Pilot's Discretion: The Tyranny of Efficiency

How airplanes can actually help us slow down.

pilot efficiency
When a pilot’s focus is on the destination instead of the journey, it’s a lot easier to cut corners.Getty Images

I had to cancel a flight the other day and go airline, and I was mad at myself. Not because I made the wrong decision — a cutoff low aloft meant the weather along my route was really ugly — but because my priorities were out of whack. I had squeezed flying into a narrow window to accomplish a mission, and in the process I had reduced the airplane to nothing more than a tool.

It’s easy to understand why I fell into this trap. After all, it seems like life in the 21st century is all about removing inefficiency from everything possible, whether it’s a company’s supply chain or a family’s schedule. We celebrate UPS drivers for avoiding left turns because it saves a few seconds per trip. Such a relentless focus on efficiency has led to tremendous gains in manufacturing, transportation and engineering — so it’s not always bad.

But when’s the last time you heard an artist or a musician brag about their ruthless efficiency? Is a vacation or a wedding better because it’s efficient? While these questions might seem unrelated to flying, what we do as pilots (especially when it’s for fun and not as a career) has as much in common with an artist as it does an engineer.

If we’re not careful, we can slip into the airline mindset, as I did. I have great respect for the airlines: You can fly almost anywhere on Earth, to many places for less than $200 and with almost zero chance of dying. That’s a staggering achievement — but there is a cost. Traveling by airline means walking through lifeless terminals into jetways with no windows, then onto packed airplanes, where most passengers quickly shut the shades. There’s little sense of the airplane, the view or the adventure. While airlines have made air travel available to more people than ever, they have done so by often prioritizing efficiency over service.

This isn’t just some nostalgic concern for aviation romantics who prefer Piper Cubs to Cirrus SR22s; trying to be our own airlines has some very serious safety implications too. Each year, more than a few pilots crash because they run out of gas. In almost every case, the pilot knew how much fuel was on board and probably had a gut feeling that things weren’t going well. So why push on? An obsession with completing the trip and staying on schedule can warp any pilot’s decision-making skills.

When’s the last time you heard an artist or a musician brag about their ruthless efficiency? Is a vacation or a wedding better because it’s efficient?

My own low-fuel scare many years ago (most pilots have one, don’t they?) followed this same pattern. I was anxious to get home after a long day of flying. I knew the Cessna 210 I was flying could make the last leg nonstop — I just needed some very favorable winds. Of course, that didn’t happen, so I had to make the inconvenient decision to land short and get fuel, but only after I had pressed on far too long. The extra stop ended up costing no more than 20 minutes, and yet it felt like a defeat for my mission-focused brain. That brain had shaved my safety margins down to almost nothing.

The same attitude can lead to bad decisions around weather too. Why deviate around that growing storm when we can save five minutes and punch through it? Why wait an hour for the ceiling to lift on our VFR flight when we can find a hole and get going? When a pilot’s focus is on the destination instead of the journey, it’s a lot easier to cut corners — even when they don’t matter much.

I learned just how minor weather deviations usually are on a trip from Atlanta to Cincinnati one day. Although the weather was good at both my departure and destination, the route in between featured some truly impressive thunderstorms. We took off and immediately began a huge deviation, flying well east of our course, then turned almost 180 degrees back to the west. It felt like we flew all over the southeastern United States, but FlightAware later showed that our deviation had cost us a whopping 15 minutes. Hardly a major inconvenience, and we were rewarded with a very pleasant ride.

Just as important as the safety compromises it encourages, though, the efficiency mindset also robs us of the real rewards to be found in flying. Chief among these is escape — the ability to stop drinking from the fire hose of life. We all need to do exactly that once in a while. It’s why movie theaters and live concerts remain popular, even though we have 4K TVs at home and free Spotify on our phones. It’s also why flying is so absorbing.

I often hear that airplanes are time machines. That’s true, but the real magic of airplanes is not how they allow us to pack more into a day, it’s how they allow us to slow the clock down. Being in the air helps us escape from the daily grind, both literally and figuratively.

Just as important as the safety compromises it encourages, though, the efficiency mindset also robs us of the real rewards to be found in flying.

In fact, there’s great joy and creativity to be found in inefficient flying. That means more than just stopping to smell the roses on your next flight; it means occasionally flying with no plan at all. I can vividly remember a flight 20 years ago in an open-cockpit Waco, buzzing the green fields of Wisconsin at low altitude. We had no flight plan and no mission, and yet it’s probably the longest — and most memorable — 20 minutes in my logbook. That 100-knot biplane was more of a time machine than any Boeing airliner.

Somewhat paradoxically, inefficient flying also means reconsidering how we use general aviation airplanes for travel — something that seems rare these days. I can’t help but wonder if our drive for efficiency is partly to blame, pressuring us to take the airlines instead of flying GA because it allows us to check off a few more to-dos. Sometimes that’s the only option, but if the schedule even remotely allows for it, plan an extra half day and fly yourself. It might not be as fast and you might even have to stop en route, but those diversions can actually be part of the fun — if you have the right attitude.

None of this is to say that airplanes can’t be tremendously useful machines. It’s a wonderful feeling to take off exactly when you want, fly direct and beat the airlines by an hour — and sometimes you can do exactly that. But the measure of a pilot is not how many shortcuts they negotiate with ATC but how many sunsets they savor along the way. And if you do have to take the airlines, please leave the shade up and look out the window.