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.


Aidan

I've noticed that a flight from Paris to New York is often more expensive than a flight on the same airline from London to New York that connects in Paris to the exact same Paris to New York flight. If I booked a journey from London via Paris to New York but missed the London-Paris flight and tried to board in Paris for the second leg, would they allow it? On the way back if I wanted to just get off in Paris and not take the connecting flight to London would the airline only check my bag through to Paris for me? If I didn't have checked bags I don't see there would be any problem at all in doing this on the way back. The cities I have mentioned are just examples; I have seen many instances, both domestic and international, whereby a route from A to B to C is sometimes cheaper than a route from B to C.

Otto

Can you tell us a little more about air quality inside the cabin? Specifically, I suspect (or may have heard) that the crew or captain tinkers with the oxygen content on long flights to help people fall asleep (encouraged by less oxygen) or wake up (encouraged by upping the oxygen).