I’m out on the road again. This time it’s a 5-day trip but I’m not doing a whole lot of flying. We’ll get to that in a minute. I normally plan to arrive at my base (the place where all my trips start and finish) the night before my trip is to begin. This time, however, I was forced into a two-flight commute to a location close to my base, a night there and then a third flight to finish the commute the next morning. Well, I guess that’s not entirely true. If I had been willing to pay triple the usual amount for my overnight room I would have been able to use my normal commuting routine. You see, I am based in the same city that was hosting the NCAA basketball Final Four tournament and, having flunked bidding for the month, I had a trip that began on the weekend of the final three games. The hotels in the area raised their room rates to as high as they thought the traffic would allow. The sports fanatics didn’t seem to notice or care because the hotels were filling their rooms. Some hotels I called said that, in addition to the grossly inflated price, I would have to pay for at least three nights. It made no difference if you were a loyal customer who had been spending 2-3 nights a month with them for the past year. I know that this type of pricing isn’t restricted to this year’s tournament location or even to this event. When I was flying from another of our airline’s hubs I had the same experience with a major sporting event in that city. I believe that time I just dropped the trip and picked up a different one later in the month. I didn’t have that flexibility this time.
I had a 3-hour wait in the LAS airport before the second flight of my commute so I bought a yuppie coffee and sat in the mini food court near my departure gate to read some emails. At one point I looked up and saw a pilot trying to find a place to sit. It was near lunch time and all the tables had filled up. I had room at my table, so I asked if he wanted to join me. As soon as he sat down his phone rang and, though I tried not to listen, I heard familiar phrases in his conversation, such as new cam, new cylinders and engine mount. He was wearing a uniform and an employee badge that said he was a captain flying for one of our code-share partners. It turned out that he lives in Houston and has a Citabria. (You DO know that’s airbatic spelled backwards, right?) He was talking to his IA about the overhaul of his engine, a Lycoming IO-320. He showed me photos of the Citabria with and without engine and I reciprocated with photos of my Globe Swift. Having a nice conversation about small plane flying is always a good way to pass the time.
The rest of my commute went as planned, though that last leg the morning of my trip had me at my base about 5 hours before my trip departure and a little lacking for sleep. I spent the extra time before the flight sitting in the crew room below the concourse updating my flight manuals with the latest changes to the instrument approach plates and procedures manuals.
Our airline is currently going through a merger and the two pilot groups are trying to reconcile the way that the different aircraft fleets operate, attempting to come up with a one-size-fits-all method. It sounds like that ought to be a simple matter since both groups have aircraft manufactured by the same companies, but it isn’t even close. For instance, one group lets the cabin crew know that the aircraft is above 10,000′ feet by turning on a light and the other does it by ringing multiple chimes. Fairly simple. One set of aircraft doesn’t have the light, but both have the chimes. All you have to do is change all the crew manuals to reflect the new procedure and train the crews to do something a different way than they may have been doing for 20 years or more. Another example is the aircraft lights. Both groups agree that they have to be turned on and off. One group turns them on at this altitude and the other one does it at that altitude. One has the switch turned on/off by this crew member and the other by that one. Simple rapidly becomes complicated and the resistance to change continues to build.
In an effort to try to get all the latest changes straight the off-duty crew on our flight got out the procedures manual and followed along during the times when most of the action was taking place. They kept track of who was supposed to do what and when and reminded the working crew of the new way of doing things. I imagine we’ll be doing this for a while since this latest change, appropriately placed into operation on April 1st, is just the first of several on the way.
The flight itself went well. We logged just short of 13 1/2 hours between the U.S. and Nagoya, Japan. During our preflight briefing the dispatcher mentioned that Mt. Redoubt was blowing it’s top again, but the plume was only rising to FL200 and the winds were keeping it away from our planned route. We all agreed to keep an eye on the situation. Enroute we received another update on the volcano saying that the eruptions were ongoing. The winds at the top of the ash cloud were straight out of the west, so we were still in the clear on our route. We crossed the middle of Alaska on the way to Japan at FL350, overflying Galena and Nome. (In case you’re interested, the coordinates we were given for Mt. Redoubt are N60-30.o and W152-42.0)
This 5-day pattern rotation that I am on has two flight legs with a 68-hour layover between the flights. The pay credit for this 5-day trip is almost identical to a trip that has the same two flights in a 3-day period. There are several ways that an airline pilot’s pay can be computed. Some companies pay according to ‘hard time,’ meaning that pay is determined by the time elapsed between the push back for departure and the cabin door opening at the destination. It seems fair and it is, as long as the route structure is compatible and the company is dedicated to using it’s crews in the most efficient way possible. However, this would also mean that the salary cost to a company would be the same to have a crew fly from their base(A) to destination(B) and return to A the same day or to have the crew lay over at B for two days and then return to A. (Yes, there are other costs associated with a long layover, but let’s keep it simple for now.)
In order to prevent this seemingly inefficient use of crews, some pilot groups negotiate a factor called Trip Rig to be used in calculating the pay for a trip. Trip Rig says that for every X hours that a crew member is away from his/her home base on a given trip they will be paid an hour of flight pay. With trip rig in effect, the higher of the two amounts, the trip rig or the actual flight time will be used to calculate the value of a trip. The next thing that is negotiated is the value of X. The lower the value, the higher the pay for a trip that includes a long layover.
Here’s a simple example. Assume that a trip has two flight legs. The first flight is 13 hours and the return flight, after a 68-hour layover is 12 hours. If you are paid by flight time, the trip is worth 25 hours of pay. Now assume that your contract has a trip rig in place and the trip rig value is 3:45 (3.75 hours). This means that every 3 hours and 45 minutes between the start of the trip and end of the trip generates one hour of flight pay. Making it simple, 13 hour flight+12 hour flight+68 hour layover=93 hours of trip time. Divide 93 by 3.75 and you find that the trip rig pay value is 24 hours and 48 minutes. This is less than the flight time pay, so the salary cost to the company for the trip is the same whether you make the flights over a 3 day period or a 5 day period. If the trip rig changed by only 20 minutes to 3:25 (3.42 hours) the trip rig value of the trip would increase to 27:13 hours and would result in the pay value of the trip being based upon the trip rig value. The company refers to the extra 2 hours and 13 minutes of pay above the actual flight time as ‘penalty time,” and, of course, they try to minimize their penalty time when they design the crew’s schedules.
That is a very simplified example but it gives you an idea of how an airline might decide to develop the various trips and why the pilot group might be concerned about even a small change in the value of the trip rig in their employment contract. A higher trip rig would allow the company to reduce the flight frequency between two locations, leave the crew on a longer layover, and incur only the minimal additional costs associated with the layover hotel. I’m sure that the computer program the company uses is enormously complicated. It has to take into account the flight frequency between city pairs, average flight time, hotel costs, transportation costs, crew availability, monthly maximum flight time, crew rest requirements, etc., etc. I can’t imagine how it was all done before computers were available. Then once it’s all set and the crews bid and receive their schedules Mother Nature will occasionally decide to get involved and throw in a blizzard here, a line of thunderstorms there and a volcano over there.
I better go back to studying for my recurrent training. This is giving me a headache.