Jumpseat: Are Airline Captains a Dying Breed?

It's probably not surprising that author Ernie Gann, a former captain for my airline, is one of my heroes. His poetic words epitomized the very beginning of commercial air travel — when it was romantic to fly. Captains were given the ultimate authority over nearly every aspect of their flights. But interestingly enough, he challenged that authority in his screenplay of The High and the Mighty. The 1954 film was the first in a series of airline disaster movies. If you are a connoisseur of the classics, the scene of First Officer John Wayne slapping Capt. Robert Stack in the cockpit of a DC-4 is a trademark. Why the insubordinate slap?

As background, the airplane had departed Honolulu destined for San Francisco. One of the engines loses a propeller past the infamous point-of-no-return. The ensuing fire creates a fuel leak that places the flight in jeopardy of making landfall. The story line leads us to believe that the mounting stress of command causes the captain to panic. He makes the decision to ditch instead of continuing toward SFO. John Wayne, our well-seasoned and PTSD-inflicted copilot, slaps sense into his captain.

It seems to me the prudent decision would have been to perform a planned ditching. The Coast Guard had already launched a search-and-rescue operation. Besides, a remark in the script at the end of the film indicated that just 30 gallons remained in the DC-4’s fuel tanks. A documented successful planned ditching occurred in 1956 aboard a Pan Am B-377. All passengers survived. Sounds to me like John Wayne was being a little reckless, but hey, it’s the movies. Could this corny film have heralded the erosion of captain’s authority?

A few years back, my schedule assignment was a 757 trip from Miami to San Francisco. I arrived at the gate with the first officer. We began our preflight preparations. During the process, I was unofficially informed by a flight attendant that one of the passengers about to be boarded had arrived from Guatemala City with a health condition that had forced the crew of that flight to declare a medical emergency.

The passenger had been treated by airport paramedics in Miami and sent on his merry way despite an appearance that didn’t quite scream miraculous recovery. What was the medical condition? Symptoms of a heart attack. Uh huh.

With a roll of my eyes, I marched off the airplane and had a conversation with the gate agent. Among other facts, I discovered our on-site medical department hadn’t examined the passenger. Understanding my resistance to board this passenger, the gate agent indicated that it wasn’t our call. Excuse me? Yep, I was to take my concerns up with our customer resolution department. I picked up the gate phone and dialed the number.

My rational argument that it would probably be in everyone’s best interests if the passenger was delayed at least one day for observation was not met with the logic I anticipated. Instead, I was told that we had no valid reason in our company rulebook to deny boarding. And if I took it upon myself to make such a decision, another crew would be faced with the same issue. Wonderful. Not wanting to pass the buck, I reluctantly agreed to take the passenger.

Halfway across the Gulf of Mexico, I answered an intercom call from the No. 1 flight attendant.

“Remember the Guatemala passenger?” the flight attendant asked.

I sighed and replied with a “Yes.”

“According to a nurse, he appears to be showing signs of cardiac arrest.”

I gritted my teeth and rolled my eyes for the second time that day. “We’re diverting to Houston Intercontinental. You have approximately 20 minutes to prepare the cabin for landing.”

We declared a medical emergency and landed without incident. The passenger survived and was removed by paramedics, then diagnosed with a heart attack. While reviewing flight plan paperwork for our impromptu leg from IAH to SFO, I called the customer resolution department just to report on the wisdom of the decision that had almost cost a man his life and had cost the company a few bucks, not to mention the inconvenience to the remaining passengers.

Not surprisingly, the individual I had spoken to while in Miami was nowhere to be found. I shook my head at the phone with the thought that captain’s authority had been usurped by a customer resolution official sitting in a cubicle detached from the world and the airline. Great.

I’ll fast forward to a more recent event. For those of my colleagues that have experienced the joys of crew member screening at this thriving European hub, my anecdote is for you. Because this airport is one of the world’s busiest international destinations, security procedures are strict. Prior to departure, crew members are driven via their hotel transportation buses to specific control posts located around the perimeter of the airport. The buses proceed through a quarantined gate where crew members disembark into a screening area. Crews are subjected to physical body searches, physical bag searches, wanding and an X-ray machine. Liquids, gels and any other items deemed suspicious are confiscated and recorded on a bad crew member list.

Considering that I have responsibility for 303 lives and a 777,000-pound airplane, I question the hyper-scrutiny of my 10-mililiter Visine bottle not being placed in the approved gels and liquids Ziploc bag. But it’s their country, and I have to respect them for their attempt at protecting the world.

In contrast, JFK, an equally active international hub, has a portal available for crew members to bypass security through a prescreening process approved by the TSA. Background checks and fingerprinting are just some of the compliance requirements in order to take advantage of this portal. And JFK is not the only airport in the United States that utilizes this process.

That being said, I comply with the rules and don’t waste energy challenging security agents at this particular European airport.

I passed through the magnetometer and got the dreaded beep, a frequent but allegedly random occurrence. I was curtly instructed by the security agent to remove my shoes, despite the fact my footwear was purchased and tested to be magnetometer-friendly. As anticipated, the agent began a physical pat-down, asking if I had removed all sharp objects. I replied that the only sharp objects not removed were the wings pinned onto my uniform shirt — a true statement.

I was then asked, “Did you buy your wings, or did you earn them?”

Incredulous, I responded, “You didn’t really ask me that question, did you?”

The agent replied, “Well, you could be a fake pilot.”

I glanced down at the ID hanging from the lanyard around my neck that had just been scrutinized after passing through the magnetometer. A few unprofessional comments ran through my head, but rather than vocalize unsavory thoughts, I chose to remain silent. After conveying my experience to the appropriate managers, I received an apology for the behavior. It appears the security agent will be facing some form of disciplinary action.

I reflected on the implications of the experience. Perhaps one security agent had taken his responsibility too far, but what did that say about the ability of this individual to question the authenticity and authority of a captain, not to mention the implied lack of respect? Did this event define a new culture?

It has also come to my attention that an element among the flight attendant training department at my airline may also be defining a new culture, if not a new attitude. The FAR that legally deems the PIC to be in charge of the entire crew has not been receiving the emphasis it deserves. Apparently some of our flight attendant trainees have been told that this command responsibility can be challenged.

When this subject matter came up in conversation, one of my colleagues conveyed a discussion he had with a new flight attendant. The new hire claimed to have been told that an option to deal with disagreeable pilots was to add a splash of Visine to their coffee, a legendary airline recourse that is rumored to cause serious upset stomach issues. To the best of my knowledge, poisoning pilots is a federal offense. In my book, incapacitating both pilots on a two crew member airplane might also be deemed suicide.

No doubt, captain’s authority has eroded since Ernie Gann’s era. The evolution of the airline environment has created this new culture. I agree that some situations dictate crew resource management skills. But sometimes captains just have to be captains simply because they were trusted with that responsibility on the day they added the fourth stripe to their epaulets. I, for one, do not take that responsibility lightly.

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Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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