Saturday, October 13, 2018

Pilot Shortage Looming


International aviation is about to face a crisis:  a shortage of pilots.

Domestically we are already seeing regional carriers (which represent 42% of all passengers) having to cancel flights and eliminate service to smaller cities.  And in Australia the biggest carrier, Qantas, is pulling old 747’s out of mothballs because it doesn’t have enough qualified pilots for its 737’s, the most dominate (and much more fuel efficient) aircraft in its fleet.

Europe’s biggest airline, Ryanair, had to cancel thousands of flight last November because of inadequate staffing.  And Japanese airlines are so desperate for pilots they are raising the mandatory retirement age to 67.  In China’s booming aviation market airlines are luring experienced captains with salaries starting at $500,000 including signing bonuses.

That’s attracting US pilots who are also offered free business-class flights home to America every three weeks to see their families.

Stateside the number of active commercial aviators dropped by 30,000 from 2008 to 2016 just as US airlines started enjoying a resurgence.  In Canada they estimate that 1000 of that small country’s pilots are now flying for overseas airlines, which offer better pay.

Even the US military is feeling the pain with the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps suffering a 25% reduction in fighter pilot staffing.  It costs $3 - $11 million to train a single fighter pilot.  So where are they going?  To the commercial airlines, especially overseas.

Boeing tells us the international aviation market will need 637,000 more pilots in the next 20 years as air traffic doubles.  But where will these pilots be found?

Aside from the military, it’s been small domestic airlines that have been the traditional training ground for big US airlines.  But after a series of crashes, the FAA changed the rules in 2010 to require pilots to have 1500 hours of flight time before they can step up to the big time.  Now the US DOT is thinking of reducing that minimum.

Just a few years ago, regional carriers paid their pilots as little as $20,000 a year.  The hours were long and the rewards few.  The popular joke among small airline pilots was: 

What’s the difference between a pilot and a pizza?  A pizza can feed a family of four.

Today the starting pay at the regionals is closer to $50,000.  Still, those recruits need extensive, expensive training that costs triple what it used to cost in the 1990’s.  Graduates of the aviation colleges are starting their careers with up to $300,000 in student loans to pay off.

Now even flight instructors are in short supply.  So too are DFE’s, designated flight examiners, who conduct mandatory “check rides” for pilot applicants who now must schedule those “driving tests” up to six months in advance.

The use of simulators instead of actual in-air flight time may help trainees, though some suggest would-be pilots should start as early as high school in programs such as the US Air Force’s Junior ROTC.

Bottom line:  until more pilots are properly trained, certified and paid a competitive wage the pilot shortage will mean we will continue to see cuts in regular service, especially to smaller airports.  “Getting There”, if it’s not a big city, will be inconvenient and expensive, if at all possible.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.


Saturday, October 6, 2018

The SoNo Switch-Tower


Do you ever wonder how trains move on a busy line like the New Haven division of Metro-North?  How they switch from track to track, make their scheduled stops and try to stay on schedule?

Today, it’s all controlled by computer-assisted dispatchers working near Grand Central Terminal, handling 700 trains per day.  But until the 1980’s, the dispatchers were decentralized, working in one-man “towers” all along the line.

Each tower handled a section of track, manually throwing massive switches to send trains on their appointed routes following a master schedule.  Manned 24 / 7,  a tower in Woodlawn would hand off trains to a tower in Mt Vernon, then to New Rochelle, Rye, Greenwich, Cos Cob, Stamford and South Norwalk.



Bob Hughes worked in the SoNo Switch Tower for eight years, dispatching hundreds of passenger and freight trains coming up and down the mainline, many continuing onto the Danbury branch.  Built in the 1880’s, the tower featured a 68 lever “Armstrong” machine, so named because it was all manual and required strong arms to move the manual switches using hundreds of yards of connected piping.

For his work Hughes was paid $2.65 an hour with a two cent per hour bump for operating the circuit panel for the 11,000 volt overhead catenary.

The tower also was equipped with a “model board”, showing the exact location of each train.  As a train passed the neighboring tower (Stamford or Bridgeport), the dispatcher would call Bob on a speaker phone to alert him to the train entering his territory.

A call like “BG-1 next on 1” would warn Bob to watch his model board and prepare for that train’s arrival and possible switching to another track.  As it passed, Bob would note the locomotive number and time on a master train log, later sent to headquarters in New Haven, and then warn the next tower down the line what was coming their way.

Bob was also in communications with the nearby Walk Bridge tender who could open and close the bridge on demand as barges and sailboats requested. “In those days the bridge opened and closed without problem,” says Hughes.  “Of course, it was 50 years younger then.”

In addition to the busy passenger trains on the then-New Haven & Hartford RR, as many as eight freight trains per day would pass his tower.  “We tried not to slow up the freights to avoid brakes locking and similar problems,” he says.

It wasn’t until Penn Central took over the New Haven in 1969 that the trains got radios to communicate with the towers.  Before then, engineers who were stopped at a red signal would clamber down from their cab and use a track-side telephone to inquire about why they were being held up.  Hughes says the calls were “strictly business, no horsing around”.

In 1984 the SoNo Switch Tower was decommissioned along with most of its sister towers as switching was computerized and controlled out of GCT.  But the tower still lives on today as a museum.

Operated by the Western CT Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, the museum is open 12 noon to 5 pm on weekends through October when you’ll often find Hughes demonstrating the old switching gear to appreciative onlookers.

For more information:  http://thetracksidephotographer.com/2018/04/26/best-job-in-the-world/ 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Monday, October 1, 2018

China's Transportation Strategy


Quiz question #1:  What country has the largest interstate highway system in the world?  Hint:  It’s not the United States.

Quiz question #2:  What country has the most miles of high-speed rail?  Hint:  It’s not France or Japan.

The answer to both questions is… China!

China’s superhighways, most of them built since 1984, now cover almost twice as many miles as the US interstates.  And on the rail side, China’s 15,000 miles of high speed rail represents nearly two-thirds of all such rail in the world. 

China’s fast trains travel up to 217 mph, linking Beijing to Shanghai (the distance of NY to Chicago) in a five-hour run.  Trains carrying 1000 passengers each depart at 10 to 15 minute intervals.  Compare that to Amtrak’s Acela, once an hour, carrying 300 passengers at an average of 70 mph.

Sure, China is big.  Though measured in square miles, the US is slightly larger.  But with a population of 1.34 billion, China is huge compared to the US’s 325 million residents.  That means China has a lot more people to move, and they’re investing accordingly.

China spends over $300 billion annually on transportation.  Compare that to the US Dept of Transportation’s $80 billion annual spending on highways, rail and air transport.  No wonder we feel like we’re living in a third world country with crumbling roads and obsolete railroads.
But more importantly, China is also investing abroad.  Chinese money is being invested in 68 countries to build highways, ports and railroads to take its exports to market on what it sees as a 21st century Silk Road.

The country’s “Belt & Road Initiative” has pledged $8 trillion in projects for under-developed countries’ projects where it will be able to conduct trade.  These destinations account for 70 percent of the world’s population, 55 percent of its GNP, and 75 percent of its energy reserves.

There is already a rail link from China to Europe with daily trains carrying electronics and manufactured goods to Europe.  After unloading, those trains return to China filled with food.  A trip that can take a month by sea now links 35 Chinese cities with a like number of European cities in just 15 days by rail.

On the high seas China is also expanding its reach, building a modern fleet of vessels and investing heavily in port operations in Europe and South America. Containers filled with cell-phones sail out from Chinese ports and much needed oil sails back.  And where Chinese merchant vessels go, so too will its Navy.  While the US fancies itself as policeman to the world, there’s no way we can keep up. 

The US merchant marine has only 175 American-owned vessels flying the US flag while 800 others are registered abroad.  The Chinese government-owned COSCO shipping conglomerate owns 1114 vessels, the fourth largest fleet in the world.  And that’s just one company.

President Trump seems headed to an all-out trade war with China, matching them tariff for tariff and Tweeting regularly about how “unfair” the Beijing government has been to us.

Meanwhile, Washington can’t even pass a domestic infrastructure spending bill to patch up our decrepit roads and rails.  To my thinking, we’re not only getting outspent by China, but clearly out-smarted.  Transportation is about trade and China is clearly planning for the future while we wallow in the past.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.



Monday, September 24, 2018

What Does "On Time" Mean?


Last spring, Japanese railroad officials apologized for a huge mistake:  one of their trains left a station 25 seconds early!  This was the second time such an egregious error had been made and I imagine that the offenders were severely disciplined.

Meanwhile back on Metro-North’s New Haven line, the railroad’s latest OTP (on time performance) statistics stand at about 82%... a new low.

To make matters worse, what the Japanese railroads and MNRR consider “on time” are two different things.  “On time” in Japan means the 7:12 am train departs at 7:12, not 7:11 (as in this horrendous incident which prompted the apology) nor at 7:13.  “On time” means ON TIME.

Metro-North, however, defines a train is being on time if it arrives or departs within five minutes and 59 seconds of the scheduled time.  So the train due in Grand Central at 8:45 am is still “on time” in its record keeping if it pulls in just before 8:51 am.

On a train run averaging an hour from Connecticut to GCT, that’s about a 10% margin of error, so their 82% “on time” record could really be much, much lower.  What the exact “on time” stats are, they will not say.

But Metro-North is not alone in such squishy record keeping.  Most commuter railroads in the US also observe this 5:59 standard.  And on Amtrak, it’s even worse.  On a short run (less than 250 miles), a train is on time if its 10 minutes late.  Long distance trains (over 550 miles) are given a 31 minute leeway.

When trains are late, there is usually a good reason.  For Metro-North it could be switch problems, overhead power lines (catenaries), track conditions and, of course, weather.  And when one train is late, delays can cascade, just like a fender-bender on I-95 can create a huge back-up.

But all of this is OK with me.  I’d rather be safe than on-time.

We used to be able to always count on MNRR to be on time and would schedule our travel accordingly, assuming no delays.  And yes, the trains were on time something like 98% of all runs.  But they were also unsafe and we didn’t know it.

So if my train now is 5 or 10 minutes late, that’s OK.  Because I took an earlier train just to be safe, I can handle the delay and still keep to my personal schedule.

Over the years I’ve found that when service on MNRR is messed up, there’s usually a valid explanation.  While commuters’ Tweets are quick to assume it’s stupidity or incompetence on the part of the railroad, it usually isn’t.  It’s aging equipment or things beyond their control.

The men and women who work at Metro-North may not be rocket scientists, but I honestly believe most of them are trying their best.

While OTP on the railroad has been slipping, there is one area where we have seen a huge improvement:  communications.

A small army of railroad people now work 24/7 to Tweet and e-mail every problem on every line.  And they update the information, keeping us posted on delays.  That’s valuable information riders can use to make decisions, find alternatives and alert colleagues they may be late.

Let’s give the railroad credit for doing this much right. 


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.


Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Critelli Commission +10


In the “land of steady habits”, we don’t fix problems, we study them… over and over again.
It’s been ten years since then-Governor Rell’s “blue ribbon” Critelli Commission report studying the reform of the Department of Transportation.  You’ll remember that the study came after a construction scandal on I-84.  And while much of the report addresses the dysfunction of the CDOT, I was pleased that the Commission’s chairman, then-Pitney Bowes Chairman Michael Critelli, also picked up on some suggestions for improving rail service.  Among the key recommendations were:
  • Expand parking at all rail stations, but leaving the towns to price and administer the issuance of permits.  
  • Revisit the Metro-North contract for the operation of our trains with an eye toward greater parity between the railroad and CDOT.  
  • Focus on the maintenance and repair of our railroad bridges, 206 of the 325 of which were rated as being in less than satisfactory condition. 
  • Better coordinate bus and rail schedules to offer riders of both an inter-modal transit experience.  
  • Evaluate an independent Transportation Authority (like the MTA or NJ Transit) which could serve the interests of mass transit apart from the highway interests which dominate our current CDOT.  (Connecticut is one of only two states in the union that runs mass transit out of its DOT).
  • Speed up construction of commuter rail on the New Haven to Springfield corridor.  
  • Expand service on the Danbury, Waterbury and Shore Line East branch lines.  
  • Do something to offer a rail freight alternative in Connecticut. 
But, beyond rail, the Critelli Commission also suggested some ideas to make CDOT more “user friendly”, following the lead of other states.
  • Have a website where consumers can actually find information.  For example, when construction projects are scheduled and, if they are running late, why and when they’ll be completed.   
  • Offer a 511 dial-in service for all traffic and transit updates.  Using such a service a traveler could ask “If I leave Stamford right now, how long would it take under current conditions to get to New Haven?”, and be told travel time by road and rail.  
  • Finally, the Critelli Commission deserves commendation for embracing an often forgotten transportation alternative… pedestrians and bikers. 

Anyone who uses transportation in Connecticut realizes how few of the Commission’s recommendations were ever adopted.  So I asked Mr. Critelli, now retired, if he had any regrets given all the work he put into the report.  He wrote:

"I do not regret the work because we achieved change, particularly in better ConnDOT communications and process improvement and in being a catalyst for the service area upgrades on I-95 and the Merritt Parkway.”

“My regret:  The State did not take the opportunity to update its talent recruitment and management practices.  ConnDOT has an even greater gap between the talent it needs in a fast-changing and very different transportation environment and the talent it can recruit for its existing jobs and compensation levels.” 

As always, Critelli is being gracious.  A year of his life was donated to this effort and so little was achieved, even now a decade later. 

Doubtless some candidate this fall will suggest yet another study of transportation before anything gets done to really fix it.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Secret Hacks of Grand Central Terminal


There is possibly no more beautiful railroad station in the world than New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.  As the destination of over 55,000 daily rail commuters from Connecticut, it’s a place where many of us spend a fair amount of time. 
I’ve been riding in and out of Grand Central for over 50 years.  So to help you maneuver the station’s labyrinth of tunnels, ramps and stairs, here are some of the “secrets” of Grand Central that I find most useful.
Underground Access:      Sure, you can enter Grand Central from street level, but in bad weather you can find your way there underground from blocks away.  The north-end access
entrances at Madison and 47th St., Park Ave. and 48th Street and the Helmsley Building walk-ways are dandy, though not all open on weekends.  But did you know you can also access from 43rd or 45th Street, west of Vanderbilt, from inside the Chrysler Building, the Hyatt Hotel on 42nd Street or via the subway’s shuttle station, on the south side of 42nd Street, just west of Park?
Fastest Way from / to the Lower Level:           If your train dumps you on the lower level, forget about the ramps or stairs for the long climb to street level, especially with luggage.  Walk to the forward end of the train and look for the elevator near Track 112. 
It’ll take you to the upper level or, better yet, to within steps of Vanderbilt Avenue (see below).  Getting to the lower level platforms from street level is just as easy.  On the upper level look for the elevators and take them down to “P” (Platform) level avoid two flights of stairs.
Washrooms with No Wait:         The new washrooms at the west end of the lower level have helped a lot, but still there’s often a line.  Take the nearby escalators up one level, turn around, and on your left is the Stationmaster’s
Office complete with a small waiting room and lav’s… but for women only!  Or, go right and just before the ramp up to 42nd St. and Vanderbilt, look on your left for the sign for the Oyster Bar.  Go down the steps into the bar and you’ll find ornate bathrooms known only to a few.
Best Place To Get A Cab:          Forget about the long line at the taxi stand on 42nd St east of Vanderbilt.  Instead, go out the west end of the Main Concourse, up the stairs and out onto Vanderbilt Avenue.  Cross the street and wait at the corner of 43rd.  Taxis flow through here, dropping off passengers every few seconds. If you’re heading west you’ll avoid the traffic on 42nd Street too.
Where to Have a Smoke:            Want to enjoy a cigar before your train?  Forget about lighting up anywhere inside the station. Instead, go to the Hyatt Hotel just east on 42nd St. From street level go up two levels by escalator to their taxi stand and you’ll find yourself on the raised Park Avenue as it wraps around GCT.

These are a few of my favorite “hacks” of Grand Central.  Drop me an e-mail with yours and I’ll include them in a future column.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The World's Longest (and Shortest) Flights


I hate to fly, but I have to sometimes.  Sure, I can tolerate a trans-con to California in Business or First Class.  And with my wife we once flew to Japan on a surprisingly tolerable 10 hour flight that just felt like a really long day.

But now the big international carriers have newer jets capable of much longer distances non-stop, and the race is on for the bragging rights of “the world’s longest flight”.

In the early days of jet aircraft an El Al 707 going (5677 miles) non-stop from JFK to Tel Aviv in nine and a half hours was quite a feat.  But in the mid-1970’s when Boeing introduced the 747-SP, a stubby version of the famous jumbo, Pan Am was making it all the way from JFK to Tokyo (6772 miles) non-stop.

In 2001 both Continental and United were flying from NYC to Hong Kong (8065 miles) in 16 hours thanks to new polar routes opened up by Russia.  But in 2004 Singapore Airlines began non-stop service from Newark to its home port (about 10,000 miles) in just over 18 hours.

Mind you, these are regularly flown, passenger-carrying commercial flights.  On demonstration flights the distances and hours aloft are much higher.

When Boeing delivered a brand new, but empty, 777-200ER (Extended Range) from Seattle to Kuala Lumpur, the flight traveled 12,455 miles non-stop.  Of course, the plane wasn’t carrying passengers, allowing more weight for fuel.

Starting this fall, a new aircraft will offer even greater range:  the Airbus 350-900ULR (ultra long range).  These plans are 25% more fuel efficient than the 777’s but don’t offer coach seating, only Business and Premium Economy.  More seats would mean more weight, the enemy of being able to add fuel for these mega-distances.

They also have higher ceilings, maintain better humidity and keep cabin pressures higher and noise levels lower, reducing jetlag.

The 19 hour flight for 161 passengers will be expensive:  Premium Economy is $1649 with Business going for twice that.   In its next generation of ULR aircraft Airbus is looking at installing bunk-beds “downstairs” where cargo would normally be carried.  No idea what pricing for that would be.

What’s the limit for non-stop flying?  Experts say about 21 hours.  That’s enough time to fly between any two spots on the globe.

On the supersonic front, Boom, Aerion and Spike are working on prototypes for smaller jets that could carry a dozen up to 55 passengers at speeds ranging from mach 1.5 to 2.2 for distances up to 6200 miles, almost the distance of NY to Tokyo.  By comparison, the Concorde carried 120 passengers a maximum of 3900 miles at mach 2.02.

Japan Airlines and Virgin Atlantic have invested $10 million and pre-ordered 20 of Boom’s XB-1 aircraft.  The manufacturer estimates JFK to London flight time of just over three hours at a fare of about $2500 one way.

So much for the future and growing present of ever longer non-stops.  For you trivia fans:  what’s the shortest non-stop commercial jet flight?  It’s from Aruba to the Venezuelan city of Punto Fijo, a 50-mile, 8-minute flight that costs $235 one-way.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media