Last week, we caught up with the hero pilot from his home in the Bay Area to get his thoughts on the sleeping air traffic controller issue (for which the FAA has recently created new rules), the growing anger over the TSA's patdown policies, and his favorite flying destinations.
What's your take on the FAA's sleeping air traffic controller problem?
This issue is a symptom of a larger issue not specific just to air traffic controllers. Flying requires a lot of attention from pilots, flight attendants and maintenance workers; we have to deal with the underlying factors and need to have a full appreciation for human ability and limitations.
We need to build a schedule that addresses our physiological needs. In the wee hours of the morning, our bodies want us to sleep. We see more incidents around this time. Workers need to get adequate rest at the rest time of night. Plus, fatigue is cumulative, it only gets worse over time.
It's a 24-hour job for pilots, especially red-eye pilots and cargo pilots who often fly at night. I am encouraged by the ongoing discussions between the FAA and the union. It's been 30 or 40 years since pilot fatigue rules were updated, but we're expecting an updated, final rule in August sometime.
What do you think about those pesky geese being used as food for the needy in Pennsylvania?
[He hadn't heard this story.]
Well, that's a different take than I've heard before!
All pilots will have hit a small bird once or twice from time to time, but pilots aren't specifically trained for that scenario.
On that day [January 15, 2009], we saw the geese but not in enough time. They struck from side to side, at the cockpit windows, at the wings. Two went into the right engine, at least one went into the left and they caused irreparable damage.
So how do you get rid of the geese? There is something in a test phase to add ground base radar near major airports to alert our people on the ground of nearby birds. They'll then alert pilots in the air.
How do you think the TSA is handling its responsibilities?
There are real threats out there, but we need to do a better job than we are now. We are too reactive. But, we're now talking about using intelligence effectively to take a more threat-based approach. Terror isn't one-sized fits all.
Instead of looking for things, we should look for behavioral signs and ask a few questions: Does the behavior fit? Are there flags? Are there signs? We're training behavioral experts, but that requires years of training.
The truth is, travel is so much safer now than it was when I started flying 30 years ago. It used to be that a person's chances of being in a fatal crash were 1 in 2 million; now its 1 in 10 million. Flying is by far the safest mode of travel.
What's the riskiest part of a flight?
Planes are statistically at more risk during take off and landing. There are more incidents during landing because of cloud height, wind, visibility, runway friction, etc.
Pilots are trained to make it seem easy, but it's not. [While at cruising altitude] there's this misconception that pilots let autopilot take over. We do have the technology, but any airplane must be controlled by a pilot's mind. As a pilot, you have to ask yourself: How many levels do I want to put between my mind and the controls? Do I use some level of technology? Pilots are completely engaged and are aware.
Flying requires discipline, diligence and situational awareness. Pilots get into problems when there's a distraction or when they're taken out of the loop.
Any tips for terrified travelers?
The whole system is robust and designed for redundancy. Airplanes are designed to take care of stress. If you're panicked, remember that airplanes are like those car commercials that say: "closed course with a trained professional. Don't try this at home." It's the same thing with flying.
That said, it's incumbent for travelers to take safety [into their hands, too.] Learn the emergency exits; learn how many rows are between you and an exit; does the plane offer life vests or seat cushions? It's your responsibility. What are your favorite places to fly to?
Besides my home airport of San Francisco? I like not just landing in Philadelphia for the 500th time.
In my time with US Airways, we did a lot of flying to the Caribbean and Latin America. Air traffic is less dense, there's less chatter on the airwaves and you can look out and see the beauty of the islands and the shallow, turquoise waters.
I like bringing people to happy places. I like bringing people to places they want to go.