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Are planes, pilots grounded too long?

| Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Many US Airways pilots operate an unusual piece of equipment on the job: Rocking chairs.

The white rockers lining the terminal at US Airways' hub in Charlotte are where pilots often spend hours waiting to fly their next plane. At other destinations, a lounge chair or hotel bed might be the way to kill time.

Either way, it's not time spent in a US Airways cockpit. And that not only bothers the company, it has irritated the pilots for years.

"Sometimes a pilot will sit in Charlotte for 3 1/2 hours, when there's a flight going back to Pittsburgh that leaves in the next hour," said pilot Steve Smyser, Upper St. Clair. "But they have to sit because the schedule was built that way."

Inefficient result: US Airways operates each of its planes an average 9 1/2 hours a day, he said. That compares with 12 hours a day at Southwest Airlines, for instance.

The irony of pilot downtime is that US Airways management -- which sets the flight schedules -- has harped on productivity for years. More recently, the loss-riddled airline insisted that getting more flying out of its pilots and planes will be a central aim of its restructuring plan.

That plan hinges on extracting some $1.5 billion in cost reductions, mostly from labor, which include productivity gains such as pilot and fleet utilization. But pilots argue that management is not restricted by union contracts from scheduling more efficiently already.

"It's annoying when the company says in public they want to use their people and airplanes more," said Pilot John Brookman, Sewickley. "But when they build some of these trips, and we complain about the sit time, they say: 'Don't tell us how to run the airline. Just go fly the airplane.'"

The 23-year veteran of US Airways described a typical, four-day trip that began April 28 with flights to Denver and Charlotte. Brookman said he then waited 2{1/2 hours} -- mostly in a rocking chair -- to fly out of Charlotte.

The next day, Brookman's schedule took him to Tampa and Washington, D.C. But he had to wait two hours and 56 minutes to fly his next leg to Charlotte. So that day, the pilot was on duty 11 hours and 31 minutes but only spent five hours and 44 minutes in the cockpit. And that's "very typical," he said.

Pilot Tim Baker, of Coraopolis, who has flown for US Airways since 1985, concurs. One three-day trip that began with a April 2 flight to Kansas City entailed 29 hours and 53 minutes between flights.

"I spent all day Saturday in Columbus at the Holiday Inn, and didn't leave (for Charlotte) until Sunday, April 4 -- 30 hours later," said Baker. He said many of his trips involve a good book and rocking away the hours in the Charlotte airport.

"(Long) sit times mean your schedule is too loose," said Darryl Jenkins, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Fla. "You want to keep these guys up in the air."

Jenkins said all major carriers -- not just US Airways -- could improve operations so that pilots aren't idling as much. But the operational complexities are daunting, he said.

"Scheduling is a big black hole. It's mathematically driven, and it's very difficult," Jenkins said.

US Airways has at least begun to address the downtime syndrome. The airline revised its May flight schedule at the Philadelphia hub to "separate flights in the most congested banks," said CEO Bruce Lakefield during recorded comments to employees on April 30.

Lakefield also said the restructuring plan would mean more point-to-point flying. That's the route structure of Southwest Airlines, the discounter threatening US Airways since it entered the Philadelphia market on Sunday.

US Airways spokesman Dave Castelveter declined comment about adjusting plane and pilot utilization, but said the company was "exploring every possible means by which we can reduce our costs to competitive levels."

Flight schedules are determined by US Airways' marketing and planning department at headquarters in Arlington, Va., said Smyser, who also is chairman of the scheduling committee for the US Airways unit of the Air Line Pilots Association. Then, trips are assigned to individual pilots at the operations center in Moon Township.

"It seems pretty simple that the airline flying a plane 9 1/2 hours a day makes less money than the one flying it 12 hours a day," said Pittsburgh pilot and former union negotiator Phil Carey. "It's like McDonald's closing up at 8 p.m."

Carey said the average US Airways pilot now works roughly 50 to 60 hours a week, but logs only about 20 hours of flight time.

"Southwest pilots don't fly days like that where they sit and sit," Brookman said. "It's more typical that they'll wait about 30 minutes and fly out again."

There's a trade-off with the Southwest model of departures that occur in rolling intervals throughout the day, however. The flight schedule means Southwest pilots don't spend much unproductive time sitting around. But passengers might be inconvenienced by having to fly in the middle of the day, said Baker. And if they must make a connection, they might have to wait a couple hours or longer.

That differs from US Airways and other majors, which are built around the hub-and-spoke model. Connecting on their flights is more convenient, he said, flights at hubs are bunched in a few "banks" a day structured to accommodate connecting passengers.

"But the hub-and-spoke system is geared toward revenue, not cost," Baker said. "That means you have to have some sit time in order to get passengers mixed and matched" on connections in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Charlotte.

Generally, US Airways pilots do not fly more than 85 hours a month, per their contract. That maximum pay threshold has not changed over the years. And that much time in the cockpit represents the optimal productivity, pilots say.

They also get paid for "claim" time, or time on duty outside the cockpit. In years past, a pilot received a minimum of five hours pay for each day worked, whether flying or not. During US Airways' bankruptcy in late 2002, the pilots agreed to curtail claim pay.

They did so, however, with the understanding that scheduling would mean more time flying, known as "block" time. (The term refers to a departing plane getting pushed off the block.)

For example, Baker flew from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg and back one day in March. Each leg of the trip takes about one hour in the air, or two hours total. In 2002, he would have been paid for five hours of claim time. Nowadays, he gets paid for the two hours of block time spent flying out and back.

"In the 1980s, it didn't matter if you paid some claim time at a hub because US Airways was making money hand over fist," Baker said.

But after Sept. 11, 2001, management cut flights in order to adjust to lower passenger traffic. So when pilots a year later agreed to curtail claim-time pay, fewer flights meant fewer opportunities to earn their full pay. To other pilots -- 1,879 of them -- it meant getting laid off.

"On April 1, 2003, management blew it," said Baker, of US Airways' first day after exiting Chapter 11. "They had the opportunity to use the tools we gave them in bankruptcy to change the structure of the airline, and they didn't do it."

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