasons the regional airline model even exists is that it functioned as an end run around union contracts at the major airlines. Several decades ago major airline unions (ALPA, APA) allowed loopholes in their contracts allowing their airlines to outsource the operation of smaller aircraft thinking that the amount of flying would remain small.

That was a strategic mistake for the unions as "regional" airlines grew unabated using new fast and capable jets. Regional airline enplanements grew from 27 million passengers in 1985 to about 160 million passengers in 2014 taking a huge bite out of the flying done by the unionized pilots at the major network carriers. The reduced costs from the regional airline operations also allowed the major airlines to field a competitive response to the explosive growth of younger low cost carriers (LCCs), notably Southwest.

The Model Breaks Down

That model more or less worked because younger pilots were willing to accept the low wages offered by the regional carriers in exchange for the flight hours they needed to apply for a job at the major airlines where the money is. In a sense it was a deal with the devil because the existence of the low paying regional jobs came at the expense of the higher paying flying at the majors. It might have been considered an industry wide "B" scale, but the model persisted.

With the crash of Colgan 3407 and the subsequent legislation which raised the minimum hours required for any pilot to work at a regional by five times, the wheels have apparently come off. Any pilot who wishes to work for any commercial airline must now have a minimum of 1500 hours. 

This new requirement has effectively shut down the pipeline for new pilots. As the major airlines now must hire thousands of pilots to replace retiring pilots, the regionals are losing pilots faster than they can be replaced causing them to cancel flights for a lack of pilots.

Republic itself was losing around 40 pilots per month and couldn't cover their schedule. This meant lost revenue. Last year Republic was even sued by Delta for breach of contract in not fulfilling its obligations, the irony being that Delta is hiring away many of Republic's pilots.

A result of the pilot shortage is a bidding war for the fewer pilots remaining available for hire. One need only click over to the Republic corporate home page to see multiple appeals to prospective pilots. For pilots with the requisite number of hours, it's a good time to be looking for a flying job.

As far as the Republic bankruptcy is concerned, this is nothing more than a renegotiation opener by Republic to gain more favorable terms with its major partners while avoiding the penalties in its existing contracts. As the pilot shortage worsens, fares will likely increase and service to smaller cities is likely to be curtailed or ended.

Are We any Safer?

A good way to start a bar fight or internet brawl on a pilot forum is to question the need for the higher hours requirement. It should be noted that both the Colgan pilots far exceeded the new hours requirements. The problem in that crash was identified as a weak captain and fatigue. It should also be noted that the Air Force routinely puts its pilots in the seat of advanced fighter and multiengine heavy transport aircraft with only about 200 hours of experience. I know because I was one of them.

That said, it appears to be highly unlikely that the 1500 hour requirement will be relaxed any time soon. The topic is simply too much of a political hot potato. My guess is that we will see more shrinkage and possible bankruptcies of regional airlines along with major airlines bringing some of that flying in-house in order to keep ahold of their pilots.