10 Secrets About Flying From Airline Pilots
From crew shifts to autopilot, even regular travelers might not know these facts.
Even though some minor aspects have changed over the years, the act of boarding a plane and taking off has become a fairly routine operation. Of course, seasoned travelers will be more aware of certain travel tricks, such as what not to pack and how to avoid picking the wrong seat. But for some of the most interesting tidbits of knowledge about the air travel experience that few people know about, you have to speak to the people actually flying the whole operation. Read on to learn some of the secrets about flying from the airline pilots themselves.
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Your plane may need repairs when it takes off.
Planes are incredible feats of modern engineering no matter how you look at them, from the aircraft design that allows them to take flight, the engines that keep them there, and all the instruments that help in between. At the same time, strict regulations have ensured that getting on board a flight remains a remarkably safe decision. However, even though maintenance crews will never sign off on a plane that isn't in good enough shape to take off, there still could be some lingering issues with your airliner during your trip.
"You would think that everything on a plane has to be working properly to conduct a safe flight, but that's not the case. Pilots can fly planes with nonfunctioning systems, which are listed in a document called the Minimum Equipment List (MEL)," Duke Armitage, an airline pilot with 15 years of experience and founder of Aviamonde, tells Best Life. "A simple example would be that landing lights may be inoperative during day operations. In most cases, this provision is only valid for a few days within which repair has to be carried out."
Autopilot isn't doing as much during the flight as you think it is.
Modern technology has taken the miracle of flight and made it even more impressive with onboard computer systems that help navigate routes, evade serious weather issues, and get back on the ground safely. But as advanced as autopilot has become on planes, there's still plenty of work for the humans behind the controls.
"Most of the traveling public assumes planes more or less fly themselves and pilots are really only there as a backup, and that's completely absurd. People have a vastly exaggerated sense of what cockpit automation does and how pilots interact with it," Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and host of AskThePilot.com, tells Best Life.
"There are portions of a flight where workloads are very low, but there are also times where it's very high. Both pilots can still become task saturated even with the automation on. But no matter what, the pilots are still flying the airplane: The autopilot only does what you tell it to and how you tell it to do it," he explains.
Smith says that just as technology onboard planes has changed, so has the way pilots use it. "Flying is still hands-on, just not like it was in the 1930s. You may not have your hands physically on the steering stick, but you're still controlling and flying the plane in other ways, using instruments and controls a passenger wouldn't notice," he says.
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There are probably more pilots on your flight than you realize.
No matter where you're headed, it's a well-known fact that there will always be at least two crew members in the cockpit when you take off. But on certain flights, you'll also see some extra crew members making their way onboard.
"On long flights, we fly with augmented crews. Instead of the required two pilots, we bring three or four and work in shifts," says Smith, who is also the author of Cockpit Confidential.
How many spare crew members come aboard depends on each airline's specific policy and the flight duration. Smith says in the case of his carrier, any trip that's eight hours or more has three pilots, while long-hauls that are 12 hours or more will have four pilots that work in rotations. "But there's always at least two pilots in the cockpit at one time," he clarifies.
Pilots often sleep during their flights—but not where you might think.
Very few jobs require the level of alertness a pilot must have during a flight. Coincidentally, there are also few jobs that regularly require a crew to work upwards of eight hours at a time at all hours of the day. Thankfully, the spare pilots that airlines schedule to have on board allow them to work shifts—and even get some shut-eye. But it's not in the cockpit where they're dosing off.
"Some planes have crew rest facilities squirreled away above or below deck, which is usually a room with two or more bunks. They can actually be quite spacious!" says Smith. "It could also just be a cordoned-off first or business class seat separated by a curtain. And there are separate rest facilities for flight attendants."
In fact, so few people know about pilot sleeping schedules that it can lead to some amusing situations—at least from the crew's point of view.
"It's funny because sometimes passengers will see a pilot come out of the cockpit and go to sleep! What they're not seeing is the crew rotation taking place," Smith explains, who adds that he's woken up on flights to fellow flyers anxiously watching him rest. "Some pilots will even announce this to make sure passengers are at ease."
Pilots aren't officially required to follow one mealtime safety recommendation.
Even as passengers, there's a long list of items you probably wouldn't want to eat before or during a flight. This is especially true if it's your job to fly the plane in question. But contrary to the urban legend that each cockpit crew member must divvy up their meal choices to avoid food poisoning, it's far from a fast and hard rule.
"Most airlines say it is recommended—not required—that pilots eat different crew meals, if available. In practice, that's not really adhered to," an anonymous pilot for a major U.S. airline tells Best Life.
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Alcohol affects your body differently at cruising altitude.
While it may seem like the perfect time to kick back and unwind, overindulgence in boozy beverages on airplanes has become an industry-wide issue. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many airlines instituted a temporary ban on liquor sales in response to the increasing incidents. And while it's still your duty to be responsible anytime and anywhere you pick up an alcoholic beverage, soaring through the sky certainly changes the way it affects you.
"Most aircraft are pressurized to 8,000 feet," Captain Laura Einsetler, a pilot for a major U.S. airline and author of CaptainLaura.com, tells Best Life. "The air pressure is thinner, so everything you take and drink becomes a bit 'more effective' than normal since our blood is a bit thinner, too."
If you're unwilling to abstain during your flight, Einsetler recommends at least cutting your typical consumption in half while in the air to account for the difference.
The real difference between a pilot and a copilot is likely not what you think it is.
As a longtime veteran of the airline industry, Smith says he's accustomed to movies getting many aspects of the cockpit and crew experience wrong. But he says one bit of misinformation that bothers him the most is the notion that the pilot's literal right-hand man on the plane is often depicted as "this subservient apprentice pilot," which he says couldn't be further from reality.
"Yes, there's a captain and first officer, and sometimes they're known colloquially as a copilot. But this doesn't mean they know anything less or are training," Smith explains. "Because of the vagueries of the airline superiority system, it's not unusual for the copilot to be older and more experienced than the captain. Upgrades to captain aren't based on merit. They're based on seniority standing and whether or not you want to—and many pilots prefer the life of a copilot."
Smith himself says he's one of the many who have chosen to stay in the copilot's chair for what he sees as an excellent reason. "I have total control of my schedule right now: I can choose when and where I go on my routes and construct my own monthly schedule. I appreciate that quality of life and wouldn't want to sacrifice it by switching seats," he tells Best Life.
Airlines aren't trying to deceive you, no matter how their message comes across.
There's arguably nothing worse than being caught in the middle of a scheduling nightmare at the airport. But while it may be easy to shift the blame to the powers that be at the airline, pilots argue that companies are only ever trying to be honest with their customers.
"I would say about 90 percent of people don't believe what they hear over the intercom when something gets canceled or delayed, or they believe it's a grand deception," Smith says. "Airlines are very compartmentalized. You have all these different departments that have their own vernacular and priorities, and when information gets passed from one to another, the messages get garbled."
Instead, internal miscommunication can make a relatively simple bit of news sound far-fetched. "A lot of times what you hear over the P.A. at the gate is a bit of 'broken phone' messaging—basically, a simplified or scrambled version of what's actually happening. Sometimes it's exactly correct, but during a delay, there's a lot of moving parts—air traffic control, maintenance, crews, and more—that change, too," he tells Best Life. "It could be a little of each of those, and that's why explanations don't seem to make sense."
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Accidentally leaving your phone on almost certainly won't cause your plane to crash.
For decades, it's been against the rules to make a call from your mobile phone during a flight. And while it's still a good idea to keep your device in airplane mode, it's probably not for the reason you think it is.
"The whole cell phone thing is kind of an old topic because I think most people have figured out it's not a thing. That used to be the most common question people asked me," Smith points out. "Of course, it can't crash a plane, but there's anecdotal evidence it can interfere."
However, he believes there's another reason you're still not allowed to dial in the sky. "I think a lot of it is that the airlines ban them for the social aspect. Just imagine 200 people all talking on their cell phones at the same time: Flying would be even worse than it already is!" he says. He adds, "There may not even be cell service at cruising altitudes."
The crew looks at passengers as equals.
The dynamics of the relationship between flight crew and passengers can sometimes appear frayed or feeble: Such events are unfortunately not entirely avoidable in high-pressure situations. But airline employees typically remain optimistic that anyone flying is willing to do the right thing when the time comes.
"Some of us think of you as our crew also," Einsetler tells Best Life. "We are all working together to have an enjoyable and safe flight, looking out for each other. We count on you to speak up if you see or hear something that doesn't seem right, whether it has to do with another passenger, a crew member, the airport, or the aircraft."