Each month, ExpertFlyer sits down with an executive in the travel industry to provide insight to changes in the industry and how it affects the way you do business. It’s another way ExpertFlyer is providing additional information to empower the business traveler.
This month, ExpertFlyer sat down with Captain Karen Kahn, a legacy (commercial) airline’s most senior female pilot with more than 30+ years of flying experience. While counseling aspiring and employed pilots, she wrote “Flight Guide for Success: Tips and Tactics for the Aspiring Pilot” to help employed and aspiring pilots synthesize their aspirations and skills into a manageable action plan. Today, she shares this message with a wide range of professionals to help them become more confident and successful in their pursuit of professional or personal achievement.
“Passengers at the front of the line get better service and often better seats since more selections are available to the early birds. Most importantly, you’ll be giving yourself the time to allow for things to go wrong, and then have the opportunity to make changes. If they have to cancel or delay your flight, you’re more likely to be accommodated if you’ve checked in early. Late passengers often have limited options available to them, increasing their level of frustration even further.”
– Captain Karen Kahn, Senior Pilot
As a female pilot, what do you think you bring to the air that your male counterparts do not?
I believe I offer a more participatory approach to many of the not-quite-normal situations.
Compared with many of my male counterparts, I take a more proactive role in seeking out solutions and assisting where I can, instead of being passive and waiting for someone else to tell me what’s happening or when I can expect a resolution of the problem. For example, when we have delays, I’ll give try to obtain the details as soon as possible so I can monitor the situation and offer solutions that may help resolve the problem sooner.As a woman, I also believe I am able to approach a situation more holistically. For instance, if we are going to be late arriving at an outstation and have a return flight that may also be delayed, I will ask my flight dispatcher to add extra fuel so we can fly the return portion faster and hopefully get back on schedule.
Overall, I think women are often better at resource management. Crew Resource Management (CRM) is actually based on many “feminine” attributes of listening, discussing, gathering information, and not operating in a vacuum. Airline safety programs have found these qualities to be crucial to flight safety and incorporated them into their Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Women tend to have an innate ability to do this type of fact-gathering and resource management, as they are generally considered to be more “social beings” than men, who tend to be more goal-oriented.
Over the course of your long career, what are the key changes that stick out in your mind relative to air travel?
Travelers have to be more resilient today than they were in the past. There are more challenges for all of us — especially from the security perspective — for pilots, flight attendants, passengers, as well as airline personnel.
Travelers must become more proactive for their own behalf and check out all the options available to them. They must speak up when they have a problem and be specific as to their needs. Travelers need to spend more time thinking ahead about what their travel day will be like and try to anticipate difficulties, especially with many airlines offering fewer amenities. For example, if having a pillow or blanket is important to you, you’ll want to plan ahead to determine if your airline offers them gratis or has them available for purchase. If not, bring your own and know you’ll need to pack it to be accessible in flight.
What do you love most about your job?
I enjoy working with professionals who enjoy their jobs and strive to provide the best service possible. Whether it’s a snappy salute from an observant ground signal person, or a well-stocked lavatory by a conscientious cabin cleaner, I appreciate their desire to do the job right.I also enjoy the variety of experiences I encounter as a pilot. I can fly the same Houston-LA-Houston route three days in a row and each day it’s a new experience.
Given the myriad of variables, from changes in weather, to passenger needs and operational requirements, life is never dull as an airline pilot. I enjoy honing my skills and working more efficiently. I mentally see each flight as a personal challenge to make it 100% error free. While that’s rarely possible, I thrive on handling changes efficiently and communicating them clearly to all concerned. As with other types of jobs, most flying problems arise from poor communications. When people don’t question what’s happening to them, things can easily go awry. By communicating clearly, asking questions, and doing a little bit of investigative work, I can often solve the problem before it grows to unmanageable proportions. And even though I often fly the same route, I never get tired of the beautiful scenery outside my office window.
What do you like least about your job?
I dislike the rolling delays that can turn an 8-hour duty day into 16 long hours. Security hassles are a major headache as are the constant barrage of new regulations that have turned my own workplace environment into an airborne cell. Before 9/11, pilots were able to stroll around and talk to passengers en route. Now, pilots are not permitted to do any interacting with passengers en route, as we are separated with a locked, guarded door. There are some days when I feel like a prisoner in my workspace.
Pilots do not like the current trend of over-regulation. Too often, a new rule is formulated as a knee-jerk reaction to an event, implemented before anyone has had time to analyze the root cause of the problem. For instance, much of our regulation is based on what accident has most recently occurred. On April 29, 2010, a new regulation was implemented, which will fine airlines up to $27,500 per passenger every time a tarmac delay exceeds 3 hours. But there are multiple uncontrollable factors causing the delays that are being overlooked. I wish we could control the weather, because 90% of the time, poor weather conditions cause the delays. Interestingly, this same principle would be unacceptable if it were imposed on the automobile highway departments. If a highway department were fined every time people were delayed on the freeway due to ongoing maintenance, they would never bother to fix the roads.
Many of these regulations are simply “band-aid financial penalties” for every possible situation. In many cases, no airline wants to run the risk of incurring these penalties, so they’ll simply cancel the flight, causing more problems for passengers when fewer flights are available. Having the government try to use a quick fix for every delay of more than X hours or more is overly simplistic. We need different solutions that offer incentives to airlines to improve operations instead of penalizing them when delays occur over which they have relatively little control over, such as tarmac delays caused by the weather.
Do you think the new tarmac delay rules are causing less or more delays? Are the rules causing more canceled flights? What do you think is a better option?
I doubt the new tarmac rules are having any real effect. Most of them were due to weather and overburdening the ATC system. Blaming the airlines for something that is not their fault is very difficult in an environment where so many variables contribute to those delays. The airlines may have taken the
hint and spaced out their flights better, but I suspect that a close analysis may show that they’ve mostly cancelled the worst offenders, or those that could cause them to pay those heavy fines.
I’ve jokingly told friends that if the airlines had to pay each passenger who was delayed a $1000 for each delayed flight (give the victims some of that $27,500 that the government gets), the passengers might have a LOT more patience with those delays. But seriously, the Airline Pilots Association had some good solutions for reducing delays as they’ve studied the problem extensively. I suggest you contact them (www.alpa.org) for a more in-depth discussion of specific measures they recommend.
What is your best advice for business travel within the US or abroad?
My best advice is for travelers to plan ahead, go early, and always have alternatives in mind. Before your flight, take a moment to think about your upcoming journey. If you are on an international trip, imagine yourself standing at the airline ticket counter, handing over your documents. Do you have your ticket(s) into and out of that country, a valid passport with at least 6 months remaining before it expires? Do you have the correct visa(s) needed for your trip? If you are going to a country you’ve never been to before, check to see if you need a specific vaccines. Check the amounts of money you are permitted to take in or out of that country. Check the official government tourist websites of the each country you plan to visit and determine not only what you’ll need before you go, but how you’ll get to your hotel or cruise ship after you arrive at the airport. My motto is “plan ahead” and imagine yourself on a virtual journey before you go.
Going early is always beneficial. Passengers at the front of the line get better service and often better seats since more selections are available to the early birds. Most importantly, you’ll be giving yourself the time to allow for things to go wrong, and then have the opportunity to make changes. If they have to cancel or delay your flight, you’re more likely to be accommodated if you’ve checked in early. Late passengers often have limited options available to them, increasing their level of frustration even further.
What is your must-have travel gadget? Smart phone App?
I’m always interested in having the mobile check-in application for my airline. This will enable me to see the seat assignment I’m getting, information about cancellations and delays, and information about what amenities and food choices are available. I always bring a thin shawl to wrap around my laptop in my carry on bag. A shawl is versatile and can also be used for a blanket, lower back support, pillow or coat. I’m passionate about neck comfort, so my inflatable HedBed neck pillow allows me to rest wherever I’m sitting.
Entertainment-wise, I never leave home without my iPod. I load it up with interesting audio books (business and leisure), language training programs and interesting news and relaxation programs to keep me entertained, informed and relaxed. Lately, I’ve been listening to books by authors such as Bryce Courtenay, Queen Noor, Khaled Hosseini, and Thomas Friedman.
How do you see aircraft evolving over the next 5, 10, 20 years? How will that enhance the flying experience and air safety?
I think aircraft will become larger and more fuel efficient. These bigger planes will hold more passengers and allow the airlines to have fewer flights. With fewer planes, we will hopefully have more on-time departures. However, with fewer flights, travel may be less convenient and likely more expensive.
I also suspect that the airline industry will return to a more regulated environment. In 1978, they de-regulated the industry, thinking it was a smart decision. Now, everybody is busy complaining about the service, costs and fees, which is prompting more regulation. There is a disconnect between people accepting rising prices for daily commodities, but not accepting rising costs for airfares. You don’t expect to pay the same price today for a loaf of bread that you did 20 years ago, so it’s foolish to expect airfares to be the same price as what you paid 20 years ago.
What trends are you seeing in air travel that are exciting?
I think the trend of increasing availability of personal technology items for the passenger is very exciting. There are more in-seat amenities available. For instance, Continental’s new in-seat entertainment system has a language channel, where passengers can practice learning a new language. This will allow people to be more productive with their time and become educated, as well as entertained.
How has terrorism affected the manner in which pilots do their job? What are airlines doing to better protect us?
The age of terrorism has made air travel a more rigid and fright-filled environment. Prior to 9/11, pilots were generally able to show their ID and bypass traditional security. Now, there are more stringent security measures, and security personnel seem to be suspicious of everybody, including pilots. Many pilots, who are professionally trained and vetted, are incensed that we have to waste a significant amount of time being inspected for items such as scissors and nail files. Pilots have to go through the same security measures as passengers do, except for the 3 oz. liquid requirement. But it’s illogical to suspect a pilot of doing heinous deeds. Remember, we are the ones controlling the airplane. Unlike lawyers or doctors, when they do something on behalf of their clients, they won’t be the direct recipient of the results. But pilots are at the front of the aircraft and whatever happens to our passengers will also happen to us.
Airlines, per se, don’t have much power to change how things are done in the security world. So asking what airlines are doing to better protect us is a moot question. The TSA makes the security regulations and all too often their representatives seem to be power hungry and insensitive. If the TSA would encourage their screeners to be a little more understanding of the fact that they are there to assist and protect, as opposed to intimidate and control, we would all be much happier and willing to undergo the current levels of screening.