Category Archives: Aviation

Airline pay

In the (usually) excellent Blogging at FL250, Sam attempts to defend the union system, arguing that the insanity that results from a system based entirely on seniority would be best fixed by just making the seniority list include the whole country. That strikes me as addressing a bad idea by simply trying the same bad idea on a grander scale. (Maybe he got that idea from the Federal Government.)

The salary for a junior regional first officer is around $30-$40 a year, working the worst hours the FAA will allow and doing the hardest flying he or she will ever see in their career. The salary for a senior captain pushing buttons on a fully automated 747 is over $200k a year.

Apparently the unions have decided that flying should be done at a level of ability that is proportional to the number of seats. I’m sure that’s a comforting thought if you’re in seat 1A of a 747, but perhaps not so much if you’re in seat 1A of a Saab 340. In truth, the smaller airplanes are the hardest to fly, and spend more of their time in the weather.

What’s funny is that this huge skew is exactly what a free labor market would probably arrive at, too, given its mercenary monetization of human life. The only difference between the unions and the free market is that the unions also make sure the pilot’s competence never comes into play at any level.

No matter the skepticism with which I regard free market capitalism, the results of alternative systems rarely fail to disappoint more.

An airline I’d like to see

(No parenting posts yet. I’m still getting my head around the idea that some poor kid has me as a father. So, I bring you another rant…)

One phenomenon (of many) about modern culture that really confuses me is the success of budget airlines. Of all the things on which one might want to skimp, I’d assume air travel is not one of them. Hasn’t the thought ever occurred to somebody, as they sit in a lightweight aluminum tube traveling 80% of the speed of sound through the upper atmosphere, “Maybe this should be costing me more than $39 if I know what’s good for me?” Do you really want the people responsible for launching your kids into the stratosphere to be running cash flow negative?

Why isn’t there one airline in the country that charges 50% more to get you there, but which actually does their damn job correctly? They could have decent customer service, and could afford to price their product based on what it takes to fly safely, not decide on price first and then see what they can do with that money.

As a case in point, there have been several regional airline crashes in the past several years that can be traced (at least partly) to poor pilot training and long work schedules. I’d be fine paying extra to fly on a commuter but get a pilot who was as well trained, rested, and paid as one who would normally fly a 747. After all, flying isn’t easier just because there are fewer seats. I can’t imagine I’m alone in this. I also can’t imagine I’m alone in thinking I’d rather get there late than have to have the living shit scared out of me (or worse) by flying through a storm. However, airlines will generally fly right through anything less than a thunderstorm because it saves them the fuel costs of having to divert around (assuming they even have the spare fuel given that they all generally fly with close to the minimum required by FAA regulations). And, of course, sometimes they end up flying through more than they bargained.

So, if an airline started up and came out with ads saying “At Birge Airlines, we put safety above all else, and it shows in our prices. We’ll fly around storms even if it doubles our flight time, we carry more fuel than legally required, and if the weather isn’t good anywhere along your route, there’s a good chance you’ll be staying at a hotel on our dime. We’ll get your there late and lighter in the wallet, but we guarantee we’ll get you there safely.”

Wouldn’t you book your next flight with them?

Should we blame the pilot for the Buffalo crash, or bureaucrats and trial lawyers?

The latest statement from the NTSB on the Buffalo crash suggests the pilot simply let the airplane get too slow. He then reacted badly and stalled the airplane. His reaction was seemingly inexplicable for a professional pilot, as one of the first things you learn during primary training is developing the muscle memory to break a still with forward stick. I do not buy the notion proposed by some that the pilot mistakenly thought he was dealing with an icing-induced tail plane stall. Even though it is true that pulling back is proper for a tail plane stall (as opposed to the typical main wing stall) absolutely nothing else the pilot did was appropriate for a tail stall. Everything in the NTSB statement suggests the cockpit simply devolved into complete chaos. While they mercifully keep this out of the public eye, the NTSB investigators have suffered through listening to the cockpit voice recorder and reading in between the lines of the NTSB statement I think it’s fairly clear the pilot simply panicked.

However, I’m not passing judgment. I’m sure I’d have done no better, even with all the training in the world. My reason for writing this is to say something about the system, not the pilot. When I was doing my instrument training, my biggest takeaway from the whole thing was that it was utter bullshit for people’s lives to depend on a pilot doing it correctly when the chips are down. It’s normally easy to fly on instruments, but it gets surprisingly difficult quickly when things go wrong, especially with the disorientation that occurs at night. Too much is expected of pilots flying hard IFR in any airplane that’s not fully automated. Yes, it’s manageable, but not with the kind of margin you’d like to see when lives are at stake, and especially with relatively inexperienced pilots at the beginning of their careers, as is the case with regional jet pilots. One’s ability to react correctly is shockingly bad when terrified, and I’m guessing the slow speed situation caught the pilots off guard and scared the shit out of them.

But don’t we live in a world where automation and control technology has advanced to the point where the space shuttle can deorbit and land itself? Where cars drive themselves on highways and keep the car from spinning on ice? Why, then, are we paying to fly our children in airplanes without something as relatively simple as autothrottles, something that would’ve saved the lives of the families on the Colgan Air flight? Why is this considered remotely acceptable? Why is “drop out of the sky and kill us all” included in the set of possible control inputs to a commercial aircraft?

Apart from the Hudson ditching, every major aviation accident that’s happened in the past ten years in the US could have been avoided with relatively straightforward control software, including 9/11. If you don’t believe me, cite one and I’ll explain how simple software would’ve avoided it. In the case of 9/11,

Given that this is all utterly doable, why isn’t it done? The answer is that because of regulations and liability, you can’t add a bloody toaster to a commercial aircraft for less than $100,000 per plane. The idea of regulation and liability is that it should keep us safe, but at this point thanks to the beauty of unintended consequences and legislators that don’t seem to understand the concept of unintended consequences, it is doing the exact opposite. The Dash 8 that killed those people in Buffalo would’ve had autothrottles installed had they not been so expensive, and that expense is caused largely by the regulators who make certification so onerous, and the trial lawyers who make liability insurance prohibitively expensive. The Dash 8 is exactly the kind of airplane that needs them, but it won’t get them until we find a way to regulate aviation without completely stifling technological advancement at the same time.

Because of this unintended stifling effect, we could get rid of the FAA and safety would probably increase. I know trusting souls out there gasp at this idea, but the FAA is essentially an extension of the airline industry, anyway, so what we have now is basically self-regulation with all the disadvantages of government efficiency. They don’t have the guts to do anything drastic, and almost never have the brains to not do harm. They’ll focus on the small stuff (remember the Boeing 727 wiring inspections a while back?) and completely drop the ball on the big problems. When the FAA found out that the Boeing 737 had a major issue whereby the rudder would hard-over on its own, a problem that occurred over 100 times and caused two major fatal crashes, did they ground the fleet? Nope. That would’ve been too financially disruptive. They simply told the airlines to fly the planes a bit faster so that pilots could have a better chance at recovery when it happened.

Sometimes the only difference between free market anarchy and government regulation is paperwork.

Vintage technology: 757 flightdeck

A picture of the flight deck of a 757 we got to play with (on the ground) after a class I took on cockpit automation. (Click on the picture for a larger version.) The 757 was developed in the late 70s, and its delivery customer in 1982 was Eastern Airlines. (Remember them?)

I’m not certain, but I believe this was the last Boeing flightdeck to have CRT displays, as opposed to LCDs. The reason this is worth mentioning is that it’s one of those examples of technology going backwards. In CRT displays, the symbols (e.g. the engine arcs in the middle top display) are drawn not as rows and columns of dots, but the same way a person might draw them. For example, a circle is made by scanning the electron beam in a circle, creating a gorgeous, bright, perfect circle. Each letter is written by tracing the beam along the outline of the letter, is if writing it longhand. No pixels! It takes a rather large computer to handle all of this, located deep in the belly of the airplane. Despite being “antiquated” technology, the displays are utterly striking and unlike anything you see today. LCDs may be cheaper, but there’s something about CRTs, especially vector-based ones, that are a pity to see go.

Similarly, there is nothing that can replace the efficacy of analog gauges, in some ways. On the 757 there are still “steam gauges” showing speed and altitude to the left and right of the attitude indicator CRT (the blue and brown ball). They are easy to read, sharp, and wholly independent. I found that when flying the simulator, I would tend to use them over the more central digital speed and altitude “tapes” on either side of the attitude indicator. Integrated LCD panels are cheaper, yes, but I don’t think anybody will ever make one that improves upon the immediate readability of a steam gauge instrument. You can see the approximate angle and rate of change of a dial out of the corner of your eye, but reading a digital number requires eye movement and a bit of mental processing, especially if the numbers are changing rapidly or you’re in turbulence. Two steps forward…