INTERVIEW: All Systems No-Go

By Reuvain Borchardt

Captain Shem Malmquist

Captain Shem Malmquist discusses recent high-profile problems in the commercial airline industry, and life as an airline pilot.

Malmquist flies international routes on Boeing 777 jets, and is a visiting professor at Florida Tech College of Aeronautics.

The FAA grounded all flights in the United States for several hours on January 11, due to what it said was “a damaged database file” in the system that alerts pilots to potential hazards. Was this the first full grounding of flights since 9/11? What happened here?

Yes, this was the first full nationwide grounding since 9/11 that I know about. The grounding occurred due to problems with the NOTAM (Notice to Air Missions) system.

NOTAMs are the source of information that pilots, air-traffic controllers, and all users of the airspace system use so they can find out information about issues like inoperative navigation aids, closed runways, closed taxiways, airport lighting, aircraft approach system lighting, runway lighting, cranes that might be near an airport, or anything unusual that’s going on. For example, at smaller airports, they would include things such as a parachute jump going on, or anything that’s not typical. Other examples include things such as an airport that is closed due to Air Force One being there or certain airspace that is closed for a rocket launch. The NOTAM system is used to share any type of hazard that is not weather-related.

The NOTAM system has been in place since the 1940s. Back then, the airports would get the information and send a teletype message; when the pilots would call up and get a briefing for their flight, they would find out weather information and it would also include NOTAMs.

There was a huge volume of information, a lot of shorthand and abbreviations, so you had to learn how to read them. They still use the abbreviations, but now with computer processing, they can easily decode it. With computers, it is possible to place the critical components that are the most safety-pertinent in a higher position, and also parse the information by particular runways, instead of just listing them in a somewhat random order. This makes it a lot easier to parse information and not miss things. Simplifying it with computers is a good idea.

Think of it as analogous to the job of a reporter today. I imagine you use a digital recorder for interviews, instead of using handwritten notes on a notepad. But of course, there is always a risk, because computers, as amazing as they are in many respects, also come with some real drawbacks.

Computers and software can have problems. So when that happens, what do you do about it? Revert to the old pen and paper pad in the case of a reporter? Delay publishing a story until it can get sorted out if you have lost access to your database? This is the best way to manage computer problems. In this case, the FAA did what makes sense: you put yourself into your best failsafe position that you can. They had no way to disseminate the NOTAM information, and pilots had no way of knowing, for example, that the runway they’re going to is not closed. The local airports have that information, but they had no way of transmitting it to the pilots.

So the FAA had to shut down all flights.

Planes sit on the tarmac at LaGuardia Airport in New York, Jan. 11, after the FAA grounded all flights. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

In another recent air-travel incident, Southwest Airlines canceled lots of flights during the holiday travel period. What happened there?

Essentially their computer system was not able to manage the number of cases they had, and they ended up with the computer shutting down and trying to rely on a system that hadn’t been updated for many years. They tried to revert back to simpler ways, but it was overwhelming. The airline is just too big for them to be able to do that. They had grown too much in recent years.

And similar to the Jan. 11 incident, Southwest basically shut down the system and rebooted it, just like you would do with your cellphone or computer: when they don’t work, we all know that the best thing to do is close every program and do a hard reboot. Most of the time that fixes most problems.

The Southwest cancellations occurred during a stretch of bad weather. Was the problem entirely computer-related, or was it affected by the weather?

The weather exacerbated it. They have a computer issue, and then the weather comes through and, coupled with an unusually high volume of people traveling on the airline, I think it just overwhelmed the system.

Southwest doesn’t use the hub system like other airlines do, and there were reports that that contributed to this mess. Is that true?

I don’t know for sure, but it would not surprise me.

They do use some hubs, but not to the extent other airlines do, and that does increase the complexity of the system. In a hub system, if the flight has a problem, you have another airplane and crew there. But Southwest uses a point-to-point system; so if you have a crew loss at some airport where you don’t have any kind of backup, that causes cancellations.

By not using hubs, Southwest has the advantage of having more direct flights rather than stopping everyone over at the hub.

Exactly. And as long as they’re able to fill their airplane, that’s certainly more efficient for everybody. It’s one of the competitive things that they do.

Canceled Southwest Airlines flights are displayed in red at the Los Angeles International Airport, Dec. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Why do most airlines use the hub system?

The hub allows you to utilize your airplanes much more economically; you can service a lot more points with fewer airplanes and fewer people. This is good when you are not able to completely fill your airplane up on a particular route, or city pair, as you can feed passengers in from a number of different locations. For example, if you want to serve two smaller cities, it just does not make sense to fly directly between them, as you could never fill up the airplane. But if you can feed that flight from a number of cities, now you can make that work.

The hubs originated with delivery companies like UPS: They were driving all their trucks into one point and then transferring packages to other places, so each truck could serve many more places than if you’re trying to go point-to-point between all those different cities.

People who travel say it feels like these days there are more cancellations and flying is more frustrating. Is this true?

I think it certainly has been true since the pandemic ended, when flight demand increased.

Is it because the airlines laid off staff during the pandemic, and now that more people are flying they don’t have sufficient staff?

That’s part of it.

There was a general shortage of pilots and maintenance mechanics before the pandemic. During the pandemic, the airlines cut back, but travel rebounded way faster than anybody expected, so now they are caught short.

When it comes to life’s necessary evils, some people put commercial air travel second only to going to the dentist. What do you think is the source of this problem? And what do you think airlines have to do to overcome it, and make flying pleasurable?

It’s a good question. But is it the goal of the airlines to make flying pleasurable — or profitable? Clearly, an airline is in business to make money for the shareholders; the comfort of the passengers is only important to the extent that it creates a competitive advantage. Change would come about by people choosing to pay a little bit more money, so they can have a little bit more comfort on the airplane.

Unclaimed bags at Southwest Airlines baggage claim at Salt Lake City International Airport, Dec. 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Yeah, most people travel economy class, and either can’t afford to or don’t want to pay more for business or first class, or for economy seats with extra legroom. I guess this goes to your point that travelers’ buying patterns show that while they complain about uncomfortable conditions, when it comes to the choice of paying more to travel in more comfort or paying less to travel in less comfort, most choose the latter.

That’s exactly right. The airlines are going to meet whatever the demand is. If people are demanding a certain product, that’s what they’re going to give them.

Of course, some people do pay more for better service. Certain carriers are known to give better service, and the people that choose them are generally going on those carriers for that reason, and they are able to have enough people to support that.

If the customers want changes, you can guarantee that the airlines are going to change. They’re going to respond to the market.

If someone is taking a flight and they really need to get to their destination on time, and they absolutely cannot afford to have their flight canceled or get bumped or have a serious delay, do you have any tips for the sorts of flights that are best to book?

If you need to get to where you want to go, the first thing you should be watching is the weather. See if the airplane is connecting through a city that’s more likely to have a storm — especially if that airport is not equipped to handle a storm. For example, Minneapolis and Toronto deal frequently with snowstorms — and they have it down to an art. But if an unusual storm is going to bring snow to a southern hub that’s not used to seeing snow, they’re going to have trouble.

In general, early flights are going to have a better chance: The airplane is already there, the crew is already there, they’re already rested, so you’re not waiting for the airplane to come in from another city. They’re the best chance not to get bumped because passengers oversleep. And by starting early in the day, you have a better chance of getting to your destination because any connecting flights are still going to have time to get there, and you’re not going to be stuck on the last flight of the day. The weather is usually better in the morning; there are fewer thunderstorms in the morning. The combination of factors probably puts you in a better place if you book an early flight.

Every kid has at some point imagined themselves flying an airplane. What’s life like as an international pilot? Is it as glamorous as it seems?

I guess it’s mixed. On the one hand, you get to see all the world’s major cities, and be around and interact with all different cultures, which is interesting, and I really love it.

But at the same time, the hard part is being away from my wife and kids. You can’t escape that. It’s a really, really different lifestyle; it’s hard to compare it to anything else. You’re not working every day. You’re working in groups of days; you have a lot more days off completely free at home. On the other hand, if you were to count all the hours away from home as work hours, you’re actually working more than most people do. Even though you’re not flying that many hours, you’re actually away from home a lot more hours.

I think most people who fly, including the cabin crew, get addicted to it. You’re in a different place all the time, different cities; you can enjoy and see things that most people only dream about. Things that most people would find amazing seem very normal to you. Crossing the Pacific three times in a month becomes routine; not very many years ago that would have been a once-in-a-lifetime trip, if that.

You probably started flying years ago when you were single, before you were a family man.

Yes, exactly.

It’s very different, and only one of my kids is interested in being a pilot. People should follow the path that makes them happy.

What’s the work schedule like for a veteran, international pilot like yourself?

Generally, with flying internationally, we are away more days; most pilots will be working about half of the month — unless, of course, they are on vacation. As you get more senior, you can control your schedule and can get down to as few as eight days a month, but that would require being with the airline for a long time.

How many days at a time are pilots away from home?

There’s a wide variation depending on the airline and route system. On airlines that are just going straight out to a city and coming back, generally, you’re not gone more than three or four days at a time. But carriers that have extensive route systems in other parts of the world, you could have a schedule where the pilot flies out to Asia, flies around for a week or so and then comes back — so the pilot only leaves home once a month, but is gone for 10 days, then is home for the rest of the month.

Captain Shem Malmquist is an elected Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

What’s your favorite place to visit?

That’s almost like asking which of my children is my favorite — each one is great in their own unique way.

I always enjoyed Paris and London, and a few cities in Germany. I like Italy quite a bit, because of the food and culture. In the Far East, I like Singapore. Before the pandemic and everything went crazy, Hong Kong and Tokyo were a lot of fun, and some other places, too. In that part of the world, it’s really not as good as it used to be prior to the pandemic.

The changes over the last 30 years in mainland China were just astounding to watch. That was very interesting, but I likely would not go back for any holidays. It’s not that amazing for me anymore; perhaps I’ve been there too many times.

You’re probably sometimes lying out on the beach somewhere, then do a flight and get off the plane in some other city where it’s snowing.

That’s a real thing. I’ve done trips from Sydney through Asia, ending up in Anchorage. I normally look at the weather ahead of the trip to get an idea of what to expect. But I was talking to another pilot, who told me that one summer he flew to Johannesburg — well, it was winter there! Johannesburg is not only very far south, but it’s also a very high elevation; it really can be dramatic if you fly there from Dubai, where it’s over 100 degrees, then you get off the plane in Johannesburg and it’s 15 degrees.

What happens on 16-hour flights to Asia? Do you sleep?

On a flight that’s that long, we would have four pilots. Two of us sleep at a time, and we divide it up into four sleep periods of four hours each; one group takes the first and third, the other groups takes the second and fourth. So you’re spending a lot of time sleeping. There’s also a lot of what we call “housekeeping en route,” like keeping track of the fuel, keeping updated on what kind of emergency alternates and choices there are.

Do you have beds on the plane?

On flights over 12 hours, they’re required to have a crew bunk. Sometimes it’s below the main cabin, sometimes it’s right behind the flight deck, sometimes it’s above. It depends on the type of airplane and the specifications that the customer asked for. The manufacturers give the airlines a lot of flexibility in making those choices.

Before I let you go, I gotta ask about your name. I presume you’re Swedish — but I don’t know anyone with your first name.

My last name is Swedish; my father’s father was Swedish. My father’s mother is Russian Jewish. My mother’s family were Polish and Russian Jews. I grew up in Southern California. As for my first name, you probably recognize it — I am named after Noah’s eldest son. My mother liked the name!

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