Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I'm Getting A New Office.

A year and a half ago I put up a couple hand-wringing posts about a potential move to another airplane (here and here). The chips fell at that time such that a swap did not occur for me, and I have remained strapped into my copilot seat on the fabulous old Douglas DC-8.

But earlier this week--sorry I did not consult The Internets this time--I made the jump. I'm headed to the MD-11.

I had all the same arguments floating around my head as the last time I went through this, but this time I had an additional impetus to make a move. Our fleet of DC-8s--once about 50 in number, the largest DC-8 fleet in the world--is gradually diminishing, and it was announced a couple weeks ago that an additional 30% of DC-8 crews were being moved off the airplane. My name was on the list of people declared in excess (seniority rules are such that I may be junior on a particular airplane but not particularly junior at the company; so I can be booted off my airplane but not be at any risk of being laid off--I'm just forced to pick another airplane to fly). As the DC-8 fleet keeps shrinking we'll all eventually be moved to other fleets. This began a couple years ago, and this week's bid was another big step toward an airline without DC-8s.

Because of the arcane details of how these seniority-based shifts occur, I expected (even though my name was on the list) I would in fact be safe for now from actually getting displaced, but in that case I would find myself near the bottom of the seniority list for my seat when the dust settled. This means that I would have little or no choice of what schedule I flew (schedules are bid by seniority and as junior monkey I'd just have to take what nobody else wanted). Coupled with this reality, I've been looking to move onto something more modern for a year or more--I've never flown any single airplane for seven years, and a shake-up would do me good. So the time was right to make the jump.

Last time I went through this, I was looking to move to the Airbus A-300. Our Airbus fleet was growing at the time--always a good time to be on a particular airplane--and it had schedules and workdays which most closely resembled the DC-8. But the situation was a little different this time around, and I decided to pursue the Last Mighty Douglas, the MD-11. (For machinery geeks, this is a stretched and modernized variant of the original DC-10, a three-engined behemoth that itself resulted (as I understand it) from a design competition in the middle '60s for a contract for a large military transport. The military contract was eventually awarded to the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, but the competition also spurred, in addition to the DC-10, the Boeing 747 and, eventually, the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar. Clearly the world was changing rapidly for airlines, and all these airplanes went into production and found varying degrees of success.) The MD-11 variant, an extensive revision of the DC-10, first flew in the early '90s, and it's still a fairly modern airplane, though the newest aircraft like the Boeing 777 and the Airbus A-380 SuperJumbo are causing the old girl to show her age a bit. (The pending Boeing 787 should make everything look old-fashioned.)

So why the MD-11 and not the Airbus? Well, in the intervening year and a half a couple things happened. First, the once-promising flight schedules for the Airbus have gotten progressively worse and worse until quite a few of the published lines are now very, very difficult for a commuter. And second, the company has moved away from Monday-Friday domestic schedules and toward seven-day or longer schedules which begin and end in domicile and which lay the crew over in a hotel for weekends. Background: most of our domestic airplanes do not fly on weekends, package delivery being a Monday-Friday or -Saturday kinda thing. We used to begin our workweek by catching a Sunday or Monday morning commercial flight to where the airplane was spending the weekend, and we'd fly for the week then commercial back home again at week's end. But it was determined somewhere that having the trips begin and end in domicile (Louisville being visited by most domestic airplanes every night for the package sort) instead of the outstation would save all those commercial flights. But then other costs come into play instead: but apparently the added costs of putting crewmembers up in hotels over the weekend (and the associated per diem costs, and duty and trip rigs, etc.) were still less than the commercial flights.

The long-and-short of this latter development is that for a while I was flying DC-8 trips which had me 9 and 10 days away from home. And having become accustomed to this, I realized that flying international would not be much of a stretch from these new domestic weekend-layover schedules. I've always avoided international flying--even though I've long desired to see the world in this way--because I just felt that being gone for two weeks every time I left home would just be too tough on my marriage. Well, we learned that being gone a week and a half was not really much harder than a week.

So this all paved the way for me to look at a couple of fleets which I had not previously considered, namely the MD-11 and the 757 / 767 international. And in this little competition the MD-11 won out: It's the most advanced airplane at the company, and I could choose either domestic or international flying, even on a bid-to-bid basis.

And there it is. I don't know about training yet, which is also conducted differently on this more modern airplane than what I'm accustomed to. I'll get a training schedule within the next month, and I will doubtless have much to say about the myriad of changes to come.


Jon said...

The time is obviously right. It would be nice if you could fly both here and overseas, to give you a taste of both worlds. I was under the impression that the Airbus was quite abit newer than the MD-11. Where does your training take place? And is it a Monday - Friday thing until you learn what you have to learn? Anyway- congrats, and I'm sure you will keep us informed.

wunelle said...

I think when most people hear "Airbus," they think of the A-320 that Northwest and United fly. Airbus makes several models, and from the A-320 onward (thru the A-330 & 340 and now the new A-380) these are ground-breaking, modern airplanes with all-glass cockpits and fly-by-wire technology.

Our Airbuses, though, are the first airplane Airbus made, the A-300 (ours were bought new, but it's an old design and only partly updated over its lifespan). It first flew in the early '70s and originally had a flight engineer--a three person cockpit. It's about the same size as a Boeing 767, but is not very cutting-edge technically. It has some screens in the cockpit, but very early generation computer navigation, and it does not have fly-by-wire. So there is a standard yoke instead of Airbus's trademark sidestick controller.

So actually, the original Airbus A-300 and the Douglas DC-10 are from about the same general era. The MD-11, while having a modified airframe from the DC-10 original design, has a different wing and tail, different engines, and the cockpit and systems have been extensively redesigned to get rid of the flight engineer.

Training for the MD-11 will likely be in Louisville, though we also now have a simulator up in Anchorage; so they could send me up there. Training is a seven-day-a-week affair (though one IS given some breathing space as you go!), so my schedule will likely be all days and times of day and night. I'll post about it, but I think all the preliminary stuff is done on computer and on a fixed-base (non-motion) simulator, all leading up to actual flight training in the full-motion sim.

More detail to come!

dbackdad said...

Interesting stuff. Good luck. Keep us posted as to how the training goes.

Dzesika said...

So do you have that sort of shiny, I'm-getting-a-new-car sort of feeling? (Probably not even close but that's the only analogue I've got!) And do the international legs all center around Louisville as well?

wunelle said...

It's more an I've-got-a-mountain-to-learn fretful mania, but I am excited to get back to a modern airplane and also to see the world. Our MD11s regularly see Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Dubai, Bombay, Cologne, Honolulu, Sydney. Lots of fun stuff I've never seen. So even if I tire of international flying, I'll at least know what I'm opting out of!

International flying centers much less around Louisville, though there is plenty flown out of there as well. We sort packages in Cologne and a couple places in Asia, so one goes in and out of a sort somewhere, or takes a planeload from A to B. It's a different kind of flying, and not the routine in-and-out-of-the-sort kind I'm used to.

Jeffy said...

I meant to respond much sooner - this sounds like a very good thing.

It doesn't appear that it will cause a huge change in your work schedule, and it will be interesting and exciting all around.

Plus, you get to be referred to as a 'Heavy'! What could be better?