Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Captain Speaking ...

It’s been the summer from hell in air travel. Delays are at record levels, and so are flight cancellations. People are still routinely being stranded on parked planes for three and more hours – sometimes as long as 12.

You’re read all about that already.

You’ve read here about Kate Hanni, a San Francisco area real estate agent, who quit her job in January to work full-time as a grassroots organizer for federal legislation to deal with the disgraceful way airlines have treated stranded passengers. (See my July 12 post on her headlined “Tarmac Madness.”) The Web sites for the stranded passengers group, by the way, are and

Airline pilots famously chafe at the idea of any more regulation in an industry – and a profession – they feel is already over-regulated. But I’m hearing from pilots all the time who say something has to be done about the increasing and severe problems of planes sitting on ramps for many hours with passengers trapped aboard, unable to take off or return to the gate.

How about hearing from a veteran airline pilot? I recently spoke to retired airline pilot Vance Atkinson, 64, of Dallas. Airline pilots are required by law to retire at the too-young age of 60. Mr. Atkinson now flies corporate jets – and as such is a frequent airline customer as he gets from one job to the next. He was recently stranded for hours on a parked plane.

Here are some excerpts from a long interview I had with him recently:

--“During any seven days I might get on seven or eight different airlines, so I get really good exposure to this crap” (on airlines).

--“The airlines have no capacity. They are stretched to the limit. Years ago, when airlines were flying only 40-60 percent full, they also had a lot of excess capacity, both in pilots in reserve and in aircraft, and they could respond to the problems. In a weather situation there’s nothing that’s going to help you out immediately, but the recovery went a lot quicker then, before you had planes booked to the max.”

--“Now, reserve crews are down to the minimum. The airlines don’t have any spare airplanes sitting around anymore. They’re all being used. In order to overcome problems like delays and cancellations, they have to have spare equipment -- and they don’t. They don’t want to give the public any kind of backup whatsoever.”

--“I think management has cut down on just about everything they can. Now they’re making money, but management is taking that money itself, not sharing it with the employees, and employees are furious.”

--“I think the feds are going to have to mandate that they (airlines) have an extra amount of capacity and equipment and whatever. The airlines are just going to scream bloody murder at that and say, you can’t run our business.”

-- “The passengers rights proposal? The airlines will resist that completely. They’ll say, well we are going to make some changes so this won’t happen again. But they don’t want [to be required to let people off after a specific time sitting on a parked plane.] “They’re going to weasel out again and look at the situation and see what they can get away with.”

--“In order to get back to a more reliable system it’s going to cost more money, meaning higher ticket prices. But the government could mandate 10 percent extra capacity, and say there are lots of ways you airlines can figure this out, but you are going to have to supply that. If they all raise their prices the same amount it won’t make any difference and the system will be able to recover from this mess.”

--Q: Isn’t the captain the sole authority on the plane, who can say we need to get these people off? “He is. The problem is the company will beat him up or pressure him [if letting passengers off adds to a delay or forces a cancellation]. “Of course, if he declares an emergency he can do anything he wants, go to the gate, call out the marshals, get everybody off this plane. But then he going to be called into one of the chief pilots offices and he going to get hammered and possibly disciplined. If you’ve got quite a few years in your career to go, nobody wants to get into that position. As you get closer to retirement it still a big deal [facing the wrath of the chief pilot, who is a management enforcer] -- but its not near as big as if you are only halfway through your career.”

--“The other thing you have to keep in mind is there is money involved from the crew's point of view too. When you push back from the gate, the money-meter starts [for the crew], and if you sit out on the tarmac, that meter is going and the crew is getting paid. A captain typically makes $200 to $400 an hour whether he’s flying or sitting on the tarmac, so if you have to sit there eight or 10 hours, that can be $3,000-$4,000. So for some of these guys, there is a motivation for going along with management anyway in these cases.”

--“There’s real concern that passengers might get to the boiling point and start opening the emergency exits.”

--“If the government mandates a capacity increase or whatever [to deal with stranded passengers], you have to consider another problem: what you going to do about the gates. The gates are often full. There are often other airlines’ gates available, but the they’re going to charge you to use their gates which, of course, the airlines don’t like, and people don’t want to give up their competitors to a customer going through their facility. So they’ll continue to be held hostage on parked planes unless a remedy is mandated by the government.”

-- “And then the question is, who’s going to pay for this? The airlines lobbyists will be in Congress saying, this is going to cost us $100 million! This is an industry just back from the brink of bankruptcy, and they’re barely making a profit.”

--Mr. Atkinson predicted that pilots unions are going to become more militant as airlines remain profitable, particularly. The anger is palpable, he said, over airline managements recently awarding themselves bonuses and stock options, while pilots, flight attendants and other employees gave back substantial amount of salary and benefits to keep the airlines running in the leanest years. “There is going to be disruption. It starts with [unionized pilots] doing everything by the book and doing it slowly, and then it escalates.”

--Without some degree of federal intervention to deal with the continuing problem of stranded passengers, Mr. Atkinson said, the airlines are “going to continue to weasel around everything they can. You’ll keep hearing it from the managers: “Hey, we’re going to lose $280,000 on this flight if we don’t keep these people in the plane” [on the assumption that it will eventually take off]. Sitting on the tarmac for them is very safe.”

--“I hope we can get out of the mess, but there going to be a lot of screaming and kicking and hollering from the airlines. They’re going to want to do their own fixes, with a lot of ‘maybes’ and ‘shalls’ They need some hard fast rules. Congress needs to say, hey, three hours and you go back to the gate and give the customer the option of getting off the plane and re-booking, or not coming back.” Inherent in this, he added, is the possibility that a customer who elects to get off the plane may well be stranded at an airport until another seat becomes available. And this can sometimes mean a day or two later. That accounts for the call for mandating increased capacity.


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