Plane Answers: Three inexpensive ways to make flying safer

The culture in aviation has always been focused around how to make flying even more safe. The FAA, NTSB and even Congress are looking into ways to improve air safety after the 49 people were killed in the Colgan Air accident in February–the only fatal accident in the U.S. so far in 2009.

I’d be willing to wager that more money goes toward ensuring the safety of the flying public than to life saving procedures or infrastructure in any other industry or activity. I’ve likely benefited from that investment, with far fewer of my colleagues lost in airplane accidents in the past ten years than in any previous decade.

But it’s easy to become hyper-focused on ways to make air travel safer without considering the opportunity costs. As a society, we have a limited amount of resources we can use to save lives. And somehow we tend to overlook the fact that, on average, 123 people are killed every day in the U.S. while driving in automobiles. That’s equivalent to an airliner crashing every day. Clearly that would be unacceptable.

But there are still a few areas of low-hanging fruit that could make air travel safer at a relatively low cost. Here are my top three:

Airway Offsetting

Today airplanes usually fly between two published points, essentially creating a ‘road’ in the sky called an airway. When these airways were designed, they were given four miles left and right of the imaginary centerline. GPS equipped airplanes occupy just a few hundred feet of that width, since they now fly very close to the center of the airway.

Air Traffic Control does an amazingly good job keeping airplanes at different altitudes to prevent opposite direction traffic from colliding.

But because of the precision of GPS equipped airliners, if two airplanes were heading in opposite directions on the same airway at the same altitude, a collision is relatively certain.

Since we’re all human, mistakes can be made by pilots and ATC that result in this ‘loss of separation’. Fortunately, just prior to the widespread use of GPS in airliners, another technology was developed to save us from those situations; the Traffic Collision Avoidance system.

TCAS has been a savior, likely preventing dozens of midair collisions. Had GPS been prevalent in airliners before TCAS, we’d likely have had far more midair collisions in the past fifteen years. This is an an issue I’ve been closely watching since two close friends were involved in nose-to-nose situations that were averted solely because of their TCAS.

But there could be a third level of safety that would only take a software upgrade to implement. I call it airway offsetting.

Since airways are still eight miles wide, why can’t our flight management system (FMS)-the box that contains the waypoints our GPS needs to fly the route-include a predefined offset to the right of course of, say, .5 miles? This would essentially create a two lane highway system in the sky, something done shortly after the first automobile was invented. It would also add an inexpensive third level of safety to our Air Traffic Control system.

Since greater precision is needed on an arrival and opposite direction traffic isn’t a problem between those points anyway, airplanes entering the arrival portion of the flight would lose the 1/2 mile offset. This could all be done without any input or concern from the pilots or ATC. All it would take is a software change to the on-board FMS computer of each aircraft.

And this third level of safety would have prevented the tragic mid-air collision in Brazil in 2006.

Engineered Materials Arresting System

An Engineered Materials Arresting System (EMAS) is a vehicle arresting bed that is installed at the end of runways to prevent aircraft overruns. It’s made up of cellular concrete blocks that start at nine inches deep and progress to as much as thirty inches. It’s a bit like an arresting hook for airliners, but the blocks are designed to slow an airplane down rapidly without doing damage to the aircraft or its passengers.

This technology is currently in use at Boston, New York and Chicago, and on a few of the runway ends at 25 other airports around the country. The FAA is aware that a number of aircraft accidents could have benefited from this relatively low-tech solution. The most recent was the only fatality in 2006; a Southwest jet that landed long and fast at the very short Midway airport that could have been prevented with EMAS.

Fortunately, the FAA appears to be committed to EMAS with plans to install four more of the concrete overruns this year and two in 2010. After that, hopefully more runway ends, especially at runways shorter than 8,000 feet, will be updated with the EMAS system.

Enhanced Class III Electronic Flight Bags

The next improvement to air safety contains at least two life-saving technologies with a single upgrade.

A Class III Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) is a device that offers tremendous situational awareness to pilots. It’s built into the map displays of the airliner, which allows it to incorporate GPS data and datalink communications to bring airliners up to the same level of technology that’s been in four-seat Cessnas for nearly a decade.

Specifically, three features of the Class III EFB will go a long way towards improving safety:

Taxi diagrams can be displayed with the aircraft’s position while maneuvering on the ground, much like an automobile GPS. During low visibility operations, this can easily save lives. In fact, the world’s worst airline accident was caused by two 747s colliding on the surface in Tenerife.

To really understand how important this feature is, take a look at this sobering video that uses actual ATC conversation with a pilot unsure of his location on the runway:

The FAA considers runway incursions to be one of the most pressing safety concerns for air travel.

The other benefit of a Class III EFB comes with real-time weather updates. As airlines add internet access to their airplanes, passengers now find themselves with more accurate and up to date weather depictions in the back of the airplane than the pilots have up front with their myopic weather radar.

Many Class III EFBs are capable of receiving satellite weather radar updates that can display the height of thunderstorms, the winds aloft, the current weather at the destination and turbulence reports that are all depicted in an easily readable format on the map display.

In an effort to keep the costs of this technology under control, perhaps the Class III EFB should be mandated only for aircraft delivered after a certain date. Boeing has already stated that the new 787, scheduled for its first flight next month, will come with a Class III EFB as standard equipment. Let’s hope the same advancements make their way into the smaller Boeing aircraft.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles

Plane Answers: 5 things to look for on your next flight

O.K., I’ll admit it. Flying has become a monotonous chore that few look forward to. As a frequent flyer, you’re probably more concerned about who you’re sitting next to than what you’re flying over.

But I always try to think about what Louis CK said on the Conan O’Brien show: “You’re sitting on a chair, IN THE SKY!”

If you still need something to break up the routineness of flying, try a few of these ideas:

Note the airplane type.

This is the least you could do. If only to be able to give an intelligent answer to the aviation geek picking you up at the airport. It’s always good to know what kind of airplane you’re flying on, including the series (-700, -300ER, etc.). What if they ground the entire fleet of A321s next week. You’ll be wondering just how close you cheated death on your last flight.
Look up the registration.

Commonly known as the “N” number in the United States, this can lead to some interesting information if you look it up in on Google before you depart.

You’ll likely discover when it first flew, but don’t be too shocked to find out the airplane is twenty years old. I’d probably be more concerned if it first entered service yesterday.

And you may or may not be interested in any NTSB reports detailing any incidents or accidents the aircraft has been through. For fun, look up N840TW, a 727 I flew for a charter airline years after it went supersonic. All easily discovered by ‘the Google.’

Visit the cockpit

We’ve had a few people come into the cockpit while boarding and mention how surprised they were that these visits weren’t prohibited. While trips to the cockpit inflight are prohibited, pilots still have the time for a five minute tour while at the gate if you’re interested. If nothing else, it might be nice to know who you’re trusting with your life. And you might even learn something.

Look under your seat

Airlines have gone to great lengths to install powerports under the seats in first class and the coach cabin. Unfortunately, most passengers have yet to discover them, since they’re not well marked.

Some airlines such as Continental use a proprietary empower plug while others have simple 110v outlets. American has 12v cigarette lighter plugs but they’re switching over to the 110v outlets.

I’d rather sit in a middle seat in coach with an iPhone loaded with movies than have a first class seat without my own entertainment. Targus makes a rather large inverter if you fly on a variety of different airlines.

Be sure to check before your flight to figure out which specific seats have power.

Count down the flight time

Most flight attendants will announce the flight time for your flight before you leave. Whenever you hear this, set your watch or smart phone’s countdown function with that time and be sure to start the timer just at liftoff. You’ll be surprised how often the timer finishes just as you’re touching down at your destination.

I can think of a few Northwest passengers who may be doing this from now on.

Hopefully some of these ideas help you pass the time on your next trip. Do you have any rituals you do before a long trip? Share them with us in the comments section.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.

Plane Answers: A closer look at technology in the Northwest overflight

I’ve had a few questions come in concerning the rather egregious error made by the Northwest pilots last week. I hesitated to discuss the incidents, since there’s absolutely no defending what they did.

But when my own sister Kim, asks:

“I would love to hear your opinion as to what the NWA Pilots were really doing when they “missed” MSP.”

Well, for you, Kimmie, I just can’t say no.

It’s the topic of the week among pilots.

Speculation has been rampant, but the NTSB and FAA released some preliminary information from the pilots that has all but squashed any speculation on what exactly they were doing. The more pressing question has been, “How could it happen?”

The conversation among pilots so far has ended with claims of dismay. How did they disconnect from flying enough to lose that kind of situational awareness?

By coming clean and explaining their story, the pilots admitted to something essentially no better than falling asleep; something that took their attention from flying the airplane. And they sought to set the record straight, confess and explain what diverted their attention; I can appreciate that.

As a result, the FAA has immediately revoked their certificates.

Most notable in their story was the fact that they had their laptops out inflight. Many airlines encourage the use of laptops to access an electronic version of their flight manuals. These “EFBs” are more useful than their paper counterparts because of the quick searching capabilities a laptop offers. However, it’s my understanding that Delta and Northwest don’t use any EFB on board their aircraft. Regardless, the pilots admitted that they were discussing new scheduling procedures that were to take effect with their laptops, something that’s prohibited even at airlines that use Class I (laptop) EFBs.
According to the NTSB, the co-pilot was more familiar with the new bidding system, called preferential bidding, which involves choosing the types of trips and the day and time of departures in a general sense instead of simply picking a month of flying from the company constructed bid sheet.

Preferential bidding takes some time to get used to, and the pilots who figure it out early are likely to enjoy an advantage for a few months over those who don’t. The co-pilot was simply trying to get the captain up to speed, and this apparently was enough of a distraction to cause the crew to lose contact with ATC for well over an hour.

Missed signs

Media reports have suggested that the pilots missed repeated calls from the company and that ‘bells and chimes’ were sounded as the company and ATC desperately tried to contact the flight.

Those descriptions aren’t entirely accurate. When the company tried to contact the pilots via ACARS there wasn’t actually a chime associated with the message. There was simply a 1/4 inch tall notice on one of the forward displays on the instrument panel that a message has been received. There was no AOL style “You’ve got mail!” chime. Some airplanes also print any message automatically on a small and rather quiet printer.

Losing contact with air traffic control is something that can happen to any pilot. A missed radio call is followed up by another call or two before the center switches to the 121.5 emergency frequency that pilots monitor on a second radio. If both attempts fail, ATC will then call another aircraft of the same airline to have them relay a message through ACARS for the airplane to re-establish contact on whatever frequency is in use.

If no contact is made, the chatter on the radio suddenly stops, so instead of hearing bells, chimes and calls, the Northwest pilots likely heard nothing at all. Similar to parents of toddlers, pilots should recognize this ominous silence as a possible problem.

They could have received a VHF SELCAL, a tone loud enough to make you jump out of your seat if activated by ATC. However, I suspect it wasn’t used in this case, since it was a similar flight attendant call that eventually led to the discovery of the gross error.

On a related side note, a small number of the airplanes I fly do have a chime sound that activates when an ACARS message is sent. But that chime is identical to the flight attendant chime, the route uplink chime, the winds uplink chime, the HF SELCAL Chime, etc… In the future, ATC instructions sent via CPDLC will even use this same chime. It becomes easier to disregard or miss those particular chimes when they’re constantly being used to announce other unimportant or nuisance notices.

The Boeing engineer in charge of designing this system explained to me years ago that humans were unable to differentiate the meaning of more than five different sounds, so they elected to keep those chimes the same and rely on an added cue such as a light or message that tells the pilots what the chime represents.

Will it happen again?

Congress is already talking about measures to restrict laptops in the cockpit. These rules were already in place, and may serve only to remove the official uses of a computer, requiring pilots who currently use a Class I EFB to go back to carrying nearly twenty pounds of books in their kitbags again; a move that still won’t prevent some pilot from pulling out a laptop to check their schedule.

I’ll leave you with a look at the Class II EFB that Virgin America uses on their flights. Eliminating these tools would be a step backward for the industry.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.

Plane Answers: Is there a pilot shortage coming?

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Justin asks:

I have seen advertisements lately that have been saying that there will be a large number of airline pilots retiring in the next few years and that the demand for new pilots will be high. Is this just a rumor or what?

If so what do you suggest as the best route in becoming an airline pilot?

For the next three years, we’ll likely see some of the fewest pilot retirements since the end of World War II. On December 13th, 2007, the mandatory retirement age for pilots was raised by Congress from 60 to 65 years. This has drastically reduced retirements for the past two years, and we’re likely not going to see those numbers pick up until after December of 2012.

This may seem like bad news, but if you’re in your late teens to early twenties, you may be in a good position to take advantage of this stagnation while you work on your 4-year college degree and pick up the ratings and flight time needed to be competitive when the hiring resumes.
For the first five years after 2012 to 2017 we’ll see retirement rates of 3% per year at my airline, climbing from 4 to 7% in the following five years and, starting in 2022, up to 10% of our pilots will retire every year until 2027.

Unfortunately many airlines still have large numbers of pilots on furlough, which means that those pilots, if they choose to return, are first in line when the economy picks up. American Airlines has 1,889 pilots on furlough, United has 1,164 and USAirways has 224. ASA and American Eagle each have between 70 and 80 pilots on furlough.

And, unlike in previous downturns, large corporate operators have been hit as well. FlexJet currently has a total of 89 or 17% of their pilots on furlough.

(Furlough numbers courtesy of Airline Pilot Central)

There’s another piece of legislation that may have an impact on your career path as well. The House passed a bill five days ago that requires an ATP certificate to fly for any passenger carrying airline, which means that co-pilots will now be required to have a minimum of 1,500 hours total flight time instead of 250. While it was rather rare to be hired by an airline at 250 hours, many regionals required at least 500 to 800 hours to be hired last year.

I often find myself giving advice regarding the civilian path to the airlines, and if the new bill clears the Senate, that advice will likely change a bit. In the past, I’ve always said that a degree from an aviation school such as Embry-Riddle, Daniel Webster, Purdue or Western Michigan University wasn’t a must. I stressed that a pilot could always get a 4-year degree from the college or university of your choice, in a field they may want to fall back on, while earning their ratings from a flight school nearby.

But the new bill is expected to give credit to pilots who attend an aviation university, which they can use to reduce the 1,500 hour flight time minimum for their ATP rating. Keep in mind, however, that even after attending one of these schools for four years, it’s not likely their students will have the requirements met for an ATP license, so they’ll have to flight instruct or hop rides until they can log the required flight time.

I’m sorry that I don’t have better news, but this legislation could at least increase the pay rates for starting co-pilots at regional airlines desperate to attract 1,500 hour ATP-rated pilots. The pool of qualified pilots out there will be much fewer overnight if this legislation passes.

Good luck.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Monday’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.

Plane Answers: Airlines see green in appearing green

You’d like to choose the most eco-friendly airline, a company that goes above and beyond the others to fly efficiently, burn less fuel and maybe even offset its carbon.

But does an airline like that exist?

Airlines have gone to great lengths to operate efficiently in their struggle to survive, but some companies are touting practices they hope will cast them as greener than the rest. What’s hype and what’s really effective in reducing an airline’s fuel emissions?

The Greenest Airline

Since the price of fuel represents as much as 40% of an airline’s expenses, the industry has been on a quest for new technology and operating techniques to fly in a more efficient manner.

But if every airline is doing it, how can one company set themselves apart from their competitors and declare themselves the most green airline?

Virgin America offers the opportunity to voluntarily buy carbon offsets based on the length of your flight and Delta offers an option to plant a tree with each listing at a cost of $5.50 for a domestic flight.

Ethiopian airlines has already planted 7.5 million trees in Ethiopia, one for each passenger flown since 2005 at no extra charge to their customers.

But Nature Air in Costa Rica claims to be the first carbon neutral airline, and it looks like they’ve managed to accomplish that with carbon offsets and the use of 100% biofuel in their fleet of deHavilland Twin Otters.

But the airline many think of when discussing green initiatives in aviation, Virgin Atlantic, has an offset plan, too.

Virgin Atlantic has agreed to offset each and every one of its upper class customers limo rides to the airport by planting a few hundred trees each year. This is far short of the 59 million trees needed, according to the Guardian, to offset a year’s worth of flying.

Carbon credits and offsetting are likely going to play a larger part in the airline industry, but airlines will always try to reduce their emissions.

Let’s look at some of the efforts, and the impact it’s having.
Newer fleet

The claim that an airline’s newer airplanes make it the most green is often touted. European charter airline TUI (pronounced Tooey) highlighted its new fleet as being the greenest in the industry. But the choices for many low fare airlines are the A320 and next generation 737, both fuel efficient airplanes have seen limited changes in the past decade.

Easyjet tried to counter TUI’s green claim of having the greenest fleet by making the equally suspect statement that their company was in fact more green because they flew shorter flights.

Since aircraft have a life expectancy of at least twenty years, any recent airline, or even a company that has seen significant growth, will have a younger fleet by definition. It doesn’t make sense to retire an airplane sooner than 20 years just to save between 5 percent and 20 percent in fuel costs.

So when an upstart airline claims to be 25% more efficient than its competitors, you can suspect you’re being greenwashed. Even on this blog we’re not immune to the airline hype machine. We promoted one airline’s claims just hours ago here on Gadling:

The airline operates a brand new fleet of aircraft that operate up to 25% more efficiently than other domestic fleets. During ground taxiing, their aircraft use a single engine.

Single-engine taxi

This technique is often mentioned in reports like the one above on a specific airline’s efforts to save fuel as if it were a new idea. Most airlines have been taxiing on one engine whenever conditions allowed it since the late ’80s. It’s hardly a new effort.

There are times, however, when it isn’t possible to operate on one engine, because of a heavier than usual takeoff weight, airports with a slope on the way to the end of the runway or if baggage carts and personnel are working behind the airplane after the tug is released, since the ‘breakaway’ force on one engine requires higher thrust which could blow people and equipment away.

Still, when possible, it’s an effective way to save up to a few hundred pounds of fuel per fight.

Reduced speeds

A typical 757 long-haul flight can only shave around 4 minutes of time if flown at Mach .82. Flying a more reasonable Mach .79 or .80 can result in close to 400 pounds less fuel burned every hour. Airlines have realized this and are adjusting flight plans accordingly.


A company called Aviation Partners formed as a joint venture with Boeing to retrofit 737, 757 and 767 aircraft with composite ‘blended winglets’ that have resulted in significant savings (between 3.5 percent and 5 percent lower fuel burn and emissions) for airlines.

Constant Descent Arrivals

Airplanes are much more efficient at higher altitudes, so any descents that begin early, and then level off at a lower altitude during the approach burns more fuel. The typical ‘stair-step’ arrivals in the New York area, for example are designed by ATC to keep traffic in specific corridors.

With GPS equipped airplanes that can be programmed to fly a constant descent approach accurately and consistently, the FAA is looking into designing arrivals that take advantage of this new technology.

Converting just one of the lessor used arrivals into Seattle will save an estimated 175,000 gallons of fuel a month.

An added benefit is that these approaches are much quieter for the surrounding communities, which is a big reason that London has required a similar type of arrival for years.


Using the same GPS capabilities, the FAA is working on a new air traffic
control plan called NextGen, which will evolve ATC from a ground-based operation to a satellite based system of management.

In addition to improving safety and increasing capacity, this plan will allow for more direct routing for airplanes, less holding at the destination and better planning for constant descent arrivals mentioned above, resulting in less carbon emissions, fuel consumption, and noise.

It’s the little things that add up

Airlines have changed the technique for pushing back from the gate. Rather than a straight back push, Delta estimated if an airplane is turned up to 70 degrees in the direction of taxi before being released by the tug, 7.6 million pounds (just over a million gallons) of fuel can be saved.

Increased use of ground electrical power at the gate instead of the onboard Auxiliary Power Unit can save a similar amount and for every pound of water in the sinks and coffee makers that is reduced on a flight, American Airlines estimates it saves 14,000 gallons of fuel.

And Boeing has made changes in the next generation 737 engines this year that are said to save an extra 1% of fuel, which will benefit all future purchasers of their most popular airliner.

So when you read about fuel efficiency claims, remember that no airline can call themselves the green champion, although Nature Air in Costa Rica may deserve a gold metal at least. Every airline has been focused on saving fuel and reducing emissions because, frankly, it’s in their best interest to do so.

Their efforts have resulted in some significant savings over the past four decades, in fact.

Historically, airlines are outperforming the auto industry in fuel economy improvements. In 1972 U.S. airlines traveled 15 passenger miles per gallon. That number increased to 25 mpg in 1982 and 30 mpg in 1992. Today the number is exceeding 45 passenger miles flown per gallon.

The Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 are promising up to 20% improvements in fuel efficiency emissions, so that trend will likely improve.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Monday’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.