Cockpit Chronicles: The airline industry’s newest business model: Desperate Housewives.

There are some advantages to flying a reserve schedule every now and then. I prefer the variety and the thought that just maybe I’ll get called out to cover a New York trip to Zurich or Brussels. It’s rare, but it has happened before.

For April, I didn’t fly anywhere I hadn’t flown before, and they managed to use me on almost every one of my available days. Having just arrived home from the Miami and San Francisco trip, crew scheduling already needed me for another early morning departure. This time they had me fly down to Miami and deadhead home on the same day.

It was hardly worthy of a full Cockpit Chronicles. I rode home in the coach cabin and slept most of the way. Fortunately, we’re required to have at least one day off every 7 days, and crew scheduling decided I could use one.

This meant that I’d have a small stretch of three days in a row before my month would be over. There’s always the chance that a three-day trip could pop up if someone called in sick, but I was pretty sure I’d have the last few days off.

My wife gets nervous when I tell her that there’s little chance they could use me. Don’t worry, I’ll be home to take you and the kids to the airport for your trip to Germany, I’m sure! I figured I’d flown too many hours to be legal for another three-day trip. I should have listened to my wife. She knew I’d get the call.

%Gallery-22103%This time it was for yet another 5:45 a.m. departure. But at least I’d be flying with my photography mentor, Captain Jim P., who you might remember from this Panama City and Caracas trip.

For this three-day trip we both left our good cameras at home. But I always bring my little Canon SD800 camera and I took a few more pictures while we were waiting to takeoff from Boston’s runway 4R. This time Spirit airlines was the airplane holding in position just in front of the sunrise.

Jim flew the airplane down to Miami while I talked with ATC. The air was smooth at this time of the morning. While still above 10,000 feet I snapped a few more pictures of Miami beach and the city looking south.

We kept our same Boston flight attendants for the next uneventful leg to Barbados. I realize it must sound like a dream to fly down to Barbados, and while it is nice to get a blast of the warm air, most everyone on the crew was too tired to enjoy the beach. Jim and I planned to meet up at 6 p.m. after a good nap.

We walked across the street from the hotel to eat with two of our flight attendants. The restaurant sat in the parking lot of a small strip mall. While it doesn’t look like much, this fish shack had some great Mahi Mahi sandwiches. I was thrilled to use the last of my Barbados dollars.

When we arrived at the airplane the next morning, the sun was just coming up behind another 757 parked next door. I took my camera with me during the walk-around inspection and snapped pictures of the silhouette. Who says you can’t shoot into the sun!?

For day two, we had just one leg from Barbados to Miami. We laid over at the same crew hotel where I stayed a few days earlier on the domestic trip with Captain Roland.

Jim and I met up in the lobby of the hotel and there was Roland waiting for his co-pilot to arrive for dinner. We all decided to go to a really good Mexican restaurant north of the hotel. I was using my iPhone to find the restaurant. It wasn’t the one I had in mind, but it turned out to have a really attentive waiter and great food.

The four of us talked about every possible rumor running around the airline industry. The major U.S. airlines are doing their best impression of an episode of Desperate Housewives right now. Delta and Northwest are getting married. In a jealous rage, United drops by Continental’s place. Little does United know, but USAirways just slipped out the back door. Continental smiles toward United, but gives a little nod to American who’s out trimming the hedges. Continental finally tells United, “It’s not you, it’s me. I’m just not ready for a relationship right now.”

What’s going to happen next week? After being snubbed by Continental, will United knock on the door of USAirways, saying “We were always meant for each other. It was true eight years ago and it’s true today.”

And will Continental commit to being best friends forever with American and British Airways, the wealthy exchange student who just arrived and who’s trying to figure out who she needs to marry to get a green card?

Stay tuned. We’re in for a wild finale.

The next morning Jim and I ran into a former Boston based co-pilot, Jack, who was traveling with us to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic for a vacation.

Jack’s now flying as a co-pilot on the 767 out of New York. He rode along with us in the cockpit and told me how wonderful it was to finally have some seniority in New York. This has allowed him to fly to some great destinations such as Buenos Aires, Brussels, and the occasional trip to Rome.

I have to say, he had me thinking for a while. I could bid to fly from JFK, but there’s no guarantee I’d get back to Boston if I didn’t like the commute. In the end, I decided that I’d stick with the limited flying in Boston so I could be home a day or two more per month.

We pushed back and started up both engines. As the power transferred from the airplane’s APU (auxiliary power unit) to the engine driven generators a light warning us of a problem with our spoilers illuminated on the overhead panel. This meant we’d need to go back to the gate and have our mechanics take a look at the problem.

Spoilers are the panels at the top of the wings that we occasionally use as ‘speedbrakes’ to allow us to descend at a faster rate without picking up any extra speed. They’re also used after touchdown to eliminate some of the lift in the wings which helps put more weight on the wheels for braking.

One of three things could happen at this point. The mechanics could find a fault with the unit that senses the spoiler position. Or they could find a problem with the spoilers themselves that they would need to be fixed. Finally, they could defer the problem by using a large book called the minimum equipment list (MEL) approved by the FAA to see if the airplane is allowed to fly a few days (often just three days) until parts can be found and the problem can be fixed at a major maintenance base.

Fortunately for us (and Jack’s vacation plans) the problem was a fault in the sensor unit that was easily cleared. This is what we suspected, since it happened at the very moment we switched the electrical power. The mechanics then had to go back and verify that this hadn’t occurred in the past month before they could sign it off. After they reviewed the aircraft’s history, we were good to g

It was my leg from Miami to Punta Cana. As we approached the island, we were advised by air traffic control to slow way up. There were two or three flights ahead of us trying to get in. We heard one of them fly a missed approach because they didn’t have the runway in sight, and of course, Punta Cana doesn’t have a Cat III approach that would allow for an autolanding as I discussed in the last Plane Answers post.

After working our way around some small build-ups, we timed our arrival just perfectly. The weather had moved inland and we were able to make a visual approach to the airport. The airplane was equipped with winglets which, in addition to providing nearly 4% in fuel savings, make for a very nice touchdown. Since half of our 757 fleet now have these wingtip extensions, it’s rather noticeable when going back and forth between the converted and not yet converted airplanes. And since we also had a freshly moistened runway, the odds for a smooth landing were well in my favor. As we expected, the spoilers activated properly after touchdown.

My favorite thing about Punta Cana is the airport terminal. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. The airplane pulls up just a few feet from a thatched roof terminal. I’ve taken pictures of it in the past, even using it in a ‘where on earth’ post. This time, however, our airplane was parked right in front of a roof that was in the process of being re-thatched. It was rather entertaining to watch this process, both for the passengers walking by and for us in the cockpit. I felt I just had to get some video of this:

The dark clouds that were giving way to a bright sunny sky made for some good photo opportunities on the ground.


One thing Jim and I noticed on the ramp was an Eos 757 that was parked behind us. I knew one of the premium New York to London carriers had gone bankrupt (which turned out to be MaxJet) but I couldn’t remember which one at the time. The picture of this airplane sitting on the Punta Cana ramp may have been the first clue that Eos was shutting down the next day.

After landing back in Miami, we were told that our gate was occupied. This meant we would have to h old on taxiway JJ which was a perfect perch to watch airplanes land in front of us. With the brakes parked and one engine shut down, I took a few pictures of some of the activity. Most interesting was this 757 which belonged to Honeywell. They are the manufacturers of the FMS, a navigation computer that feeds much of the information to our instruments and helps us navigate. I imagine every time they make a software change they have to demonstrate to the FAA that the are no issues with the upgrade using this 757.

Since this trip would have me exceeding the maximum 30 hours in a seven day period, a fresh Miami based co-pilot was assigned to fly the last leg home. Once again I rode in the back for my deadheading leg. In fact, after I wrote about deadheading in the first class cabin, I’ve had a seat in the back ever since. Maybe that post jinxed me.

I have a vacation week at the beginning of May that I’m using to meet up with my wife and kids who are visiting my mother-in-law in Germany. So I’ll get some more time in the back of an airplane before writing the next Cockpit Chronicles. Until then…

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on each of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston.