CEO of the Cockpit #20:
Don't Sweat the SEPs

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That's Someone Else's Problems. Why get steamed over flyspeck mechanical glitches or boneheaded airline management when there's nothing you can do about either? AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit advises you kick back, grab some perspective and consider renting a sailboat in San Diego.

CEO of the Cockpit

Finally, the long winter has passed, and we pilots are finally able to shed our heavy uniform coats and show up for work in our summer attire -- white shirts with epaulettes.

The winter uniform coats are great for "experienced, healthy" (meaning chubby) captains like myself, because the formal jacket covers a lot of the results of too many cheeseburgers and beers. The uniform coat is also great for holding cell phones, notepads, passports, and the minimum three pairs of eyeglasses I now carry with me because I am in my dotage.

I found myself skulking around our base's pilot lounge because, through a combination of bad timing and good traffic, I am an hour early for my trip. Since we have to report one hour before push-back, and since I hardly ever show up at the airplane until about 15 minutes before push, I have a lot of time on my hands today.

Timing Is Everything

Why do I wait so long to show up at the airplane? I've found that it is a good captaining technique. If you show up too early, you get in the way of the people trying to turn the airplane around for the next flight. Cabin cleaners, caterers and mechanics really don't need you bulling your way into the cockpit, slinging your heavy luggage around and asking loudly for coffee.

Also, I've found that if you show up fashionably late, you allow your crew to do their jobs and can avoid a lot of inconvenient decisions. When you show up, for example, your co-pilot might say, "I found a bald main landing gear tire during my walk around and I have maintenance changing it." Your head flight attendant will come up when you introduce yourself and brief him or her and say, "The caterers haven't shown up yet but I've called them."

Most problems take care of themselves if you show up at just the right time, making your day much easier.

Not only does this technique make work easier for you because you don't get that involved, but it also helps things go more smoothly and allows everyone to have a role in the operation. When I was an engineer, I knew a co-pilot who'd had way too many captains who were closely involved with everything. These guys would jump out of their seats to stick their noses into everything. Why are we five minutes late? He'd jump up, run out to the jetway to ask the agent. Was the mechanic working on the bleed air valve we wrote up? Our active captain would leap into the fray and would add 10 minutes to our delay by demanding that a 30-year veteran mechanic explain everything to him.

The CEO Explains the Concept of SEPs

While I am a firm believer in doing your job to the best of your ability, there is no need to spend a lot of time worrying about SEPs. What is an SEP? Someone Else's Problem.

Let's say before push-back that there is a loud drunk back in coach raising hell. Once you have the agent -- or if the person is really nasty, the police -- get the drunk off your airplane, he becomes an SEP.

I don't waste my time on SEPs.

I usually don't waste my time on pilot lounge bull sessions either, but since I'm so early today and since the argument near the computers seems so loud and interesting, I thought I'd listen in.

To The Ramparts!

"A contract is a contract!" shouted Bill, one of our 767 co-pilots who today looked a little stressed and angry.

"I'll take a pay cut when upper management shows some leadership!" says another guy, who I don't recognize but who looks suitably angry and earnest. "It's not our fault that they ran the company so close to bankruptcy. Also, we all know they took care of themselves -- big bonuses and they just took their retirements outside of the company, so if it goes bankrupt they get theirs!"

I'm not totally sure how I feel about all of this stuff. To be sure, airline management nationwide hasn't shown the leadership ability of a five-year-old. When you ask a five-year-old to hand out some cookies to their friends, you expect them to distribute them. It looks to me like if you gave most airline management the same assignment, they'd show up with cookie crumbs on their kissers telling you that it was "more prudent" to not distribute the cookies and to eat them themselves.

Most pilots have been though some sort of leadership training or another and know the basics. You eat after your people eat. You hit the rack after your people go to bed. You don't ask your people to do anything that you wouldn't do yourself. Basics, at least by current appearances, seem to have totally passed all senior airline leaders by. It will be very hard for them to inspire the troops to make sacrifices if they continue to take bonuses, divorce their retirement fates from the troops' and then tell everybody that they are more valuable than the people they lead and must be offered all of this swag to keep them from leaving the company for a better job.

The days of being managed by people who came up through the ranks of the airline world are clearly over. People who started out throwing bags or fueling aircraft are no longer working their way up to mahogany row. Number crunchers and people with less than five years in the business now find themselves running things. We shouldn't be surprised that they don't know that much about running an airline -- just last year they were probably running a mutual fund.

While it all upsets me very much, I try not to spend all my time focusing on that particular problem. I'm cordial to upper management people when I run into them -- which is rare, because I understand that some of them don't travel with the "great unwashed" but fly in fractional jets -- but I don't spend my days off at home firing off angry letters to them. Life is too short to ruin it over a job, and that is what airline flying is -- a wonderful, great job, but in the final analysis, just a job.

Assuming there is any retirement money left over after this latest firestorm of incompetence, I'll be gone sometime in the next decade. Then all of this will fade into the background and more important concerns will come up. Things like, "Why won't my Luscombe start?" and, "Where is my tennis bag?" will supersede concerns over whether or not our company's CEO is a talentless geek or an inspired genius.

To The Sailboats!

My co-pilot, Bob, who showed up in the pilot lounge right at the required hour before push, found me near the bulletin board and shook my hand.

"What a great trip we're gonna have!" he said. "San freakin' Diego! Twenty-four-hour layover! Wanna rent a sailboat?"

Thank God you and your great attitude are here Bob ... I was just about to sink into a funk and be grumpy this whole trip. Your perspective on things has made my day. Of course we should rent a sailboat. We should also invite the flight attendants and arrange for a variety of onboard food and beverages -- meaning cold brews. How come you aren't all wound around the flagpole about all of the demands for us to take pay cuts and all?

"I look at it all this way," he said. "I'll be involved when it is useful to be involved but I won't waste my time or happiness bitching about things when there is nothing I can do about it. I spent two years furloughed some years back and it was a hard thing to go through, but you know what? I survived. There is a world outside of flying airliners and to tell you the truth, the outside world doesn't give a rat's ass about us and probably shouldn't. We should fight our battles but I won't ruin my life in the meantime and not enjoy where I am right now -- which is getting ready to go to San freakin' Diego!"

I have to agree with you, Bob. I know that we're going to have to take some sort of cut. Not because the current troubles are our fault, but because if everybody else is taking a hit we should too. I just hope our guys negotiating the new deal don't give away the store. I also hope that whatever part of the "store" that we give away doesn't end up in an upper-management retirement fund, but I know that someday soon there will be a new deal.

I'll write letters when it is the thing to do. I'll even go to meetings and will walk the line if, God forbid, it comes to that, but I won't spend a minute of our 24-hour San Diego layover worrying about it. You know why? Because like heartbeats, there are only so many great San Diego layovers in a pilot's life and I refuse to waste a single one of them bitching about the world.

Bob goes off to score a few newspapers for the trip and I head to the sandwich shop to grab us some grub for the "crossing." We get crew meals, but for long flights I always like to have some higher-quality chow onboard. Years ago, when I was a DC-8 engineer, I would go grocery shopping with money the crew gave me. Pizzas, cream sodas and the like would grace our galley and I'd spend a lot of the leg cooking for the crew. Now that we are "locked down" in our cockpits away from evildoers, we are limited to sandwiches and snacks.

The Leg Begins And We Solve An SEP ...

Sandra, our head flight attendant for today, agrees with the sailing plan for San Diego and tells me about the "secret shopper" program the airline has just started.

"The way it works," she said, "is they have these consultants in the back taking notes about everything we do. They are supposed to be undercover, but it isn't hard to pick them out. They are youngish, well-dressed, and are constantly staring at us and jotting down notes."

"Let's say you don't use the right technique in clearing a meal off of a tray table," she continued. "The secret shoppers write you up. Then you'll get a note from your supervisor and maybe even a meeting with management to explain yourself on your day off."

"As a matter of fact, I think one of our secret shoppers is in the back right now. It is still before push-back and she has already taken three pages of notes."

It was top of climb before I came up with the solution to Sandra's problem. Let's not make a big deal out of this, I said, but let's have security people talk with your "secret shopper" when we get on the ground in San Diego. After all, since we don't know this person and since they are showing way too much interest in our activities maybe they are a security risk. They should at least be detained and questioned.

After solving that particular SEP our flight went just like everybody thinks every airline flight does: smooth air, sunny skies and friendly controllers. It is hard to be mad at the company when they give you a nice 767 to fly, and pay you for it. It is difficult to stay mad at a system that allows you to order security interviews of snitches, and it is impossible to stay mad at a world of airline flying when you are looking forward to an afternoon on a sailboat with your friends and getting paid for it.