A "blue" Valentines Day Massacre

Posted on 05. Apr, 2007 by in Featured

My Brother Gregg (Gman) called this morning and hoisted the BS flag on my explanation on a couple of points. I’ll address Valentines Day at JFK first. Ice storms are the worst condition the industry has to deal with. De-icing, low visibility, low cloud ceilings all cause incredible delays. The Gman’s problem with my explanation was that it took Jet Blue 4 days to fix their schedule and get fully operational. So from Jet Blue press releases and a little industry knowledge I’ll try to translate.

First some givens:
1. FAR’s (Federal Aviation Regulations) are law, federal law. Pilots, airports, and airlines can’t, and won’t knowingly violate them. There are so many regulations on a plethora of subjects, pilots should be required to get a law degree to maneuver through them (just kidding). As a bonus they change all the time.
2. Crew Manning is lean and being kept to a minimum to control cost.
3. Productivity is WAY up for pilots.
4. Weather (WX) can not be controlled and severely impacts every aspect of Aviation operation.

A little history: Not that far back (Deregulation passed in 1978, the industry melt-down began in 2001) pilots flew a monthly schedule of around 75 hours. Now before you start the normal “press type” pilot bashing let me clear up some miss-conception. Hours flown does NOT translate to hours worked. For example, under current concessionary contracts a pilot could legally work 14-16 hours and get paid for 3.5. A pilot shows an hour prior (minimum) to an assigned flight to perform planning/WX and pre-flight duties. That is un-paid, as is time between flights, which can be up to 5 hours with out a hotel room. So if you have 3 flights with a lot of sit time between them you can see how quickly your day gets burned up. Before 2001 the pilots were paid for sit time, not any more. A catch 22 to the above schedule is that your crew day continues to run from the time you signed in.

Mix in the federal regulations on maximum flight hours and crew rest and you will quickly see how an ice storm can cause an operational train wreck (no pun intended).
By federal law a pilot is limited to 8 hours a day (domestic), 30 hours in a 7 day period, 6 days in a row max, 100 hours a month (3 months in a row at max) and 1000 in a calendar year. Pilot contracts USED to further limit hours etc. Let me make a point CRYSTAL CLEAR! These are safety based regulations. They are in place to insure the cockpit crews get sufficient rest to remain safe.

The Holy Grail for corporate management is productivity. They have won the battle against the Unions through bankruptcy and the threat of bankruptcy. Essentially most airlines now fly up to, or very close to FAR limits, safety limits. Reserves are kept at a minimum as well. So the result of a large WX event is that operationally it uses up crews, strands aircraft and passengers AND because of high load factors there is no slop in the system to absorb the hiccup.

The end result is an airline gets aircraft diverted all over the system, many in secondary airports the airline doesn’t serve, with crews that can not fly them. It only takes one crew member to go illegal for the entire crew to become useless. If a First Officer has flown six days in a row, even if the Captain and Flight Attendants are legal, that crew is illegal for at least 24 hours once they land. In a major WX event they are very likely at an airport not served by their airline so there are no reserves and no way to get a reserve pilot in except on another airline. The other airline is very likely to have its own issues and need every seat. The snow ball will continue to roll down hill.

Add in a weak or non-existent recovery plan and Badda-Bing, you need 4 days to “un-screw” the operation. The press hyenas just love all this mess. Even tho they are VERY RARE, never trust a blogger/reporter check the numbers yourself (DOT). The world press is lazy and seldom does in depth investigation; they just love to blame people/organizations. It makes better press to have a villain. PASSENGER RIGHTS they lament; and the brain trust in DC nod their heads. The EU (known for their insight and back bone) has already passed a version. Let me give a little scenario of how it will work:

Through an amazing alignment of the stars after waiting in an endless line for de-icing, your crew remains legal; you are within minutes of launch when you hit an arbitrary time limit. A single person in row 28 decides to invoke they’re passenger rights, the aircraft’s Captain is required by a new federal regulation to pull out of line and return to a gate. After an additional two hours of waiting for a gate, the crew goes illegal, there are no reserves, the flight is cancelled. The seasoned travelers have already sprinted for the last few remaining hotel rooms hours prior and you get to spend your Christmas Eve next to my Brother. Buy him a Sams and you’ll have a good time. Chip

PS: Nothing in this world is free; as long as you can fly to Florida for $39.00 you can expect things to get worse. Another Phenomenon of all this is that many aircrews have had enough and are voting with their feet. Return rates of laid off pilots for the Major Carriers is about 33%. Absolutely precedent setting, more on that later.

Leave a Reply