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A Pilot’s Views From The Jump Seat

The hardest part of the job is the commute, though it can give you some alarming insights into how airline crews work, or don’t.

Views From The Jump Seat
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Early in training at my first airline job, the instructor looked at us, brand new to the industry, and offered a few words of advice. “Avoid taking any meaningful political stance with your captain until you’ve felt him or her out pretty good, or the rest of the trip may be awkwardly quiet. Don’t be late for the hotel van, and never give up on a jump seat until the plane is taxiing away.” 

The final instruction pertained to commuting, something avoided, I thought, by hiring on at an airline where its only crew domicile was my home city. The tactic served me well, but when I ran for the lifeboat from that sinking company, the ship that picked me up had no domiciles nearby. The closest one was a six-hour drive, and most automobiles I’ve ever owned would be lucky to cover that distance without replacing some significant parts. 

Four years ago, I became a commuting airline pilot. The job changed drastically, as I often found myself leaving home anywhere between six hours and a full day ahead of a trip, when I’d spent the last decade grabbing my keys, passport, wallet and company badges an hour prior to duty-in, and making it to the lounge with enough time to spare that I could enjoy a cup of coffee or maybe a handful of popcorn if anyone had recently paid into the popcorn supply fund.

In the standard list of dinner-party questions, my answer to one of them changed right then and there: Getting to and from work became the hardest part of the job. Once at work, I had the resources of the company’s dispatch, scheduling, chief pilots and maintenance to see me through the trip. 

Commuting via air is a double-edged sword—a pilot can live almost anywhere and use travel benefits to get to work. I’ve known pilots who didn’t even have a real place to call home. They roam the nation in RVs and commute from a different airport every week or two. But commuting also adds stress to the job because getting to work now depends on passenger loads, weather systems you might have ignored before, and the completely unpredictable variable of who’s in the left seat of the flight you want to catch. Kind of like the old idiom “What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China,” a sharp commuter keeps an eye out for all threats to the schedule and keeps a number of plans in place for contingencies. Plan A doesn’t always work; plan Q was once the option that got me home during a winter storm.  

When I left the regional airline, my new airline did not offer service between Atlanta and New York’s JFK airport. I was left with an offline jump seat ride to work, begging two competing airlines for a ride to work. Most airlines offer a reciprocal jump seat agreement—sort of a professional courtesy—allowing us to catch a ride on carriers other than our own. One airline allowed me to list for the jump seat online, so that I just walked up to the gate, checked in and waited to be called. The other airline only let their own employees list online, so I had to bother the gate agent to create my listing and check me in, a process that takes about a minute—but in the age of labor optimization and overbooked flights, any demand of the gate agent’s time threatened to throw the flight into a delay. “I don’t have time to do this now” is a phrase I learned to avoid taking personally. 

If the flight wasn’t oversold, and if pilots from that airline hadn’t taken the jump seat ahead of me (it’s their metal, so of course they’re the priority), the gate agent cleared the jump-seating pilot through the gate and down to the airplane. Most of us breathed a sigh of relief at this point, but we still had to ask for a ride formally. Much like when you dial up a new frequency on the radio, it’s best to read the room before you step onto the flight deck and announce your presence. Interrupting a checklist or briefing is bad form. An introduction and verification of credentials follow, and then the standard ask. “Mind if I catch a ride with y’all today?”

The observer’s seat, as it’s technically called, is aptly named, for there you really do get to sit back and watch. In several thousand hours of being the first officer, I’d seen a variety of captains and taken note of what I liked and did not care for in a captain but had never seen other first officers on the job. Riding an offline jump seat, I got to see both seats in action while also observing differences in other company procedures. “If you see something, speak up,” we’re briefed, but the few times I’ve ever raised a question, I learned the difference I was observing was simply the other company’s procedure and a general bit of amazement that anyone would even try to operate differently. Once you’ve seen a task performed one way for hundreds or thousands of cycles, you kind of forget that there are multiple ways of doing it.

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Because you do ride at the captain’s discretion, one does a fair bit of politicking to stay in his or her good graces. Once, all the flights from New York to Atlanta were oversold, but the options were better if I could get to Boston. So, I headed south by first flying north, and when I stepped off the JFK-BOS shuttle flight, the gate next door was boarding a flight to Atlanta I hadn’t even considered as a possibility. The gate agent quickly listed me, and I was the last one on the plane. 

Sure enough, the boat was full, and I found myself on an Airbus jump seat with a captain who was a check airman. He welcomed me aboard, then turned back to his first officer to resume his tirade about the quality of pilots the company had absorbed in a recent merger. The rant was long and interrupted only when it was time to push back and taxi out. At altitude, the outrage continued. “We got all those guys, but we didn’t even make an effort to hire pilots like this guy,” he said, with a nod to me. “He flies small airplanes. He presents well. I bet he can hold a conversation for a couple days.” The first officer just nodded, eyes glazed, apparently hardened to this injustice that the captain had probably been decrying since the trip began. 

The rant continued on about the lack of professionalism in the inherited pilot group, about how some had the gall to show up with longer hair than a military buzzcut and, in the true mark of a slacker, shoes that hadn’t been shined before the trip. I sure didn’t tell him that my company had just gotten long hair for male pilots approved in our uniform policy. Surely, he would not turn the flight around and drop me back at the gate in Boston, but I didn’t want to find out. The rants continued, often ending with “but we can’t seem to hire guys like him,” with the nod my way. 

We landed in Atlanta, taxied to the gate, and as we sat there waiting on the jet bridge and power connections, he told the story about a first officer he’d written up because he wore striped socks while in uniform. “But we can’t hire Jeremy,” came the familiar refrain. 

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This time, I was grinning, seated with a surprise under my cuff. I had crossed my legs, trying to limber up before it was time to walk away from the torture device they call a seat, and all it took was a simple tug of my pants leg to reveal a festive pair of socks. One of the drawbacks to living out of a suitcase is sometimes you miss the count as you’re throwing things into the bag. I’d wound up one pair of socks short this trip, and rather than recycle, I used a pair of my off-duty socks. Yeah, I was bending the uniform policy just a bit, but it ‘twas the season, and up to this point, my Chelsea boots perfectly hid the holiday socks I’d resorted to wearing, having exhausted my suitcase’s supply of solid black dress socks…until it was their moment to shine.

I flashed a little bit of textile-based holiday cheer from above the ankle. “Man. What a shame,” I said and waved goodbye before the shock wore off. 

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