"I can't figure it out," said Sid, my co-pilot. "The airplanes keep getting bigger but the coffee cups keep getting smaller." He was looking askance at his shot-glass-sized coffee that the flight attendants had just brought up.
"I wonder why they are so stingy on coffee. The passengers are just going to bug them for a refill. Wouldn't it be more cost effective to just give them a decent-sized cup to start with?
There you go thinking and trying to mentally run the airline again, I said. You are obviously missing "el photo grande'" on this and many other management issues. That is why you are merely a highly skilled pilot and not an MBA from Georgia Tech. If it were up to you, we'd probably be spending all kinds of money making passengers happy and comfortable without giving a thought to buying Mini Coopers for senior management.
We were passing through 18,000 feet, just breaking out of the clouds and took a short break to run the climb checklist. Sid got out the hard card and read it off:
Two nine, nine, two.
Once we got through the FAA-required formalities, we were back on the subject of size. One thing you have in the cockpit of a 767 is elbow room. It is one of the few airliners I've flown that has enough room to be comfortable and have a little empty space around you as you try to aviate. But for some reason, 767s don't leave much room for flight bags.
There is some sort of inverse relationship between airline cockpit size and allocated flight-bag space. The MD-88 is a good example. It had an extremely tight cockpit for the pilots, but tons of space for their flight bags.
Flight bags, by the way, go next to your seat, on the left if you are a captain and by your right knee if you are a co-pilot. Back during ancient times when I was a flight engineer, the same inverse relationship existed between cockpit comfort and flight-bag storage. Boeing 727 flight engineers had a tight seating arrangement but a nice space to their right by the air distribution handle, the APU controls and the fuel dump panel for their brain bags. When I engineered on the DC-8 and L-1011 there was lots of butt space for me but I almost destroyed my flight kit getting it into its spot. In every single airliner I've been an engineer on, the best way to get your bag to fit is to give it a well-placed, swift kick.
"Flight attendant butt size has picked up considerably in recent years," said Sid. "Say, do you know how to get a senior flight attendant into the cockpit?"
"Grease up her hips and put a Twinkee on top of the throttles!"
I had heard that one before, but gave Sid a courtesy chuckle and followed up with another tried-and-true joke.
Do you know what is long and hangs loosely in front of a butt?
A pilot's tie!
That was the end of the jokes, at least for a while. We were zipping through Flight Level 280 on our way to 370 and suddenly it got bumpy, requiring this captain to exert himself. I reached up and turned the seatbelt sign on. This, of course, triggered the expected call from the back.
"Hey, should we stay up or sit down? We've got the carts out."
I told Beverly, our senior momma, that they could serve at their discretion; it should smooth out soon. That, of course, is the major pilot cop-out of the century. If I told her outright to stay up serving and one of them got hurt, I'm sort-of to blame. If I sit them down, the passengers complain that they didn't get the bag of peanuts they expected. Telling them it is at their discretion puts the onus on them. Of course, if any of them get hurt it is my responsibility. Also, I never, ever, want to hurt one of my crew.
Bigger planes, in my experience, ride turbulence better than itty-bitty ones. That may just be my prejudice talking. I've always been more comfortable in big planes. That is probably why I started being interested in the airlines. Back during my early days I just couldn't imagine landing something as huge as a 727 or DC-9. Now they seem to be light aircraft.
Boeing 727s tend to bounce up and down in turbulence. DC-8s, 767s and 777s always seem to bounce from side to side. This made sense when I was on the DC-8. After all, those four big wing-mounted engines were swinging back and forth. You could actually see their oil pressures on the gauges going up and down as they swung.
Smaller airplanes are probably actually safer in bad bumps. My friend's Piper Meridian that I got to fly last week rode turbulence in a more sharp manner than a big transport, but with its strong wing and higher g-loading margins, I imagine it is probably safer from structural failure in a bad situation.
In all the turbulent situations I've ever been in, both airline and general aviation, I've never had a piece of the airplane fall off or get bent. Also, you never hear of mid-air breakups of airliners in extreme turbulence, only injured and killed flight attendants and passengers.
One great advantage to flying big planes is that they have real bathrooms. I got up and went though the usual super-secret security protocol to go wee-wee on my own airplane. Once approved, I stepped through the "door of doom" and with Beverly literally "watching my six" by guarding my bathroom door, I did my thing. Since I had the seatbelt sign on, there was no line.
Most lavs on most airliners aren't the biggest rooms on the boat, if you catch my drift. Bigger bathrooms mean more cleaning and less available space to sell as seats or cargo room. Most guys can lean their head on the ceiling and wall to do number one. Don't be the person who does number two on my airplane. Please, we told you to go before we left.
Large or small matters quite a bit to flight deck crews because it is a big factor in how much they are going to get paid. Most airlines pay their pilots based on formula that is some sort of funky combination of gross weight, speed, passenger or cargo load and the phase of the moon. The intent being to compensate based on productivity.
I'm sure that airline managements will want to change that formula when the Airbus A380 hits regular service with its predicted 555-seat capacity. Suddenly, I bet they will want to go to a pay rate based on something else.
Sid said, "The whole thing is back-assward, if you ask me, when it comes to the big Airbus. How can you find over five hundred people that want to go the same place at the same time? The real dilemma is that most airliners are now very small, not very big. This means that an average passenger going to Europe will board a 50-seat RJ somewhere in Middle America and fly two or three hours crammed into a sewer pipe with no head room so they can get to Kennedy and board a plane bigger than the Titanic."
That's right. They'll go from seeing every single passenger on their plane at one time to needing a map to find a place to pee on the next airplane. I'm sure that Airbus has great plans for getting everybody on board and later off-loaded, but the gatehouses are going to be mob scenes.
Another weird thing is that the smaller the airlines have become, the larger their instrument displays have been. A DC-9 had very small flight instruments in the panel. An RJ has enormous TV screens.
Because I am an aging captain with fading eyesight, the bigger the CRT the more I like it. The 777 had extremely big screens and on bumpy, dark nights I really appreciated them when I was trying to keep the greasy side down.
I imagine if they up the pilot retirement age to 65 they are going to have to go the big-screen plasma route to keep things safe.
"Even the light sport aircraft and ultra-light crowd are going bigger," Sid added. "Most light sport manufacturers offer "super-sized" pilot seats in their planes to accommodate our larger arses.
Well, useful load is still useful load. Any LSE I am likely to fly will probably only be able to carry about a gallon of fuel if I hop in with a normal-sized passenger.
It is a brave new world out there in pilot land. Planes are either itty-bitty or super-sized. Our behinds are growing, flight attendants are bulking up, instruments are becoming as big as train-station clocks and most passengers ride the skies in mini-jets instead of comfortable, normal-size birds like the 737 or MD-88.
Size does matter and the middle ground we used to enjoy in the airline world is gone forever.
Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.