Friday, August 19, 2011

August 22nd, 2011

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Over the past month I have flown as a passenger with Lufthansa, United, Delta and Southwest airlines, as well as having flown at the controls of CH701, CH750, CH801, Boeing Stearman and Extra 300 light aircraft! I cannot help finding flying in the airliners less than satisfying; being held in a seat at thirty five thousand feet without a forward view is not that stimulating for a pilot. However, based specific flights, here is my take on that snapshot of experiences…

Lufthansa provides a clean and fresh environment with incredible levels of care and service. I must say that they are amongst the stricter airlines when it comes to ‘regulations’ and I admire that – it is all part of the German engineering approach, and that is very fitting for an airline! The cabin crew are crisp and efficient and ready to assist, and I must say were very courteous and caring, in a very structured manner. The check in for Lufthansa in Atlanta was outstanding, the usually harrowing experience was smooth and efficient, gilded with smiles and a sense of reassurance, even with many cases. Perhaps it was, in part, due to the fact that Kanisha, the check-in supervisor, had trained as a private pilot, and really cared for her chosen career in aviation, and she was noticeably supported by her station manager Diana. Great team work, Lufthansa!

United was a simple, straightforward and unfussy internal flight with scanty service options. This is reflected in the ticket pricing, and one quickly settles into the ‘no-frills’ environment supported by a cabin crew with a smile. I was left with a slight feeling of having been ‘processed’ rather than the feeling of being a customer, but it was correct, clean and efficient.

Delta was also a ‘bare bones service’. Do note that it was also an internal flight in the USA. I was surprised, however, to have to pay for even the first bag, and as each bag was added the cost-per-bag appeared to soar exponentially. The worst part of the Delta experience was the way that a particular male gate ‘checker’ clearly targeted a young lady from West Africa, in a manner decisively different from his approach to any of the other passengers. It was the only ‘culturally negative’ experience amongst all of these flights, and I hope that it is simply a ‘wild card’ in the organisation. In contrast, the nicest part of the Delta experience was that, at the end of the flight, the Captain and his First Officer stood at the exit and asked if any children would like to ‘have a look’ in the cockpit. A nice touch executed with a smile. Whilst one of our team stopped to look, I waited outside the aircraft, and witnessed the Delta attention to detail with disabled passengers, as they carefully assisted several wheel chair ‘enabled’ people from the cabin to the corridor. Patience, care and empathy exuded, and I commend Delta for that!

Southwest Airlines are a very different kettle of fish, or should I say ‘flock of birds’. Southwest operate over five hundred Boeing 737s and are a purely USA domestic airline. It is an airline that I would fly again in a heartbeat. In fact, it is the closest I have come to fully enjoying a commercial flight ever! They allow two hold bags without charge and are very accommodating, treating you as a customer more than normal! They operate a happy crew, and apparently they used a theory from ants to organise their boarding procedures – which are outstandingly simple.

Of course, the ‘priority boarders’ are allowed to board the aircraft first. Then passengers, via their boarding cards, are put into groups (A, B, C…) and then by numbers (1-50). As their group is called they stand in line by number, against numbered panels with a screen at the front of the queue showing the relevant letter. Interestingly, people jiggled around automatically to make sure that they were in order and of the correct letter. A sort of mini-herd of people, or line of ants! The ‘next-letter-ants’ could be seen preparing at the end of the line, excited at their own ‘rank and position’. Then they are allowed to board, using the free seating arrangement (that is ‘sit where you like’). As one group boards the next group lines up proudly under the letter and number positions assigned to them. On board the aircraft it is remarkably smooth. People find a seat (in an ant like manner) that they like, and naturally choose the seats in a logical and practical manner. Soon the second batch of ‘ants’ boards the plane and simply sit down readily on their freely-chosen seat. Wonderful stuff! No ‘excuse me, that is MY seat!’ or climbing over people to get to the window seat when the middle and isle seat are taken. Magnificently, timely and effectively the ‘ant-theory’ of Southwest made for a rapid embarkation and no visible ‘fraying of tempers’.

At the entrance to the aircraft, the captain himself welcomed us aboard, and, seeing we were carrying a boxed propeller, which he recognised, engaged in a short welcoming and ‘aviation related’ exchange.

The next set of events had me smiling almost as much as if I were at the front end of the plane and at the controls. My flight was to Oakland, California, and when the tall blonde lady with a broad, white smile and pristine Southwest uniform picked up the announcement phone and proclaimed ‘Welcome aboard your Southwest flight to Hawaii’ the plane rippled with ‘wha-did-she-say?’ and ‘o-my-were-going-where?’, until she proclaimed, ‘Oh, sorry, that is where I would like to go, but this flight is going to Oakland, darn it’.

As we came to the safety briefing the announcements went pretty much according to the usual ‘exits, seatbelts, smoking, life-vests, oxygen masks and electrical items’ meeting the requirements of the industry, but clearly our ‘hostess’ was aware that very few people were listening.

I always get annoyed with those who fail to actively acknowledge the safety briefings, since they may well be putting my life at risk in an emergency. I would use a more ‘robust and strict’ approach if I were in the role of giving the briefing to a plane full of folks not paying attention. However, Southwest encourages the use of appropriate humour in its announcements! I encourage you all to Google ‘Southwest Airlines humorous safety briefings’ for many customers have recorded them and do note that the humour increases ‘listening and retaining’ many fold.

Not only does Southwest get a vote of confidence from me for empowering their crews so wonderfully (note: in 1992 they engaged the first black Chief Pilot of any major US airline), but they also get the ‘most cared for passenger feeling’ of any of the flights I have taken with a commercial airline. Should you be flying internally in the USA, consider Southwest - be ready to pay attention to the safety briefing, it might make you smile, and save your life. It certainly made my day!

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

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