Captain Steve Answers More of Your Airline Questions

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A while back, we began soliciting reader questions for Captain Steve, a pilot with a major U.S. airline. He answered his first two batches of questions here, and is back with another round. Please leave new questions for him in the comments section below.

Q.

Are there any situations where flying private can be justified from a cost perspective? For example, if I have a family of six and we are frequently taking 2,000-mile trips at a cost of $2,000 per round trip (first class), can an argument be made that I should be flying private? — Chris

A.

Chris, thanks for this great question! Congratulations if you can treat your family in that way! You may be surprised at the wide variety of rental/charter companies that are available. All of these have a niche of some sort: aircraft type, level of service, area that they fly to and from, etc. Some of the more well-known and larger companies are NetJets and Flight Options, to name a few. There are scores of smaller companies to research.

A rule of thumb is to figure by cost per hour. Aircraft rental is viewed in hourly rates, so a faster craft is more expensive per hour but you may get there in much less time. Use 500 m.p.h. and $1,900 per hour as a very general rule of thumb. So 2,000 miles is eight hours of total flight, and at $1,900 per hour would cost a total of $15,200. Hopefully this will help you make a “time/value” decision for your next vacation!

Q.

I read somewhere that until quite recently (forced by high fuel prices?), planes would not minimize throttle during their descent into the airport but continued on full power. Is that true? Why did pilots do that in the past? Isn’t it similar to the way you drive and you see a red light way ahead of you (you’d reduce power rather than rush to the red light and break for the last bit)? — Maurits

A.

I am not sure who told you that, but this is not what is done in flying. Your analogy seems like common sense, and it does apply here, with limitations. The wing (airfoil) is very good at what it does: fly and glide. We pilots have always tried to conserve, always. Think about it: more fuel is better than less fuel. It is best to plan to arrive at a certain point at the highest altitude possible, then begin descending into the destination at idle thrust. We are actually quite good at it if we are left alone. But we are always working in conjunction with Air Traffic Control (ATC). As the captain, I am always coordinating for the better good, which is sometimes what ATC needs and sometimes what I need. ATC is charged with maximizing as many aircraft into and out of a destination as can be done safely. During the high fuel prices, there is an unusual amount of attention paid to sequencing the arrivals in such a way as to maximize the uninterrupted descent profiles. This has carried over into today’s operations. We are using our navigation computers’ ability to plan the most economical profile for descending daily, now that ATC has been informed of how this helps all of us.

Q.

Why does it seem that so many maintenance problems are only discovered right at boarding time (inevitably delaying the flight) rather than discovered by the previous crew and worked on right away? Does the prior crew do any checks before leaving an aircraft, or is this always left to the new crew (which really doesn’t have time for anything to go wrong)? — Joe

A.

We the crews think this happens all too often as well. But avoiding these delays is not for lack of trying. Most crews are diligent about getting known discrepancy items identified and then getting notification to the maintenance departments as soon as they can. But it just is the nature of the beast sometimes. When we arrive at the aircraft, typically 30 to 50 minutes before departure, we begin to inspect the jet for obvious defects. However, this includes starting computers, radios, and testing circuitry. You know how it is, the TV worked last night but it’s dead this morning? Huh? Gremlins!

Most companies have maintenance folks at or near each gate to intervene at the last minute. Honestly, it does happen that an item was not noticed or was not properly called into maintenance on the inbound flight. We loathe mechanical issues too, but it’s part of my job to get them done right even when they are noticed at departure time. Sorry for the lame answer, Joe. I hope this will help!

Q.

On a related note, how do airlines determine the length of time for which they have to pay a crew? Is it cheaper for them to board the crew “on time” and keep them an hour late vs. boarding them earlier? I remember a flight on Northwest out of Seattle where there was a large group of wheelchair passengers (about 20 to 25 of them). Everyone could figure out that boarding would take an hour (including extra time for them), and the plane was there plenty early, but the crew didn’t come on board until 30 minutes before. As a result, we left more than half an hour late, and the delays presumably rippled through the system. — Joe

A.

Been there and done that too! Many factors affect how this happens. You cannot board the airplane until the minimum number of flight attendants are on board. This is an obvious safety issue. Sometimes these flight attendants are connecting from another flight or coming from the hotel, etc.

Sadly, another problem is that this industry is much like many others: we have laid off, downsized, and outsourced to the point that the most effective people remaining with corporate knowledge and the old-school “take action” attitudes are either not in the operations segment because they’re supervisors or they’re simply so overworked that going the extra mile seems out of the question.

Wish I had a better idea. If we, the cockpit, are late, I do try to contact the decision makers who may appreciate some information I may offer. I do this to attempt to avoid things like you describe.


Michael

Joe's question seems to suffer from availability bias. When are you going to hear about maintenance problems that were spotted early enough that they either fix it or use a different plane? It seems natural that most time's passengers here about maintenance issues they will have been caught close to the time the flight is scheduled to depart.

Jack

Regarding private plane rental... consider the total travel time, not just the air time. For instance, if you are travelling to a more remote location, you may have to drive for a few hours from the closest major airport. How much is that time worth to you?

Derick

"Sadly, another problem is that this industry is much like many others: we have laid off, downsized, and outsourced to the point that..."

What exactly does that have to do with anything and what is he implying? Everyone should always stay with the old company so that they will get a folksy old-fashioned know how for the industry they're in, and there should be no change depending on market conditions?

Nerf

Maurits might be thinking of planes landing on aircraft carriers, which (to my knowledge) do land at full throttle, in case they miss the arresting line and need to take off again.

Karen

So my question is about loading the plane with passengers, which seems to take forever! It seems like the folks with the aisle seats always board first, then when passengers come along with window seats, these folks have to move into the aisle, causing backups for everyone.

Have the airlines ever tried boarding singles or groups with window seats first, then singles and groups with middle seats, then aisle seats last?

Have they considered computerizing an optimal loading order and giving each party a number, then seating according to this number?

Have any other methods of loading planes been tested? It just seems like there should be a better way!

Ian Tindale

I'd have thought that it implies process maturity is eroded inversely with respect to personnel refreshing / cheapening.

econobiker

as #2 Jack said- figure the complete travel time including NOT having to wait in security etc. You'd be going to the private plane service area of the airport - no TSA there at all.

You maybe able to just roll your vehicle up to the plane, load up the luggage, drive the car to the parking lot, and then be on board and away. I have seen this done for a famous former race car driver who now has other business interests and a private twin engine Lear style jet...

As an aside:
I do want the money that Chris has to be able to afford to fly his family of 6 first class at $2k per head ~freqently~...

First Class--get there 30 seconds faster!

Chris, an argument can be made that you should be flying coach at $300/head.

Steve

Why do airlines leave prime seats empty even at boarding? I have recently flown on a couple flights where the back of the plane is completely crowded and the front is empty, including the exit rows. I know they like to leave some prime seats available for customers with elite status who add the flight late. But is there any reason to leave so many front-plane seats, aisle seats, and exit row seats (!!!) empty?

-Steve

haoest

The question is asked in quite many places I have bumped into but nobody has given a certain answer. Why do electronic devices need to be turned off on lifting and landing?

Stephen

Hey, if Chris wants to cross-subsidize the rest of us, I'm all for his family's enjoying more comfortable seats.

Robert

If been flying for roughly 30 years, and it seems like every time I fly, I have to board the plane differently.

What is the *perfect* passenger-boarding plan?

Matt

Karen,

Several different boarding patterns have been tried with varying degrees of efficiency. I found this article on the matter incredibly interesting:

http://leeds-faculty.colorado.edu/vandenbr/projects/boarding/boarding.htm

the standard back-to-front is worse than random order, apparently.

Tom

I've often wondered how pilot's react to poor weather, wind shear, lightning, etc.. during flight -- especially during landing. While the pilot's or flight attendant's overhead voice may sound reassuring about the "patch of turbulance", how concerned are you really? For example does your heart rate go up? Is there anxiety during approach in bad weather? Do some pilots get more flustered than others?
How often are there scenarios when after successful landing in rough weather the pilots looks at each other and quietly acknowledge that they averted serious problems or disaster..
I'm hoping the true answer is not that "all pilots are professionals that are specifically trained to deal with most flying situations"..

John B

@haoest: Because the FAA says so. From Advisory Circular 91.21-1, section 6.a.(6) (8/20/93)

"(6) Prohibiting the operation of any portable electronic devices during the takeoff and landing phases of flight. It must be recognized that the potential for personal injury to passengers is a paramount consideration as well as the possibility of missing important safety announcements during these important phases of flight. This is in addition to lessening the possible interference that may arise during sterile cockpit operations (below 10,000 feet)."

Morgendorffer

My understanding of the no electronics rule was that it is in part simply easier to instruct that ALL electronics be turned off as opposed to enumerating a specific list. I believe Cpt. Steve addressed this question in one of his earlier Q & A's.

Luke

Is it me or does the answer to the first question contain some faulty math? He says:

Use 500 m.p.h. and $1,900 per hour as a very general rule of thumb. So 2,000 miles is eight hours of total flight, and at $1,900 per hour would cost a total of $15,200.

Isn't 2000/500 = 4? And at that point wouldn't it be 4*1900 = 7600?

Reply to Luke

Luke - Round trip, 2000 each way.

ennanie

In regards to loading I have had the opposite experience. When flying Lufthansa through Frankfurt, we started loading the plane more than an hour ahead of the departure time. I couldn't understand why until everyone boarded a bus and then, when we got to the airplane, the bus doors opened and it was a free-for- all getting on the plane. The doors at both ends of the plane wer open with stairs leading up but people going to row 2 got on through the tail and people going to row 30 got on through the front. It made the boarding experience on US flights seem like the height of efficiency. We left on time, but had a 90 minute boarding process.

Stephen

I was just wondering why airlines require passengers to put their seat backs in the upright and locked position prior to takeoff and landing. I can understand tray tables and storing carry-on bags, as if things get a little rough, they could hurt someone. But why the seat backs?