If you are new to airline flying you may have noticed that airline cockpits like many other cockpits rely heavily on standard operations procedures. Sometimes you dare ask why. The most obvious answer given is so that everyone is on the same page and does the same thing with the same call out at the same moment of any checklist. This has not always been the case. In the 1970’s and perhaps earlier, checklists were considered guidance and not procedure. At any time a rogue captain could declare “his” or “her” way of doing things.
No Guessing Allowed
This presented a number of problems along the way, mostly for first and second officers. It became a guessing game of what does this person want and when do they want it. The result was crew members trying to become chameleons and adapt their colors so to speak to their environment. This often took several legs to figure out a good rhythm or chemistry of specific flying styles. To be honest, it’s too hard to please everyone and operate safely in a predictable manner. Individualistic approaches are just too problematic. Thus a standardized approach was developed and has been implemented in every modern cockpit of most airlines today.
This has several benefits regarding communication as well as expectations. No one is allowed to make up their own rules. This also translates to safety and helps create a way to trap more errors in the cockpit. Let’s face it, errors are normal, they are a part of everyday operations. No pilot is capable of operating the “perfect flight”. When we come to grips with that, we realize there is always a better way to organize the flight deck.
Rather than bore you to death with all the specifics of standardization I prefer to tell you an amusing story that I feel best illustrates a airport environment verses a smooth running cockpit.
A Funny Example
Let’s look at the example of an airport in the Caribbean which will remain nameless so I do not get a lot of hate mail. I have been operating to this destination for over 20 years and have watched several inadequacies to the point of humor. It once was very discouraging, now that I have put some thought to it, it helps make it more clear and thus…laughable.
The day starts by arriving at this airport to chaos and confusion at the departure lane. I say this because the departure lane and arrival lane are one in the same by design so it is really a mess at times. Once you get through the myriad of people honking, cutting each other off and parking anywhere it’s time to go inside.
Once inside there is someone in an airport uniform shouting in Spanish and waving there arms. Some follow and listen, some ignore him and move on. I am led to believe that they are trying to ensure that everyone is wearing a mask (this is early 2022 in this writing) however everyone he is yelling at is already wearing a mask.
This leads you to a funnel to get to the gate area of which you have to show your passport and ID to another uniformed person (different uniform btw) and then upon scrutiny of the almighty clip board you can go to the crew area to go through security.
Here is where it gets fun, you have to put all your bags on a security scanner conveyer belt just like all the rest of the customers, fair enough considering where you are. Next you get to go through the metal detector, fair enough right? That is standard procedure. However the metal detector is broken and beeps with every person that walks through it. This results in everyone having to be frisked and wanded to get through. While you are being verbally attacked in Spanish you notice that the output of the bag screener has no back rail. So as the line backs up due to the malfunctioning metal detector, your bags fall off the output of the scanner and onto the floor. (Which you can’t reach).
So far you may have noticed the theme of mass confusion taking place and you would be correct. I would equate it to throwing a football into the monkey exhibit at the zoo.
After you put yourself together and gather your gear, you are sent through another funnel with all the passengers to a line where you have to show your passport again. Why you have to do this twice is beyond my elementary logic. This is a third employee group and there is no real organization to the line. It’s kind of like the cars on the outside of the terminal. There is lots of squabbling and people cutting in front of each other as data is verified via clip board or archaic DOS based computers. This is hard to watch and it’s hard to get through the line.
Once through this menargie you are lead to a small escalator that takes you down a floor to the gate are hallway. Keep in mind the escalator does not work and is taped off. You also can’t go down the stairs since that is taped off too. Even if you could it would involve carrying all your bags down it. While this is not impossible, it is harder flight attendants in heels than it is for male pilots. So the choices come down to an elevator. Guess what? The elevator holds two people or one wheelchair. So again, another line with a small funnel for lots of people. Another marvel of design that leaves you scratching your head.
Now we finally get everyone, together it’s time to move through the labyrinth of construction and a forced visit through the duty free shopping zone to get to the gate. There is a very small amount of signage as to the gate numbers or direction, so it’s usually a discussion of where to go. Whew we made it. Now to try to find the one English speaking agent to get passenger information and boarding info.
On the jetway are several different work groups all in different colored or designed uniforms as well. Some are cleaners, some are supervisors, some are inspectors, and some who just push wheelchairs. (No offense) There is always one person yelling directions and looking at the crew as if we are suspects to a crime.
What is the point?
So what’s the point of this story? You have to look past the confusion and try to make sense of it all. I was told by a local there how it works. There are so many different work groups, each having their own responsibilities. The problem is, none of them have any idea what the other is doing. There is no grand plan. There is no unified system. The left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. There is no wizard behind the curtain. All that remains is chaos, every work group scurrying about trying not to get in trouble. It’s no wonder that passengers cannot get to the gate in a timely manner for departure. They have pretty much insured that things will be hard.
Go Ahead, Be in Charge
This goes on and on until someone declares that something has to change. Someone has to take the “Captain Kirk” chair and initiate a standard approach that everyone uses. That’s called SOP’s. Airlines have evolved, they have figured out that chaos and a personal agenda causes problems. End of story.
So it’s always a good idea in my opinion to ask a couple of questions after my posts.
Are you able to look past confusion and figure out the root cause of the problem?
Are you able to solve the problem once identified? (Some airlines are structured so poorly that solving “their” problem means figuring out they have a broken system. In that case, it is virtually improbable that you or I will be able to change it)
Do broken systems bother you to the point of altering your mood or attitude?
Are you an airline pilot that wants to contribute to the conversation? Feel free to leave a comment below.