Sunday, May 11, 2008

Look Who's in the Right Seat

School's out, which made it easy for me to arrange a trip Back East for Mother's Day. Trips like this are expensive, but I had plenty of frequent flier miles piled up through credit cards and the like (not, heaven forbid, from airline flying).

The first leg was on what is still called a "regional airline," despite a route map that includes Oregon and Florida. They're the kind who have been hiring very low time pilots. Rumor has it that some are hiring pilots who do not even have enough flight time for a commercial certificate, with the plan to give them the flight time before they send them out on the line. A cold shiver just passed through me, but I doubt that a ghost inhabits my parents' new apartment building...

In fact, it is nearly impossible to hang on to a flight instructor, and I get regular job solicitations in the mail. (These aren't personal; they just buy the list of CFIs and send them out. Well, one was kind of personal in that it included a picture of their very attractive office manager, kind of an implicit hint that successful candidates might get to date her.) The flight schools I know are populated with CFIs who have 400 hours total time and only need a few more minutes to get that regional job. Don't get me wrong: I once had 400 hours total time, too; looking back, I was not ready to fly a jet then. In the meantime, I have spent a lot of time training 1200 hour pilots to fly small twins under instrument conditions, and finding that many of them were not up to the task.

I called home from the gate to chat with the wife and kids. Sometimes it feels like I chat with them more when I am on the road than when I am at home, all of us being typically busy 2008ers. I mentioned that I had seen the flight crew walk out to the airplane, and expressed relief that none of the pilots from my former company were flying.

But I was wrong; the FA announcement included a familiar name. I growled to myself, since I had not thought much of his knowledge level when I had flown with him (in fact, I had to take over the radios while on approach into a Class B airport, which should not have been a problem for a CFII). But the regionals invest a lot in training and are supposed to be washing a lot of people out, so I stayed in my seat (maybe I did it for my mother). The airplane handling was a little rough: we were uncoordinated on the turn to base, and we were both above and below the glide slope on the approach, so I figured that the pilot with lesser experience was flying.

Of course, every time I criticize an approach the guy greases it on.

I stopped to chat after the flight, the FA stepping aside when I called him by name. He had put on some weight, which is why I hadn't recognized him, and said he was having fun flying. I figure that if he made it through training he must be OK. I hope.

Which brings me to James Fallows' recent article in The Atlantic about DayJet, the innovative VLJ operator in the southeast. Dayjet has assembled a bunch of software innovators, including mathematicians, who have refined the business model to bring the cost of jet charter into the affordable range. I am all in favor of this: one of my worries about aviation is the general unwillingness to make explicit models and test them before launching, the unwillingness to calculate. This tradition goes back to 17th Century sea captains, with James Cook being the notable exception, and it is good to try to reverse it.

But I think they have left something out of the model: where are they going to get pilots with the skill and experience to fly jets, albeit small ones, on a tight schedule in demanding weather? Pilots are not getting experience through flight instruction, and even those who have the hours have no experience with things like weather radar or how to plan an efficient trip (what I call "synoptic planning"). The simulator centers concentrate on the important skill of getting the airplane safely on the ground when something breaks, but ignore daily operations, where small improvements in efficiency make a big difference in profitability.

Maybe I should call the place with the pretty office manager...

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At May 12, 2008 at 5:45 PM , Blogger Dr.ATP said...

[Addendum: DayJet's experience minima include 500 hours of pilot in command time in jets; in other words, they only want captains. More personally, although I consider myself pretty experienced (5000+ total time, almost 1000 turboprop), I am not qualified to apply there. They recognize that they need experience. But where do they expect to find pilots with that much experience? One possible attraction is lifestyle, since I think most of their pilots are home most nights, and they also offer a nice benefits package. But I suspect that a lot of pilots consider the step from 90 seats in a CRJ to 6 seats in an Eclipse to be a step down.]

At May 17, 2008 at 7:10 AM , Blogger Windsor said...

I understand your second thoughts about stepping on an airliner when you know that this particular airline has been hiring real low time pilots. The "Jet-U'ers" as they are called at my airline have quite the reputation. I'd say all of the captains I fly with are very relieved to find out I was a freight dog before coming to the company. There is no amount of training that can make up for expierence gained flying in the real world.


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