AeroSavvy reader Steve M. asks:
“How weird does it feel to be in the back with someone else doing the driving?”
That’s a great question and I hear it a lot!
Why do pilots ride in the back?
Hey! Aren’t pilots supposed to be driving? Find out why pilots are riding in coach and how they feel about someone else sitting at the controls…
Most of my flights as a passenger are part of my scheduled (and paid) company duty. These flights are called positioning (or deadhead) flights and are necessary to get me to the same city as my airplane. As a cargo pilot, some of my positioning flights are on a flight deck jumpseat of a company freighter. Often, I position on passenger carriers with a full-fare ticket. Flights within the U.S. are in coach. International flights are business class.
One of the perks of being a pilot, flight attendant, or maintenance technician is the ability to live someplace other than your base. Employees that live away from base commute to work on their own time using flight deck jumpseat or travel privileges. Reciprocal jumpseat privileges allow flight crews to utilize jumpseats on other carriers.
What is a jumpseat?
The term “jumpseat” refers to a small, uncomfortable observer seat in the cockpit. FAA and company check pilots use them to observe flight crews. When the seats are not being used, the captain may permit a transport pilot with proper credentials to ride in the jumpseat.
As a courtesy, passenger carriers typically give “jumpseating” pilots an empty seat in the back after all passengers have been boarded. Seats in first class and coach are more comfortable than cockpit jumpseats. Having jumpseaters sit with passengers also gives the operating crew a little more room to work.
It might be a surprise that competing carriers, like UPS and FedEx have reciprocal jumpseat agreements. UPS pilots often welcome FedEx pilots on board and vice-versa. On the flight deck, we are colleagues, not competitors.
Being a Passenger in Uniform
If you have flown on an airliner, you’ve probably seen a uniformed pilot or flight attendant riding in the cabin. Most positioning crew members prefer to wear street clothes in the cabin to remain incognito. So, why fly in uniform?
- Crew members jumpseating or flying on pass privileges are often required to dress business casual or in uniform. Wearing the uniform saves space in the suitcase and eliminates the need to pack business attire for positioning/commuting. Lightweight luggage is happy luggage.
- Crews will often grab a flight home immediately after arriving at their last destination. As soon as the “Shutdown & Secure” checklist is complete, they run two gates over and hop on the flight home.
- The gate is a very busy place during passenger boarding. Being in uniform while waiting for a jumpseat helps the agents remember who you are and why you are standing patiently near the gate.
- Once on board the aircraft, being in uniform makes it easier to introduce yourself to the captain to formally ask permission for the ride.
Yes, we’ve heard that one before…
Being a pilot/passenger in uniform virtually guarantees at least one clever passenger will ask:
- “Shouldn’t you be up front?” (No, we pilot from coach now)
- “How do you fly from back here?” (Remotely, with an iPad)
Pilots hear these questions weekly. Try to avoid asking them.
Most of the time, I wear slacks and a polo in the back. It’s nice to be a regular person on an airplane. On those occasions when I’m in uniform, I don’t mind chatting about my job. I meet a lot of interesting folks and I really enjoy answering questions. I get a lot of ideas for AeroSavvy this way.
Not all pilots are as enthusiastic about sharing as I am. If the crew member sitting next to you has his/her head buried in a book, or is pretending to sleep, it’s probably best to nod hello and check out the in-flight magazine.
Do I enjoy flying as a passenger?
The short answer: YES!
I get a kick out of grabbing a window seat, keeping the shade open, and squishing my nose against the window.
My first airplane ride was in 1972, at age 7. My family flew a United Airlines 727 from Philadelphia to Fort Wayne, Indiana with a stop in Chicago – and it was pure magic. Sitting just aft the wing, I remember watching those amazing triple-slotted Fowler flaps extending for landing. I was pretty sure the wing was going to fall apart. I was hooked.
As long as I have a window seat, I’m happy; even on a low-cost carrier <gasp>. For some reason, flying is still magical for me as a passenger. It goes without saying that flying international business class is way more magical. 🙂
Do other professional pilots share my enthusiasm for flying as a passenger? Some do. More on that later.
Do I feel safe flying as a passenger?
I know how much effort I put into a day’s work. And I know what I had to do to get to this point in my career. What about the people flying while I’m a passenger? Am I comfortable with their skills? Do I need to give the armrests a white-knuckle-death-grip if we’re flying around thunderstorms?
ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) member countries all have similar pilot training standards. Transport pilots flying both passengers and cargo undergo rigorous initial training in the classroom, then plenty of hands-on training in cockpit procedure trainers and full-motion simulators.
At least once a year (sometimes every 6-9 months), pilots attend recurrent training to brush up on standard and emergency procedures. Simulator sessions are crammed full of “abnormals” like fires, engine failures, rejected takeoffs, wind shear, hydraulic system failures, and worse.
When I’m a passenger, I know the pilots flying my aircraft have been thoroughly trained and tested before coming to work. I’m quite comfortable sitting in the back sipping Ginger Ale and thumbing through an old SkyMall.
Piloting a transport aircraft is hard work. Flying in and out of busy airports in ugly weather demands full attention and can be stressful. Once in a while, It’s nice to be a passenger and leave the driving to someone else.
Do other pilots feel the same as I do?
I took a very unscientific survey of several pilots I follow on Twitter. The crew members were asked if they enjoy flying as a passenger and if they feel safe as a passenger. I received some interesting results from the 26 participants.
My survey group consisted of professional pilots that fly for corporate, regional, and international airlines – both passenger and cargo. These folks fly everything from a Gulfstream IV to the Airbus A380. In typical pilot fashion, they didn’t hold back with their comments!
Of the 26 responses I received, a few were wonderfully vague. I grouped answers into three categories – Yes, No, Depends.
|Do you enjoy being a passenger?||17||7||2|
|Do you feel safe being a passenger?||20||0||5|
I was glad to see that the majority of the pros in my survey feel safe letting their colleagues do the driving. The main concern for those in the “Depends” category were smaller carriers in less developed countries.
“Feel Safe” Comments
Even though most pilots feel perfectly safe as a passenger, we tend to pay close attention to what’s going on. It’s tough for us to stop being pilots, even when sitting in the back. Here are a few of the “feel safe” comments:
“I couldn’t care less who’s at the wheel. Everyone is trained to a high standard.”
“I subconsciously keep track of every flap selection, brake application, control surface movement!”
“…never have any issues with others making decisions as they are professionals too!”
“Hard to stop thinking like a captain while in the back”
“I still look for proper configuration prior to departure and things of that nature, but in general, I do enjoy letting someone else do the driving.”
“Enjoy Being a Passenger” Comments
Oh, the joys of being a passenger! I really do enjoy being a passenger, but I can sympathize with those that are less excited:
“Do I enjoy flying as a passenger? Not in coach! It’s truly awful, as is the whole airport terminal experience. Biz class or better, it’s OK.”
“I enjoy flying as a passenger once finally on board, after all the faffing through the airport and boarding, etc – as people attempt to put the kitchen sink they brought with them into the overhead locker.”
“I am like a little kid when I get on a MD-80, 757 or widebody!”
“Packed in, in coach, with painful slimline seats, poor ventilation, and often sitting next to someone who is coughing/sneezing is absolutely miserable.”
“I generally love being a passenger, especially on different types as it’s exciting hearing new noises and working out what’s going on.”
“Need a couple of stiff drinks deadheading”
“I can’t say I enjoy being a passenger but only because other than sleep there’s nothing to do. Plus the view isn’t all that great, LOL.”
“I enjoy flying as a passenger but hate the airport experience.”
Pilots are a tough crowd. We work in the airport and airplane environment day after day. We see the airline industry at its best, and its worst. It isn’t surprising that, as a group, we are among the harshest critics of passenger air travel.
If you’re an occasional passenger, or planning your first airplane ride, air travel is very safe and (more or less) comfortable. Like most adventures, it’s as enjoyable as you make it. And a lot faster than taking a Greyhound Bus!
More Reading About Being a Passenger
- Take a ride in Singapore Airlines Business Class
- Survive an Aircraft Evacuation
- Your Oxygen Mask vs My Oxygen Mask
Interesting insights! I just assumed that almost all airline pilots would have long ago lost their child-like enthusiasm for sitting in the back. It’s actually kind of refreshing to hear that even a handful of them enjoy it, even when they’re seated in coach on what is, by definition these days, a packed aircraft.
All my company airlining (not that we do very much of it) is in coach. Boy can that be painful. I recall a flight from Los Angeles to Stockholm smack dab in the middle coach seat of the five-across middle grouping on a 747. The only salve was the realization that, unlike most people around me, I wasn’t personally paying for the privilege. 🙂
At my last company they bumped us to business class for international travel, and I frequently sat near jumpseating pilots from UPS and FedEx. I never heard anyone say a cross word about traveling that way. My favorite configuration was the the one America West had, where the business class pods were angled toward the window, so your seat was directly next to both the window AND the aisle.
There are a few of us out there that haven’t gone full-cynical about passenger travel. I think it’s sad that many of my colleagues have forgotten why we got into aviation in the first place.
I really do enjoy hopping on Southwest and making my twice monthly flight to Chicago or Newark. That being said, I’m VERY careful to check-in early to make sure I can grab a window or aisle seat.
Not a fan of the middle seat, either!
Maybe in an emergency you can be a helping hand too right?
That’s always a possibility. In most emergencies, the crew can handle the problem. If a crew member were incapacitated, a jumpseating pilot could certainly help.
As always I find your observations and willingness to impart knowledge to those of us “in the back” a breath of fresh air. God keep you safe as you slip your earthly bonds. Keep the posts coming. I always enjoy them and look forward to reading the next one.
By the way, I enjoyed watching the interview you did while on a layover in Japan a few weeks back.
Usually fly from EWR
Thank you so much for the kind words. I’ll do my best to keep writing!
Just Found This Site And Love it. Thanks for the cool inside info.
Thanks for reading!