What Airlines Don't
Want Pilots to Say
One Was So Tired, She Slurred
Her Words: 'They Just Didn't Care'
Inside Scoop: Airline Pilots
By TERRY WARD
Pilots are cut from a similar mold. They tend to be the people in charge (and not only inside the cockpit). They’re detail oriented. And, more often than not, their outlook toward both their jobs and life in general is one of unfiltered realism. But that doesn’t mean they all have the same experiences when they take a job with the airlines.
Not all airlines are created equal. And fitting into the corporate mold today means different things to different pilots. Some swallow the pill they’re given with little protest, while others struggle not to choke on it.
We talked to three pilots from different US-based airlines -- two commercial, and one private. Speaking anonymously, they dished on life as a pilot in America today.
The Captain For A Major U.S. Airline
Our Captain flew for ten years for a major American airline before taking medical leave. She doubts she’ll return to the job.
Some people have the biological imperative to fly, which is what I had. But ten years flying for the same airline finally took its toll on me.
What I loved about my airline was the dinky places we flew. Like Trenton, NJ, and Key West. And we also flew into JFK and Atlanta, so we went everywhere. I chose commercial over cargo because I really like people. As a woman, I liked that I had a certain ability to comfort passengers who were afraid to fly.
Once, before we took off, there was a woman who wanted to get off the plane because she was afraid of turbulence. I said to her, ‘Look at me. I’m a middle-aged woman, I’m wearing sensible shoes, I’m really smart. You’re gonna be fine.’ And she said, ‘Okay.’
Sometimes, before we’d take off, I’d make some sort of innocuous joke to calm everyone down. Once I did this when there happened to be members of management on the plane, and I got called into the chief pilot’s office after the flight. They said I stood up front and talked to the passengers. That I said something funny. That I made the passengers laugh. And that it wasn’t acceptable. I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ I thought they would pat me on the back for doing something good.
There’s a saying that the only people the airlines hate more than their passengers is their employees, and I’d say it’s true. But as soon as the door would close and we were off on our own and not tethered to the company, it was great.
Sure, there were a few of what you might consider worrisome incidents over the years, but nothing really scary.
One day, I was flying toward New York, somewhere over Ohio, and every single navigational system on the plane just -- poof -- went away. I looked at the first officer, and he backed me up and said, ‘We lost primary and backup.’ We were talking to the company, talking to air traffic control, to maintenance, deciding where to go. We had to divert to another airport -- you can’t fly into JFK without navigational equipment. I always keep passengers very well informed, but I didn’t go into details that time. I just told them the basics. They were of course all upset because they wanted to go to JFK, not Cincinnati.
For my airline, we were allowed 14.5 hours on duty. Imagine. The pilot flying your plane might have been awake at least that long -- maybe longer -- when you factor in the time it takes to get ready and go to work. There’ve been times I’m landing the plane and my eyes are involuntarily crossing, I’m slurring my words, I’m so tired.
Even when I’d try to argue against the logic of it, they would send us out with 13.5 duty hours from a crowded airport like JFK. Of course we’d get stuck on the runway, delayed. Then, at the last minute, we’d have to turn around and go back to the gate for a crew change since we were past our duty time.
The passengers would be irate, but the people in scheduling and the management, they just didn’t care.
And even someone like me -- who really likes people and really wants to help them out -- well, the management grind you down so badly that you get to the point where a flight gets cancelled and all these people are in a major dilemma. And you’re just like, ‘Oh well.’
You are basically a bus driver, the profession has been degraded. Flying is incredible, it’s amazing, a very specialized skill. And it used to be flying was special. But it’s not like that anymore.
The First Officer
Two years into his job as first officer for a major U.S. airline, our second pilot says it’s a good gig.
You’ve got to think relative to a lot of other jobs, and I like my job. The hours are pretty variable. But when you look at big picture things like lifestyle, stress, pay and hours, it’s pretty hard to beat.
Sure, some routes are more annoying than others to fly. The worst is New York to South Florida -- the flight attendants tell you about all kinds of whining and complaining from the passengers. Once, a kid was out of control, and a passenger in another row asked the flight attendant to have the mom calm the kid down. But the mom wanted the flight attendant to do the job. Unbelievable.
I like flying Boston to Long Beach or Seattle. The people are super nice.
It can be a very lonely job, spending 15 nights a month away from home, and sleeping in hotels. Every time I fly, it’s almost always with someone different. Once I had a co-pilot just sit there and be silent for six hours, hands in his lap, staring at the instruments. Not a word.
Sometimes we watch movies, or do our own things, too, in the cockpit. You can get a laptop out, read a book. Some people work on a novel they’re writing. I do a lot of photography, so I sit there and fiddle with Photoshop.
The Airbus I fly, it really flies itself. The climb and descent are busy, but at cruise level there’s nothing to do. If something really goes wrong, it’ll ding and flash. Planes these days are overbuilt to handle turbulence. They never even get close to the limits of their structural design. I go to the Airbus to relax. Flying to Seattle for five hours is really like a break -- there’s no phone, no TV, it’s quiet.
Every once in a while, something funny happens in flight. On my second flight ever, we had to threaten to divert the landing because the flight attendants couldn’t get an overly-amorous couple to stop. But most of the times, things are pretty routine. I’ve flown 6000 hours and never even been in a thunderstorm.
For sure, working for the airlines isn’t as good as it used to be -- you’re getting paid less to do more, and the schedules and benefits aren’t as good as before. But it’s still a good job.
The Private Airlines Pilot
Our third pilot has been flying with the same private air taxi service for four years. He has no desire to work for the commercial airlines.
I fly our company’s turbo props and jets. It’s wonderful working for a private company. You’re not a number. At Delta or United, you’re a cog in the wheel. At my airline, you’re a person and people know your name. The guys I fly with know I don’t like mayo on my sandwiches. We very rarely do over night trips, so I’m home almost every night - that’s unheard of for a pilot. I walk through the door and my dogs actually know who I am. You work for the big airlines and you’re gone for several nights, staying in hotels. I love flying, but at the same time I want to see my friends and family.
We have a lot of high net worth individuals for clients -- a lot of executives and their families from all over. Just because the airplane lives in Boston doesn’t mean I won’t go to DC and pick some clients up there and fly them to Canada or wherever.
Of course our airplanes are smaller, and every now and then people get a little uncomfortable because of previous experiences. But at any time during the flight, a passenger can tap me on the shoulder and ask a question. Once they have more info about the flight, they’re more relaxed. One of the big things people hate is turbulence, and one of the big reasons is because they can’t see it. If I see it’s going to be bumpy from looking at the computers, I tell the passengers what’s to come. It generally calms them down. If they hear a funny noise, I can tell them that’s the landing gear or whatever.
We have a little more flexibility than the airlines, too.
At one point, we were flying from Boston to Nantucket quite regularly for a group of oceanographers doing something with beach erosion. And I overheard one gentleman saying he wanted to look at how things were progressing on the shore. I asked them how helpful it would be to their project, and said I would talk to the crew, company and air traffic control. I was able to arrange a few passes about five miles offshore to see how things were progressing. If a request like that is made in advance, we might be able to fulfill it.
My dad once told me, ‘If you’re smart, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ And I don’t feel I have.