Cockpit Chronicles: A Captain No More

Occasionally, pilots seek out a better ride by climbing a few thousand feet. Sacrificing a bit of fuel to climb earlier than scheduled often makes sense as long as there’s less turbulence at the new altitude. But it’s frustrating to discover that the premature climb didn’t help and then find yourself headed back to where you started.

Discontinuing a takeoff roll or performing a missed approach – or even a mechanical at the gate – are all annoying for pilots. But nothing, perhaps short of being laid off, is more frustrating than upgrading to captain and then being bumped back to a co-pilot position.

And that’s where I find myself today. After enjoying eleven months on the MD-80 in the left seat, the company has noticed that there are too many captains in New York on this airplane. So they’re displacing eight of us back to our choice of co-pilot positions, and they’ve announced intentions to bump another group back in April and May.

Once I knew it was inevitable, I could give my displacement preference – a line of text saved in a computer system for just this kind of action by the company – some more thought. Initially, I had planned to fly the 777 as a co-pilot, an airplane that I flew briefly in 2005. But after looking over the various destinations, schedules and the seniority (or lack thereof) my choice came down to three:777 International: While there are only four destinations on our largest airplane from New York – London, Tokyo, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires – they were all exceptional places to see. But even as a co-pilot, the 777 was a senior airplane, meaning I would likely be on reserve just as I was as a junior MD-80 captain. Reserve means that you don’t have much say in your schedule and typically fly when needed, which is often less hours than a full month. This may sound nice, and it can be if you’re working around the house or, say, blogging on the side, but it limits the flexibility in this job. It’s hard to string a bunch of days off in a row to travel, for instance.

767 International: Going back to what I did before the El Jefe position seems like a let down. But at just 36% down the seniority list, I would be able to fly to some of my favorite places in Europe, the Caribbean and Rio. The hourly pay is a little less than the 777, but could be made up by flying full schedule. And as a side bonus, many of my captain and flight attendant friends are still flying there.

737 Domestic: One of the happiest times of my career was 14 years ago when I first flew the brand new (to our company, at least) 737-800 and snagged trans-cons to Seattle, where most of my family still lives. Today in New York, there’s a one-leg-out, layover for 30 hours and one-leg-back trip I could easily hold since I’d be number one on the seniority list there. But what if that trip switched to the 757 in the future? There weren’t any other trips I was tempted to fly and it would be a larger pay cut. It also felt like I’d be taking a giant step backwards.


Goodbye Grand Canyon. Hello again, North Atlantic.

So in the end, I elected to go back to the 767, flying internationally to Europe and Rio. We’re adding a new destination, Dublin, in April and I’m excited to fly there.

Rumors are always flying (no pun) around the company, and the word is that the MD-80 will likely be leaving New York before any other base, possibly by the end of this year. So I doubt I’ll get the chance to fly it again, but I will always have a soft spot for the airplane that introduced me to the left seat at this company.

I suspect we may have a few light bumps in the ride going forward, but with the announced aircraft orders, it will hopefully smooth out soon. Perhaps I’ll be writing about an Airbus upgrade in the future – an airplane I’ve always wanted to fly and never thought I’d get the chance.

Through video over the next two posts, I’ll explain just what little features I grew to love in the MD-80, plus how one feature has changed our job. Stay tuned.

[Photo credit: Kent Wien]

Related: “Captain on the MD-80? Why?

Cockpit Chronicles” takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as a captain co-pilot on the MD-80 757 and 767 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the “Cockpit Chronicles” Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Aircraft Boarding Challenges Bring Innovative Designs

Boarding

Boarding commercial aircraft, from a traveler’s point of view, is all about getting to our seats, stowing gear and getting underway. We hope to have overhead bin space available, a reasonably comfortable seat and an on-time departure. Airlines are right there with us on the getting to our seats part and getting underway; they could not agree more. It’s a major issue so aircraft designers devote a lot of time and resources to making the whole process efficient.

Airlines want the boarding process to go as fast as it can for a couple big reasons. They want to stay on time, sure. But the less time they spend boarding passengers, the more flights they can fit in a day. As airlines cut back on the number of flights, choosing to insure full, profitable planes, they are constantly looking for ways to increase that efficiency.

One way might be slider seats that promise quicker boarding.Using the new Molon Labe Designs approach during boarding, the aisle seat slides on top of the middle seat, creating a 43-inch wide aisle. That gives boarding passengers much more room to navigate, stow gear and be seated. When boarding on each row is completed, the aisle seat then slides back into position.

The manufacturer promises they can cut loading time in half, adding up to 120 minutes flying time every day. Good news for airlines that could fly the same number of passengers with up to 15 percent fewer aircraft. But what about passengers?

“I’m not going to tell you it’s a comfortable seat,” Hank Scott, founder of the company said in a LA Times article. “It’s a quick, turn-around seat.” A prototype is due in November and the company has presented the idea to Boeing and Airbus.

Like it or not, aircraft seating is a huge topic to designers. The amount of time it takes to board passengers is on the table for discussion. To those with mobility issues, its also about the indignity and discrimination they face boarding aircraft.

Air Access is a concept designed by Priestmangoode that speeds up the boarding process for passengers with reduced mobility by enabling an easier transition from gate to aircraft. Air Access is a detachable wheelchair the passenger gets in at the departure gate or on the jet way. After seating, the passenger is wheeled onto the plane where the chair slides sideways and locks into the fixed-frame aisle seat without the passenger needing to get up.

On arrival, ground staff unlocks the seat, slide it out into the aisle and wheel the passenger to the jet way or arrival gate as we see in this video:




[Flickr photo by Slices of Life]

The Future Of Air Travel Looks Good, By Airbus

future of air travel

The future of air travel can be defined in a number of ways. Right now more legroom, lower fares and a muzzle on barking luggage fees would be nice. But what will air travelers want and need in the future?

Aircraft manufacturers have to consider factors ranging from environmental concerns to building long-term business relationships, pitting face-to-face meetings (increasing demand for air) vs. communication via social media platforms (no air needed). Add in sourcing better, lighter building materials, fuel for new engines, and using cost-efficient construction techniques not invented yet and things can get confusing.

To help make sense of it all Airbus put together an infographic (below) that considers these factors and more as well as an ebook, “The Future By Airbus,” that provides some direction.

Airbus began looking to the next 40-plus years in 2010, seeking out other industry stakeholders and experts to anticipate the global needs of a better-connected and more sustainable world.

So what does the future bring? Well, there’s an app for that too.

Researching the world’s changing population, the Airbus Concept Cabin app shows what the future of flight might look like from the passengers’ perspective. The idea is that aircraft cabins of the future will be customized to the needs of individual passengers.

We see no mention of any concerns about legroom or baggage fees in the future. Now that’s something to look forward to.



[Photo: Airbus]

Airlines On Course For Better Passenger Experience

Airlines

Airlines continue to chip away at costs while making efforts to increase sales, all to make for a rosy picture on the bottom line. Passengers often see the down side to it all through baggage fees, tight seats and not much legroom. But behind the scenes, the airline industry is making changes and introducing new products that will make them more profitable and lead to a better passenger experience.

Airbus is the world’s leading commercial aircraft manufacturer producing the most modern and efficient airliners. The Airbus A320 family of aircrafts, with over 8000 produced, is recognized worldwide as one of the best single-aisle jetliners available.

The latest version, A320neo, has a focus on fuel efficiency that should bring a 15 per cent reduction in fuel consumption, two tons of additional payload, up to 500 nautical miles of more range, lower operating costs, along with reductions in engine noise and emissions.

That’s great news for airline profits, but what about that passenger experience?Airbus thinks they have that covered too, with their Future by Airbus program that considers the needs of airlines and passengers through 2050.

“Since we launched the Future by Airbus, we have engaged with people in 192 countries in a dialogue about the future of air travel,” says Charles Champion, Airbus Executive Vice President of Engineering, in a release. “This resulted in our revolutionary Airbus Concept Plane and Cabin, which offer a glimpse into some of the innovations that could meet evolving passenger trends and environmental considerations.”

The passenger experience of the future could mean flying aircraft carriers, set to bring multiple aircraft on common routes. The next generation of cruise ships might be in the sky, not the sea, complete with swimming pools, spas and even golf courses.



Don’t want to wait until the future? The Airbus Concept Cabin iPhone app illustrates what the future of flight might look like from the passengers’ perspective. Aircraft cabins of the future may be customized to the needs of individual passengers.

[Photo: Airbus]

Cockpit Chronicles: What’s not to like about the 757? I’ll show you. (Video)

Powerful engines providing stellar performance and short field capabilities are just some of the features that set the Boeing 757 apart from the rest. But there has to be something that pilots dislike on the airplane, right?

Well, there are two features in particular that I don’t care for.

I dream that someday someone from Boeing or Airbus will call me for advice on cockpit ergonomics. Each company does their best to lay out a cockpit to please the end user – the pilot. But sometimes there are just a few quirks that slip through. An item, which an engineer may spend only a day or two thinking about, can have a lasting impact on the pilots that fly the airplane for thousands of hours.

Generally speaking, Boeing takes pilot input into account when designing the pointy-end of their airplanes. The following two items that pertain to the 757 and 767 may seem nit-picky, but I thought I’d share them here anyway, even including a video to highlight my second personal peeve.

To be fair, these airplanes were designed in the late ’70s and went into service in the ’80s. And Boeing has, to some extent, fixed these issues in the 777. But here are my minor gripes, with a video to demonstrate the second annoyance.Chimes

You know the chime that accompanies the seatbelt sign when it cycles on or off? It happens to be my text message alert tone right now-appropriate, I suppose. Well, there’s a slightly more annoying sound in the cockpit that is supposed to represent various different alerts such as:

HF and VHF SELCAL – When air traffic control needs to get a hold of us, they have the option of sending a SELCAL (selective calling) ding that alerts us. Upon hearing the ding, we need to look either on the forward EICAS screen where the engine information is displayed for a clue as to what the ding was, or overhead to see if the SELCAL light is on. Unfortunately, some earlier airplanes didn’t have that EICAS notification feature, so we only have the overhead to differentiate the sounds.

Flight Attendant Call – We aren’t immediately sure if it’s ATC calling with a flight level change or if a flight attendant is checking to see if we need a bathroom break. The look around the cockpit for the various clues to the source can be amusing to someone riding in the jumpseat.

During the preflight, it’s a regular ding-fest. As we request the flight plan data to be uploaded to the airplane, dings come in rapidly (I’ve lost count at eight dings in less than a minute) for these items and more:

Forecasted winds at altitude uplink
Route uplink
Takeoff performance data uplink

Unfortunately, this is a time when the crew-chief on the ground calls us through a headset plugged in at our nose wheel. We may easily think it’s another nuisance ding and not answer him as these flight plan items are coming in.

As we taxi out, we could also miss a flight attendant call when the latest ATIS information is delivered or we get our load closeout information, which includes the number of people on board, the weight of the airplane and our stabilizer trim setting.

Inflight, these dings create a Pavlovian response. Around an hour after takeoff, flight attendants usually call with meal choices for us. Just as your mouth starts to water after hearing the ding, it’s always a letdown to discover that it was just the other guy updating the winds in the FMC.

Years ago, I met two Boeing engineers while I was riding in the back of an MD-80 to Dallas. On my left was an engineer who was the liaison for Boeing to the FAA as they made changes to the cockpit flight computer known as the FMC and to my right was an engineer who did the actual programing of any new features in the box.

They were excited to tell me about the new CPDLC or Controller Pilot Data Link Communication feature they were testing out on one of our 757s. The idea was that an Air Traffic Controller could send us a text message that would tell us to climb, descend, turn or change our speed. The test program would only be for Miami and a few of our 757s. Later this innovative concept expanded to other air traffic facilities for use primarily with the 777 and some newer Airbuses. After the test period, it was deactivated on the 757.

I couldn’t believe my luck. Finally I could give them some input about the ding issue.

“When ATC contacts you via this CPDLC thing, I would imagine there would be a ding?” I asked.

“Yes!” one of them said proudly.

I then prodded them on how we were supposed to differentiate the different dings for different functions, all sounding exactly the same, as they came in.

The engineer asked why we didn’t just look at the EICAS screen as it would either say, CPDLC, FMC, Ground Call, or Flight Attendant.

I explained that this was nice, but that more than half of our 757s didn’t have this EICAS ‘ding alert’ feature.

His partner jumped in, describing the studies Boeing had done that indicated that humans could only differentiate between five different sounds in a cockpit.

I sighed and pleaded for a simple telephone ring for the flight attendant call that comes in on the handset, and then for a few different tones for the rest. If I were to mistake the FMC alert for the HF radio call with these new sounds, how would that be different to what we have now?

I felt bad for them. Pilots love Boeing products so I think they were a bit taken aback. I dropped the subject and stretched out in the middle seat of the MD-80. I certainly wasn’t going to mention my second peeve to them. That is:

Dim and Dimmer

Depending on the airplane and configuration, there are between 32 and 34 different dimming switches and knobs to change the lighting intensity on the 757 and 767 cockpit lights. Of course, I knew you’d think I was exaggerating, so I made a quick video showing each light and dimming knob from a recent flight.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve written earlier about how much I love the 757 and these annoyances are amusingly minor in the grand scheme of airplane design. Maybe flying the MD-80 for a while will give me a new level of appreciation for this grand airplane.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.