Fall Finals

Rob standing in the fan duct of an A330 engine.
I like big fans.

Aviation Senior Seminar is coming to a close this week.  For future reference, all of my posts for the class are filed under AVT422.

Coming into this class, my career plans consisted of a few goals:  Graduation, entry-level pilot job, regional or corporate upgrades, and some day get to fly one of the Boeing 7×7 models.

Now I am making my plans more detailed, mostly with information presented in this class.  The most important changes pertain to the first officer qualifications starting 2013.  I think the full text of that FAA proposal should be required reading for all aviation students.  The qualifications will be very specific in terms of night flying experience and other résumé items that I had assumed would not be relevant to my selection of an entry level job.  As I see it now, those qualifications are everything to my career.

On the later topic of the pilot shortage, I was impressed by the need to consider international job opportunities and competition.  If there is any one topic that I might follow up with another blog post, it is that one.  Since writing that post in October, the topic has received enormous attention from the New York Times, NPR, and the guest speaker at our annual fraternity dinner, to name a few.  There is much more information to explore in that developing story.

Among the guest speakers at Seminar, the airline pilots and graduates of EMU were the most influential to me.  I admit, one of the highlights was asking a current Airbus captain for his opinions about the Air France flight 447 accident.  From his perspective, the changes in recurrent training and in the Airbus culture globally were profound.  From my perspective, that is an important aspect of system safety, and it is the part of the overall story that is always left out of the television documentary version.  The other highlights of the guest speakers’ presentations were the simple details of their career paths and the struggles and successes along the way.

My least favorite blog topic was the demise of Comair.  Maybe it was my unfamiliarity with the airline, or the open-ended topic starter, but I just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm that I put into other blog posts.  There were some Comair enthusiasts in the class, so I had to give them a fair chance at out-blogging me that week.

After graduation, I will be pursuing employment and probably finishing a CFII or MEI rating.  My philosophy for the future is that I will be always learning new things, taking exams, meeting new people, and exercising the highest level of safety humanly possible.  I will be involved in aviation for very many years to come.

Emissions Trading Explained, With Stick Figures

Government stick figure giving free CO2 allowances to power plant stick figures.
It begins with a number of allowances.

Behold the combination of my graphical design talent with my ability to explain the inner workings of the European Union’s Emissions Trading System (EU-ETS).  Both are amazing, I know.

Here’s the background.  Europe (the blue stick figure) has been concerned about air pollution and global warming for many years.  In 2005, to reverse the trend of increasing pollution, Europe invented a new market instrument called the EU Allowance (EUA).  That was how the trading system began.

Enough background, though.  I want to explain the less-technical parts first.  Instead of using the name EUA, I will call those things Alpha Bills to make them sound more like a currency.

To get a trading system started, Europe orders up two billion Alpha Bills from its printing presses and starts doing some trading of its own.  The blue stick figure visits Power Plant #1 and says, “I would like to purchase your air pollution.  I see that you are producing 100,000 metric tons of CO2 every year, so I will give you 100,000 Alpha Bills per year in exchange for your pollution.  The only catch is, if you produce more than 100,000 metric tons, you will either have to get someone else to buy the excess or you will have to pay me a fine of 100 dollars per ton.”  Of course, the power plant is European and doesn’t actually have dollars, but I’m trying to keep this simple.  Both the blue stick figure from the government and the red stick figures at the power plant get to keep their dollars because no real money has changed hands yet.

Continue reading Emissions Trading Explained, With Stick Figures

NextGen is About Safety

The NextGen program is an ongoing effort to modernize the airspace system in the United States.  It encompasses several long-term objectives, looking forward through 2020 and beyond.  I use the term “ongoing” because I believe this program grew from the public perception in the 1990s that the government was relying on decades-obsolete equipment for air traffic control, and had not even fully transitioned to solid-state electronics. Some of those concerns have been put to rest, and there is now a more proactive approach to upgrading the entire system.

Safety is the top priority of NextGen in the sense that it is the only one of the four “pillars” that is public facing.  If all future plans are seamlessly executed, there should be a very high standard of safety maintained, and this will be championed as the result of years of improvements.  On the other hand, changes in flexibility, sustainability, and economic impact would never be noticed unless a serious problem arises.

I believe flexibility is the second priority because the airspace system needs room to grow.  The remaining two pillars, sustainability and economic impact perhaps temper the plans with cost effectiveness and environmental considerations.  Each is important.

For me, the most noticeable effects of NextGen will be the further integration of GPS and ADS-B technologies into flight procedures.  This means more airports will be open on cloudy days and more airplanes will rely on satellite navigation rather than ground-based or inertial systems.  It will also mean less radio communication and a transition to at least partial text messaging between pilots and ATC.  Aviation has a very tech-savvy future.

Space Flight and Tourism

Rob sitting on the wall of the Zero G 727
Zero G Training in Las Vegas

In response to Jason’s article about SpaceX, I will give my view of the utility and future of private space flight.

First of all, I think it’s great that some of my classmates are aspiring to have careers in the private space flight industry.  This is a novel idea in the sense that there were no private companies or passengers more than a decade ago and NASA has only recently stopped flying its fleet of space shuttles.  In my parents’ generation there were some aspiring astronauts, but the chances of being selected for that opportunity were close to none.

For me, space tourism is something I can imagine within my lifetime.  Sure, the industry will need pilot/astronauts to command missions, and perhaps civilian pilots will be able to qualify for that future upgrade.  I just think it’s more likely that I will be a passenger tourist enjoying space flight as a rare luxury.  With terrestrial flying as my career, taking a trip out into space would be more like a vacation.

Pilot Shortage: Just the Facts

Graph showing the number of active pilots from 1999 through 2011.
Pilots in the U.S. the Past 12 Years

The aviation industry is famous for its booms and busts.  While all industries are subjected to business cycles, aviation is unique for its cries of a “pilot shortage” looming or existing during each boom.  Airlines leverage this perception of a “shortage” to lobby for relaxed hiring rules, while flight schools use this in sales pitches to convince students they are in high demand.

This often leaves pilots wondering: Is there really a shortage?  How long will a shortage last?

In my opinion, this concept of a pilot shortage, real or not, is disseminated by the media.  It seems somewhat implausible that the same problem is occurring again and again for the same reasons, with the same forecasts, in different political and economic circumstances.

Consider, for example, a 1989 article in The New York Times that describes an imminent shortage that was caused by:

  • “An aging corps of pilots.”
  • “A decline in the number of new students.”
  • “A lack of growth in the airlines’ customary supply of aviators from the military.”

Compare that to a 2012 article in USA Today that describes a pilot shortage that will be caused by:

  • “A wave of pilot retirements at U.S. airlines.”
  • “Tougher qualification standards for new pilots.”
  • “The pool of military-trained pilots that airlines have relied upon in the past has largely dried up.”

Well have I got a news story for you!  Pilots always get older, students never want to pay for anything, and World War II ended a long time ago.

For the sake of presenting pertinent facts about this topic, I’ve gathered up several small piles of numbers.  The first, graphed above, is the number of pilots estimated to have active certificates in the United States for the past 12 years.  This information comes from the U.S. Civil Airmen Statistics compiled by the FAA.  Below are my observations:

Continue reading Pilot Shortage: Just the Facts

General Aviation in China

Have you heard that the Chinese market for pilots who want to fly privately (as in general aviation) is growing?  Well, this particular market is not one in which China will outgrow its competitors any time soon.  The reason this growth is occurring now is that it was essentially illegal to fly privately in China until very recently.  According to Xinhua, pilots must apply for a flight approval from the Chinese Air Force before every flight.  As of January, this requirement was lifted for the first time in airspace above six cities and 32% of overall Chinese airspace, up to an altitude of only 1,000 meters.  This plan was announced in 2010, and it includes the opening of additional space in future years.

Another aspect of the boom in China is the export of general aviation aircraft manufacturing jobs from the United States to China.  In 2007, Cessna announced it would start manufacturing its new light aircraft in China.  This would have the advantage of making the aircraft more affordable both in China and the United States.  This became a trend during the 2008 recession and it now looks inevitable that all Cessna aircraft will be made in China some day.

Last week, a deal to sell Hawker Beechcraft to a Chinese investor fell through on concerns about an international conflict of interest, according to the Wall Street Journal.  This will force the company to follow through with bankruptcy proceedings and perhaps keep its operations in the United States.  Beechcraft may find itself in direct competition with Cessna’s lower price point and need to focus on a “Made in the USA” label or on military contracts to stay in business.  With the trend of moving business to China, American-made airplanes and American aerospace jobs could become scarce commodities.


This week, the topic is Comair, and the so-called regional airlines.  These businesses are sometimes difficult to identify because their operations are owned or at least re-branded by major airlines.  Comair flew for Delta Air Lines from 1984 until 2012.  They used hundreds of “regional jet” aircraft, with the Delta logo, to take passengers on short haul flights.

Originally, Comair was just a tiny operation based in Cincinnati with three little airplanes.  It started in 1977.  The company went public in 1981, and was bought out by Delta in 2001.  Delta went bankrupt in 2005 until 2007, putting enormous pressure on costs.  It was at that point Delta was forced to begin dismantling Comair.  The basic reason was that Comair had a successful business model for the short haul market of the 1980s, but it failed to adapt to changing conditions over time.

This move to shut down Comair doesn’t mean the regional airline market is going away any time soon.  SkyWest, another regional airline, is still in business and currently hiring pilots.  Some of their recent hires are showcased by ATP Flight School.  According to Airline Pilot Central the starting pay is $22.

First Officer Epoch Next August

Rob visiting the captain's seat in a 747.
What are airline pilots really made of?

Pilot employment qualifications are changing.  For the potential first officer at a regional or major airline, this change will be huge.

Currently, the requirements for acting as a first officer or second in command (SIC) of an airliner are simple.  All it takes is a commercial pilot license.  The captain is required to have an airline pilot license, but not the first officer.  This is all laid out in the two paragraphs of the applicable regulation number 121.437.  A commercial pilot license can be obtained after meeting the minimum 250 hours of flight time experience.

Starting on August 1, 2013, the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 will remove all commercial pilots from domestic, flag, and supplemental operations.  By itself, sec. 216(a)(2)(B)(i) of this Act would require “all flight crewmembers” to hold an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate, which in turn requires at least 1,500 hours of pilot time experience.  That’s six times the current requirement to become a first officer.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is wisely using the time before August to develop a regulation that does not require 1,500 hours.  Its latest proposal, dated February 29, 2012, allows graduates of a 4-year degree program to obtain the needed license by meeting the following requirements:

Continue reading First Officer Epoch Next August

Leveling Airline Taxes

Boeing 757 Interior
Taxes causing less demand?

The topic for discussion this week is competition between United States airlines and foreign airlines.  Where these businesses simultaneously operate international routes, they create a market for ticket sales, cargo revenue, and the increasingly popular fees for checked baggage, meals, and other amenities.  Or, if no U.S. airline is able to operate competitively on a given route, the market supply consists of foreign airlines only.

In June, the Air Line Pilots Association published a set of recommendations for strengthening the position of U.S. airlines among global rivals.  First on their list of ideas was reforming U.S. taxes imposed on airlines, or in other words, making the U.S. more like “countries with low or nonexistent tax and regulatory burdens.”

U.S. airlines currently charge a variety of federal air fare taxes directly to passengers.  For example, seven of these taxes were described in a recent government report about airline fees.  For further reading, see GAO-10-785.  It is interesting to note that some of these taxes “are collected by U.S. and foreign airlines.”

Continue reading Leveling Airline Taxes