United Cops Record Fine for Stranding Passengers on Tarmac

newark  nj   oct 5  united...
Shutterstock / Songquan Deng

United Airlines has received a hefty penalty for keeping passengers waiting on airplanes for hours on end while their flights were delayed. The Department of Transportation fined the carrier $1.1 million-the biggest fine of its kind so far-for tarmac delays that happened at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport last year.

Rules that were put in place in 2010 state that airlines will be penalized if they keep passengers waiting around on the tarmac for more than three hours. In United’s case, all the rule breaking happened on one particularly stormy day when 13 separate United flights were delayed because of thunder and lighting. According to the rules, United was meant to give passengers the chance to get off the plane as it was obvious flights would be held up. But the carrier didn’t. And to top it off, bathrooms on the some of the delayed planes weren’t working, leaving passengers in the lurch.The Department of Transportation says United didn’t do a very good job handling the situation and didn’t reach out to other airport personnel for help. The Department of Transportation also slammed the airline for not having a good plan in place to deal with weather-related problems in general. Some of the money from the fine will go to passengers affected by the delays, while another portion will go towards creating a tracking system at O’Hare so United can better monitor its planes.

Cockpit Chronicles: A captain’s line check

Once every two years a captain is required to be observed by a check airman. And captains over sixty must be checked every six months.

I touched on the line check in the last Cockpit Chronicles, and I’ve had yet another trip with a check airman performing a line check, making it two in the last eight days. Both of the captains I was flying with were over sixty. As a result of the change in retirement age from sixty to sixty-five in 2007, a line check has been mandated every six months for those sixty and older.

I’ve spotted some of the items that check airman are looking for during these checks. Consider this a guide on how to make a check airman happy. I know my demographic here at Gadling will be thrilled to come across this information.

It’s important not to fly any differently when you’re not being checked. You won’t be able to fool these pilots by ‘stepping up your game’ only when they’re around. There are so many rules, procedures and techniques you’ll need to adhere to, that it’ll be obvious to the instructor that you haven’t been paying attention to your training if you try to ‘step up your game’ only when the management pilot is around.

The ‘Check Airman’

At my company, check airmen are captains that are chosen, usually by the base chief pilot, to fill the instructor positions. Some are exclusively ‘line’ check airman, who only perform line checks and the ‘initial operating experience’ for new pilots to the aircraft. Others are qualified to fly the line and also perform simulator checks.

What they want to see.

The following are some examples of what a pilot will be tested on during a six month or two-year line check.Licenses and medicals

The first thing they’re likely interested in seeing are a pilot’s license and medicals. They’re checking to see the medical hasn’t expired and that the license includes an ‘English Language’ endorsement. It may sound silly, but the international organization overseeing many of the rules governing air carriers worldwide, ICAO, requires all licenses to include this endorsement. If it’s not there, you can’t fly, no matter how eloquent a pilot is while trying to talk their way out of the problem.

Briefings

A check airman will be watching to see that a captain conducts a thorough briefing with the flight attendants regarding any security changes, the expected ride conditions and to re-iterate how an evacuation may be handled.

Procedures

In order for 10,000 pilots to fly well together, there has to be a set of procedures and call outs that everyone is familiar with, obviously. So check airmen pay particular attention to these procedures and will often comment if something is done differently. For example, if a pilot were to check the flight controls on the ramp instead of the taxiway, something may be said. Interestingly, in that example, other aircraft in our fleet allow for the flight controls to be checked on the ramp after the pushback crew has departed, so not everything is consistent from one fleet to the next.

Checklists

While it might seem to be nit-picking, check airmen will say something if the response to a checklist item is read back as “closed” when it should be “cutoff” instead. This can especially be an issue for pilots coming from a different brand of airplane that uses different terminology. Old habits are hard to break.

Efficiency

Check airmen are tasked with encouraging fuel saving techniques and they might make mention of this during a line check. Recently a comment was made to me when I opted to use the Econ mode of our FMS to set the climb speed since it was 298 knots, which was very close to the company’s procedure of using 300 knots at that weight. The check airman probably just wanted to be sure that I knew the speed usually set for a given weight. Interestingly, they rarely mention when a pilot brings the flaps out early when flying level at the minimum clean (no flaps) airspeed for twenty miles before starting the approach; a technique that could also save some serious dinosaurs.

PAs

Recently we’ve had some changes in the regulations regarding delays on international flights. You’re going to hear a lot more updates should a delay occur, and there are specific rules regarding just how often captains must update passengers, even if we don’t know the cause for the delay or how much longer we may have to wait. Since the penalties from the Department of Transportation, DOT, for non-compliance are steep, this will be an example of a new policy that will be checked as well.

Systems knowledge

Even though we go through an oral exam during our simulator check rides every nine months, check airmen will be looking for signs of weak areas in the knowledge of the systems of the airplane. These systems can include the hydraulics, electrical, flight controls, FMS computers, autopilot, fuel system, pneumatics and flight instruments among other things. But there’s no oral quizzing during line checks fortunately. The instructors are quick to say they’re just there to observe.

So while pilots rarely have management looking over their shoulders, they are checked often by check airmen.

These check rides usually result in something being learned and are a good way to ensure that every pilot is working in the most standardized way while flying the line. The vast majority of check airmen are helpful and friendly, although I can’t say that most pilots are truly happy to have them aboard. And knowing that fact probably makes the check airmen job all that more difficult.

As a first officer, I’m not eligible to work as a check airman and I’ve vowed to stay away from the job for the rest of my career. At our company, there really isn’t a significant pay premium to work as an instructor, and you give up most landings and opportunities to actually fly the airplane while you’re performing a line check or IOE training. And your schedule is often dictated by whatever the pilot you’re checking can hold. While I appreciate those who choose to step into these roles, I know my place in life is as a line pilot. There’s nothing better. Except perhaps as a line captain, but that will have to wait for a future Cockpit Chronicles.

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.

Airline fuel costs up almost a third since last year

Airline fuelSo, how expensive is fuel for the airline industry? Brace yourself: the situation is pretty ugly. In April 2011, airlines in the United States dropped an average of $2.99 a gallon on fuel. That number sounds a lot better than what you’re seeing at the pump, right? How can it be that bad?

Well, this is yet another month-over-month increase. In March, the airlines spent an average of only $2.80 a gallon on get fuel, according to the latest data from the U.S Department of Transportation‘s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. In 30 days, we’re looking at a 6.8 percent spike. Look back even further, and the numbers don’t get any prettier. In April 2010, the U.S. airline industry spent an average of $2.29 on fuel. In one year, the average cost has surged an incredible 31 percent!

If you thought driving was too expensive because of gas prices, you’ll find the skies decidedly unfriendly.

[photo by octal via Flickr]

Airline fees are worth more than Facebook

Airlines, Facebook and money

Outside the travel world, everyone’s marveling at the prospect of a Facebook IPO, which could be valued at as much as $100 billion. So, what are we missing while we fawn over Mark Zuckerberg’s creation? How about the slow, stodgy, ugly airline industry. Known for a painful user experience and a steady decline of free features, the likes of Delta and American Airlines are outdoing the hottest online property in the world simply by annoying their customers.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation‘s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, baggage and reservation change fees brought the U.S. airline industry a whopping $5.7 billion last year. Delta picked up close to a billion dollars on baggage fees alone, which doesn’t include what they yanked from the wallets of soldiers returning home from combat. The largest airline in the country also brought in approximately $700 million from reservation change fees.

American Airlines, the fourth largest airline in the United States, came in second in both categories, with $580.7 million in baggage fees and $471.4 million in reservation change fees.The particular beauty of these fees is that they are basically found money. Some passengers need to check bags, and the airlines have to invest in the overhead required to meet this demand. It’s an expense that can’t be avoided. With this fee, they monetized what they’d have to pay anyway. The same is the case for reservation change fees.

The top five earners of baggage fees in 2010 are:

1. Delta: $952.3 million

2. American: $580.7 million

3. US Airways: $513.6 million

4. Continental: $341.6 million

5. United: $313.2 million

Unsurprisingly, the top five earners of reservation change fees don’t look much different:

1. Delta: $698.6 million

2. American: $471.4 million

3. United: $321.5 million

4. US Airways: $253.1 million

5. Continental: $237.4 million

No doubt, activist groups will be up in arms shortly. And airline employees will lament the fact that their executives are so richly compensated while they have endured round after round of pay cuts and layoffs for years upon years.

Frankly, I offer my congratulations to the airline industry. Yes, they are soaking us. Passengers are a captive audience, particularly on routes with limited coverage, and we sometimes have no choice but to pay. The airlines are using this to generate profitable growth for their shareholders, which is their primary responsibility.

So, what about Facebook? The company is estimated to pull in revenues of somewhere above $4 billion this year, most of it from advertising. It is pretty interesting that the popular social network is annoying its customers as a way to generate revenue, just like the airlines!

Who knew that pissing off your target market was an awesome business model?

[photo by Tobin Black via Flickr]

Airline tarmac delays: the first full year of results is in!

Airline tarmac delaysWe’re now looking back on a full year of limited tarmac delays. In April 2010, the airline industry seemed like it was begging and pleading with the American public not to accept the insanity that the government was forcing upon them. Mayhem would rule, the industry claimed, as standards for performance would prevent everyone from getting anywhere. It would be ugly … far uglier than the service the airlines had provided so far.

Throughout the year, Gadling has checked in to let you know that the airline industry did not fall apart as a result of shorter tarmac delays. With airlines only able to sit out there for three hours before facing hefty fines, the result has been noticeable – and positive.

“On the one-year anniversary of the tarmac delay rule, it’s clear that we’ve accomplished our goal of virtually eliminating the number of aircraft leaving travelers stranded without access to food, water, or working lavatories for hours on end,” says U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a statement. “This is a giant step forward for the rights of air travelers.”
And indeed, it is. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, only 20 tarmac delays of more than three hours were reported in the first 12 months the rule was in effect. For the year prior, the total reached an astounding – and severe – 693.

Meanwhile, the number of canceled flights with tarmac delays of at least two hours edged only a tad higher, from 336 in the May 2009-to-April 2010 period to 387 in the 12 months that followed. This indicator is used to gauge flights canceled to avoid the three-hour rule because the DOT believed it’s the most likely set of flights to be cut.

And, this is the metric where airline industry mayhem would be visible. A 15.2 percent increase – in light of a 97.1 percent decline in delays of three hours or longer – pretty much tells the story.

The numbers say it all: airlines can be held to higher standards. And, the threat of heavy fines is incredibly effective. Now, if only we could levy fines for substandard customer service