At first glance, the title of this column might suggest that the subject matter involves airline code sharing. The phrase “metal neutral” has been a buzzword used by airline management to indicate passenger revenue obtained through fare agreements with other carriers. The concept implies that it is immaterial whose logo is painted on the aluminum. Regardless of the advantages, airline employees grit their teeth at the concept. It allows for a reduction in labor force and thus a reduction in job security.
On a trip home from London, I thought of a more positive connotation for the term. Metal neutral is an attitude shared by an exclusive club. Membership in the club is dynamic. The only requirement for membership is to participate as a crew member on a flight across the North Atlantic. How so?
When I stare at the magenta line that is created by technology capable of steering the 777 to within a foot of the course, I am still amazed. In relative terms, it wasn’t that long ago when airline navigation over the ocean was performed with a sextant and a good compass. An NDB was considered modern technology.
Not a crossing goes by when I don’t contemplate the cockpit activity of DC-3s, DC-6s, Super Connies … and even 707s. Trans-Atlantic operation was in its infancy. Airplane reliability, let alone navigational reliability, was nowhere near its current status. When crews were faced with an abnormal situation, they not only utilized their own airmanship resources but also the outside resources of pilots on other airplanes. Those outside resources still exist today, mostly in the form of a professional camaraderie. When a flight requires assistance, there are no differences in what’s painted on the side of the fuselage.
Typical metal neutral assistance comes in the form of turbulence reports. Despite advances in meteorological forecasting, the only truly reliable report for turbulence is through another pilot. Oftentimes a turbulence pirep is given without solicitation. The pirep is broadcast over the air-to-air frequency.
Regardless of the banter taking place within the cockpit, my ears immediately tune in to a chop report. Even if the report is not on my track, it may very well affect our flight. If other airplanes ahead of us begin to have the same experience, the alarm bells are already ringing. Without question, I will call our flight attendants and give them an approximate time range when the bad ride may begin. On a handful of occasions, I have seated the flight attendants in anticipation. Although the turbulence wasn’t as serious as advertised, I was grateful to my colleagues. One injured flight attendant or one injured passenger is one person too many.
Although not an everyday occurrence, the inability to contact the appropriate oceanic agency via the HF radio does happen, usually as a result of reception issues. Another flight with adequate HF reception will copy the required position report and relay the data.
On a tongue-in-cheek note, when an open request for a relay is made, the airwaves sometimes remain void of a response. North Atlantic veterans, especially veterans with automatic reporting capability on their airplanes, are a little hesitant to deal with the marginal clarity of an HF frequency on behalf of another flight. That being said, a sympathetic someone will eventually answer the call for relay assistance.