With the Christmas and Holiday season upon us, many of us will be flying to visit family and friends. If you are going to be flying, there is a good chance at least one of your flights will be an “Express” or “Connection” flight on a regional aircraft flown by a regional airline partner of your major airline of choice and you may be told to “gate-check” your larger carry on bags because they will not fit in the overhead bins. There are times where these flights are weight restricted to ensure that any aircraft limitations are not exceeded or these flights encounter an issue of being overweight.  Have you ever been on one of these flights and seen the crew members bringing your gate-check bags into the cabin and told it was to help the “weight and balance” of the aircraft and thought “What’s the point of bringing the bags into the cabin” or “How does this help with weight? A bag is a bag.” It’s because of what I jokingly refer to as FAA magic.  Allow me to explain. 

     When we say “weight and balance” we are actually referring to two separate but related things, the weight of the aircraft and the balance of the aircraft or location of the center of gravity (CG) of the airplane. If either one or both of these is outside the certified limits or performance limits of the aircraft, we can’t fly. If the CG is out of limits, it’s an easy fix of moving weight around or adding ballast to get the CG within limits. This is why you may see the crew members asking some passengers to move to a different part of the aircraft. Weight issues are typically caused by the aircraft exceeding one or more of a few different weight limitations, the specifics of which are beyond the purpose of this post because overweight is overweight.

     At this point you may be wondering how we know how much each passenger or bag weighs and the truth is, which may be surprising to some is, we don’t. We use an average passenger weight and an average bag weight in our computations. The passenger weights we use account for the passenger, their carry-on bag, and their personal item. For my airline those weights are 190 pounds per passenger during May through October and 195 pounds per passenger November through April (the extra five pounds accounts for the heavier clothing and jackets work during the colder months) and 30 pounds per bag and 60 pounds per bag for larger or heavy bags. 

     When we do get into an overweight situation there are a few ways to remove the extra weight. Removing passengers and/or bags is an obvious, though not a customer friendly, solution especially if we have to remove passengers. One thing that can help with the extra weight is if we have any kids (13 or younger in their own seat) onboard because we can remove 100 pounds off the total weight per kid. You may also hear the crew or gate agents refer to a half-weight and they are simply referring to kids on board. Another option we have, and the reason for this post, is bringing gate-check bag into the cabin to eliminate weight and is where the FAA Magic comes into play. Those average passengers weights mentioned earlier are based on the presumption that your carry-on bag and personal item are either in the overhead bin above you and/or underneath the seat in front of you. When those bags are gate-checked and put into a baggage compartment, those bags are no longer near where you are seated, they add another 30 pounds per bag that we have to account for in our weight and balance calculations. In essence these bags are being counted twice, once in the passenger weight and once in the baggage compartment. By bringing them into the cabin, the weight of that bag poofs and disappears (that’s the FAA Magic) and removes 30 pounds per bag from our total weight. The way I explain it to my passengers is that it’s FAA Magic, that if the bag goes in the baggage compartment it weighs 30 pounds but if it’s in the cabin it weighs nothing. Explaining it this way not only gives the passenger an understanding of why we’re doing it but also typically gives them a little laugh or at least a smile. 

     With the busiest travel season of the year, at least in the US, just starting I thought this was an appropriate time for this post. All aircraft can run into weight and balance issues regardless of size, though they’re most common on smaller aircraft. Unfortunately there are times when, even when bringing bags into the cabin and accounting for kids, that we are still overweight and have to remove passengers. If this happens on a flight that you’re on, be assured that the crew has done everything they can to accommodate as many passengers as possible, and that your patience and understanding in the matter TRULY is appreciated. Hopefully this post will help with that understanding part.  

Safe flying!!!

Flying with Fountain Pens

     We’ve all heard the horror stories of exploding or leaking fountain pens in flight due to pressure changes from higher pressures on the ground, and therefore in the pen itself, to the cruising altitude where cabin pressure is lower. Knowing that pressure travels from high to low, it’s easy to see why this can and does happen. Well I flew recently (not uncommon for me being a pilot but that’s besides the point) with a fountain pen and used it the entire flight, gate to gate, with no issues whatsoever. 

     Now for a (hopefully) simple, short, easy-to-understand explanation of why I think I had no issues using my pen the whole flight. The way a pressurization system on a plane works is (I’m going to really simplify it) is that bleed air (excess air) from the engines is pumped into the cabin to pressurize it, very similarly to blowing up a balloon. There is an outflow valve that regulates the pressure of the cabin by letting some of that air escape at a certain rate, similarly to letting some air out a ballon. This outflow valve is important because it allows some air to escape to prevent over pressurizing the cabin of the airplane. You may be thinking, “Why is this important?” or “Why should I care?” It’s important because it’s about regulating pressure, which is why I think I had no issues on my flight. 

     By using the pen the whole time, the pressure inside the pen never really had a chance to build up because by writing with it, you’re giving that pressure a chance to escape, keeping the pressure differential between the two (plane and pen) relative to what it was on the ground.  It’s the same reason why if you open a bottle of water on the ground before taking off and don’t open it again until reaching cruising altitude the bottle has expanded some (higher pressure inside the bottle from being on the ground trapped inside trying to escape to the lower pressure in the cabin at cruising altitude). However, if you open that bottle at regular intervals during the climb, you are allowing the pressure inside to escape, therefore keeping the pressure differential the same relative to what it was on the ground, and at cruising altitude the bottle is the same size and shape it was on the ground. Same is true for the descent, where if the bottle is left untouched after being opened at cruise, the bottle will be crushed in on the ground (higher pressure from being on the ground trying to get to the lower pressure inside the bottle from it being at cruise altitude). If opened at regular intervals during the descent, the bottle will have the same shape on the ground as it did at cruise, again because opening the bottle allows the pressure differential between it and the plane to remain the same.  Okay, maybe it wasn’t that short but hopefully it’s simple and easy enough to understand. 

     Short story, by constantly allowing the pressure inside the pen to stay relative to the cabin pressure, the pen should perform with no issues (in theory) as mine did on that flight.