Trying to run an airline in an international theater can be a trial. Operations are hemmed in by a byzantine assemblage of regulations, labor contracts and company policies, and the length of trans-oceanic flight legs and duty days means that one is often bumping up against this or that limit. And the sharp end of these limits can be stressful, since things are necessarily not challenged until something has gone wrong and we find ourselves in extremis.
My recent trip is instructive. We operated a flight from Louisville (SDF, for "Standiford Field") out to Honolulu (HNL) and then had an arduous three-day layover there (this is not typical, but I refuse to complain). For flights in excess of eight hours' duration, a third crewmember must be enlisted so as to provide the other crewmembers with rest periods--since no one by regulation can sit in the seat for more than eight hours on a single shift (if the flight exceeds 12 hours, then a fourth crewmember is required). But since not every international leg is longer than eight hours, a typical pairing includes a mixture of two- and three-member crews. And because that third pilot--called an IRO, for International Relief Officer--is by ranking and seniority a co-pilot, it happens that the crew roster is often shifting, and so each individual's situation vis-a-vis flight hours and duty hours and rest requirements and landing currency is something that must be continually reviewed. The flight from SDF to HNL is about nine hours, so there were three of us. But the captain was at the end of his duty days, so upon arrival in HNL he went to the hotel and then boarded a commercial flight back to the Lower 48 and his days off. The IRO and I suffered through our tropical weekend before hooking up with a new captain who had been flown in to replace the other guy.
When it was time to depart on Tuesday morning, we learned that the inbound flight was running late because of some mechanical issue before departure. Now this interests us for a couple reasons: first, it does us no good to show up at the airport at the scheduled time and then find the airplane won't arrive for us for another four hours. Second, we have a duty day consideration to worry about. The flight from HNL down to Sydney is about 10 hours, and we are limited by contract to a maximum duty day of 14:30 (this is bad enough, but it's an improvement on the regulatory limit of 16:00. Believe me, one's ability to perform in a crisis after 16 hours on duty is doubtful). We must also plan for :90 minutes of prep time prior to the actual flight, plus a :30 minute postflight period, so that in the best of circumstances we're using 12 of our 14 and a half hours for this leg. So things don't need to go very wrong before we are not able to complete the flight legally; and if we're sitting on the ground when we see that the flight cannot be completed on time, then we are prohibited from taking off. Ergo, it's important that any delay messages reach us in a timely fashion, since the clock starts when we show up at the airport, whether it's the right time or not.
In this case, we did manage to get the message, and we showed at the new, later time. But then the airplane developed a new issue which it took us a good 60-70 minutes to work through. When it was determined that the airplane could not be fixed in time for this departure, they scrambled and found us another airplane. This would not normally have been an option, but there had been a mechanical issue with an airplane leaving HNL a couple days prior, and that airplane was determined to be ready for return to service. Now it's a mad dash to see if 60 or 70 tons of stuff can be offloaded from one airplane a onto the other in time to depart. Meanwhile, all our paperwork--our flight release, the weight and balance information, customs forms, fuel tickets,etc.--all needed to be re-generated to reflect the new tail number. Meanwhile, our duty clock ticks away. We preflighted the new airplane and dealt with a couple small maintenance issues, and as we got closer and closer to our drop-dead time it was determined to close up the airplane with what had already been loaded--about 80% of the total--and send that. It was either 80% or none. We completed the complex dance of weight and balance calculations and performance calculations and ATC push and start clearance and the choreography of engine start at literally the final minute (actually, the aircraft logged movement just as the clock ticked over to show a minute late).
But then we had two new mechanical issues on push-back. None of these things are terribly serious, but how we deal with them--whether we can just write them up in the maintenance log or a mechanic is required on board to check something--is all specified in our operations manuals and FAA regulations. Nothing is simple. Since the problems arose after we had pushed for flight, the additional delays did not necessarily cause us to turn into pumpkins (technically, our "flight leg" had begun); but if we needed to open the door to let a mechanic on board, then our day would be done. (The opening of the door constitutes the end of one leg and the beginning of another.) And in this case, after all the hard work by the dispatchers and loaders, the mechanical issues did in fact require a mechanic to check something and do some paperwork. So this ends the day.
This ended up being an eight hour day, and we only traveled about 300 feet.
And so we were shuttled back to a hotel while the airplane was worked on (though not our regular hotel, because we're now an extra crew and the regular hotel does not necessarily have rooms for us; in this case they did not). Because we were embarking on an international flight of more than eight hours, we needed 15 hours of scheduled rest before the next departure. But that can be reduced in certain circumstances to 11:30, which is the option chosen for us. This rest determination dictated the earliest we could show for our next attempt, and the crew bus was scheduled for 2:30 AM.
But now we start to run into other snags. So many of the big airports we fly into are very busy places, and wen can't simply show up when we please and be allowed to land. SYD was unable to accept us until some three hours after we proposed for our new arrival, and so our departure was delayed yet again (and we ended up getting the 15 hours rest after all).
And so we arrived the next morning to make another run at it. This time there was yet another mechanical issue after pushback which delayed us yet further, but we were finally airborne shortly after sunup and arrived in Sydney at about 2:PM. The contract stipulates that we must get 17 hours of rest after a long crossing, and that in turn dictated our departure time for Guangzhou the next day. But here again we ran into a snag as Guangzhou was unable to accept us until after sundown, which made for another four or five hour delay.
At this point, all the subsequent events on our individual schedules were out the window. We were originally scheduled to split up when we got to Guangzhou, me via Cathay Pacific to Shanghai and the other two guys to Hong Kong. But now our schedules were in shambles. And so I was scheduled for minimum rest of 12 hours (allowable if my subsequent leg is as a passenger on a commercial deadhead flight) and shuttled off to Hong Kong. The captain was to commercial to Seoul, and the IRO to wait in Guangzhou for 36 hours.
All these things are worked on by our crew scheduling department back in Louisville, and implemented by the company employees and hotel staffs in scattered places. As I checked into the hotel in Guangzhou I inquired about my morning transportation to the airport, and was assured it was scheduled and would proceed as planned. (It would be about the first thing on this trip that did.) But so it did. I checked out and was pointed toward the bell desk, where I was met by a green-jacketed fellow with a handheld radio. He barked a couple words in the radio, and we were met in two minutes by a driver and an S-Class Mercedes. The green-jacketed fellow accompanied us on our drive out to the airport (my every experience on the roads here seems to inspire its own post, but I'll leave that for now), his job being evidently to usher me through the process and smooth things over if there are difficulties. And so he pushed my bags along on a cart and ushered me through check-in and to the appropriate line for customs and immigration. Having got me through the things most difficult for a non-native speaker, he pushed me out of the nest and we went our separate ways.
There are limitations imposed upon one if traveling in China on a flight crew visa. One cannot just gallivant about, and you must carry some documentation explaining why you are in the country and what your plans are. You are not supposed to go sightseeing on a crew visa. But on the couple of occasions when I've ridden commercial flights here, I haven't discovered any pattern for what they actually want as opposed to what they claim the right to demand. On this day I carry my inbound customs Crew Declaration and General Declaration with me, as well as a "chop letter," a semi-official document which states that I am in the country on my company's business. I've been warned not to even walk around the layover cities without these things, but I have yet to have anyone ask for anything except my passport, and then only at the airports. Still, I'm reminded that I'm traveling in a foreign country far from home where I speak not a word of the local language and must rely on their mastery of my own tongue, and it's a place where I have no ability to assert my rights if anything should go amiss.
Once again they seem to want only my passport and boarding pass, and I go through the security lines without a hitch (except for their confiscation of two cans of Amurrican Diet Coke from my computer backpack--my emergency rations as I enter the land of Coke Light). And apart from a gate change shortly before departure, the 40 minute flight goes off swimmingly. We automatically get business-class seats internationally, so with moist hot towels and real silverware and fresh juice the horrid Wal-Mart film of air travel begins to ease somewhat. (I also cannot help noticing that there appears to be almost no riff-raff in China, at least compared to an American city. Passengers in a US airport seem comprised of at least 25% doorknobs and dirtbags--ugly people with badly-behaved children asserting themselves in a stupid and embarrassing and degrading fashion--something that one virtually never sees here in China.)
I had called our crew scheduling department from my hotel room in Guangzhou to verify that there would be some means of getting from the airport to the hotel. I could always take a cab, of course, and I'm not opposed to taking a train, though with all my luggage that gets a bit cumbersome, especially when I don't know exactly where I'm going. But they assured me that transportation had been arranged, though they didn't give me any instructions as to how I would find it. I spent 45 minutes scouring the company website before finding a brief paragraph:
"After exiting Customs and Immigration, go to the far right side of the arrival hall. Take the elevator down to the 1st level where a bus will be waiting."Well, the business of getting from the airplane through the immense terminal and past Immigration and Customs and baggage claim was straightforward enough, but time consuming: I was nearly 90 minutes at these tasks. Once finished, I could make no real headway with the instructional paragraph (what does the "far right side of the hall" even mean? There are elevators everywhere). After wandering around outside for 15 minutes and barely making any headway--the place is truly immense and my walking covered about 1/100 of 1% of the place--I gave up and made a $5-a-minute call on my cell phone to scheduling. The scheduler I got was clearly panicked at the idea of having to solve this problem for me from 7,500 miles away. They have never been here, of course, and they speak no more Chinese than I do. But she does have a computer in front of her and every phone number known to god, including our local company people who are accustomed to solving these problems. Anyway, I was able to get her to specify the exact lane and bay number where the bus was supposed to be parked, and after another 10 minutes' wandering I managed to find the guy. He was just on the verge of leaving, and I had very nearly veered off into the subway as I passed the "Trains To Downtown" sign. So we were about as close to missing each other as possible. "I wait long time!" he said when I arrived.
The ride into town was simply mesmerizing. I felt like a 10-year-old boy at his first viewing of Star Wars. We so rarely get a good daylight look at the drive in, and everything you see is wondrous. There is water everywhere, and the land rises out of the sea precipitously. The waterways are clogged with huge, oceangoing ships headed in every direction or laying at anchor, and huge areas are devoted to harbor facilities. And dotted among it all are high-rise residences in almost unimaginable proliferation. Mile after mile of them. The highways are beautifully maintained (and spared, I'm reminded, the harsh winters of the American Midwest), and each bridge is architecturally more spectacular than the last. The eye is simply assaulted by things of interest and wonder at every turn. New Hong Kong is jaw-droppingly new, and Old Hong Kong is dense and ramshackle and chaotic, and all of it has a flavor which is distinct from anything I've seen in the US.
Installed in the hotel, I head off for a walking tour of Kowloon, the mainland portion of the metropolis we know as Hong Kong (Hong Kong itself is actually an island, and much of the city's population is on Kowloon). I just find the heart and mind overflow in this setting. I don't know if it's simply the fullness of travel or if there is something especially energizing for me about China, but I find myself taking pictures and silly videos in a vain attempt to bottle this character so that I might revisit it in my easy chair back in Appleton.
And you all get to suffer for it.