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What are the everyday challenges Airline Pilots face?

There are easy days and then there are those days where being calm under pressure and managing the tasks becomes extremely vital!

Captain Faraz Sheikh - Airbus A320 Pilot

As a commercial airline pilot, I start to think about my flight a few days in advance based on factors such as the weather trend, industrial issues, operational restrictions, type of airfield I will be operating into, security threats, the crew composition (could be a new entrant First Officer with little or no commercial airline experience), possible technical defects with an aircraft and the flight routing.

Weather - in aviation this can turn out to be one of the most regular and largest threats when it comes to safety.

Monitoring weather trends and the predicted forecast for the flight allows us as pilots to better plan any contingency procedures we may need on that day. The weather analysis will include that for the departure/destination airfields including all possible alternates along the way. Phenomena such as thunderstorms, visibility, wind, wind-shears, sand-storms, turbulence, etc, can add significant stress and safety issues to an operation. Sometimes weather conditions could even be out of the aircraft's operational limits. Proper forecast and planning allows us to create better and safer alternate plans and carry the required extra fuel for a second approach and the best possible alternate in terms of weather and technical degradations.

Industrial issues and operational restrictions - although such events occur rarely, they can add to several other problems directly or indirectly related to the flight.

Such events could be related to safety and security, industrial work-force strikes, health and safety, etc. The impact of such things could mean severe flight delays and departure slots, an altered flight routing, changes in flight plans, etc, which directly affect our fuel planning requirements. The second issue in such cases is dealing with customers who of course are never going to be content when their flight is delayed, cancelled or re-scheduled. Customer management becomes vital here in order to keep the operation still flowing smoothly and in the right direction. Other operational restrictions may be things imposed by the company for various reasons, technical problems causing limitations, flight duty limits, crew qualifications, security related, political or other indirectly impacting cases. In all cases, the direct impact on us as a crew is all about operating the flight, delaying it or cancelling completely based on the above. Safety and the wellbeing of crew and passengers should never be compromised in any form so this becomes the number one priority no matter what.

Type of airfield - there are times we operate into airfields that pose certain additional challenges.

This is usually based on type of approach, performance limitations, local weather conditions, ATC, terrain, etc. We get additional training and briefing through our company when it comes to such complex airports and it is important to review this again prior to operating. Such airports often have the highest number of go-around missed approach cases and this alone could be complex due to several restrictions within the procedure itself. It is better to check the weather limitations in relation to the complexity of the airfield and create safer and achievable contingency plans. This will often mean carrying more fuel and having a number of better diversion alternate airfields to rely on in the event a landing can not be safely completed.

Security threats - most of the time the airport and airline together with the national authorities will constantly monitor any factors that impose a direct risk to the airline and its operation.

We have to keep ourselves updated through company information and other news channels in regards to this. As a crew this could mean additional procedures for identification in the air, monitoring radio frequencies, ensuring the routing remains within the allowed safe zone, additional aircraft security searches on the ground, crew training to manage anything out of the ordinary and remaining alert and attentive at all times. There are set standard operating procedures for dealing with many different types of security threats, e.g. disruptive passengers, bomb on board, etc. and it is important for us as a crew to follow these and liaise with our operations centre so they remain aware at all times.

Crew composition - there are times we may be flying with inexperienced crew members including my first officer or it could also mean I am the inexperienced Captain flying with a very experienced first officer.

No matter the composition, we are at the end of the day trained to a very high standard and capable of handling abnormal situations. Good CRM, synergy and team-work is vital to create a safer and effective operation. Slowing the flow and following our SOP's (Standard Operating Procedures) strictly allows for even managing the most challenging or abnormal situations of all. Decision making should be made by the team and not a single person. Allowing my crew to give me inputs and suggestions creates a good working environment and this is very important especially if we are faced with an abnormal situation. Two heads are always better than one and no matter how serious of a challenge we are faced with, each and every crews inputs plays an important role for an overall safe outcome.

Technical defects - modern aircraft are reliable machines but it doesn't mean they are perfect always.

There are occasionally times we have to operate an aircraft with some component or sub-systems inoperative. Let me be clear, there are certain items the aircraft manufacturer will NOT allow you to operate with if inoperative. This is checked in accordance with the aircraft's MEL (Minimum Equipment List). In such a case, the aircraft is grounded until the problem is rectified and fixed and the aircraft is swapped for the flight to operate. In some cases, the inoperative item allows us to fly with certain operational restrictions and we need to be pro-active in managing any further in-flight failures. This way we are not surprised with events that could lead to degraded failure management and loss of situational awareness. As pilots, we will brief on such aspects carefully and always be prepared for a plan B and C scenario. Technical aircraft defects may even have a direct impact on the cruising flight level, type of departure/arrival possible, approach capabilities, etc. This all needs to be taken into account and any additional tasks and procedures highlighted between the crew.

Flight routing - sometimes the flight may be routing through probable threat zones and this should be checked carefully prior to departure including in-flight where necessary.

Route threats could be related to severe weather, jet-streams, volcanic ash, security and political tension, no-fly zones, military activity, radio coverage, etc. Being ahead of the aircraft starting from the gate on the ground allows us to operate with better planning and overall safety.

The above are some examples of the challenges we face time to time in our flight operations and we should realise some of these can occur without any prior warnings. Also at times, we may be dealing with a number of these issues combined and so we should prioritise and manage accordingly to achieve ultimate safety in the operation. We are constantly developing and learning in aviation and so as a crew we bring a lot together on the table. Synergy and good CRM (Crew Resource Management) go hand in hand to allow us to work well together, not just in a normal day out flying, but more importantly when things go wrong or the conditions around us change. The most important thing as pilots, no matter the challenge or threat is to always ensure the aircraft is flying safely and under our control at all times before we get into handling or managing the condition at say. It is very easy to get distracted and lose situational awareness in a modern airliner flight-deck and strict SOP's and quality training means, we know when to stop and do what is required of us in order to get back into the safe zone, both for the safety of the flight and wellbeing of the crew and passengers.

I wish all of you safe travels always in your career and ventures ahead.

Captain Faraz Sheikh


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