5 Things Pilots Know About Air Travel That You Don’t

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I thought I was a savvy airline traveler who knew all the tricks of the trade. But then I became a pilot – and learned just how much I didn't know.

My view of airline travel changed dramatically after I earned my pilot’s license. Once I had completed the hard work and the flight tests to become an instructor and a commercial pilot, I had a whole new perspective on being a passenger.

So here are five things every commercial pilot knows that most of their passengers do not…

1. Know where your plane is

Are you standing at your gate 30 minutes before your flight is supposed to depart, and there’s no sign of the plane? The board is still showing the flight is “on time,” but the gate agents know nothing else about it. Consult FlightAware. It’s a website every pilot uses on the ground to figure out exactly where any plane is. FlightAware takes data directly from the air traffic control system and displays it on a map, along with the most accurate possible arrival estimate.

2. The co-pilot may qualify for welfare

While I’m licensed to pursue a career as a commercial pilot, I never did. Why? Take a look at the published hourly rates for pilots at Mesa Airlines, which flies regional aircraft for United and US Airways. First officers start at $19 an hour. That doesn’t sound too bad, until you consider that they’re only guaranteed 76 hours a month. That works out to $17,328 per year, which would qualify for food stamps for a two-person household and is below the poverty level for a family of three. Another key issue is the fact that 480 pilots at Mesa are currently out on furlough, which is a major risk for all pilots these days.

3. This might be your first officer’s first flight on this plane

The majority of newly hired pilots are people like me, who earned their commercial license by flying small single- and twin-engine aircraft. Next, they became first officers at a regional airline that flies many of the routes for the larger carriers. Training is conducted largely in simulators, and few pilots ever get a chance to fly the real plane before the passengers are loaded up. Don’t worry, the simulators are far more effective at teaching pilots how to handle emergencies – and some even cost more than the actual aircraft.

4. Pilots largely ignore the ban on personal electronic devices

In 2009, the pilots of a Northwest Airlines Airbus overflew their destination by 150 miles when they were using their laptops and became distracted. Other commercial pilots have confided in me that using electronics in the cockpit is common, and I witnessed this behavior myself while serving as a co-pilot for the now-defunct Star West Aviation in 2005.

5. The sleeping controllers were no big deal

Earlier this year, journalists and the public were stunned to learn that the sole air traffic controller on duty at Washington’s Reagan National Airport had fallen asleep in the tower during the overnight shift. While that may sound shocking, the vast majority of airports don’t even have a tower: Pilots communicate with each other. And with the exception of the busiest airports, pilots routinely land without speaking to a controller. As for the Washington debacle, Reagan Airport has a curfew, so there were virtually no other aircraft operating there at the time.

Some of these facts may be disconcerting, but aviation safety experts recognize that commercial air transportation in the United States is as safe as it’s ever been. Even after learning some of the things that I now know, I’m still extremely confident about the safety of air travel. If you still doubt my faith in the airlines and their pilots, consider that there were more than 32,000 traffic fatalities in 2010 – and not a single death on a U.S. airline.

Stacy Johnson

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