15 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Airline Pilots

Often described as having the best “view from the office” in the world, airline pilots are tasked with shuttling hundreds of passengers to and from domestic and international destinations. The responsibility is considerable, and so are the requirements: Commercial airlines typically demand thousands of hours of flight time and dues-paying in cargo and regional jobs before they’ll even grant an interview. And even then, the odds of making it to the prized “left chair”—the captain’s seat—are a long shot.

To find out what makes these top-class aviators tick, we asked three pilots for major commercial carriers about life in the skies. (Owing to their media-averse industry, none wanted to identify their employer; one prefers to be known only by his first name.)

1. THEY CAN FLY FOR FREE—THEY JUST DON’T WANT TO. Cockpit Confidential: ... Smith, Patrick Best Price: $1.25 Buy New $14.71 (as of 03:05 EST - Details)

Pilots don’t really get better employee perks than anyone else who works for the airline. While they can fly for free, they have to wait for a standby (available) seat to be open on a flight, and most pilots planning a vacation or structured itinerary don’t want to be at the mercy of that variable. “It’s too unpredictable,” says Patrick Smith, a first officer (co-pilot) and author of Cockpit Confidential. “If a baggage handler has more seniority than me, he’ll be ahead on the standby list.”

2. THERE’S NO READING IN THE COCKPIT.

Eric Auxier, a captain with more than two decades of experience for a major carrier, says that most name-brand airlines prohibit taking anything into the cockpit that could serve as a distraction: no magazines, no paperbacks, no music, and no knitting. “We talk amongst ourselves,” he says. “That’s all we’re legally allowed to do.”

3. THERE’S NO NAPPING, EITHER. TECHNICALLY.

”But I can’t say it never happens,” says Tim, a pilot at a major airline. “At present, the regulations do not officially allow it, but sleep studies have proven that short catnaps, especially when flying in the wee hours, are actually beneficial to wakefulness. Unfortunately, the FAA hasn’t put anything in writing that allows this.” To avoid exhausted pilots, the FAA has instead issued a guide, FAR-117, that mandates minimum rest periods (like a full eight hours of sleep) and maximum working times for pilots—usually no more than 30 hours per week, according to Auxier.

4. THEY’LL LET YOU LOOK AROUND IN THE COCKPIT.

Before the plane doors are shut, Smith says many pilots are happy to offer nervous fliers and kids a peek inside the cockpit. “People are more than welcome to come up and say hello before pushing off,” he says. “90 percent of pilots love it when people do that.”

5. THERE’S A SPARE SEAT IN THE COCKPIT.

The cockpit has what’s known as a “jump seat,” a retractable third chair that allows for FAA inspectors or trainees to tag along on flights. “If it’s not in use, it can be used by a qualified pilot,” Auxier says. Another professional perk? Sort of: In most cases—especially on long flights—a pilot would rather sit in coach. The chair is pretty uncomfortable.

6. THEY WISH YOU WOULDN’T ASK THEM TO “PULL OVER.”

Though pilots don’t usually have direct interaction with passengers, Smith prefers travelers who don’t perceive them as bus drivers. “Asking if we can land so they can get off, it doesn’t work that way,” he says. “One woman who left her medication in her checked luggage wanted someone to ‘go downstairs’ to get it.” Unfortunately for her.

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