We're all flying with dead dinosaurs -- well, all of us powered pilots anyway. Airlines love to blame their bankruptcies on the price of fuel, but they won't raise fares to cover it. So AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit and some other pilots discuss other ways to use less go-juice.
June 1, 2005
My entire career in aviation has had to do with the immolation of the remains of dead dinosaurs. Beginning with my early years as a bicycle-riding line boy right through the last 23,000 pounds of Jet A that I burned from New York to Dallas, the rotting remains of latter-day super lizards have driven my livelihood.
It should have come as no surprise to me, then, that today I find myself in the midst of other Jurassic residue consumers. We were all at an airline-sponsored fuel conservation workshop held at the general offices, otherwise known by the faithful as "Red Square."
Our mission? To somehow staunch the rapid flow of money from our airline into the coffers of the fuel vendors. The ship had long since sailed on the idea of raising ticket prices to match our expenses, and the airline had spent the past few years in a vain attempt to cut the employees' salaries, retirements and medical benefits to the serf level to compensate.
In an economic environment where even the local pizza-delivery business had added a fuel surcharge to their fees, the airlines, in a sort of a weird reverse dance of collusion, were racing each other in a lemming-like panic toward the cliff of bankruptcy.
No help was coming from the government. The U.S. Congress was whiling away their days examining the drug-use habits of NBA players, intervening in the sad death of a brain-damaged woman and sniping at each other over who was the most pious and patriotic.
Gathering With The Fearless Leader
Meanwhile, the air transportation system of the country was on the ropes. Even the low-cost darlings of the industry were hurting. In an effort to cut costs by cutting back on fuel use, a group of pilots, including this senior captain, were summoned to the inner sanctum of "Fearless Leader" to discuss strategy.
In addition to the 10 captains like myself present at this meeting, there was a smattering of mechanics, chief pilots, line-check airmen and other lower forms of pilot life.
Fearless Leader is a fairly old fart. A survivor of the many purges that an inept board of directors had instituted to change the direction and goals of our corporate strategy whenever the latest faddish management book was released, Fearless was the real deal and I sensed that before he wandered off to the tar pits where dinosaur management people go to die, he wanted to save the company.
"I'd like to begin," he said, "with a quick review of what the base chief pilots have been doing to promote awareness of fuel conservation."
My friend Marc was sitting next to me and had the courage to be the first real captain to speak the truth to Fearless Leader that day. Truth was not something that FL was accustomed to hearing from his minions, but as a line captain, what did Marc have to lose?
Marc started off by saying: "Yeah, chief pilots save a butt-load of fuel because they never go flying!"
This comment brought a laugh from all the line pilots at the meeting and also from a few of the less-anal chief pilots. One of the chief pilots that got the joke said, "I know you line guys have been calling us pigeons for years."
Fearless Leader had never heard this term before and asked what it meant. Marc was on a roll and was more than willing to oblige the big guy.
"They're called pigeons," Marc said, "Because you have to throw a rock at them to get them to fly, and when they do fly they shit all over everything!"
Har-har-har ... bang fist on table.
Since the ice had been broken and it looked like serious conversation was about to break out, I had to say my piece on the whole concept of "awareness."
Could we please put a lid on this whole idea of "raising awareness"? I asked. I don't think you'll find a single pilot on the seniority list who doesn't know we are in deep kimchi and that the more fuel we burn the more money we lose. It is an insult to the line pilots' intelligence and a waste of time and money to tell the pilot group that we need to save fuel.
As chief pilots and management people, I know you see the dregs of our group of pilots. You see pilots that are stupid or are in trouble. Guys and gals that have screwed the pooch so badly that they have to come and see you as a interim stop between employment and enforcement. Trust me, the average line pilot is very aware that we need to save fuel. Can't we spend our energy and time and treasure on solving the problem instead of constantly trying to "raise awareness" of what we already know is killing us?
Fearless Leader Asks For Specifics
After a few more comments offered by others around the table about the severity of the problem and the raising of the awareness of the apparently dim pilot group, Fearless Leader bravely stood before the white board, drew his mighty Expo Chisel Tip Dry Erase Marker and demanded specific suggestions on the saving of liquid dinosaur residue. It was time to "stop talking about the dog" and get down to cases.
"No idea will be considered stupid," FL said. "Sometimes the best idea sounds stupid at first until we develop it a little. You talk, I'll write."
Management Loves Bullet Points
You can't swing a dead cat around a management type without producing a PowerPoint presentation, including bullet points. So as we came up with each suggestion, FL drew a little bullet point blurb in front of each fuel-saving suggestion from the group. Here are a few that I jotted down for future reference:
- A No-Taxi Hub Operation. We waste at least a thousand pounds of fuel per aircraft taxiing out and waiting in line at our major hubs. The very nature of a hub means that no matter how skillfully you schedule the outbound flights you are bound to have a wait during taxi. What if we left the tug hooked up until we were number two or three for takeoff? They unhook, we start up and take the runway for takeoff. We are now paying our ground crews next-to-nothing with no benefits, so it ought to be cost-effective.
- Helium. This one may be considered dumb, but a mechanic at the meeting suggested we put helium-filled bags in the unused spaces of our cargo bins.
- Dead Engines. A line-check airman mentioned that every single aircraft type we operated got better gas mileage if one of their two engines were shut down in cruise. Sure, they'd go slower and lower, but they'd save fuel.
- Passenger Breathing. We had already discussed shutting down one of our two air conditioning packs in cruise to save fuel but then a chief pilot had a brainstorm: Why do we need to give the passengers any air conditioning or pressurization at all below 10,000 feet? Just turn the packs on passing ten grand and we'll save a bunch of gas.
- Simply Don't Fly. Any excuse for a non-full aircraft to not go flying should be exploited and utilized. Why fly at all if we are going to lose money on it?
- Stop Mowing. The grass at every company facility is mowed every week. There should be no more money spent on our airline's lawns. We are in the transportation business, not landscaping. While we are saving gas from our mowers we can consider ...
- Actual Push-Backs. Around every aircraft at pushback is a crew of at least four or five people. They generally stand around doing nothing but holding orange batons during the pushback process. What if they were actually required to help physically push the aircraft? We'd save tug fuel that we could later use to tow the airplane to the runway.
- In-Flight Refueling. The military has known this for years. It takes a lot of fuel to take off and get to cruise altitude. If we had our own tanker fleet we could refuel our long-range, international aircraft in flight. During slow times we could sub-let our tankers to the Air Force.
- Aircraft Weight Reduction. Our passengers are already used to a certain amount of privation when they fly on us. We could save weight and money on fuel if we took out all the seats, galleys, bathrooms and magazines. Just a "D" ring on the floor for each passenger to grip during takeoff and landing should suffice. It worked when I flew skydivers.
Fearless Leader was starting to totter a little bit up there by the white board. Either he was overwhelmed with our combined intelligence or he was aghast at the thought that he allowed us near the controls of a jumbo jet. FL excused himself with a resigned smile, saying he had to go another meeting. I think he was escaping.
My Bologna Has A First Name ...
It was time to take a quick lunch break. In keeping with the theme that nothing was too cheap for our employees, we were provided with old catering taken off incoming international flights. A stale sandwich and some bottled water, and we were to return for an afternoon of brainstorming.
Unfortunately for our meeting overlords, five or six of us line pilots had realized that since we weren't getting paid for or enthused by this little shindig, we should adjourn to Hooters for a pitcher or two along with some "hot wangs".
Would we return to the meeting? Probably not. They always seem to have these kinds of meetings on really good weather days when we really should be out drowning worms or working on our slices.
Imagine our surprise when we arrived there only to find Fearless Leader nursing a brew and perusing the help wanted section of the Wall Street Journal. Maybe like in the movie "Top Gun," we too needed to find that matchbook cover with the ad for the truck driver school.
We could save all the fuel in the world. Even if we could find a way to fly without using fuel, it wouldn't make any difference. The airlines will take every cost-cutting result we come up with and turn it into cheaper ticket prices. They are literally killing themselves and there is not much left that we can do about it.
Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.