For some, life couldn't be any more perfect than if they were paid to travel. I've run across three airline crew members who have discovered ways to keep their jobs fresh and exciting by embracing what is for them the biggest benefit that comes with working for an airline: travel.
You hear about the turbulence in the airline industry nearly every week – layoffs, pay cuts, pensions lost and airlines shutting down. The echo chamber at work is enough to drive an airline employee crazy after hearing how these events are affecting everyone. But a few pilots and flight attendants I've worked with have come to the conclusion that they're unable to change the situation materially, and so they may as well find a way to enjoy the job.
I like to think I'm an adventurous traveler, although my definition of adventurous is to try to avoid eating at the same place in a given city more than once. I rarely succeed, but it's a goal at least.
Years ago, a flight attendant asked me for advice about purchasing a digital SLR camera. She started a blog called 2 Stews that revolved around eating and writing about various restaurants in Europe and recreating some of the amazing dishes. I was surprised when she heeded my advice not to skimp on the camera and began to take some eye-popping pictures of the food and sights she came across.
So as I reached my 20th year of flying as a co-pilot, I figured I might be able to offer some unsolicited advice for any new co-pilots coming into this job. There are plenty of tips on how to get a flying job, but very little talk about what to do when you finally arrive at a major airline.
I didn't always embrace the following recommendations, and I've marked those needing further explanation with an asterisk. Often the best advice comes from the mistakes of others.
10. Don't fall in love with a co-worker. *
You might not have to worry too much about this one. It seems flight attendants are taught during their initial training that all pilots are evil and should be avoided like the H1N1 virus. Dating a flight attendant can be extremely convenient - think of the layover possibilities - but any nasty break-ups reverberate through the company, which could be awkward. Working with your ex-girlfriend's best friend, for example, might not be very pleasant.
* Technically, I was married to a flight attendant, but not in the traditional fashion. My wife and I were married for a couple of years before she went to work for a different airline. My siblings have both dated within their respective airlines with varied results.
9. Collect all the good techniques you find in the captains you fly with. And take note of the worst.
Do you like how a captain flies? Appreciate his professionalism and demeanor? Emulate it when you're a captain. Think of the top five captains you've flown with. What do they share in common? Chances are, everyone else likes flying with them too, and a cockpit that's less stressful is a safer cockpit.
On the other hand, you know that captain that shows up in the cockpit five minutes before departure? You didn't like it when you were his co-pilot, so hopefully you'll go out of your way to avoid that kind of behavior when you upgrade. Think of the five worst captains you flew with and do your best not to operate like they do.
I received a comment from a reader recently to that effect. What was I thinking, bidding to an airplane that my company was rapidly retiring and choosing to go back on reserve, ready to fly at a moment's notice to places like Kansas City and Tulsa instead of Rome and Paris? And what about the commute to Germany?
"Why would you do this?" He asked.
I suppose I should explain my thinking, or perhaps justify this because I have to admit there are times when I've wondered if it's the right move.
I didn't do it for the money, especially since going from flying a full schedule as a 757/767 co-pilot to an MD-80 captain that flies less often while on reserve doesn't mean there will be much, if any, extra money. To understand how pilots "upgrade" to captain, read "How do pilots move up to captain?"
I did it because I needed the change in scenery, the challenge of doing a new job well, and in this unstable industry, it certainly doesn't hurt to get some more captain experience just in case things go south. Furthermore, the MD-80 is the only type rating that I don't have of the airplanes we currently fly.
A year or two ago, I would peek into the simulator of an MD-80 and just shake my head. I was happy that I wasn't flying that dinosaur, I told myself. But a funny thing happens when a few hundred pilots retire suddenly and you find yourself able to fly it as a captain. It quickly becomes a rather sexy jet.
It hasn't been until the beginning of my 20th year flying as a co-pilot that I've even had the seniority to hold a captain position, and even that is only at the New York base and only on the MD-80. At the rate we're going, I could hold the 737 as a captain in a few years perhaps, and if I wanted to be based in Boston, it would likely take longer than that. So New York on the MD-80 was my only choice if I wanted a left seat.
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.
How a pilot handles the controls, or their 'stick and rudder' skills so to speak, is a small part of what makes a great aviator. Recently, on a flight from New York to Zurich, I watched some decision making that typifies the traits of a great captain.
As Captain Bredow (rhymes with 'Play-Doh') and I crossed over Nova Scotia on our way out over the Atlantic, we began to enter an area of light to moderate turbulence. Moncton center told us that some flights ahead had climbed to 37,000 feet in an attempt to get out of the rough ride.
We were established at our 'crossing altitude' or the flight level that we'd be maintaining for the next three hours or so while over the non-radar controlled North Atlantic. Climbing to 37,000 would mean that we'd have to descend again shortly to our assigned flight level for the crossing.
Occasionally the airline will offer pilots the chance to fly for a month out of another base when they're short a few pilots at that city. I remember flying with one of these temporary duty (TDY) pilots who came up to Boston from Miami. I asked him what trips he usually flew out of Miami and he began to tell me all about Rio de Janeiro.
The conversation included some good pointers about the hazards of flying in Brazil.
He pointed out that there's a note in our manuals that talks about celebratory balloons near the city. Apparently, it's not uncommon for Brazilians to put together huge balloons especially at night, attach them to a pallet or some other structure and light a fire under the canopy. The Miami pilot even claimed that a propane tank has been known to be the fuel source.
After nearly hitting them on two different occasions, he sought out to warn other pilots of these inflight obstacles.
He said he had even seen one while climbing through the clouds.
A quick look at YouTube shows the launching of a few of these balloons such as this one:
"I'm getting kind of tired of these chicken Caesar salads."
I said those words just a few months into my career at American. The statement resonated loudly after I was furloughed and flying for a freight airline with barely a bottle of water on board, so I vowed that I would never complain about a crew meal again.
In fact, when I came back to AA I nearly cried when a flight attendant entered the 727 cockpit and asked us what we wanted to drink.
Now, after ten years of international flying, mostly to Europe, I've enjoyed more crew meals than I probably should have. Warm dishes on an airline flight might be foreign to today's passengers and even some of our domestic pilots, but on the international side we still enjoy food just as it was in the earlier days of airline flying.
The usual transatlantic daytime flight might include appetizers, such as nuts and cheese, salads, a main course with an overabundance of bread and a slice of cheesecake perhaps, followed later by a Sundae or cookies. Before landing in the afternoon, there's often a cheese plate or fruit dish, followed by a pizza or steak sandwich.
Honestly, it's too much. But if you're paying for a business class experience, over indulging every now and then isn't bad. For pilots however, these crew meals can add more pounds in the first year of international flying than during a freshman year in college.
I limit myself to just the nuts as a starter followed by the salad. Later, if there's any fruit available, I'll have some of that, or if it's morning in Europe, the cold cereal is a good choice. Anything more and I begin to feel overly tired during the overnight flight across the pond. Since I've cut back I've noticed a definite slackening of my uniform pants.
Typically three meals are put on for the three-pilot cockpit crew, two items the same, often chicken or steak and the third perhaps being a pasta dish.
Most co-pilots give the choice of meal to the captain, and the captain often defers back to the co-pilot. It can become comical at times; neither pilot wanting to make what is probably the least important decision of the flight. Alas, it's typically decided that whoever is flying the plane for that leg should choose.
I've enlisted the help of our flight attendant Susan, who made a brief appearance in my Boston to Paris video seven years ago, to appear again in front of the camera to show how she manages the cockpit and passenger meals for a 10½ hour flight from Rio to New York.
Notice just how busy Susan is before boarding. As the "number five" flight attendant out of nine aboard our 767, she's 'the cook' up front, responsible for not only preparing and cooking the meals, but setting up the galley on the ground.
Passengers in the back also enjoy a hot meal, and there's another flight attendant with three ovens getting ready to prepare that food as well.
We talked last week about identifying the various Boeing airplanes from their external characteristics. But to Boeing pilots who have been fortunate to fly most of them, each airplane has its own personality. I thought I'd share some different opinions of a few pilots who have flown them.
To accomplish this, I chose a select group of 'friends of Kent that also fly Boeings.' And by select, I mean John Steinbeck of UPS and Chris Countryman, formerly with Cathay Pacific Cargo and United Airlines. It's not exactly a scientific survey, but they filled me in on the Boeings they have time in, including the 747.
I've also asked a Boeing test pilot to give his impressions on the new 747-8 and the 787.
Rest assured, no two pilots can agree if a cockpit is relatively small or large, or if an airplane is heavy or sensitive on the controls, so I'm sure we'll see some dissenting opinions in the comments below. I welcome any observations from other pilots.
As much as American Airlines employees loved to hate Bob Crandall, their outspoken President and Chairman in the '80s and '90s, many are now longing for the leadership he provided not just to AA, but the entire industry. At the time, he was the Steve Jobs of the airline world.
Credited with developing the first frequent flyer program in the airline industry and pioneering modern reservations systems using SABRE, Crandall changed the business forever.
His common sense approaches try to be apolitical in tone, although the titles of his posts, such as Myopia and its Consequence and Morons... or Something Better? are your first indication that he's not worried about offending anyone. He says Americans are unable to grasp the realities of our economic situation and offers some insightful suggestions on how we can fix a number of problems such as Medicare, education, job creation and taxes.
If I didn't know any better, Mr. Crandall appears to either be running for office or trying to influence some of our leaders. Judging from the comments on his blog, he appears to be resonating with most people. Read each of his posts and see if it doesn't make sense to you. I think you'll be surprised at refreshing approach to problems this former airline head has to say.
Is it time for Crandall to make a Steve Jobs type of return to the airline he loved so much?
One of the first things any aviation enthusiast or pilot learns is how to tell one airplane from another. Usually, those of us aviation obsessed types pick this up as kids.
But a few frequent fliers, airline employees and maybe even some pilots may not be able to catch all the nuances that separate the various types of jets. We've broken down the differences between the various Boeings to make you a better spotter. So the next time you fly, see if you can spot the differences.
707: Let's face it. If you see the 4-engine narrow body Boeing 707 flying around, it's probably painted in Qantas colors and it's owned by John Travolta. There aren't many 707s still flying. There are, however, a number of military KC-135 tankers flying that supply fighters and transport aircraft with fuel. This airplane is a re-engined 707 that has been in use for decades.
The 707 is somewhat easy to confuse with the Douglas DC-8 that's still widely in use by freight operators. But the DC-8 has two scoops on the nose that drive a turbo compressor which pressurizes the airplane. The 707 also had a long pitot tube HF radio antenna mounted to the top of the vertical stabilizer.