Monday, December 28, 2009

A Grinch who almost stole Christmas

I’m touched by what went down a few nights ago. The events which transpired on Christmas Eve befit the Holiday. Both the naughty and nice sides of human nature were on display, and I’m proud of the way people with my company and others responded to the situation.

Our story starts after a Philadelphia-Milwaukee round trip, where we incurred takeoff delays in Milwaukee because of not one but two airborne emergencies of Northwest Airlines and United Express planes. After uneventful outcomes of both we blasted off for the ‘City of brotherly love’, grateful that no one was had been hurt.

As a side note, a ‘monumentally impressive snow and rainmaker of a winter storm’ (TV Weatherman impersonation) was producing only a cold and constant rain at Brew City’s Mitchell field. Freezing rain or snow, which was then located to the north and west of Milwaukee, would’ve delayed us twenty minutes or more to de-ice and anti-ice our aircraft. The frontal boundary of this weather system eventually stretched like an upside down horseshoe from the east coast over the Great Lakes and down into the southern plains states. They had blizzard warnings for Iowa and Oklahoma on the same day. The best part is this big storm was moving slowly. They’ve had flood warnings in the east, from days of rain far ahead of the snowy part of the storm system. You can see from the weather map that moisture from the Atlantic Ocean is being drawn up the east coast and across the Great Lakes, helping to feed moisture to the already snow laden atmosphere.

Back to our Christmas story, to start it that is; kind of like the background of the traditional Christmas story, it takes a little to get it going. We arrived a little late in Philadelphia from Milwaukee, and were to swap into a new aircraft for a flight from Philadelphia to Albany, New York for our overnight. I had been flying with reserve Co-Pilots on this trip, and I called our Dispatcher to ask three questions: for a meal break for my Flight Attendant and I, where our plane we were to swap into was, and who my new First Officer (FO) was. He was fine with the meal break, as we had skipped lunch, and told me that our FO, a reserve pilot from one of our other bases, had been in PHL for two hours. Arriving at the gate with Chinese food in my hand, our jet was ‘cold and dark’, airline parlance for not powered up, no electricity and no heat. What it really meant was that my new FO wasn’t present, for some reason. I put on my best poker face in front of fifty anxious passengers and one mainline pilot/jumpseater, then the Flight Attendant and I walked down the jetway to the plane. After firing up the APU to prepare the plane I called Crew Scheduling to advise them that FO ______ wasn’t present. I was quickly concerned when Crew Scheduling was surprised that he wasn’t there and began trying to track him down.

My good Flight Attendant and I agreed not to board the jet until Crew Scheduling had found an FO for the flight, this one or a new one. He wasn’t happy about it, but we advised the gate agent of this, and I became worried that the flight would be cancelled. Crew Scheduling determined that ________ had commuted back to his base for the night, and they started trying to find a new FO for us.

Rachael, our Flight Attendant, brought sodas and water to our fifty Albany bound passengers waiting at the gate. A Gate manager who was helping oversee everything brought out pretzels to the passengers as well. By now we were the last Express flight out of PHL on Christmas Eve, and my optimism was fading fast.

I went out and spoke to a few passengers about the delay, trying to bite my tongue concerning what I suspected our FO had done: essentially ditched us, the company, and fifty Empire Capital bound passengers just before one of the Holiest days and biggest Holidays of the year. A passenger asked me about the new departure time on the monitor. It now showed a 9:40 PM departure time, 2:40 later than we had been scheduled. I called Crew Scheduling (CS) back to ask about it. They informed me that the pilots of a flight currently landing at Elmira-Corning, New York would reposition a jet without passengers back to PHL and the FO from that plane would fly with our crew to Albany (ALB) for the night. Good news!

CS and our Dispatch Coordinator had worked a Christmas Miracle. They had tried assigning ready reserve pilots (different than normal reserve) but they were off duty, no other reserve pilots were available in PHL, and they called to ‘junior man’ pilots but no one was answering their phones (understandably). They had done almost everything they could to find a pilot to assign this flight to, and the only trick they had left was to extend a crew who were still on duty’s schedule, fortunately it worked.

I hated the idea of canceling this flight on Christmas Eve. The visual I had of the suffering these people would experience in not making it to loved ones for Christmas Morning was difficult to me to bear. I’m very grateful that my company and others went the extra mile to find an FO and not cancel this flight. They did more than just avoid a cancellation and the expense of putting fifty customers up in a hotel for the night. They saved Christmas for them!

I’d like to give ‘gold stars’ to my Flight Attendant Rachael, the gate agents, and ramp agents for taking great care of the passengers during this delay, and staying to see our flight out, and especially to my airline’s Dispatch Coordinator and CS Personnel responsible for not canceling this flight and for finding a replacement FO. To strand passengers in PHL on Christmas Eve because of this would have been a very unfortunate thing to do. My company and the others involved spent thousands of dollars more than necessary to get this flight out, but I’m proud of their response in this situation.

I had asked the CS person if she could share any details with me about the first FO’s missed flight assignment. CS contacted him at 7 PM on the 23rd during an overnight stay, via a voice mail message, with the PHL-ALB flight assignment. He didn’t call back, and CS left him another voice mail message on this Christmas Eve during his day of flying. He didn’t return this call either and commuted back to his base after arriving back in PHL after flying three flights. CS wasn’t happy with this person’s actions, and it seemed that this situation would definitely be addressed by management, and rightly so.

I and Rachael were angry and embarrassed, frankly, to hear of these events: angry at this employee, whom neither of us knew, and embarrassed that someone at our airline would do such a thing. While I don’t know his side of the story, it seemed to us that our FO intentionally missed his flight assignment, just in order to be home on Christmas Eve. For a reserve pilot to not call back about a new flight assignment to be flown on a scheduled day of reserve duty is very unprofessional, but even more so on a holiday like Christmas Eve.

I went back to preparing for our ‘Santa’ flight. Our jet’s wingtips were collecting frost, so I requested a de-ice. A PHL Operations Manager responded, but ultimately requested a change of aircraft because the deicing trucks had been shut down for the night, and the de-icing crews had gone home for the night as well (can’t blame them really). Our Dispatcher changed our jet to the one being repositioned to PHL, bringing in our new FO, assigned to our PHL-ALB flight. This plane was “negative APU” (APU inoperative) so I requested an air start cart (for the engines) and a GPU. The circus music had already replaced the Christmas music in my head, and it was getting louder. Fortunately and thankfully our ramp agents and gate agents had not abandoned us, and continued to take care of our needs.

With only the Captain and our ‘savior’ FO on board, our new jet arrived and parked next to our frosty one. The ground crew plugged the GPU (ground power unit) in and we had electricity on the aircraft without having to run one of the engines. Rachael, our new FO and I prepared it and boarded our 50 passengers for ALB ASAP. We pushed back just after ten PM, three hours late.

This night, Christmas Eve night, we had had a Grinch who tried to steal Christmas from our passengers, a selfish fellow with an ugly attitude, thinking only about himself and not others he was to serve. True Christmas spirit, that of giving, serving, and sacrifice, and ultimately of suffering, was not in him. It reminds me of how secular traditions – the commercialization of Christmas (giving gifts, Santa, etc.) and applied humanist philosophies try to steal it from it’s true reason: The celebration of the human birth of Immanuel, ‘God with us’ (Isaiah 7:14) , The prophesied Messiah for the Jewish people and all mankind, Jesus Christ.

There were many prophecies fulfilled just by the birth of Christ. Concerning his birth, the who it was, what would happen, when it would occur, where it would occur, how it would occur, and of what lineage the Messiah would be was prophesied of hundreds and thousands of years before Jesus birth. For two websites worth exploring these prophesies at, click here and here.

Why do I write of Christmas in this way, that it includes sacrifice and suffering? The original, true Christmas story had these elements. Mary and Joseph were certainly cursed at under the breath of others, and possibly ostracized by those who didn’t believe their ‘Holy Spirit conceived pregnancy while still a virgin’ story (Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:26-37) that no doubt made the rounds in their town of Nazareth. There’s suffering there.

The arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem that they made during the final stages of her pregnancy involved suffering and sacrifices as well. It was 70 miles, and tradition says that Joseph walked and Mary was on a donkey. The census, called by Caesar Augustus, was to collect taxes for the Roman Empire, and required that everyone travel to their hometown (Luke 2:1-5). By God’s sovereign plan this requirement enabled fulfillment of the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, given by Micah the Prophet in Mica 5:2: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past.”

We humans love signs from the divine, and in the Christmas story, one of the signs ‘of the new King’ was given to ‘wise men from the east’. From Matthew 2:1-12, wise men from the east ask King Herod in Jerusalem “Where is the new born king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” Why did this signal to the wise men that a new King was born? According to a Bible guide I have, some astronomers calculate that in 7 BC Jupiter and Saturn lined up inside the Pisces constellation not once, but three times. On the ancient Middle Eastern horoscope, Jupiter represented kings, Saturn represented the Jews, and Pisces (fish) represented the Jewish homeland, so it seemed that a Jewish King was arriving at the Jewish homeland! Click here for a Theoretical Astrophysicist’s interesting opinion on it.

What a great sign this was! And I’m grateful that I received a sign this night, a skeptic might say it was coincidence, but I have faith in Jesus, and prefer to use it when I can. Our great sign this night was the name of our new FO, whose last name was ‘King’, I kid you not. He was easy to work with, understanding of the situation, he even called me sir, kept doing it too, even after I told him he didn’t need to. A ‘King’ who suffers and serves, he had those traits in common with the Lord.

If you’re thinking ‘baby Jesus didn’t suffer’ you’re probably right (except for the animal dung smell!), but suffering was part of his destiny. By reading the gospels one can see that He never turned away when faced with suffering and sacrifice. We Christians are quick to accept his serving, suffering, and sacrifice for us, but tend to be slow in accepting it in our own lives. However, In relationship with God through faith in Jesus as personal Savior and Lord and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us, we can grow to accept sacrifice and suffering with Joy. This sentiment is expressed in I Peter 4:12-16: “12Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. 13But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name."

Glory, praises, and all honor to all mankind's newborn Messiah and King!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone!  Lots of snow and blizzard conditions where I have loved ones, be careful out there! I'm in Albany, NY, and am scheduled to fly to Philadelphia, PA, then to Cincinati, OH tonight.  I have a great Christmas story I'd like to share, but will get to it later.  I promise.  Thanks for reading my blog again!

The promised Messiah for all of mankind, Jesus Christ, Immanuel, 'God with us', is born this Christmas morning!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Scrooged!

Yesterday started out nice in Milwaukee, and finished nice in Philadelphia, but in between it was murky, foggy, and tenuous with the scene of the world outside the windows, and eventually the question of where I would lay my head for the night.

Our scheduled day was Milwaukee (MKE) - Charlotte (CLT) – Harrisburg, PA (MDT) – CLT – Washington, DC (DCA). Most of it went according to plan. The first flight to Charlotte went well, except for light turbulence the second half, in ‘IMC’ (the clouds) over the Blue Ridge and Smokey Mountains portion of the Appalachians, pointed toward Charlotte. Once over the CLT terminal area, most of the white skies gave way to an undercast layer far below us, guarding the ground with a blanket of Sunday Football watching nap weather, which I wished I had the opportunity to do instead of shepherding planes full of trusting holiday travelers.

In very light winds, I flew the garden variety ILS (Instrument Landing System) approach, but in ‘solid’ conditions. We didn’t spend much time in the thin layer before we broke out at about 350 feet above the runway, which was covered in moisture from a light drizzle. A temperature inversion (which is a layer of air which is warmer at a higher altitude than it is below) hugged the ground. The cooler temperature on the ground promised that the conditions were all set to get worse, and we trusted that it would.

It was my First Officer’s legs to be the PF (pilot flying) from Charlotte to Harrisburg and back, more infamously known as ‘Three Mile Island’, which the airport is very close to. He’s an Asian-American, was born and raised in Hawaii, and is a long way from home. Very easy to work with, he’s a good, knowledgeable pilot, and quiet and good natured. Harrisburg had a thin overcast too, and the air was so smooth during his approach that you wouldn’t have known it otherwise. I called the ‘approach lights in sight’ at about 500 feet AGL (Above Ground Level) and he landed nicely on the long, misty runway.

After a visit to McDonald’s, and not a healthy salad but a greasy third pound burger and fries (comfort food when missing my three wife and two girls back home), I was ready to jump through the murk back to Charlotte. We had a guest up front, a jumpseating Piedmont First Officer who was in his fourth year there, flying the Dash-8 Turboprop and based at Harrisburg. Piedmont is a proud carrier, a rare regional airline which hasn’t ‘lowered the bar’ and taken paycuts and concessions in exchange for Regional Jets. Good for them, I say, but on the other hand, I’d bet that it can be a heartache seeing all those RJ’s taxi by while you’re making a career commanding an out of fashion and out of favor turboprop. I’m not demeaning T-prop’s, just commiserating with their pilots, that’s all. I think the Dash-8 Q400 (which Piedmont doesn’t fly BTW) is a great plane, but for that many seats (74) a pilot should be paid a great hourly rate.

“US Express thirty-seven-fourty-nine, right turn heading one-eight-zero” Harrisburg departure told us as my FO climbed our jetliner out of the clouds into the night sky. As we turned, the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant loomed seemingly just right below us. The enveloping mist around the tall, hourglass shaped cooling towers and other structures tried to hide it all from view, but the power plant’s bright white lights and ‘aviation red’ obstruction lights would have no part of that. It was a surreal moment surrounding a still amazing and controversial energy technology.

From here onward to Charlotte and part way back to DC, we would observe the earth’s new portrayal of itself, as a gray, white and orange, marbled, spider webbed and interconnected surface. Lights of civilization from the cities, towns, and highways below were illuminating through the thin layer of clouds and fog. For me, it was yet another reminder of how Jesus Christ gives light, true light, his true light, to us, and how he penetrates our hearts, through whatever fog and clouds are in our lives.

We chased some more green light on the way to Charlotte, and had good conversation with our Jumpseater. I made a mental note to see whether the green light in a fading dusk horizon from 20,000 feet is observable on terra firma, and yesterday, when driving home, I verified that it is not. You now have another reason to book a flight, in order to cross the sky and appreciate an exquisitely beautiful sunset and dusky sky.

For our second approach into Charlotte, we still had a thin overcast layer and temperature inversion, but the conditions had gotten significantly worse on the ground. Charlotte was reporting almost calm winds, ½ mile visibility with mist, and a thin cloud layer starting at 300 feet above the ground. The businesslike tone of the controllers and the pilots on the frequency reflected the seriousness of the atmosphere.

Upon checking on with Charlotte Approach, they told us that the runway ‘three-six right’ (36R) RVR was 2000. RVR stands for ‘Runway Visual Range’, and is a measured horizontal visibility that governs instrument approaches in poor visibility. Our airline’s minimum legal visibility permitted for an approach is 1,800 feet, so it was approaching our legal minimums for an instrument approach.

He had already briefed the ILS approach to 36R, so all that was left to do was to cross our t’s and dot our i’s regarding our procedures and such on the approach. Since I take the plane off the runway, I briefed that we would take the first exit we saw at a slow enough speed, or as the tower cleared us. It was likely they would want us clear of the first available taxiway. We both knew that the likelihood of going around was good, so we were mentally prepared for that, as we always are, but more so this time.

One of the components of the ILS is the approach lighting system. It is a sequenced line of lights on the ground, extended from the beginning of the runway up to a half a mile, and on some runways the runway itself has touchdown zone lighting, symmetrically on both sides of the runway centerline. ATC can turn these lights up very brightly, to make it easier to see the approach lights and runway through the low fog and mist. Only I forgot to brief my FO on how bright these lights would be, so bright that they take away all of your depth perception in the landing flare. Even with all our jet’s landing lights on, you can’t see the runway surface.

He did a fine job though. By the time he was flaring the plane for landing it was readily apparent that there was no depth perception. I didn’t want to distract him at that point, so I didn’t say anything. You would think this is a no brainer for airline pilot pros, but we see these conditions only about three times a year – twice in real life and once in the simulator. My FO has been at our airline for over three years, and he told me after we taxied in that it was the lowest visibility he’s actually landed in as the pilot flying.

Those conditions aren’t anything to fool around in. Unfortunately, later that night, after we departed Charlotte for Washington DC, another airline’s MD-80 had a landing mishap after continuing an approach in those foggy conditions when they perhaps should have gone around. The crew landed with one main landing gear on the edge of the runway. Then, in trying to steer the jet back onto the runway, one of it’s wingtips struck the ground. It is reported that these pilots reported trouble with their autopilot and disconnected it during the approach, electing to hand fly it the rest of the way to touchdown.

After a landing accident from an unstabilized approach that my own airline had a couple of years ago, (with no lives lost or injuries, thank God), my airline now has a policy of requiring the autopilot to fly the approach to the missed approach point when the visibility below 3 miles. Some of our pilots opine that they’re restricting our ‘freedom’, but I believe this policy is a good thing.

Taxiing out of Charlotte later, I had to take it very slowly; it was so foggy that ground control was relying on position reports from the aircraft. Seeing other jets on the ground itself was difficult. They tended to show up like silvery lit sets of lights, sliding by like ghosts among the colored Christmas tree lights of the taxiways and runways (I like colored lights on Christmas trees). ‘What is that jumbo jet Airbus doing?’ He turned toward us on the runway we were crossing as he was taxiing to the gate after landing. Suddenly he looked a lot bigger and we wondered if he saw us like we saw him. He was a normal narrow body Airbus after all, 320 series. The fog made planes seem bigger, and they sneak up on you quicker.

In a long line for takeoff, we enjoyed watching the airliners (which had lower legal landing minimums than our airline does) break out of the low overcast and land virtually immediately. The clouds were now reported as 100 feet above the ground and the visibility was variable between 1200-1400 RVR. We had asked our dispatcher for a takeoff alternate at the gate, he knew we would call and was planning it for us. Since we were limited to RVR 1800 when landing at Charlotte, if we had an engine failure or another emergency we wouldn’t be able to return to Charlotte. On our release I ‘pen and inked’ the ‘TOA’ and we were on our way.

The trend seemed to be that a blanket of fog was being thrown all across the south. DC’s forecast wasn’t that bad, relatively speaking. It was supposed to be “31005KT 2SM BR OVC003” (light winds from the northwest, two miles visibility, mist, overcast clouds 300 feet above the ground) by the time we arrived after a 50 minute flight. I was the pilot flying this leg, and by the time I finished my salad in cruise flight, Washington center gave us the standard clearance to “Descend to cross OJAAY at one-zero thousand, two-five-zero knots”. OJAAY is an ‘intersection’ on our route of flight into DC from the south, and ATC wanted us to cross it at 10,000 feet at 250 MPH.

My good FO had just brought up the weather report from DC. It was “19003KT 1/2SM FG OVC001”, with the visibility of ½ mile at our approach minimums. The RVR reports would tell the tale on whether we would get in, or even fly the approach. Soon Washington center gave a clearance to turn back behind where we were and enter ‘the published holding pattern’ at JIMBE intersection. We never made it to OJAAY. After my good FO programmed the holding pattern at JIMBE in our FMS (Flight Management System-computer) I said “execute”, punched the right buttons and twisted the right knobs, and our jet magically entered the holding pattern, flying the oval racetrack pattern depicted on our moving map display.

Meanwhile, the RVR reports from DC weren’t good. It was 800-1200, and the absolute minimum RVR at DC for any aircraft (due to limited ground equipment and approach lights etc.) is 1600. Under these conditions, no aircraft were getting into DC tonight. The weather forecast for DC had been in the neighborhood, but the ‘weather guessers’ had still basically blown it. A revised forecast we received via our ACARS box predicted that the thick fog would stick around DC for the night.

We had about 30-40 minutes of fuel to hold with, with four or five other forlorn airliners waiting for DC above and below us. As usual, there is lots to do when holding, waiting, wondering if you’ll divert to your alternate airport or another airport: update the passengers, the Flight Attendant, communicate with Dispatch, check and re-check the weather reports and forecasts at your respective airports, and look for meteors falling through the sky.

Uh, that last part is rare but true. We were lucky enough to be flying in a clear sky on the night of maximum meteor activity of the annual Geminids meteor shower. My FO had spotted a few more than me, but after I learned where to look I started catching up. It was the only consolation I could offer our passengers as we waited for our bingo fuel to arrive or for the fog to lift at DC.

Our bingo fuel, calculated by our Dispatcher, and verified by us, is the minimum fuel we could leave the holding pattern with, fly the approach at DC, go missed approach, and continue to our alternate and land with IFR reserves (45 minutes worth of fuel) at our alternate, which in this case was Philadelphia. PHL seemed like a long way for an alternate, my FO stated, and I tended to agree with him. We checked the weather at nearby Washington DC Dulles (IAD) and Baltimore (BWI). It was fine at BWI and marginal at IAD, but we might be able to get in there. We ‘emailed’ over our ACARS box to Dispatch our suggestion to divert to IAD instead of PHL, but they didn’t take the bait. He kept responding that “PHL is ready for you”. PHL did have better facilities for receiving a stray US Air Express flight, as it’s a hub for them. But I was visualizing unhappy passengers getting off the plane in PHL asking ‘why didn’t we land at Dulles or Baltimore?’. We crept down closer and closer to our bingo fuel with every meteor sighted.

After holding for about 40 minutes we reached our bingo fuel of 3,800 lbs, and set things in motion with ATC to divert to PHL. Away from blanketed ground beneath us we went toward the bare, fog free Virginia and Maryland peninsulas, towards unclouded Philadelphia and a 20 mile line of aircraft on final approach. That’s a long final approach, it seemed Philly was running a reduced ATC operation, using only one runway for landing. A normal flight from Charlotte to DC usually takes 1:25 total, with this diversion to Philly it took 3:08.

Yes, the people were not happy, especially when the gate agent announced on board that the flight had been cancelled. It was a weather cancellation, which meant that the airline wasn’t liable for providing a hotel for inconvenienced passengers. I know, I know, but I just fly the plane, I don’t make up the rules. Comments like “I’ll miss an important meeting because of this”, “did the Airbus flying from Charlotte to DC make it in?” (no), and of course “three airports in DC, what about going to Baltimore?” were faced by me with the best apologetic, empathetic smile I could muster.

At the hotel a while later, at 1 AM I tried to settle into my comfortable room, but my head was still buzzing with the experiences and sights we had this day. My heart had a flurry of activity too, feeling for our passengers so close, but yet so far from where they thought they would be. I was looking forward to going home, on an unknown early flight from Philly to Minneapolis or Chicago, then on the final leg to Sioux Falls. I was missing my wife and two girls dearly. I hadn’t seen my wife but for a couple hours the last time I had been home. She had traveled to be with her father in Omaha, in the hospital.

The internet didn’t work for my laptop in my room, so I would have to guess on the time and airline to jumpseat on. Murphy, as in Murphy’s law, was running the show. After four hours sleep I clawed my way to the airport and picked Northwest, even against my instincts telling me to go to United. My flight had a maintenance delay. Once at MSP, I learned that the flight I could’ve taken to Sioux Falls, if I had been on time, had cancelled. Passengers and jumpseating pilots from the cancelled flight spilled over in the departure lounge. Soon I missed the next two flights on regional jets, and finally caught the third one home, it had taken 12+ hours.

I was home for 22 hours, as I had only two days off and had an early show for next trip I had to commute back to DC for. But I had a great 22 hour layover at home. Sometimes this job, and life, goes this way. Sometimes you get Scrooged, by the weather and your commute. But God doesn’t say in the Bible that you won’t get scrooged. He does say that He will be there for you when it happens.

Thanks for reading my blog. ‘Happy Holidays’, and have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! I hope to post again for Christmas, before the year is out.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Just a little Bit

Recently it happened; I knew it would eventually. In the fallout after a Northwest Airlines flight crew accidentally lost communications with ATC and over flew Minneapolis-St. Paul airport by over 100 miles, I just knew that sometime in the future, an airline passenger would make a rude remark about it in my direction.


I asked the lady finishing her meal if the seat next to her was taken. I was waiting for my pizza while commuting home through Chicago’s O’Hare airport. “I don’t know, are you drinking?” was her reply. I could feel my facial muscles in disappointment as she further stated “do you have a laptop? Where are you going? Are you going to Tampa Bay?” In complete disdain and eye roll mode I exasperated to her “Please. I’m commuting home to where I live, and I’m not drinking, I’m in uniform”. All the while I was asking myself, telling myself, that she is kidding. Right?

My pizza came, albeit with a soggy crust. I was hungry so I squatted down on the stool, popped in my earbuds with my back to my offender, and tried to get over it. The music intended to soothe my frayed nerves was short lived. I felt a soft pat on my back, then another. I knew without looking that it was this lady again, wanting to accost me, or talk, for some reason. Being the gentleman that I am, I obliged her. It turned out that she was fairly nice, but talkative and opinionated, finishing a glass of wine to prime her tongue.

Her husband was a private pilot and wanna be airline pilot, so she just knew everything that goes on up in the flight deck. She knew a little in any regard. We chatted for a while and she told me about her two sons, how blessed I was to have two daughters instead, and how her husband was a retired Marine but he still won’t get rid of his uniforms (don’t know why that’s a problem). Excepting her first comments, she was actually very nice, and she had a Christian cross necklace on, so at least we had the same God in common. It was strange how I was seemingly making friends with this fellow traveler who moments before I had classed as very rude, all without her apologizing or clarifying that she had been kidding me. I wouldn’t be surprised if I get comments of that nature again in the future.

In this age of high technology, everyone thinks it’s so easy to be an ‘expert’ on anything. Google it, look it up on Wikipedia, read about it on the internet, and you’re an instant layman on any subject. The saying ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ hasn’t changed in value, though. The vast capability technology gives us, coupled with easy access to information, has somehow given others a license for ridicule and lampoon when human failings break through the system we trust, as they will always do. The average Joe thinks that just because the jets are so automated, that ‘they can fly themselves, and even land themselves’, that it doesn’t take the same level of skill, discipline, and judgment, and leadership as it used to. “So easy, even a caveman could do it?” I definitely don’t think so.

All in all, it shows a lack of respect that travelers have for pilots these days. Then again, by their own actions and appearances, pilots have tended to show a lack of respect for their profession as well. It's not just the pilots though; I also point the finger of blame at the management and leadership of the airlines. I can? Sure I can, this is my blog. Yes, I think both parties have a share in this.

Here are a few axioms that are current in the industry, common to others as well:

"When they pay me like a professional, then I’ll act like a Professional." I don't agree with this one, but it is common in 'the way of the world'. This is a poor attitude to have, and I've written about this before. When it comes to transporting precious human life through the air, this attitude should be invalidated. The intent should be that professionalism, and thus safety, shouldn't suffer, whether you're flying a puddle jumper or a 747. In fact, the per flight hour safety record of the nineteen seat twin turboprop commuter airlines is virtually the same as that of the majors, and these fellas are some of the hardest working and least paid airline pilots there are. I know, because I was one of them for two years. Being less of a professional just because you feel you're underpaid is itself the epitome of unprofessionalism.

However, airline pilots do make significantly less that they did in the past, mainly because of federal deregulation of the airlines (which occurred under Carter but came to final fruition under Reagan) and the consequent competition in the free marketplace. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in bankruptcies and the rise of the 'low cost carriers', things got even worse for airline pilots. Major airline pilots now make one-half or less of what they used to, basically. According to data published in my pilot union's latest newsletter, when corrected for inflation, a 1982 Captain of a 44 seat turboprop would have made more than twice as much today as regional jet Captains are now at our current airlines. When adjusted for inflation, a Republic Airlines (the original Republic Airlines mind you) Captain of a Convair 580 would make $171 per flight hour now, compared to about $70 per flight hour a 50 seat RJ Captain currently makes. Airline pilots get paid for approximately 1,000 hours a year, so you can do the math.

(Free market Conservative Capitalist steps in): 'Time out now, Craig. You blamed airline management, and now said they (the government) deregulated the airlines, which in turn forced them to compete more with each other in the free marketplace. It's only logical that airline managements would try to reduce their costs in order to remain competitive, which is what they've done. So what's wrong with management responding to the new market established by deregulation, and why haven't you blamed the government?' Nothing, I suppose. You can't blame someone for trying to defend their standard of living, however. I try to strike a balance between understanding the economic stance of the airlines and establishing what I need, not necessarily want, to get by with and provide for my family. Regarding the government, it is what it is, and they are a few voices calling for regulation of the airlines again, I don't think it will occur though. The intent of deregulation was to reduce the cost of airline travel and make it more affordable for more Americans, and that goal has been achieved.

"You get what you can negotiate, not what you deserve." In capitalism based, free market economy, this holds true, like it or not. Whether you like it depends on how well your company is doing and how much you can negotiate, I suppose. For example, FedEx and UPS pilots currently have excellent pay, the best in the business and substantially better than the passenger airlines, because they've been able to negotiate it, based on the incredible profitability their companies have had in the 2000's.

Regional airlines have been buffeted by extreme pressure to reduce their labor costs, and in many cases have caved, my airline being no exception.  Regional airlines have been pitted against each other to compete to be awarded or keep the share of flying they do for their parent carrier.  This is called 'whip-sawing', and it hardly existed before deregulation and the rise of regional, or 'contract' carriers.

Airline management has conflicting priorities: one is to maximize profitability; the other is to operate a safe airline. At some point, pushing pilots, real human beings, not machines, to do more and more with less and less in order to save money does affect safety in a negative way.

My bottom line, the bottom line, IMO, is that even though airline pilots make substantially less than they used to, professionalism shouldn't suffer. Safety, or perceived safety, shouldn't suffer either. ALPA, the largest airline pilots union, and airline pilot groups everywhere are in large part responsible for the excellent safety record of the airlines, not airline management. Of course, some airline managements are more attuned to their pilot groups concerns regarding safety than others. Our unions and pilot groups should and will continue for fight against the degradation of professionalism in the flight deck. The honor of our profession and the traveling public's trust is at stake.