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.