A Seat To Jump For

When jumpseating, it’s possible to run afoul of rules and etiquette, so it’s worth becoming familiar with the process early on.

Jumpseat privileges are typically available days after receiving your employee badge, yet some employers do a rather minimal job of instructing new hire pilots in their use. [Credit: Shutterstock]

Three months ago, I wrote a V1 Rotate primer to the wild and wonderful world of non-revenue travel, a benefit that all U.S. Part 121 passenger airlines and many freight carriers offer their employees, including pilots. This week, we’re going to talk about another form of travel benefit that is specific to pilots and is offered by every Part 121 carrier and some Part 135 operators. 

Jumpseat privileges are typically available mere days after receiving your employee badge, yet some employers do a minimal job of instructing new hire pilots in their use. Jumpseating is an area where it’s very possible to step on toes and even get yourself in trouble if you run afoul of the rules and etiquette, so it’s worth becoming familiar with the process early on.

A jumpseat is an extra seat in the cockpit (or sometimes two, particularly on A320s and widebody aircraft) that is intended for use by check airmen conducting line checks, FAA observers, or relief pilots in an augmented crew. When jumpseats are empty, which is often, airlines in the U.S. and Canada make them available for use by off-duty pilots—both their own employees and those who fly for other airlines, for both commuting and for personal travel. This is important because normal non-revenue travel requires that a passenger seat be empty. In the post-COVID travel boom, it’s not at all unusual for flights to be 100 percent full, and then the jumpseat is the best seat on the plane—nevermind that it’s often cramped and poorly padded. Without the use of the jumpseat, commuting would be far more difficult.

I should note that the seats in the cabin normally used by the flight attendants are also known as jumpseats. Many aircraft have more cabin jumpseats than standard flight attendant crew. The extras are usually available for use by commuting flight attendants—or, in their absence, by “on-line” pilots [e.g. those employed by the operating airline].

Jumpseating, as a verb, refers to more than occupying an available jumpseat. It encompasses the use of jumpseat privileges. This can be on your own airline or on another carrier with which your employer has a reciprocal jumpseat agreement. It can refer to use of the cockpit jumpseat, a cabin jumpseat, or “flowing back” to an available passenger seat. In every case, the use of jumpseat privileges is considered a professional courtesy extended by the flight’s captain at his or her discretion. This makes it distinct from non-revving, and is where a lot of the unwritten etiquette (and potential for ruffled feathers) comes into play. Additionally, when jumpseating you are considered an additional crew member, which is another area with potential pitfalls.

The first of these is dress. Here, airline policies vary somewhat. You will never go wrong jumpseating in uniform. Most airlines accept business wear. Many (but not all) accept business-casual and 95 percent of the time, you’ll be okay in slacks, a polo or button-down shirt, and reasonably dressy shoes. Wear sneakers and you’re straddling the line and might get called out. Do not be the schmuck who shows up in jeans and a T-shirt because the flight “unexpectedly filled up.” Also keep in mind that you are subject to the very same rules regarding alcohol as if you were working the flight. At some airlines, it is 12 hours from bottle to throttle—or bottle to jumpseat.

Procedures for “listing” for the jumpseat also vary. Some airlines allow you to simply show up at the gate and present your credentials to the gate agent, and they will list you on the spot. Others require you to list yourself online or by phone. You need to do your research beforehand, particularly when jumpseating on any carrier for the first time. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) App, available for both iOS and Android, is an excellent resource for jumpseat policies and procedures. It can be used by any airline pilot, not just ALPA members.

Whether listed or not, identify yourself to the gate agent as a flight deck jumpseater. They will verify your employment credentials (I’m being intentionally vague here; the process is anyways fairly opaque to the pilot). Once checked in, wait nearby until the end of boarding unless the gate agent invites you to board earlier. If the pilots arrive at the gate after you, this is an excellent time to introduce yourself to the crew and ask the captain for a ride, so long as they’re not late and harried.

When there are multiple jumpseaters, each airline has a priority list to determine who gets the seat or seats. Check airmen and FAA observers get first whack at the flight deck jumpseat. After that comes on-line jumpseaters; these might be sorted by seniority, time of listing, or time of check-in. Next often comes pilots who work for associated carriers (regional pilots on their mainline partner or vice-versa). And finally, unassociated off-line jumpseaters, usually in order of check-in time.

Once all revenue and non-revenue standby passengers have been cleared, the gate agent will go down the list of jumpseaters. They will normally first fill any unused passenger seats (“flow-back”), then the flight deck jumpseat(s), and finally any extra cabin jumpseats (for on-line pilots only). In the case of both on-line and off-line jumpseaters, the gate agent may ask the on-line pilot if they’re willing to take a cabin jumpseat to get the others on. It’s good karma to accept—or better yet, volunteer. The entire system of jumpseating is essentially built on “we’re all in this together.”

No matter which seat you are assigned, so long as you are traveling on jumpseat authority (and haven’t switched over to a non-rev listing), you are still a jumpseater. This means that as you reach the aircraft door, introduce yourself to the lead flight attendant and ask to speak to the pilots. Entering the cockpit, wait for the crew to finish any checklists or briefings, then introduce yourself and ask the captain if you can catch a ride. Have your company ID, boarding pass/jumpseat form, and FAA certificate and medical all ready at hand. If you have been assigned the flight deck jumpseat and haven’t jumpseated on that model of aircraft before, tell the captain this so they can brief you on how to deploy and stow the jumpseat, use of the audio panel and oxygen mask, and emergency egress procedures.

While jumpseating, you are considered part of the crew. In the flight deck, observe sterile cockpit below 10,000 feet and keep your phone off and stowed the entire time. Though not required, it’s good form to don a headset and monitor ATC as you observe the crew and scan for traffic. I’ve saved several crews from potential pilot deviations while jumpseating, and I’ve had several sharp jumpseaters save me from embarrassing mistakes. Falling asleep on the jumpseat is a bit of a faux pas, though it’s understandable when it happens to tired pilots who have just finished a trip.

If on a flight attendant jumpseat, you are an oddity to the passengers and are a prime candidate for a live stream. Don’t nap or read in passenger view, and keep the phone stowed. If you were lucky and snagged that last empty first class seat while wearing civvies, keep in mind that booze is off-limits even to jumpseaters in passenger seats.

Lastly, I will note that use of the flight deck jumpseat internationally is usually restricted to on-line pilots (except at some cargo carriers)—but off-line pilots can still jumpseat overseas if there are passenger seats open. You will have to check in at the ticket counter, outside of security, and you may need to get a supervisor involved as many overseas ticket agents are unfamiliar with jumpseat procedures.

Once you are hired at a carrier that has jumpseat agreements, your union’s jumpseat committee is an excellent source of information and can answer any questions you have. If the subject interests you, volunteering for the jumpseat committee is a low-pressure entry into union work. 

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter