Jumpseat: The Love/Hate of Airline Pilots

An honest perception of the airline pilot profession.

Jumpseat Airline Pilot

Jumpseat Airline Pilot

Admit it. Airline pilot or not, when you read the title of this month’s column, you smirked. It’s OK. I get it. That’s why I decided it was high time to approach the issue head on. What am I really talking about?

It’s no secret that general aviation pilots, and I include the corporate world, harbor some unfavorable perceptions about us airline types. We have cocky attitudes. We are all-knowing. We can leap tall buildings in a single bound. We can fly anything, etc., etc.

That being said, airline pilots are perceived as having the highest standards of safety. Our procedures set the bar for all other operations. The fact that we fly the biggest equipment in the world is a source of airplane envy. The traveling public reveres us.

Big deal, right? Well, I find the contradiction ironic. Some of my closest friends are passionate GA aviators and airplane owners. They find great pleasure in scrutinizing my GA operational practices. Although they scrutinize mostly with an earnest desire to impart the knowledge learned through their experience, some is for the sheer pleasure of one-upmanship on the airline guy. This creates an interaction that is oftentimes a source of lively discussions. I can feel the love — and I can feel the hate.

As some of my readers are aware, my background is GA. I have run the gamut from line boy to flight instructor to charter pilot to commuter pilot to freight dog and finally to airline pilot. I own a fixed-gear, single-engine airplane. I haven’t forgotten my roots. And I haven’t forgotten that my almost 30 years of flying big jets don’t make me invincible. Nor do they make me any more skilled than the next pilot.

Case in point: A short time after I purchased my airplane three years ago, my immediate reaction was both exhilaration and fear. Exhilaration was a result of the pure joy in ownership. Fear was twofold.

First (a thorough pre-buy inspection aside), I bought a flying machine with an unknown mechanical disposition — and a single-engine airplane at that. Notwithstanding the obvious engine failure issue, no real systems duplication existed, no secondary electrical system, no secondary voltage regulator, no secondary vacuum pump. The airplane was legally airworthy, but was it really safe enough to transport me and the woman I love?

Second, could I prove myself competent enough to fly the airplane in most conditions? After all, no one but me would make the risk assessment of a particular flight. No dispatcher would generate my flight plan, decide my fuel load or determine an initial routing strategy for weather deviation.

I addressed my mechanical fear by not assuming anything about the airplane’s condition. Although an annual inspection had been completed five months prior, my mechanic friend and I conducted our own. As a matter of fact, almost immediately after I ferried the airplane home, we began to methodically disassemble both the interior and exterior. We replaced both magnetos, the vacuum pump, spark plugs, brakes, tires and various other miscellaneous parts and pieces.

For the weather issue, and as a secondary navigation tool, I invested in a portable ­Garmin GPS receiver. An XM radio weather subscription was also high on my must-have list. It has paid for itself many times over.

Once I was satisfied that the airplane attained my personal airworthy standards, I flew it to a local avionics shop for a pitot/static inspection. The return home was my first comfort test. The weather began to deteriorate faster than forecast, to the point where I had to request a special VFR clearance. I was denied the request because of an IFR arrival. Not having a desire to hang outside the Class D airspace and wait for the rain showers to reduce visibility further, I diverted.

Upon arrival, the local controller at the diversion airport sympathized with my plight. He volunteered to obtain a tower-to-tower IFR clearance. Watching the rain begin to sheet off my windscreen, I read back the clearance. It involved an array of airways and intersections. I stared at my Garmin 530 for a moment. I really didn’t know how to use it, except for the basics. The nuances of flight plan entry and approach activation were not yet part of my repertoire. And without DME, I wasn’t about to define intersections by sole use of VOR cross radials.

If 20,000 hours of flight time taught me nothing else, it was not to do something in an airplane that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

I keyed the mic switch and said, “… tower, remove my IFR clearance from the system. I’m shutting down here. Thanks for your help.”

I unclipped my cell phone from its holder and called my mechanic friend, asking him to rescue me via ground transportation. Despite his good-natured chiding for lack of courage, my friend understood the decision. And in the three years since that event, I have made similar weather decisions. The tongue-in-cheek axiom for us airline types of, “Why bother to check the weather? We’re going anyhow,” just doesn’t apply to flying my own airplane.

What other group has a love/hate relationship with airline pilots? Well, I would add my fellow professionals of the corporate world to the list. At the very least, a mild resentment exists and perhaps a silent rivalry also. Most corporate guys are courteous enough not to vocalize their real thoughts to our airline pilot faces, but come on, fess up. You don’t really like us. It’s OK.

Why the resentment? Airline pilots are perceived as prima donnas. Our flight plans are filed and routing is prearranged. Our fuel load is predetermined. Our flight and duty time is dictated by specific FARs. Our long-haul international trips involve at least one extra crew member, allowing for inflight rest periods. Our crew meals are almost always provided. Our passengers wait for us rather than vice versa. Our job description doesn’t include loading bags or pouring coffee.

Why the rivalry? Corporate guys often fly airplanes with state-of-the-art equipment. Many of the airplanes are capable of higher altitudes and higher Mach numbers. Corporate airplanes are just plain sexy. Quality corporate flight departments involve operations areas that more resemble a boardroom than a meeting hall. Maintenance is specific to only a handful of airplanes. Pilots are often considered on par with the executives they fly. Expense accounts are the norm.

By far one of the biggest sources of silent contention is union membership. Unions have a negative connotation, almost as if the days of Jimmy Hoffa had never disappeared. But for all the unfavorable perceptions, pilot’s unions have been influential on a number of positive aspects that benefit many aviation professionals. What exactly?

To name a few: pilot qualification standards, checklists, IFR approaches and procedures, flight and duty time limits, safety incident data recording and reporting, cockpit design, ATC procedures and weather avoidance.

And yes, because of our airline pilot numbers, the unions made seniority an important element of our career. The concept of seniority has proven to be the only fair method in determining advancement, schedules, vacation, longevity and compensation.

On the subject of compensation, at one time airline pay was considered the epitome of the pilot profession. Sadly, with the current environment, this is no longer the case. That being said, the airline pilot’s salary is still the standard for comparison.

And last on my list of love/hate relationships with airline pilots are the professionals I hold in high regard: the mechanics who keep my airplanes airborne. If it weren’t for their abilities to understand the workings of the machine, I would be grounded.

Although respectful at work, I sense the mechanics approach us with wariness. As airline pilots, they perceive us simply as operators. How could we possibly have the knowledge to understand the intricacies of such a complicated piece of equipment? We can report that the annunciator light does not illuminate, but can we really state that the light is inoperative? Is it the bulb or is it the system itself? Professional ­toleration? Perhaps.

Having friends with an A&P certificate makes for interesting interactions. An airline pilot with a wrench? That’s potentially hazardous for both airplane and pilot. The adage of “a little knowledge is dangerous” probably applies in the minds of my mechanic friends.

So, do you love or hate your airline pilot? For me, it’s nice to be loved. But it doesn’t matter. We are professionals regardless. Airline pilots come in all shapes and sizes. I’ll let you make your own decision.