Sunday, October 14, 2007

Yet More Blog Therapy

Of all the talents I lack, brevity may be among the egregious omissions. I have what many hope is a unique talent for stretching, say, a 50 word answer into 500.

Here, let me show you.

If there's a simple way to answer Jeffy's questions in the comment section from a couple posts back, I admit I'm at a loss to find it. However, I'm very happy to let my verbosity run amuck and make an answer for him on, shall we say, this larger canvas.

One part of your decision-making process that would be interesting to hear more about is the determination that the 'Bus is the way to go forward. Since the aircraft itself is one of the less appealing options in the fleet the work-life that would accompany it seems to be the deciding factor.

I am aware that your company has quite a large number of Boeing aircraft in its fleet, and it has scrapped its plans to add more Airbuses. How are the 757's and 767's operated that makes them a less appealing option than the A300?

This is exactly what my roomies and I have spent the last couple years attempting to analyze. The arguments are schedule-related and machinery-related.

Machinery first. Our Airbuses are maligned, especially by Boeing pilots, as being second-rate machinery. I don't really know whether this opinion is based on anything substantial or not. I think the criticisms center on real characteristics, but I can't determine whether any of it is meaningful or just mindless brand loyalty.

Most of the machinery criticisms center around a couple things. One is the airplane's slow speed, which is said to be a function of a not-well-designed wing--things flutter and resonate beyond a certain speed, supposedly. Again, I haven't verified anything of the sort with people who really know, though its maximum speed IS slower than our other fleets (and not for lack of power). And in any case, I just think the speed of the airplane in cruise is meaningless except to my company's planning department which is selling time, as it were. From my seat Mach 0.77 and 0.84 are exactly the same.

The other criticism surrounds the A-300's first-generation electronics. This issue is more verified, but it's a matter of opinion whether it's a flaw or simply a limitation of the aircraft. The DC-8 doesn't have much in the way of electronics, nor any of the capabilities that come with them. (Our one main electronic device is our Litton navigation box, which is simple but effective.) The 'Bus is considerably newer, but every generation of aircraft improves technologically on the last; it's all well and good to say the 'Bus does some things badly, but the DC-8 or 727 or Classic 747 won't do them at all! And it's no simple matter to retrofit an older airplane with newer-airplane electronics (see FAA comment below). So you're mostly stuck with what the aircraft was certified with. The A-300 has some pretty advanced thinking for the early '70s, but the 757 / 767 were next in the pipeline and improved on these ideas considerably. If you move to the A-300 from a newer Boeing, you'll find it crude and handicapped; if you come from a DC-8, you'll find capabilities that your old airplane did not even have. It's a perspective thing.

The other side of this--the more important side--is the schedule-related, quality-of-life side. Our 757s are divided into two domiciles: domestic flying and international flying. Because most international schedules involve being gone for two weeks continuous, I decided a long time ago that I would avoid these schedules. It's the same number of days home & gone overall, but the distribution is just too hard for my & Susan's tastes. So that leaves the domestic domicile 757 for consideration.

Compared to my DC-8 flying, our 757 schedules are like being stretched on the rack. Something about the 757 / 767 lends itself to quick-turning. The airplane can make a flag-stop enroute to the package sort, and still get to the sort on time. So the domestic schedules nearly all involve four legs per night: two into the sort (then a three to five hour sit), and two back out. You go to work earlier in the evening and get to your hotel at day's end later. The result of this is that we get to our hotel for rest in the morning well after sunup, and there is often about 12 hours in which to sleep, exercise and get fed. Sounds fine in theory, but in practice, it's awfully hard to do. It's really tough to stay awake when you want to sleep and then suddenly just sleep when you're told to do and wind up well-rested. Your body wants to follow that sun-up / sun-down thing very strongly. It helps if you can sleep during the sort (good for maybe two, two and a half hours), but I've never been able to do this. Nor, apparently, can a lot of other people: I've assisted training on a lot of 757 people who gave the airplane 5-10 years and finally threw in the towel and came to the DC-8 for a kinder workday. (The DC-8 keeps us up all night, but if you get to your hotel in the dark it doesn't feel like a new day yet; it makes a difference.) The A-300 rather splits the difference. There is a fair amount of two-legs-per-night trips like the DC-8, and the rest are three legs, which gives you a short night followed by a longer one. This seems a doable compromise: bid DC-8-like flying when you can, and the rest of it isn't that bad.

Is any of the training for one Boeing applicable to another, so that if you train for the 757 and one day have to move again to the 767 (or the other way around) you would have an easier move? With no other Airbuses in the fleet it seems that it may end up being a dead-end that you may find yourself having to move away from some day.

It's a good question. The issue is more how good the training is than how much it has in common with other airplanes you've flown. Our old 727 program had really difficult and confusing training (at least on the engineer's panel), mostly because it was an airplane the FAA knew pretty well and they meddled in the training. Everything they touch turns into a stammering, regressive bureaucratic cluster-fuck. If you had flown the 707 beforehand, that would undoubtedly help, but it was still a messed-up program (in my humble opinion). My company's contribution to training has been uniformly excellent, but some courses are easier than others and they don't control every aspect of content and execution.

Having said that, there ARE people who are familiar with "the Boeing way" and they no doubt find comfort in the commonalities from one Boeing machine to another. And they will resist a different company's ways of doing things (ESPECIALLY if that company is... French!). Even so, each airplane has its own type rating, and knowing one Boeing will not qualify you to fly another without going thru the same training program as everybody else. It may well make training easier, but that's it. One exception is the 757 / 767, which have a single type rating. We're trained on the basics and then given the "differences" (in quotes because that's what it's called: differences training). Knowing how to fly a 757 gives you basic qualification to fly a 767 with minimal additional training. Our new 747-400s have a lot in common with the 757 / 767 (as well as the 777, which we do not fly... yet), but you still have to go thru the full program.

In the larger world, I know that these issues don't amount to a hill of beans. But in order to do this job you have to care about the machines somewhat, since you must spend so much time learning them, and then operating them. Most guys throw mechanical considerations out altogether and concentrate on schedules entirely. That's understandable, but myself, I have to have some enthusiasm about my airplane. That's just me.

Sorry this is so long, but it helps me as well to try and put it on paper and look at it, as it were.


Jeffy said...

Boy, talk about service - an entire new post dedicated to a reply to my comment. If I didn't how easy it is to get you to speak your mind I'd feel truly special.

It sounds as though the equipment characteristics are pretty much a toss-up. The main shortcoming of the 'Bus is that it goes slower, but that attribute also earns it its greatest asset for pilots - it is too slow to do as much work in one shift as the 757/767.

The schedules don't sound that much different between the various options, but getting at least a few shifts with only one leg each side of the sort does seem to be nice.

Another potential factor that you have not yet mentioned (and that may get me get another lengthy post) is the seniority situation in each case. I get the impression that the 'Bus is of lesser interest to many of the pilots, and so the pool of pilots may be smaller and the climb up the seniority ranks might be quicker. Then again, maybe the folks who move to the 'Bus stay there and never make room for junior pilots to move up. Since seniority has much to do with which routes you can bid and hold that may be a pretty big factor too. It might not matter that some of the 'Bus routes are pilot-friendly if those routes are held firmly by senior pilots and it takes you forever to move up the ranks.

And then there is the least consequential but most glaring aspect of the whole deal - that of the unfortunate name of the A300. Who in the hell thought that 'Airbus' was an appealing or appropriate name for an aircraft? No offense to a former driver, but a bus is the lowest form of vehicular life on the road today - the giant sloth of the highway - and the thought of spending one's work day in a great flying bus just sounds pitiful. I think if you make the move you'll have to stay away from the 'Bus appellation and stick with 'A300'.

wunelle said...

But you ARE special (well, that's what your kids say, anyway).

OK, I promise more restraint this time!

There are seniority lists for every airplane, and (of course) a master seniority list. Unless it's the Anchorage base--which many, many pilots don't want--the seniority lists spread pretty evenly across bases and airplanes. There ARE plenty of people who don't want the 'Bus (because it's a 'Bus), but many people avoid the 8 out of fear, and many more (like me) the 757 out of schedule dread. It's always something. I have a LITTLE more seniority in the Bus than I do in some other fleets, but it's about even.

People will overcome most objections if the payoff is good enough--a much better workday, more money, more days off, etc. Few people hate the 'Bus THAT much.

Traditionally, my first crack at upgrade has been on the DC-8 or the 757 domestic, now it's Anchorage on either the 747-400 or the MD-11; I could probably hold a captain spot up there now. But it's a nasty commute, so no thanks. (But some will sure jump at it.)

From my perspective, there are simply many better lines for my seniority ranking on the 'Bus than on any other domestic fleet, and this is a function of how work is structured on the airplane. Not only is the 757 workday so horrible (for reasons I discussed but didn't explain), but most of the lines available to me are reserve anyway--which is what I'm proposing to leave the 8 to rectify. The work is being structured to be mostly reserve flying on the DC-8 because, I think, it's an old and less-reliable airplane, and it will fill a stop-gap, rescue mission until its retirement.

I have a peculiar weakness for "Airbus" as a name (go figure!). Maybe I'll propose that the company rename itself from Airbus to AirPinto or AirEdsel. Or how about AirSlacks?

green_canary said...

That's how I prefer my lattes: brevity. Get it?! Brevity? BREVE?! Ha ha! I'm funny in the morning!